One of the running themes in the battle over reforming American public education this year has been American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s failing triangulation of the school reform movement. From the union’s reaction to the abolition of collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio, to Dropout Nation‘s revelations of the presentation detailing efforts by the union’s Connecticut affiliate to weaken that state’s Parent Trigger law (which forced Weingarten to offer a series of non-apology apologies and meet with Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel), Weingarten’s strategy of playing on the union’s idiosyncratic history to embrace some small reforms without actually conceding influence hasn’t worked.

But some had already seen through Weingarten’s efforts. In this Best of Dropout Nation from August 2010, Contributing Editor Steve Peha dissects the AFT President’s statements in defense of protecting mediocrity and failure. Read, consider, and keep it in mind when you listen to — or read — Weingarten’s pronouncements.

In her response to a recent speech on education by President Obama, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, used what has probably become the greatest cliché in all of education reform: “Teaching is a complex enterprise, and there are no silver-bullet solutions for our schools.”

This is a self-serving fallacy. There is a silver bullet and we all know what it is: competent teachers. Not rock stars. Not geniuses. Not Rafe Esquiths or Jaime Escalantes. Not carefully recruited, alternatively certified, finely tuned specimens of human capital. Not former four-star generals or ex-Fortune 500 CEOs. Not Six-Sigma-superstars or Seven-Habits-heroes. Just competent teachers acting in the best interests of the children and families they serve.

This works every time. In fact, it’s the only thing that seems to work. So why do we say out of one side of our mouth that teaching quality is the most significant influence on student achievement and then, out of the other side of our mouth, we say that, “Teaching is a complex enterprise, and there are no silver-bullet solutions for our schools.”

Teaching is a complex enterprise, but being a competent teacher is not. Being responsible for our competence can be challenging at times, but most of us get the hang of it after a while. If we don’t, we never grow up. And if we never grow up, it really doesn’t matter if we ever become competent. We’re the adults in the room. If we don’t act like adults, there’s no point in being in the room.

Teaching is hard. No argument there. But one advantage of its difficulty is that it’s not hard to figure out if you’re any good at it. Competence—yours, mine, or anyone else’s—is easy to gauge. Being responsible is how you become competent if you’re not, and knowing whether you’re being responsible is easy to gauge, too.

We could fix the competence problem if we applied the following principals of responsibility:

  1. If you know what to do, do it.
  2. If you don’t know what to do, learn.
  3. Iterate through challenges quickly.
  4. Assess your progress often and honestly.
  5. Apply Principal #1 or Principal #2 as needed.

This is exactly what we ask of small children, so we can be certain that we all understand it. Acting the same way we expect others to act is called modeling in the classroom. Another thing every teacher is familiar with. It’s called integrity in life. Integrity is easy to gauge, too. When we say that there are no silver bullet-solutions for our schools, we are out of integrity with what we know to be true.

I do not mean to trivialize the challenge here. But neither will I support the oft-repeated position that education is too complex to be tamed or that straightforward approaches can’t be implemented. How complicated is it to ask that adults who care for children take it upon themselves to be competent, and if they are not competent, to be responsible about achieving competence?

If you think you detect a lack of compassion in my tone, I encourage you to detect again. I know as well as anyone the pain of incompetence when the well-being of children for whom I am responsible is at stake. Few things I have experienced in my life have ever felt as awful, day after day, and for many days thereafter, as letting a group of struggling elementary school students go an entire year without learning a thing about learning to read. But over the ensuing summer, I read books on reading instruction, practiced on a few patient kids, and became a competent reading teacher—not a great reading teacher, just a competent reading teacher. And when September rolled around, I felt like a human being again. My own experience, and that of many teachers whom I have trained, leads me to believe that supporting every teacher in achieving competence is one the most compassionate gestures we can make on behalf of people who devote so much of themselves to what is often a very unforgiving vocation.

We must also have compassion for children, of course, especially for those who are most sensitive to poor learning conditions at school because they may not have the support at home that we would wish for them. The most compassionate gesture we can make on behalf of our children is the guarantee of a competent teacher in every classroom. It’s hard to live a good life these days without a good education. And every teacher I know— competent or not—feels the pain of poorly educated children as they head out of school, ill-prepared for the world that awaits them.

Competence is the “silver-bullet solution” for our schools. Any time we say it isn’t, we lie to ourselves and to our country. Competent teachers provide quality educations to the children they serve. This is a research-proven fact and an empirically tested hypothesis in our own personal lives. Tens of thousands of these people exist across our land. We all know at least a few of them. Some were our teachers.

Competent teaching is not a mystery. The mystery is why more of us don’t take ownership of our competence. Again, the word is “competence”. Not “excellence” or “perfection” or “greatness” or “self-less saintly sacrifice”. Just competence.

Every teacher working in every school today is either competent or has within his or her sole power the social, emotional, intellectual, financial, and temporal resources to become competent. Many of us may have to get a little training, we may have to read a book or two, we may have to practice a bit, and mess up a few times before we get our act together. But competence is within our grasp.

Don’t even try to tell anybody it isn’t, least of all yourself.

There have been many times when I wasn’t competent. Incompetence stalks me even fifteen years into this work, when situations arise that are new to me and for which I am not well prepared. Recently, for example, I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about helping kids with ADD and ADHD. I am not competent in this regard. So I e-mailed a few smart people, read a couple of good articles on the web, purchased a highly recommended book on the subject, and started to learn. I’m not competent yet, but I will be soon enough. Probably just in time to be faced with another situation in which I am not competent.

School is like that. It encourages us learn. Yet some of us manage somehow to avoid learning at school. That’s when the responsibility part kicks us in the ass. If we can feel the pain of our own failure, we can heal ourselves and move forward. If we can’t feel the pain, it’s time to welcome someone else up to the front of the room.

There is very little about competent teaching that is not stored somewhere ready for anyone to access, often for free. Some of it is in books. Some of it is on the web. Some of it is on DVD. Some of it is in training. Some of it is inside the brains of competent teachers and teacher trainers across our nation. But it’s all there somewhere.

In my personal quest to understand education, I have, in pursuit of competence, posed a seemingly endless stream of questions, few of which have remained unanswered for very long. The answers haven’t always been right for me or for my situation. But other answers have usually been available as long as I have been willing to look for them. The amount of knowledge we have about education is overwhelming. But no one needs to know it all; not even close. We just need to know enough—enough to be good enough. That’s what being competent means, being good enough. We don’t have to understand the universe of education, just our tiny part of it. And there’s nothing overwhelming about that.

We can say all kinds of things about how hard teaching is. No one’s going to disagree with us. But we can’t say we can’t all become competent because that’s just as much of a lie as saying there are no silver bullets. We’re the silver bullets, ladies and gentlemen. Competence is the gun. Responsibility pulls the trigger. Integrity holds us together and attracts into our lives other people who share our values and lend their support. In a spirit of community and compassion, we teach our way toward competence, and improve our education system one silver bullet at a time.