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A Look At Failing Public Education In America Today, By Discussing The Role Of Unions, Teachers, Parents

Aired September 3, 2011 - 09:30   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The class of 2015, I can't believe I'm even saying it. Ferris Bueller could be their dad. What kind of school dad would he be? We examine the role of parents on student achievement.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Christine Romans.

The bitter debate over reform in American public schools, are unions part of the solution or part of the problem? There will be more than 19 million students in college this fall. How to make sure that pricey investment pays off.

But first we begin with a passionate debate over public school reform. With me Steven Brill, founder of CourtTV, "The American Lawyer" and "Brill's Content" among other things. And he has spent two years immersed in thousands of pages of documents and hours in the classroom, in an interviews for his book, "Class Warfare".

Steven Brill, take a look at this poll from 1976, when asked if teachers' unions, helped, hurt or made no difference in the quality of public school education, 38 percent of Americans said unions hurt it. Fast forward to today. That number has grown to nearly 50 percent.

Steven Brill, are you surprised?

STEVEN BRILL, AUTHOR, CLASS WARFARE": I'm not surprised. The battle has been worth it both for the reformers and for the unions, because I see a place where they can come out and where the politicians and the reformers can get the unions on their side, which is the only way we're ever going to fix America's schools.

ROMANS: You come at this as a journalist?

BRILL: Right.

ROMANS: I mean, you came at this with no dog in the fight.

BRILL: No-exactly.

ROMANS: You started looking at the rubber rooms, the New York City rubber rooms. This is where teachers were put on full pay and sitting on a beach chair playing cards on the public dime.

BRILL: Right.

ROMANS: What did you find about what the impediments are to real reform in the schools?

BRILL: The pendulum had clearly swung too far. When the teachers unions were first organized in the '30s, the '40s and '50s they were desperately needed. Teachers were abused, they were sexually harassed, it was a mostly women profession, they were discriminated against. Then, in the '70s and '80s I think you could argue that they succeeded too well, so that by the time you got to the '90s and end of the last decade you had hundreds of pages of union contracts that guaranteed all kinds of protections. And most important of all took 3.2 million teachers, which is the largest occupation, you know, of anyone in the United States except for sales clerks, and told those people your performance does not count. It doesn't count in how you get promoted, in how you get paid, or whether you keep your job. Once you do, that it has a corrosive effect on the whole process.

ROMANS: You have an op-ed this week, "The School Reform Deniers".

BRILL: They have been largely deniers. First denying there's a problem and then denying-or claiming the only workplace in the United States where performance shouldn't count is arguably the most important workplace which is the nation's classrooms.

ROMANS: All right. Steven Brill don't move. We'll talk more about this. I want to bring in Randi Weingarten, she is the current president of the American Federation of Teachers, someone who has spent her career in education and supporting teachers.

Randi, tell me about the position here, of certainly you've heard from Steven Brill, and from others who say that until now, unions have been school reform deniers. How can unions be part of the solution and uphold teachers but also address some of the concerns and criticisms?

RANDI WEINGARTEN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS: Well, look, I think that I want to just step back one second to say, in this country, about half the teachers have union management contracts. The rest of the teachers in this country do not. In countries that outcompete us, they are mostly unionized. So it becomes an easy issue to scapegoat, but is not the real issue.

Having said that, I think where Steve is right is that we, the people who have been engaged in schools, whether it's management, or whether it's teachers, or our unions, is that we did not focus enough on quality. Performance was always important. It's always important to an individual teacher, it's always important to a school system. We did not make it clear that the notion of quality has to be first and foremost. And that has changed over the course of the last couple of years.

Where I think that Steve is wrong, is that this new group of billionaires and millionaires that have been involved in education, don't look at this in the way in which they ought to. There's lots of complexities in terms of how we help al kids, not just some kids, have the skills that they need in this fast-paced changing economy. And we do that at a time when the bottom has still fallen out, as you and I both know. ROMANS: Right.

WEINGARTEN: We've talked about it before. Where parents are poorer than they've been before, where we see lot more poverty, and a lot more complexity. And it ultimately comes down to a teacher, unless we have the help and support of others, and we can't do it ourselves.

ROMANS: Let's talk about-you talked about quality, the quality of the teaching, the quality of the education.


ROMANS: Measuring that quality, is something that is just rife with division and different opinions about how you measure it. Standardized testing, cheating scandals because of standardized testing at the same time. How do you measure the quality of a teacher when sometimes it's not a tangible thing.

WEINGARTEN: Exactly right.

ROMANS: And also address the concern that maybe the teachers union stand in the way of being able to get a good teacher compensated, and recognized?

WEINGARTEN: All right. Let me take both of those as simply as I can.


