Education Opinion

Talking About Teachers Unions

By Michelle Rhee — May 07, 2014 6 min read
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Schneider: Let’s talk a little bit about the role of teachers unions. Because I think that whatever their flaws, they play a critical role in public education and have a lot to contribute to teacher professionalism.

Rhee: People accuse me all the time of being “anti-union” so I think it’s important to set the record straight on this. I’m not anti-union. I think being anti-union means you don’t think unions should exist. I do think there’s a place for teachers unions. However, I don’t agree with the union’s stances on everything and think we ought to be able to push back on those things. I think it’s misleading to say that’s anti-union.

Schneider: Who’s the “we” here? And what, specifically, do you imagine pushing back against?

Because I think there’s a lot of agreement among teachers and union leaders that current labor positions could use some tweaking. But I also think that when they feel attacked, they are going to close ranks.

Efforts like the current Vergara case in California are deploying a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed. And so instead of talking about how to reduce the burden on principals seeking to dismiss grossly incompetent teachers, unions are working to stave off a rollback of key protections like permanent status.

Rhee: The “we” would be anyone who believes that there need to be serious discussions about these policies because many of them are not good for the profession or for ensuring that we have effective teachers in front of all kids.

I hear that it’s hard to want to have a conversation when you’re feeling attacked. So how do we facilitate those conversations in a meaningful way? Let me give you an example. When I was in DC, we began to take granting tenure seriously. So, we didn’t just move all probationary teachers to permanent status in the blanket way that had taken place before. We did it much more thoughtfully. I think we determined that several dozen of them shouldn’t be recommended for permanent status. The union grieved all of them. I would have taken it seriously and been willing to engage in discussions if they would have told me who they agreed on, who they didn’t, and why. But by just grieving every single one of them, it sent the message that they believed every teacher deserved to be tenured, even though we had evidence that these folks really shouldn’t be.

If superintendents across the country felt that there was a real willingness to have meaningful conversations on these issues, I don’t think they’d support or feel the need for what you’re calling a “sledgehammer” approach, but you need to understand the real frustration they’ve felt on these issues.

So how can we facilitate these conversations?

Schneider: First, I’d like to point out that not all California superintendents support the Vergara case. Many superintendents see protections like permanent status or seniority as constraints. But many would argue that well-managed districts can identify ineffective teachers within two years—before permanent status is granted. And they do so using a wide range of tools at their disposal, including standardized test scores, though by no means only standardized test scores—which you’ve agreed with me would be a major misstep.

So what would make for more productive conversations? One model that I would point to is the work that took place in Denver several years ago. A new teacher salary plan—ProComp—was co-designed by the district and the union. And it was full of tradeoffs. No one had a clear win. Value-added, for instance, was included; but so were a whole range of other mechanisms for determining teacher pay—many of which teachers were quite happy about. Additionally, experienced teachers had the choice of opting in—and a lot of them chose not to—with the system taking effect for all new teachers.

Now, this wasn’t about issues like permanent status. But it could have been. In fact, Denver should have learned from its own lesson, since there’s now a major fight over a law called mutual consent, and both sides have retreated to their corners, as well as to the op-ed pages of the Denver Post.

In short, I think this starts with long-term planning, as well as with a recognition that unilateral action is a political non-starter.

Rhee: I think ProComp is an example and I’d say our contract in DC was another. Though it was a tough negotiation, at the end of the day we signed that contract together through the collective bargaining process.

But my question still stands. How do we create an effective and productive national dialogue to push on these issues that need to be “tweaked”?

Schneider: I think the solution is to begin discussing root causes.

Take teacher permanent status, for instance. Rather than fighting over whether or not it should exist—something that the unions are never going to yield on, and in my opinion shouldn’t yield on—we should be talking about why permanent status can be problematic.

First, it’s a problem because too many teachers are automatically granted permanent status after two years in the classroom, with only one or two administrator observations. Any teacher will tell you that’s nuts. One conversation we can have, then, is about creating truly comprehensive evaluation systems—systems that are supported by the unions. Measures like VAM can be a tiny part of those systems, I suppose. But VAM is popular precisely because policymakers don’t want to deal with the real problem, which is that providing meaningful feedback and addressing growth areas is hard work. You need high-capacity personnel for that. And that means training administrators and creating time for them to engage in this process. That’s neither easy nor cheap. It’s a lot simpler to let a computer crunch the numbers. And while I know you think a lot more of VAM than I do, I know you agree with me that such decisions should never be left to an algorithm.

Building administrator capacity to conduct evaluations is the first half of a response to this problem. The other half is creating flexibility around the permanent status clock. Currently, if a district is uncertain about a teacher, they’ll often err on the side of keeping them. After all, the alternative is getting rid of someone who might actually keep improving. One appropriate response, then, is to extend the probationary period by adding another year to the clock. I don’t think the unions would go for an across-the-board extension to three years; but they might be very willing to sit down and talk about flexibility.

Getting down to root causes does two things. First, it allows us to actually begin solving problems. And second, it makes it harder to pretend that policy efforts are about one thing when they’re really about another.

Rhee: I actually agree with much of what you’ve said above, particularly about the need for better evaluation systems. We disagree on what percentage of an evaluation should be based on student achievement growth. But where do we go from there? I’d say that’s the hard part. There are districts across the country right now who could engage in the dialogue because they’re using varying percentages. Instead of disparaging some as anti-teacher and others as “too soft,” then, perhaps we can hold our opinions and say that there’s value in trying a number of models and doing a good analysis on the back end. I think this could be important. Because for as much as there’s a lot of complaining in some circles about the new evaluation systems, the one in DC shows real promise.

Schneider: There is value in trying a number of models. But the key here is that those models of evaluation need to actually differ from each other. That means going way beyond tinkering with different percentages in VAM models. It fact, it means trying new evaluation systems where VAM doesn’t play any role at all.

As I’ve said before, I’m much more interested in figuring out how to build capacity so that experts can get in classrooms and exercise truly professional judgment. I think anything else is a shortcut.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric 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.