Saturday, October 17, 2009

WSJ: Obama Wins a Battle as a Teachers' Union Shows Flexibility

The Republicans have constantly pushed for accountability in education. They want to be able to sanction, and if necessary fire, underperforming teachers, a position strongly resisted by teachers' unions across the country. To be frank, my impression as an outside observer is that the Republicans are uninterested into allocating the resources to school districts that need them, which probably fuels the impression among union folks that the Republicans just want to break the unions.

I do agree that teachers who don't have the necessary skills or abilities should be replaced. However, there's a measurement problem. It's hard to sort out the teachers who underperform because they don't have the ability from the teachers whose students underperform because they were poorly educated by the last teachers, because they have family problems that prevent them from getting a good education, or because they are in a poor school district without the resources to teach them properly. In other words, it's hard to separate the problems of teacher qualification from structural problems. The No Child Left Behind Act mandated national performance measurements, but penalized schools which underperformed on those measurements without properly accounting for structural impediments to kids' learning.

There is a similar measurement problem in healthcare - it's been hard to compare quality among physicians based on patient outcomes because some doctors (especially those in academic medical centers) simply get patients whose diseases are worse than others. However, in healthcare, there are clear and consistent criteria for defining if a patient has a myocardial infarction (i.e. a heart attack), for example. Similar criteria would be far harder to define in education. For example, how do you measure whether a child was properly prepared by her elementary school? As I recall, performance on the SAT, a test used for admission into undergraduate, doesn't predict school performance very well - but it does predict performance on the GRE, which is the standardized test for admissions to most graduate schools, very well.

It is clear that, aside from devoting more financial resources to poorer schools, teachers need to work with school officials to aid, sanction or remove underperformers. They need to be willing to accept a certain amount of flexibility in union contracts. The Wall Street Journal has typically been critical of unions, but they have a pretty good article on this subject. An excerpt:

A showdown between the White House and the powerful teachers' unions looks, for the moment, a little less likely.

This week in New Haven, Conn., the local teachers union agreed, in a 21-1 vote, to changes widely resisted by unions elsewhere, including tough performance evaluations and fewer job protections for bad teachers.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as the unions, said the New Haven contract could be repeated in other school districts.

"I rarely say that something is a model or a template for something else, but this is both," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who helped broker the New Haven deal.

"This shows a willingness to go into areas that used to be seen as untouchable," Mr. Duncan said.

His cause for optimism is this: If teachers' unions start showing flexibility in other cities, the administration's high-stakes push to boost graduation rates and improve test scores at public schools could get a lot easier. That might even spare the administration an unwanted fight with a labor force that gave Mr. Obama a big lift in his election.

Under pressure from the Education Department, the country's two powerful teachers unions, Ms. Weingarten's AFT and the larger National Education Association, are already budging in ways that were previously unthinkable. The two unions have a combined membership of 3.6 million employees.

The AFT recently issued a batch of innovation grants to districts that are tying teacher pay to performance -- a practice usually frowned upon by unions. The NEA is taking similar steps to encourage tougher evaluations and to loosen seniority systems, moves that Mr. Duncan called "monumental breakthroughs."

It is also noteworthy that the AFT seems almost as pleased with New Haven as Mr. Duncan.

Public schools in many bigger cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are seeing the usual tension between unions and school administrators.

In Washington, Chancellor Michelle Rhee has collided with both the national and local unions. The city moved ahead recently with the firing of 388 school employees, nearly 6% of the work force.

In New Haven, by contrast, all sides agreed on the new contract after months of closed-door negotiations. The deal allows the city to close its worst schools and bring in new management, though any new teachers would have to join the union. In exchange, the union got an average 3% raise each year for four years.


With the final rules scheduled to be out in mid-November, the unions are warning about limits on their flexibility. The groups are most troubled by Mr. Duncan's quest to link teacher pay to student performance, especially if it is measured only through standardized tests.

"To evaluate a teacher or a school on a single test makes no sense," said Mr. Von Roekel, who used to teach high school math in Arizona.

The unions also are wary of some of Mr. Duncan's other prescriptions, including his proposals to shut down and reorganize many of the country's most troubled schools....

One wonders if educators should have a conversation with healthcare quality experts on pay for performance measures.

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