Tag Archives: teaching

Accountability from Teachers Union Can Spark Reform

A 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.

Stimulus Money for Professional Development?

Many school districts around the country are poised to receive stimulus package money and are trying to figure out how to spend it. Many will spend it hiring needed teachers, while others will put it toward retention. One natural place to put new dollars is professional development. However, not all professional development is equal, and in many cases, will not translate to improved teaching or student achievement.

According to Heather Hill’s article, Learning in the Teacher Workforce, in The Future of Children: Excellence in the Classroom, most workshops, institutes, and study groups appear to be brief, superficial, and of marginal use in improving teaching. In short: a waste of money.
But it does not have to be this way. Professional development can enhance teaching and learning if it has three characteristics:
1. It lasts several days or longer;
2. It focuses on subject-matter-specific instruction; and
3. It is aligned with the instructional goals and curriculum materials in teachers’ schools.
Such high-quality programs do exist. But they are a tiny fraction of the nation’s offerings. One problem is that researchers rarely evaluate carefully either local professional development or its effect on student learning. Most evaluations simply ask participants to self-report. Lacking reliable evaluations, how are teachers and district officials to choose effective programs? Clearly, much more rigorous studies are needed.
To make continuing education effective, school districts should encourage teachers to take graduate coursework that is more tightly aligned with their primary teaching assignment. And districts should select professional development programs based on evidence of their effectiveness. Finally, central planners must ensure that items on the menu of offerings closely align with district standards, curriculum materials, and assessments.

See also The Future of Children policy brief, "A Plan to Improve the Quality of Teaching in American Schools"