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Brian Crosby: Tough Times, Smart Schools

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Brian Crosby is the English Chair at Hoover High School in Glendale, Calif., where he has taught for 20 years. His first book, The $100,000 Teacher, published in 2002, offered a blueprint for giving teachers greater professional agency, in addition to bigger salaries. Last summer, he released his second book, Smart Kids, Bad Schools in which he further details his unique idea of an improved American education system where students attend larger classes, have no homework, and study during the summer, and “recognition-starved” teachers participate in education reform, receive performance pay, and yes, make six-figure salaries.

Smart Kids, Bad Schools

Almost one year later, the country is in a deep recession, the new administration is exploring education reform beyond No Child Left Behind, and many educators don’t know if they will have a job in the fall.

We spoke to Brian Crosby against this backdrop to find out whether he feels his ideas are still viable, why fewer teachers would be good for everyone, and how the Obama administration could make a difference in the lives of educators.

In 2002, interviewed you following the release of your book, The $100,000 Teacher. In your new book, Smart Kids, Bad Schools, you are still talking about raising teacher salaries and improving working conditions for educators. Has the landscape changed in seven years?


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Visit Brian Crosby’s Web site and listen to his daily radio address, "A Teachable Moment."

Do you want to elaborate?

It has to be a seismic shift, in order to really transform the teaching profession or public education. In general, you need something major to happen and unfortunately as long as politicians are in control of schooling American kids, we’re gonna continue to have the same old same old.

What has changed since you wrote your first book, of course, is the economy. Some would say, “We’re laying off teachers in some districts by the hundreds and, in some cases, by the thousands.” How can we justify raising teachers’ salaries when we don’t even have money to pay the ones that we have?

Well, that’s a good question and not to sound simple in my answer, but it is somewhat simple as far as how to do it. We need fewer teachers actually. We have 300,000 doctors, but we have three million teachers. Three million is just too many teachers. You can’t really find three million outstanding educators in America.

If we really want quality education, we have to start with the acceptance that we’re going to have to have larger classes. And I know that’s anathema to parents. I’m a parent, and I wouldn’t want my kid swallowed up in a huge classroom, but at the same time, the point I keep making is that—and I speak from experience—it’s better for a child to be educated by an outstanding instructor with a few more kids in the room, rather than be in a very small class taught by a mediocre instructor.

To get some perspective on the budget cuts, consider what happened in the 90s. Public school teachers went through unprecedented earning increases and the problem with that is, as with any bureaucracy, when you’re spending all the money, you get attached to it, and that’s what happened with the public schools.

So when cuts started happening a couple of years ago, all of a sudden, they started saying “Uh, oh. This is no good.” But what I was thinking was, wait a minute, you were fine with less in the early 90s, surely you can do it fine now.

I don’t really see a tragedy going on right now. I’d rather have larger class sizes in order to deal with the cuts, rather than shorter school years, which is one of the proposals they’re talking about in California. Of all the ways you can cut, having students in school less makes the least sense.

Some teachers might say, “We already have too much to do and now we’ve got to deal with more kids, more papers to grade.” What would be your response to that charge?

I think teachers would accept more students if they were compensated for their quality of work, which they’re not. Teachers are not evaluated on how well they do their jobs. They’re evaluated on their number of years on the job and the number of college units they have.

I think they’d be willing to put up with a few more students if they knew that, hey, I get evaluated on my effectiveness, then I can make maybe a little more money, if I really do an effective job.

You go into pretty good detail in your book about how teachers are negatively perceived. How would you propose shifting our collective view of teachers?

It’s simple. It takes a leader and in this case, it has to be the President of the United States. It has to be President Obama. All he has to say is, “Americans, I’m going to try to transform America’s public schools and I’m going to invite to the White House America’s top teachers who are in the classroom right now. We’re going to have a retreat. We’ll meet with Arne Duncan, the education secretary, and we’re going to come up with a blueprint for America’s future for the 21st century for schooling kids.” If he did that, Wow!

But he’s not going to do that.

Why do you think he won’t do that?

Because no one pays attention to teachers. They may pay lip service to teachers. You look at these think tanks on how to transform schools, rarely do you see someone who’s in the classroom, a real teacher. It’s like trying to tinker with medicine and not having doctors around. That’s the way it is with education. No one’s talking to teachers. No one’s valuing what they have to say.

