Public schools, their teachers and the unions that represent them have recently come under fire across the country. Stephan F. Brumberg, a professor in the School of Education and head of the Educational Leadership Program, answered some questions about the best way to deal with layoffs, the viability of teachers unions and why he believes public schools are ultimately set up to fail.

Q: In light of recent budget cutbacks, many politicians across the country have called for teacher layoffs. The unions and their seniority rules have required that the latest teachers hired be the first to go. Is that always fair?
A: How do you determine who should go when there’s retrenchment? What are the just and equitable criteria? There is no one set of criteria that everyone will agree on. What is being pressed now by the mayor and others is the idea that we recruit a lot of good new teachers; why fire them when we have incompetent old teachers? There’s a presumption that if you are young and energetic, that’s better than if you are older and experienced. I think I’m a better teacher now than I was 20 years ago. I’m certainly much more aware of what I’m doing and how I interact with students.

Q: So you support the “last-in, first-out” rule, even if politicians have been using such rules as grist in their efforts to do away with teachers’ unions altogether?
A: I’m opposed to altering “last-in, first-out” because we don’t have an objective way of coming up with something else. Teachers go through a number of years in the classroom before they achieve tenure. If school administrators don’t think the teachers are good, then tighten up procedures for granting tenure. After seven years, if you don’t know whether the person is a decent teacher then you’re not doing your job as a principal. There are ways of dealing with these issues short of destroying the unions.

Q: Why do you think the view that our public schools are failing has become so pervasive?
A: Schools have, at least for the last century, been looked upon as the ultimate savior. Schools can do a lot and they do play a vital role, but they cannot do everything. We assign tasks to schools that ensure failure. If a child shows up at school hungry or maltreated, the school can’t overcome these problems. Schools cannot stop child abuse or prevent pregnancies. Society does not provide the kind of environment that will produce kids who are open and free and willing to learn. But we as a society refuse to acknowledge our role in these societal ills and instead leave it to the schools to deal with the kinds of kids that result.