Education Letter to the Editor

Aligning the Arguments

April 18, 2006 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Writing as one who holds a doctorate in industrial relations, is an author and researcher of school reform, and has been a veteran classroom teacher, I have the following comments on Theodore Hershberg and Barbara Lea-Kruger’s Commentary on teacher compensation (“Aligning the System,” March 29, 2006):

The authors’ criticism of the “industrial” model of labor relations in education, and their suggestion that teachers’ unions are barriers to reform, are oft-heard complaints among those who aim to change the way schools work. What is rarely discussed is the fact that, during the 1960s, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association aimed for a “professional” model of labor-management relations, replete with shared decisionmaking over any issue that affected a teacher’s ability to deliver professional service to students.

The unions argued, much as these contemporary authors do, that a professional model would result in better-performing school systems and higher student achievement. Society, however, rejected this notion.

In place of the sought-after professional-union model, state legislatures granted teachers’ unions the right to bargain much as the United Auto Workers would, that is to say, solely over wages, hours, and conditions of employment.

The current system of labor relations in education is unsatisfactory for a host of reasons. But rather than imply that unions are the primary barrier to change, the authors ought to investigate whether school boards would be willing to bargain over “pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment,” as they propose. I would venture a guess that school boards would object strenuously to sharing decisionmaking on these critical issues.

Denise Gelberg

Ithaca, N.Y.

To the Editor:

In their Commentary, Theodore Hershberg and Barbara Lea-Kruger cite education research as though it were hard science. It isn’t. There are so many uncontrolled variables in these studies that the results are often misleading or downright false. Frankly, I’m amazed that profound generalizations are often based on the weakest of data.

For example, the authors casually mention the “fact,” based on data from across Tennessee, that “average instructional effectiveness plummets in the last third of teachers’ careers.” Oh, really? With this so-called research in mind, do we need to ask why professors of education don’t get the respect they think they deserve?

Just last week, I asked a group of veteran teachers about the advantages of being close to retirement. One answered: “I don’t need to teach to the test anymore. Now I just administer it as directed, and my conscience is clear.” Would this little variable show up on any state data? How many older teachers are abandoning test preparation? Would that affect test scores? Would it make them less effective as teachers?

Researchers in education can help K-12 practitioners by adhering to rigorous standards of research. Incorrect information from above has been very harmful to American education.

Linda Mele Johnson

Long Beach, Calif.

To the Editor:

I wonder how many times Education Week Commentary writers are going to trot out the same, tired story about how K-12 schooling would be improved if only teacher pay were tied to students’ test scores. The same ideological rationales always are used: The goal of society is to promote middle-class values, schools must be transformed to prepare students for a fiercely competitive global economy, and the time for teachers’ unions has passed.

A question is emerging: Would teachers operating under a pay-for-performance plan think more about students and their learning, work longer hours, talk more with parents, and create more exemplary lessons simply because they have a chance to earn $750 for reaching expected growth goals, or an additional $1,500 for attaining exemplary status, as is awarded to North Carolina teachers?

Most of the K-12 teachers I know are already doing everything they can to engage their students and foster achievement. Improving teaching, learning, and academic performance requires a plan that takes into consideration all the contextual variables affecting teaching, learning, and academic performance.

Interestingly enough, in this same issue of Education Week, there was no mention of pay for performance in the In Perspective piece, “Upward Journey,” which told the story of how schools in Hidalgo, Texas, have achieved notable results by implementing reforms that place students at the center of the action and include the most important stakeholders in the reform process: teachers and families.

Students and their learning are not commodities that can be manipulated by exerting marketplace forces, as can be done with automobile production and sales.

Steve Grineski

Moorhead, Minn.


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