Teacher, Author Brian Crosby
—Sherry Crosby

Secretary Duncan has talked about extending the school day, the week, and the year. I would imagine you’re in favor of this.

I’m definitely in favor of that. You don’t necessarily have to have kids in school every single day. You can lengthen the school day by just a little bit and just make it about an hour and a half longer each day. That gives you another year and a half of education. Automatically. That’s a lot of time extra.

Part of my idea is to make kids stay longer at school to have their teachers help them with homework. So that once school is over at 5 or 5:30, they go home. There’s no homework. I don’t think they should have homework.

I have a kindergartner right now. Every Monday he gets a packet, and I’ll be honest with you—there’s some days where it’s like, this is ridiculous. He’s five years old and he has homework? Meanwhile, he’s only in class for three hours. Well, why don’t you make it four or five hours? Don’t give him more work, just have him do the work that he’s supposed to do, with the teacher who is supposed to know best how to do it.

But this is all presuming that teachers are getting paid more to stay longer?

Exactly—a professional salary. All these little pieces have to be part of the whole fabric of change. It can’t just be—if you just extend the school day, everything’s fine. No, people are going to expect to be compensated more, but again, hopefully, they’ll be interested in working harder because they’ll be compensated more.

I also like Obama’s idea—hopefully, it’s not just lip service—to have a performance pay system. The unions are vehemently opposed to that. I just hope Obama sticks to his guns about it. Because that would be—of all his ideas on education—if not a complete seismic shift, a major change. Much more major than No Child Left Behind, which was just additional testing.

There are teachers who are really resistant to performance pay.

I don’t know of a teacher who’s really good and knows they’re good who’s opposed to that. Because as I said, if you’re really competent, all you have to do is hang on to your job and you’ve got your permanent job for the rest of your life. It’s an amazing job if you look at it from that perspective. All the time off, the hours. You can't beat it. If you want to do the minimum work, it’s one of the best jobs out there.

But you’re not advocating that teachers do only a minimal amount of work. You’re expecting them to stay at school longer. On the face of it, it may seem like an ideal working situation, but the truth is teaching does really demand more than just the bare minimum.

The way the system is now, there’s not a lot of room or motivation for them to be better. Some weeding out would occur if some of these changes were in place. Some might realize, “Uh, oh. I do the bare minimum, it’s not going to work out for me.” And they would actually be fired. They wouldn’t have tenure. They’d either have to shape up or they’d have to find another job.

If you had something to say to President Obama, what would it be?

“Invite me over, with other teachers. Give me one hour.” It would be wonderful to have one hour with the president and other educators to just share whatever we see that can be done. Again, a lot of these ideas, are not money-breaking endeavors, as I’ve pointed out in my book. Painting a school in green versus beige is not more money. So many things can be done.

There’s so much more potential, not only with teachers, but with young people that just remains untapped. It’s frustrating.

What do you want to share with parents?

Well, I guess it would be to stay in touch with their children’s work, their school work. A lot of parents are very interested when their children are in 1st grade, 2nd grade. They put up their Easter bunny on their refrigerator. Then later on—when kids have multiple teachers in middle and high school—are you going to put the chemistry lab report that got a good grade on top of the refrigerator? Probably not.

It’s funny, just at a time when kids need the parents to be the most involved, is when you see a drop in them attending open houses and things like this. When I went to my son’s 4th grade little California Mission presentation that he did last week the auditorium was filled. You could not get a seat!

But fifteen-year-old kids don’t want the parents at school like they do when they’re eight or nine or ten.

There are lots of things that schools can do to encourage parent engagement, and some schools do do this. With report cards, have the parent come to the school to pick up the report card, meet with the teacher or teachers, and that’s when you have your conferences. Where I live, they only do that in the elementary years.

It would be wonderful if parents could sign some kind of partner agreement with schools that they could help out even one day of the year, whether it’s on a field trip or whether it’s at a carnival, or whether it’s with distribution of test materials, the parent should see what’s going on at the school.

President Obama talks a lot—and did on the campaign trail—about the importance of parents engaging in their children’s education.

By his word, Obama is the most exciting president. He doesn’t call himself the education president, but this could be as close as we’ll get. But again, there’s so much going on in our world today, whether enough attention can be put on schools and whether he can actually act on his ideas with all this other stuff going on, who knows? I wish him the best, but I could perfectly understand if it doesn’t work out.

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