WEINGARTEN: On the issue of money, teachers are entitled to get a decent wage. That doesn't mean that every single wage should be lock step, but we should have-and teachers should have-competitive salaries. There's a role for differentiated pay. But the kind of differentiated pay, meaning some call it merit pay, performance pay, what we seen to have worked is if we pay people additional dollars, on top of competitive pay, for things like going to hard to staff schools, that seems to work. If we pay them based upon test scores of their students, that doesn't work. There lots of studies now, including about an experiment that Mayor Bloomberg and I did in New York City. So that's number one. That's why we keep saying let's look at the evidence.

Number two, on the whole issue of quality, let me get right into the issue of tenure. Tenure is supposed to be a due process proceeding, but what has happened is in the absence of a evaluation systems that really measure what a teacher is doing, and how kids are reacting or how kids are learning, in the absence of that, what has happened is these due process procedures have become the proxy for competence. And that is -- doesn't work. And so what we've done as a union, since 2010, is to say, let's look and make sure we really are evaluating teachers in a multiple-measured way, both in terms of looking at their practice, as well as looking at what kids are learning. And then also make sure that teachers get the tools and conditions they need so that they can do their job individually and collectively.

ROMANS: Randi Weingarten, always a pleasure to talk to you about the incredibly important issues. Thank you.

WEINGARTEN: Thank you.

Next more on whether teachers unions help or hurt reform. Plus, this question, is the reform debate demoralizing to teachers and their profession? That's next.


ROMANS: Classrooms this fall may look and feel a whole lot different than last because of budget cuts. Larger class sizes, fees to join sports; music programs, art classes, phys ed, gone in some districts. Some schools are putting ads on school busses, lockers and even football fields to raise money.

And then there is the very public fight over reform that many teachers say is demoralizing to them and their profession. Welcome back to school.

Steven Brill, let's get to you first. In your new book, you wage a case against American teacher unions and you recently sat in both successful schools and unsuccessful schools, from your observation, what is it about Randi Weingarten's case, the American Federation of Teachers' case, that we just heard, that you have the most issue with?

BRILL: Well, I'll make just one observation, Randi, and she knows I like her, and have come to respect her and like her a lot, as I've been doing the book. She said that favors a flexible, multilayered system for evaluating teachers that includes peer observations, some attention to test scores, the principal's observation, et cetera. Her union won a lawsuit in New York State to block exactly that system.

ROMANS: There you go. You say that it's just the union says one thing and does something else?

BRILL: In many cases they're starting to slide toward reform, but not happily, but I think we should take whatever progress we can get certainly of the reformers. You know, welcome the fact that they -- that the unions seem to be becoming more flexible, but every once in a while still they do lawsuits and other things that take a step back.

ROMANS: It's the fall, right? Who's going back to school, 55 million students from kindergarten to the 12th grade; 11 percent of them-and this number surprised me-11 percent of those kids are enrolling in private school.

Steve Perry is a CNN education contributor.

Steve you founded and run a school. Is that 11 percent going to get bigger as parents opt out of putting their children's education into Uncle Sam's hands?

STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR: I don't know if it's going to get bigger, but it's always been important to take a look at what's happening in our public schools. We've seen too often that our children, who are forced to go to failed schools, spend their lives trying to make up for the failures of that school. We can talk about what the unions say, I just know what they do. They've created a set of circumstances which allowed the least effective teachers to stay employed longer than they're supposed to.

ROMANS: I want to bring in another contributor, LZ Granderson, because we hear all the time about effective teachers, teachers who aren't effective, about unions as road blocks, partners to change, and then parents. You're a dad. Parents are incredibly important for the kind of environment-and the expectations they're setting for their children. Are we letting parents off the hook when we talk about public school reform?

LZ GRANDERSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: We let the parents off the look for a lot of things. Education and public education reform is definitely one of those things. We're in a pickle. And throwing money at the problem isn't going to solve the solution. What we really need to do is get back to basics and getting back to basics is the home, and what's happening with parents and their relationship with children, and parents emphasis on education through their lifestyle, as well as what they tell the child.

I'm at a loss myself. You know, my son was at private school, now he's back in public school. I'm just trying to get him in the best possible situation to be a good learner and it gets more and more difficult. But the more difficult it becomes on the outside, the more important parents are on the inside.

ROMANS: Steve Perry, you're shaking your head.

PERRY: It's so easy to say that the parents aren't doing their job. If you're the best parent you could possibly be and send your child to a failed school, your child is not going to be as successful as someone who goes to a better school. We pay and educate teachers to prepare children for a better life. Parents are doing what they can. We very often pound on parents and tell them, you should do more, do more. More than what? If a child comes home with a Spanish assignment and you don't speak Spanish how will you help your child with Spanish? The expectation is that we're paying you-me, as a principal, we're being paid to educate your children.

