January 2010 Archives

Accountability from Teachers Union Can Spark Reform

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recent Op-Ed in the New York Times and a Boston news radio program covered Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and her proposal for how the union can evaluate teachers more thoroughly.  She addressed topics sensitive among many teachers – the use of student performance as a factor in evaluations and the procedures to remove teachers who are ineffective or guilty of misconduct.  Breaking with precedent, Weingarten favors using student test scores to assess teachers and agrees that steps to remove ineffective teachers should be eased.

The AFT’s support for these reforms is a positive step in a complicated process.  An article in The Future of Children volume Excellence in the Classroom focuses on the role of teachers, and it argues that unions, school administrators, and policymakers should work together to reform school systems. “Reform bargaining” has gained traction in recent years, with the support of both AFT and another major union, the National Education Association (NEA).

“Reform bargaining” was illustrated by the Toledo, Ohio, school district in the early 1980s, when the union and policy makers designed a program to improve teachers’ effectiveness.  Under that plan, the first year of teaching was treated as a “trial year.” More experienced but ineffective teachers were required to enter an intervention program, after which even tenured faculty members were let go if they did not show sufficient improvement. The union evaluated the teachers, investing itself fully in the program and helping it succeed. The national ventures promoted by AFT president Weingarten closely reflect this initiative.

Although holding teachers more accountable is a good start, policies linking teachers to student performance must be carefully constructed. Schools may have vastly different student populations, resources, and administrative situations, all of which can create barriers to student achievement, so teacher performance must be viewed in context. Second, educators are concerned that faculty will teach to standardized tests, narrowing content covered in class and giving more superficial treatment to topics, resulting in students being less able to apply and connect material more broadly. These factors make it important to use caution in rating teachers by student achievement, including making it only one component of a broader evaluation.

Research from the FOC volume supports the type of reform recently embraced by AFT, but these measures are only the start of true education reform. Policy makers must work with teachers to clearly articulate goals for teacher quality and to devote resources toward achieving them. Flexibility, peer review, and attention to student needs are key components in this process. The AFT’s movement toward greater accountability must now be met with further commitments by both teachers’ unions and administrators.

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