02/28/2011 01:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Influence of John Merrow on an Urban Teacher

Teaching is leadership, and leadership is politics in the best sense. Leading a school or a school system is politics. Testing and evaluations are political processes. Funding education or funding superb PBS documentaries require political acumen. So, it is no criticism of a book on teaching and school reform to identify it as a political document.

John Merrow has tipped off readers of the Huffington Post that his new book The Influence of Teachers would culminate in a political synthesis. Not surprisingly, Merrow concluded that the fundamental issue in today's reform wars is the question, "ARE MEDIOCRE TEACHERS THE HEART OF EDUCATION'S PROBLEMS? OR IS IT THE JOB ITSELF? (Emphasis is Merrow's.) Many times, I found myself wanting to skip to the final pages and see Merrow's bottom line.

Parts of The Influence of Teachers resemble Education Secretary Arne Duncan's paired political soundbites. For instance, Merrow praised two of my heroes, Fran and Dal Lawrence, and the AFT's peer review evaluation proposals. The NEA, however, was not treated so fairly. And like Duncan, Merrow affirmed a series of contradictory assertions. He issued the obligatory praise for Michelle Rhee's reframing of the debate on teacher pay, but then wrote an objective account of her dictatorial reign and defeat.

The chapter entitled "The Turnaround Specialist" did not explicitly mention Arne Duncan's ambitious school turnaround campaign, and it raised the possibility that today's efforts might learn lessons from past failures. It would be hard to read the chapter, however, as anything but an indictment of the administration's overreach. Merrow was present at the creation of the charter school movement, and like Duncan he praises great charters. But he also notes, "The word 'charter' on a schoolhouse door reveals no more about a school's quality than the word 'restaurant' on a sign tells you about the food inside."

Merrow quoted O. Henry, "Turn out the lights. I don't want to go home in the dark." He then drew upon Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, E.D. Hirsch, and Alfie Kohn, who defend the rights of students to study literature and not just test prep. His heart went out to a teacher who complained, "We are raising a nation of idiots who may be able to pass standardized tests without being able to think." Then, in the weakest part of the book, Merrow defended the Los Angeles Times' disgusting series which linked bubble-in test scores with individual teachers. On the other hand, Merrow, added the disarming sentence, "I cop to the charge of inconsistency..."

When critiquing seniority, Merrow was equally balanced in acknowledging, "My personal sympathies are with those administrators who want better teachers but are hamstrung by complex rules, and with those teachers who are disgusted by colleagues whose work habits bring dishonor to the profession." But Merrow has seen enough schools to conclude, "Seniority privileges are important in systems that devalue teachers...That probably describes most school systems."

Suspense grew as Merrow wrapped up his platform. When making close calls, he tended to side with the accountability hawks. He was rock solid, however, in holding them accountable for teaching all students. For instance, when Paul Vallas denied that his charters were "dumping" New Orleans' most challenging students on neighborhood schools, Merrow commented, "Vallas is splitting hairs here."

I approached Merrow's conclusion with trepidation. Had he agreed that the solution for the "brain drain" of teachers from our toughest schools was better teachers with higher expectations, I would have been hurt. Had he come down unambiguously on the side of data-driven reformers, there would have been nothing to say but "Turn out the lights. I don't want to go home in the dark." Seriously, few education experts have proven themselves like Merrow, and I would have had to wrestle long and hard with such a judgment.

But Merrow closed with a description of the "fatal flaw" of reformers like Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas, and, apparently, the Duncan Administration who believe that better teachers are the key to turning around schools. To improve schools, we must make teaching "a better job." He concluded:

"Teaching will be a better job when principals have authority over hiring their staff but are savvy about bringing trusted veterans into the process...

"It will be a better job when employment contracts are not for life and employee evaluations are fair and thorough, with all due process rights respected...

"Teaching will be a better job when we recognize that the world has changed, and the job of a teacher is to help young people learn to ask questions, not regurgitate answers...

"When teaching becomes a better job as described above, the brain drain will no longer be a problem - and we will likely discover that many teachers now in the classroom have been better people themselves all along."