Tag Archives: unions

Interests Matter: Why Teachers Shouldn’t Be the Primary Shapers of Education Policy

The recent transformation of education into a prominent nationally policy issue has prompted an  increasingly important question: who should be crafting our country’s education policies? Though teachers and school administrators have largely controlled education policy for decades, in recent years outsiders–including think tanks, charter management organizations, and other advocacy groups–have had impressive success in implementing reform policies. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a backlash from the traditional educational establishment, who insist that teachers are the only people qualified to decide what our education system needs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that teachers shouldn’t be involved in shaping education policy. Besides their obvious expertise and importance in student success, as the primary actors in implementing any reform it would be both illogical and impractical to ignore their input. But that doesn’t mean that they should take the lead. Teachers shouldn’t be the primary shapers of education policy because they have material interests in the system independent of its effectiveness. Education policy should be guided by actors that are solely interested in what is best for students.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that interests of teachers and interests of students or opposed–in other words, that teachers do not want their students to be successful. But it’s indisputable that teacher and student interests are not identical. Last-in first-out layoff policies? Nearly unbreakable tenure guarantees? Blocking of meaningful teacher evaluation systems? While certainly in the interests of teachers, those sorts of policies are at best marginally helpful to students. And that’s a problem. We should be able to point to every facet of our educational system and explain how it is the most efficient and effective way to help kids learn. Teachers primarily shaping policy won’t get us to that point.

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers can and ought to continue to pursue their interests within our education system. But let’s stop the illogical charade that they can simultaneously support what is best for our kids.

Why is the “Won’t Back Down” Debate About Adults Instead of Kids?

In yesterday’s NYT, Vivian Yee describes the growing uproar over the film Won’t Back Down. The film tells the story of a parent who exercises a so-called “parent trigger” law to take over her child’s failing school. Though the film is obviously a “Hollywoodification” of the issue–and a work of fiction–education power players like AFT President Randi Weingarten and Michelle Rhee have become amateur film critics, the former criticizing the depiction of unions and the latter supporting the film’s premise and even hosting advance screenings. Though the “educators pretending to be film critics” thing on both sides has been amusing to watch, the debate has been primarily about adults in the film and not the people we should be really concerned about: the students who attend failing schools.

Before the film was released, the AFT sent out a statement to its supporters warning them about the movie’s release; of primary concern was that the film “depicts teachers and unions in such a false and misleading way.” While perhaps true, it is instructive that the statement doesn’t decry as “false and misleading” the depiction of failing schools and the plight of students who attend them.

The decision of the AFT to focus their energies on the struggle of teachers in the film instead of kids gives further credence to the obvious point that teachers unions do not exist to promote the interests of kids. I’ve said it before and will say it again: our educational system–and the parties entrusted with making its policies–should be singularly focused on student achievement. We need to rid ourselves of the idea that unions can somehow pursue the best interests of students and teachers simultaneously. That’s not to say that those interests are opposed–in many cases they are aligned–but just that they aren’t the same. The main takeaway from the movie ought to be the sobering reality that there are thousands of students and families frustrated by having to attend unsafe and ineffective schools. Unfortunately, that seems to have been forgotten.

Interests of Teachers Or Interests of Kids?

When I first heard about the teacher strike in Chicago, my thoughts turned to the students. Besides the lost instructional time, I know from teaching in Philly how much students in cities need the structure, safety, and positive atmosphere of school. I shudder at the thought of my own students getting locked out of the school building for a week without anywhere else to go.

Yet as I’ve read perspectives on the strike from both sides, I still can’t wrap my head around the CTU talking point that the strike is somehow in the interests of the kids. To put it bluntly: How could you say with a straight face that locking 400,000 kids out of school for a week is in the interests of students? As I see it, the strike is finally knocking down the illogical but widely-held view that teachers’ unions should be trusted with determining what is best for students. Unions should still exist, but let’s dispense with the farcical idea that what is best for them is best for students.

Amidst the present ubiquity of education reform in the news and on pundits’ tongues, it’s easy to forget that education only recently became a real public policy issue. Indeed, prior to No Child Left Behind and its precursors, education was pretty much a local concern, handled by the only people viewed as qualified to do so: teachers and administrators. Teachers’ unions, then, were given the power to define and pursue the interests of students as well as teachers. Pretty sweet deal. (N.B. I wrote in much greater depth about the history of the unions in chapter 2 of my undergraduate thesis.)

But with the emergence of data showing the flaws of public education in this country, unions are having trouble proving that they still represent the interests of students.  Clinging to structural anachronisms while opposing logical reforms like evaluations linked to performance, substantive tenure reform, and expansion of high-quality school choices in cities is hard to square with claims that the unions speak for anyone but teachers.

The strike in Chicago is bringing that disconnect to light even more.  Teachers are banishing nearly half a million kids to the Chicago streets over getting a less than 30% raise in a recession and  because they don’t want to toughen an evaluation system that laughably rates 99.7% of teachers satisfactory. It takes serious cojones for the CTU to say that those demands are in anyone’s interests but their own.

News reports suggest that the sides are getting closer and students will be back in school on Monday–by all accounts, a great development. But the whole ordeal should serve as a reminder that any organization that keeps kids out of school for a week does not represent the best interests of students. We ought to reconsider where objective educational expertise actually resides.

