Texas Teachers' Unions Assail Chief's 'Gag Order'

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Teachers' associations in Texas are hopping mad after being barred from discussions of a new statewide system for appraising teachers' job performance.

Although union representatives are still welcome at meetings of an advisory committee on teacher evaluations, Commissioner of Education Mike Moses has asked them to hold their tongues.

The Texas State Teachers Association says teachers have effectively been told to "sit down and shut up." Leaders of the Texas Federation of Teachers are no happier.

"This is really childish behavior," said John P. O'Sullivan, the president of the TFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Teachers' associations aren't the only groups whose representatives have been told to keep mum and let the official committee members do the work. In April, Mr. Moses wrote to all 12 of the education organizations whose representatives had been allowed to take part in meetings of the advisory committee, asking that they hold their comments.

His action, the commissioner said, came after some of the 15 advisory-committee members complained that their meetings were dominated by the people from the professional organizations.

"They were monopolizing the conversation," Mr. Moses said. "Basically, they were there to answer questions, but they in fact carried on a lot of dialogue."

Panel 'Refocused'

Teachers' union officials argue that they should be intimately involved in creating a new appraisal system since teachers will be directly affected by it. Districts can adopt the new system to use in evaluating and managing teachers, or they can develop their own appraisal processes.

Richard Kouri, the president of the TSTA, said his organization has supported changing the state's current evaluation system--a checklist completed by principals that was used to place teachers on the state's now-defunct career ladder.

Two years ago, the association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, co-sponsored a conference with the Texas Education Agency that brought some of the best minds in teacher evaluation to Texas. The agency began work on an evaluation system it calls "teacherspeak" that would require teachers to analyze their own practice and their students' work and to write commentaries about their teaching.

Then last year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1, which dramatically restructured the state education laws and the state's governance system. The new law gave the education commissioner--rather than the state school board--the responsibility for creating a new teacher-evaluation system.

Mr. Moses chose to keep the advisory committee he inherited. But he said the group had little to show for its work and needed to be "refocused."

The commissioner rejected assertions by the teachers' associations of an anti-teacher mentality. He noted that he hails from a long line of educators.

"When an instrument is developed that we are about to put a seal of approval on, I will be happy to hear any and all suggestions for modifications, additions, deletions, and edits," Mr. Moses said in an interview. "I will take any testimony of any organization."

Whether that new system will be based on the "teacherspeak" model, which is now being piloted in some Texas school districts, is unclear. Mr. Moses said he believes the assessments require too much writing and should be modified.

Now, teachers' organizations fear that the advisory committee will be used as a rubber stamp for whatever strategy is favored by Mr. Moses, a former superintendent in Lubbock, Texas.

After the commissioner informed the professional organizations of his decision to limit their participation, members of the advisory committee voted 10-5 to ask him to reconsider, said Mr. O'Sullivan of the TFT, one of the nonvoting "resource participants."

The commissioner declined.

Charge of Paternalism

Mary Jo O'Rear, a high school geography teacher in Corpus Christi and an advisory-committee member, said she was angered by Mr. Moses' actions.

"This is my 30th year teaching, and it was like things were when I first started--paternalistic," she said. "It's important to have other people who could point out things."

Not all of the silenced professional organizations share views of the teachers' groups, however.

Jane Backus, the director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said she had "no problem at all" with not speaking at the meetings. Leaders of her group meet regularly with Mr. Moses.

Under the new law, "his only obligation is to get some input from teachers," she said. "It's not specified how much."

Vol. 15, Issue 38

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