09/17/2010 05:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Randi Weingarten, Steven Brill Face Off Over Education Reform

"Is education advancing or retreating?" asked Sir Harold Evans, editor at large of The Week and moderator of an education roundtable on Thursday sponsored by that publication.

Two of the panelists had the same answer. "Advancing and retreating," said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. "Advancing and retreating," said Steven Brill, an education journalist and founder of Journalism Online.

Weingarten added that she expected that was the only thing she and Brill would agree on.

The discussion deteriorated into a tussle over teachers' unions as Brill continued to ask Weingarten barbed questions about why the unions are so resistant to reform.

"I try to toil on the union side," Weingarten explained, "because we need both: we have to create both an education system that helps kids and a labor movement that is an engine for jobs. On the micro level we need to figure out how to all work together."

That Brill and Weingarten clash should come as a surprise to no one. Brill is known for his New Yorker piece on "Rubber Rooms," where scores of New York City schoolteachers who have been accused of misconduct or incompetence sit and are paid full-time until their cases can be processed -- the average wait, he found, was three years. Brill said in that piece: "Anthony Lombardi, the principal of P.S. 49, a mostly minority Queens elementary school, puts it more bluntly: 'Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom. That's her job.'"

It's little wonder the debate was a bit tense.

Brill acknowledged right away that he has relatively little knowledge about education when he started writing about it just over a year ago -- that's a modest claim, since he also teaches at Yale. He said his New Yorker piece illustrates how there's no sense of urgency about educating students in this country, that that's why it is perfectly okay to store teachers in these rooms where they aren't doing anything.

Weingarten shot back that she has dedicated "the last 25 years" of her life to education reforms and feels that the situation is urgent. "We need systems that are fair both for students and teachers," she said, explaining that the reason it's hard to fire teachers is because no one has a sufficient evaluation system in place. "I was a lousy teacher my first year of teaching," she said.

"Evaluating teachers is a real problem because people don't do it," added Tony Wagner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "It's not just teachers, there's also improving lessons. How do we continually improve the quality of lessons? We ought to be videotaping those lessons all the time."

Brill didn't buy it. "What both of you have been focusing on is what's fair to teachers," he said. "We're worried about evaluating teachers -- like in the criminal justice system -- we don't want to a teacher to be 'jailed' unfairly... let's not take them off the payroll until we have an arbitration trail that lasts longer than the O.J. Simpson trial... Where are the kids in this?"

"I find this entire conversation very frustrating," said James Shelton III of the U.S. Department of Education. "It is the very reason we can't make progress. We're still in shouting matches about what is, quite frankly, B.S."

Shelton argued expecting every teacher to walk into a classroom with kids of different ability levels, who may speak different languages, and expecting them to be able to meet the needs of every student perfectly, is unreasonable. "We should proving them with tools and resources that allow them to be more effective. Unfortunately we keep having the same conversations, when performance is the same in union states as in non-union states."

Shelton urged panelists to engage in the substantive issues of reform, and referenced a report released Thursday by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that provided recommendations for stepping up the federal role in science, technology, engineering and math.

The report was released in conjunction with a new initiative led by the top executives of major U.S. corporations seeking to improve education in the so-called STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math -- considered vital to competing in the global workforce.

The nonprofit initiative, called Change the Equation, has garnered the support of 100 chief executive officers as well as the financial assistance of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, according to a White House press release.

Drawing in outside resources is integral to reform, according to Weingarten. "We've desperately wanted community engagement in schools for a long time," she said. "People look at schools like other people's children instead of our own children."

A hundred CEOs may not signal community involvement, but some think that involving the rich is not a bad place to start.

The best way to improve public schools may well be to get the rich to invest in them. If rich people sent their kids to public schools, Brill argued, the schools would get good -- and fast.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post claimed that Steve Brill began his New Yorker article with a quote by an anonymous school principal. In fact, that quote appeared further down in Brill's piece and should have been attributed to Anthony Lombardi.