 

Common-Sense Compensation for “Irreplaceables”

On Monday TNTP released its long-awaited report on the crisis of urban teacher retention. The report explains that the most effective teachers in a given district–termed “The Irreplaceables”– produce 5-6 more months of student learning than poor teachers. Yet those top teachers leave their schools at an alarmingly high rate. Therefore, the report argues, schools should alter their policies to ensure that those teachers are retained.

This is far from surprising. Indeed, all students, parents, and school employees know that some teachers are better than others. The problem is that teacher compensation–presently based on seniority and credentials–implies a false reality where all teachers are equally effective. It is no wonder that a profession which fails to reward its top performers has trouble retaining them.

The fact that some teachers are better than others is not a knock on the teaching profession. Indeed, differences in employee quality exist in all industries. But teachers are too important to society to justify the present complacency. Every kid deserves a great teacher and the incredible achievement that can result, and the failure to retain great teachers is making that much more difficult. Tying teacher compensation to effectiveness would improve retention, shine a light on our best, and toss away the false reality of that teachers are nothing more than interchangeable parts in a machine. Do teachers deserve more respect? Absolutely. And a great way to make that happen–as well as help kids–is to quit hiding behind oppressive and illogical contracts and support a system for compensation driven by common sense instead of convenience.

Tenure Cases Hurt the Teaching Profession

Yesterday’s WaPo reports that the Fairfax County, VA school system has dropped its attempt to revoke the tenure of veteran teacher Violet Nichols. As I discussed last month,  Nichols was recommended for termination for  incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered. She claimed that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggested that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I can’t really comment on whether Nichols or her principal “were right” in this case–I don’t know either of the parties or the circumstances involved. What I do know, however, is that this outcome, though on its face a victory for teachers, is deeply damaging to the reputation of the teaching profession.

In any industry, people get fired; it’s a reality of employment. Whether the reason is a tight budget, “restructuring,” incompetence, or a capricious boss, when you take a job you accept that you could lose it. But teachers don’t really face that risk. To fire a tenured teacher, a school district will inevitably have to win a lengthy, incredibly expensive legal battle with the local union. And given today’s budget constraints, districts rarely can afford to do that. As a result, tenured teachers have essentially gained a “right” to their jobs.

Sounds peachy, right? But teachers accept this at the expense of reputation and societal respect. When teachers hide behind tenure after making a mistake, they flaunt a luxury of the teaching profession not afforded to other professionals. Is it any wonder, then, that teachers are not afforded the same respect? We need to realize that respect and trust is earned through measurable success and accountability; it is not simply handed to us. Teachers won’t be treated like professionals until we start acting like them.

The Fallacy of the Charter School “Movement”

It is no secret that the number of charter schools in the US has been rapidly increasing. The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991; today there are over 5,600 charter schools serving over two million students. And with decreasing municipal revenues and the impressive success of many charters across the country, that growth should continue.

Unsurprisingly, charter schools have become a common target of supporters of the educational status quo, particularly teachers’ unions. Charters, they claim, directly attack the public education system by draining resources from “real” public schools. The dangerous and malicious charter school “movement” needs to be stopped.

I’m not going to counter that critique of charters here; that is for another post. But it is worth pointing out that referring to charters as a “movement” is a fallacious oversimplification that unfairly presents charter schools as an opponent, rather than a component, of public education. 

The reality is that charter schools in the US are incredibly diverse from one another, and hardly synchronized or connected. According to the National Education Association, charter schools are “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.” Charters can differ from other public schools by emphasizing foreign languages and cultures, prioritizing certain areas of study, or using different instructional models. Though charter approval works differently in different areas, the basic idea is that someone in the community suggests that it would benefit the kids in the community to have an additional public school option; the specific proposal must then be approved by a representative body in the community. Of course, applications for charters are routinely rejected as well.

What is NOT happening, despite what charter opponents may have you believe, is some kind of coordinated attack on public education by charter school advocates. There is no concerted “movement”; it is just becoming more common–and rightfully so–for active citizens to realize that kids in their community are not receiving the education they deserve. Lumping charter schools together may make for easier sound bites, but that doesn’t make it valid. We should call the description of charter school expansion as a “movement” what it is: a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory intended to manipulate public opinion to preserve a broken status quo.

A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten suggested that we establish a “bar exam” for public school teachers in America. This exam–which would be rigorous and would emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills–would help to assuage growing concerns about the quality of teachers in America.

I respect and appreciate Weingarten’s intentions here. Ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher should be perhaps the primary goal of any education reform proposal. But I fear that another test will just be another hoop for potential teachers to jump through, further insulating the profession.

What we need to acknowledge is that, despite the emphasis on credentials in education, you learn how to teach by teaching; on-the-job training, experimenting, and adjusting is what makes great teachers great. I passed three PRAXIS exams before I started teaching, and I will be the first to admit that my high scores in no way correlated with immediate success in the classroom. (To be honest, closer to the opposite is true.) I’m not denying that learning key ideas and strategies before teaching can be beneficial for teachers. But creating a national exam for teachers and pointing to it as evidence of teacher quality falsely implies that teaching is akin to following an instruction manual–that we follow a set of clearly prescribed steps. It cheapens the art of effective teaching.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully support constant evaluation of teachers in order to ensure their instructional effectiveness. But evaluating teachers more before they step into a classroom only serves to further entangle the certification process in needless bureaucracy.