Education Opinion

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

By Susan Graham — October 22, 2009 4 min read
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The Wall Street Journal headline read Obama Wins a Battle as a Teachers’ Union Shows Flexibility. The story went on to say that

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


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.


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

The implied take away message? The self-serving bad guy teacher unions who are corrupting American education were wrestled to the ground by the Education Department good guys saving the little kids of New Haven. The surprise was that AFT, which is portrayed as the loser, didn’t protest losing. The implied question: Was it because maybe union representatives knew in their heart they deserved to lose?

The Education Week headline read Teacher Contract Called Potential Model for the Nation and went on to say

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.

Here are some of the issues addressed by the new contract:

A committee of union representatives, district representatives and parents will make recommendations on the best ways to measure student growth. It will consider growth in test scores, as well as other measures of achievement.

A similar committee will develop a teacher-evaluation system capable of distinguishing among four levels of performance.

A peer-assistance and -review program will be developed for veteran teachers.

A schoolwide performance-pay program and a career ladder for teachers who take on additional responsibilities would be developed.

Student-growth information will be used to rank schools into three performance tiers.

Tier I and II schools would be allowed to waive certain contract provisions with the approval of teachers and principals in those schools.

Tier III schools will be reconstituted with new leadership and staff members. Teachers will have to reapply for their jobs, and principals will select the teachers to be hired. These schools would also be freed up from most contract provisions.

The take away message seems to be that stakeholders are working together to develop multiple criteria assessments, to compensate the highest performing teachers, to support struggling teachers, to acknowledge that school success is a joint effort, to give successful schools autonomy and to broaden unrestricted restructuring of ineffective schools. There is a modest 3% annual salary increase.

These are two stories about one event with divergent messages. The Journal saw a battle with winners and losers. EdWeek saw consensus among stakeholders. There is agreement that teacher quality is the critical factor in student success. The question is whether cooperation or coercion is the most effective way to achieve that goal.

In terms of readership, Education Week is a David to the Wall Street Journal’s Goliath. The Journal has apparently decided that if good teachers are the missing link, then practicing teachers must be the weak link. We see evidence in another Journal editorial, How Teacher Unions Lost the Media, where Whitmire and Rotherham propose that

..in the past it was difficult to measure teacher performance. But now, as a result of data collected under No Child Left Behind provisions, it is easier to figure out which teachers are succeeding. "Data and results are challenging an industry that was traditionally driven by hope, hype and good intentions," says Jane Hannaway, the director of education policy at the Urban Institute. Ms. Hannaway argues that in the long run these emerging databases may be the most important dividend of today's school accountability policies.

While Ms. Hannaway may dismiss hope and good intentions, teachers are expected to profess unquestioning allegiance to the mantra that “all students can learn if we set high expectations.” Surely that is a statement of hope and good intentions. And doesn’t the phrase, No Child Left Behind, smack of Lake Wobegon hype when it implies that all children should, can, and will achieve at the same level?

I’m pretty sure that the majority of successful teachers put a pretty high value on hope and good intentions. What parent would want their child to be in a classroom that lacked either? On the other hand, teachers often resist the push toward “data-driven instruction” because they understand that data is only information -- not answers. Its dependability is relative to the validity of research questions, designs, and conclusions. Data may reveal that students who use mechanical pencils outperform those using #2 pencils on standardized tests. It is possible, based on that data, to conclude that mechanical pencils are a critical factor in student learning. Acquisition of mechanical pencils could be promoted as a school improvement initiative.

Test score data is an “easier” way to measure teacher performance, but easier is not synonymous with more reliable or more informative. New Haven set a new standard in contract negotiation because there was mutual respect and cooperation that addressed the contribution of teachers as colleagues, as leaders, and as part of the decision making team. Teachers don’t resist accountability, but they do resist inappropriate and inequitable measurements of teacher performance.

It's always been hard to get rid of bad teachers," says Linda Perlstein, public editor for the national Education Writers Association. "But now people are realizing it doesn't have to be, especially at a time they're hanging onto their own jobs with their fingertips."

Yes, and it’s always been hard to recruit and retain good teachers. And it’s going to be harder still when teachers are vilified as the problem even as they are being identified as the solution. Scapegoating teacher unions and teachers may be easier for the media than to really “figure out which teachers are succeeding,” but it is a simplistic response that lacks journalistic integrity, snuffs out hope, and it makes it pretty clear that good intentions matter less than flashy headlines.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.