ROMANS: Steven Brill, the book "Class Warfare", thank you. Real pleasure to see you. Also, Steve and LZ stick around, because we have more on parental pressure on American students. Not enough? Too much? Does it make a difference on how students perform in the class room? We'll talk about that next.


ROMANS: All right. A heated debate about education, LZ Granderson and Steve Perry are back.

Steve, most Americans say parents are not putting enough pressure on their kids to do well in school. Take a look at this survey. You won't believe it. A majority of Americans think that parents are not putting enough pressure on their kids. In China, it's a mirror; 68 percent of parents think they're putting too much pressure on their kids. Call it pressure, call it expectations, Steve Perry, do we need to get tougher out there?

PERRY: I do think many of our parents are too easy on our children. In fact, one of the strangest things that I've seen is, we have had parents complain that we give too much homework. That I find to be peculiar, because the expectation is that the children will, in fact, go home and practice that which they've learned in a school.

ROMANS: All right. LZ, parents have leverage, pressure expectations, they have leverage here. They have the money. And annual survey by Fidelity Investments say two-thirds of American parents say they're only going to pay for their kids college education if they maintain a B average. I happen to know a B average isn't good enough for LZ Granderson.



ROMANS: In his house. We coined the phrase, "tiger dad" to talk about him because he like made his kid get out of basketball or something for getting a B. So, should parents be using the money as leverage?

GRANDERSON: No. They should be using the -- see, that's where we get into the problem, right. We keep dangling carrots trying to get our kids to learn when what we should be doing is inspiring them to learn for the purpose of learning. And then allowing what happens from them being inspired to learn to dictate whether to go to school, what kind of school to go to, which extracurricular activities to get involved with. I don't bribe my son to do well in school. That is the expectation, is that he is going to do well in school.

ROMANS: The baseline expectation-the baseline expectation, you're framing it in a way that shows even asking the question like that shows what is sort of the American parental psyche about kids.

You guys, parents are having a harder time letting go when it comes to letting their kids manage than their own college education. For example, in 1999, only about 35 percent of higher learning institutions offered parent orientations. In 2007, more than 95 percent conducted them.

Steve Perry? Oh my God, helicopter parents, in college? If parents want to foster independence, are they just too involved? I mean, come on!

PERRY: It goes even further, there are times when I hire new teachers, and when the teachers come in -- I'm not kidding -- my grandmother used to say, I swear for God, I swear for God, they come in with their parents and work together in setting up their room. I don't-


I don't get it, myself. I think that one thing-

ROMANS: I think it's sweet. I do think it is sweet.

PERRY: OK, good.


Next time you hire somebody, let their mom and dad come in and set up their office.

ROMANS: OK, I get it. I get it.

PERRY: But I do think that we need our parents to be involved, but they do sometimes go too far. And we've seen it on the negative side when they go to some of the sporting events and they take it a little too seriously. And it happens in other places. We want our parents to be involved, but in the most meaningful and productive ways. Which allows us, as professionals, to do what we have to do, and they do what they have to do.

ROMANS: I'll tell you the other thing, though. There's two Americas. Or maybe there is four or five different Americas. But LZ, I'm not kidding, you have sort of-you know, you have parents who are hovering over their kids and the expectation is always that their kids are going to go to college. And they're worried about, am I putting too much pressure on my kid? And then the other end of the spectrum, where you've got hard-working people who are probably living in poverty, who are expecting everything from their education system, and they're not getting it. That's what's so sad.

GRANDERSON: It is two or three, or even four different kinds of Americas. I'm really fortunate, because my career allows me the luxury of allowing me to be able to visit my son's school and have meaningful conversations with his teachers about his progress. A lot of America doesn't, 80 percent of the country is fighting with 20 percent of the wealth. A lot of parents are in that situation. And they're so dependent on our school systems not to fail.

That's not an excuse to say that parents shouldn't be involved, but they just don't have the time. And we really need to find a way, and I'm going to keep saying this over and over again, to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of quality education. Something is dastardly really wrong. We were able to buy time for this long, but we are getting to the point now where we can't hide the fact that our kids aren't being educated at the level they need to.

ROMANS: And I think anybody that's been listening to this debate over the past 10 to 15 minutes, they've heard from the top union leader. They've heard from Steven Brill, who is a critic of the top union. They have heard from both of you with different perspectives. And I think we all can agree on one thing. And that the American education system should be an equalizer. It should be this thing, that we do as a society, that no matter what your formula is, you can come out on the other side, and have that same education. And we're not there yet. And how to do that is the hard part.

But gentleman, we'll keep talking about it. And Steve Perry, LZ Granderson, you always make it much more entertaining to talk about, that's for sure. Thank you.

PERRY: Thank you.

GRANDERSON: Thank you.

ROMANS: You need a money manager to get through school these days and next we'll talk to one. We are going to tell you how to save on just about everything from tuition to textbooks.


ROMANS: Whether you're shopping for binders and notebooks, or shopping for the right college for junior, do you feel like you need a financial planner? I do. We've got one for you. Stacy Frances, certified financial planner and president of Frances Financial is here.

Let's start big, Stacy, college tuition. Tuition and fees at public universities surged almost 130 percent over the past 20 years. That's according to the College Board. $19.7 million kids in college this fall. Somehow, I don't think everyone has saved enough money. Talk about 529s.

STACY FRANCES, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER, FRANCES FINANCIAL: 529 plans are the keys to your savings. You can put the money in and take the money out tax free, as long as it is for your education, tuition, books. There's a lot you can use it for. The most important thing is to see if your state has a plan that you actually get a tax deduction for. If you do get a tax deduction, you have your answer. You want to use your state plan. That deduction is so beneficial. But if not, go to and see the top-ranking state and with that, go ahead and invest in that plan.

ROMANS: I'm a big fan of grandmothers and grandpas, mine in particular, who put money for college into the 529, who along the way, instead of buying trinket or a toy or something that is going to get lost, are investing young for kids. Because we know that tuition, we know that a college education is the biggest buffer against unemployment, the most important thing you can give your kid. At the same time, it's so expensive.

FRANCES: It's so expensive, but, yes. Every single gift, we actually just had a person, instead of a baby shower, everybody contributed to the 529 plan.

ROMANS: Really?!

FRANCES: 30 different people contributed. She has thousands of dollars.

ROMANS: That's a great idea.

FRANCES: There are so many ways you can beef up those plans, whether it is for holidays, or birthday presents. Put it in the 529 plan.

ROMANS: While we are on the subject of college and your kid in college. Should they have a credit card? That is a big question: 80 percent of college students have a debit card, 40 percent have a credit card, 37 percent of kids have both. The average college student, Stacy, has $842 in credit card debt. This is according to a new Sallie Mae survey.

Now, the Card Act tried to put some protections in. If you're under 21, you can't get a card unless you have a cosigner. So that means parents need to be involved in both getting the card for the kid, so they need to monitor the spending, too.

FRANCES: Exactly. So, you get online access. Just as the parents go and look at their credit card spending, they log in the card that they are co-signers to.

ROMANS: You can get a text message sent to you when your kid uses a debit card.

FRANCES: That would be great.

ROMANS: And you can see exactly what they're doing.

FRANCES: Also to be honest, as a parent, a wonderful way to monitor your children. To see what they're doing. What they're doing with that money.

ROMANS: Love that.

FRANCES: It's a great way to protect. Because, again, too many kids are coming out of college with not only student loans, but also credit card debt.

ROMANS: As a reminder, you know, Mark Cantowitz (ph), who runs Fin Web, he always says, you have to live like a monk if you're on student loans. This is a way for parents to make sure your kids are living like a monk in college; because if you don't live lean in college, you are going to pay for it later on.

So more spending numbers I wanted to bring to you. The average K-12 parent is going to spend about $600 on supplies, electronics, clothing. College-bound families, they're going to spend just over $800. Of course, that doesn't even include tuition. Stacy, you say, shop at home first, when you're going back-to-school shopping.

FRANCES: Yeah, shop at home first. A lot of us, we go to the stores and we don't even have a list. You're there, you see the eye candy, the bright things that you actually end up not needing. That is one of the most important things you can do. And also you don't necessarily have to buy all those textbooks. You can a lot of those textbooks, interestingly enough, online. Kindles have them, so there's a lot of benefits there. You can save a lot of money.

ROMANS: And I always say, people should be careful about technology. Your kid may convince you they need this really expensive Mac laptop, but maybe they really don't.

FRANCES: Yes. ROMANS: And maybe they not going to know exactly what they need until they've been there a few weeks, too. So, be careful about spending a lot on technology.

FRANCES: Exactly.

ROMANS: Stacy Frances, always so nice to see you. Have a great weekend.

FRANCES: Thanks. You, too.

ROMANS: All right. That is going to wrap things up for us this morning. But the conversation continues on line. Send us an e-mail with your thoughts or questions to YOUR BOTTOM line at You can find me on Facebook, at Twitter, @ChristineRomans. And you can contact the show, please do, at CNNBottomLine. Back now to CNN SATURDAY for the latest stories making news. Have a great weekend.