School & District Management Commentary

Union Bashing Won’t Reform Our Schools

By Jennifer Goldstein — March 06, 2009 5 min read

Educational and political leaders alike have been lining up to praise the efforts of District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to significantly alter the rules governing tenure for teachers in Washington. The fanfare surrounding her proposal to let schools fire tenured teachers under certain circumstances reflects a tone growing more pervasive among those who seek to reform public education. At its core is the belief that it is somehow not possible to be proudly pro-teacher and also vehemently pro-student. This tone, and its related approach to school improvement, is misguided.

The fact is that many American school districts and their local teachers’ unions have formed a symbiotic partnership in mediocrity. To single out one side of the equation (teachers’ unions and their support for tenure) as the cause of the problem is to fail to recognize the role school administrators have played.

Let me be clear: Teachers who are not adequately serving children, and who do not improve when provided with support, need to be removed from teaching, and quickly. But in our woefully outdated and ineffective supervisory model for schools, administrators, not unions, hire teachers, and they, not the unions, are formally responsible for quality control.

Chancellor Rhee reportedly seeks to dismiss tenured teachers by training principals to manage a rarely used procedure that allows them to identify teachers for a 90-day mandatory improvement plan. Those teachers who failed to demonstrate progress during that time could face dismissal. In other words, the Washington district is training its principals to do their jobs—highlighting the fact that tenure does not and is not intended to guarantee a permanent job to teachers.

What tenure does do, however, is prevent firing without due process. In teachers’ first few years (usually the first two to three, depending on the district), it is easy for a principal to remove them from their positions. Once tenure is granted, however, the school district (via the principal) must have cause, documenting problems in a teacher’s performance to make a case for dismissal.

In our woefully outdated and ineffective supervisory model for schools, administrators, not unions, hire teachers, and they, not the unions, are formally responsible for quality control.

Tenure was developed to protect teachers against arbitrary dismissal for non-job-related reasons, such as protesting a war despite a principal’s support for it, not donating to a particular political campaign, or holding a position some school board member wants to give his niece. Ideologically, politically, and personally tainted personnel decisions still go on in districts across the country. Are those who enthusiastically call for an end to tenure really proposing that principals be able to fire teachers without cause?

To be sure, many teachers’ unions have made it extraordinarily difficult for districts to remove teachers. In Washington, union officials have promised to help teachers use all procedures available to protect their jobs. Clearly, this is not useful (and many progressive union leaders have decried this tendency). At the same time, school principals have often abdicated their responsibility to observe and document teaching practice in their buildings, resulting in insufficient data to support a dismissal.

In fairness, supervision of teachers is only one of principals’ often-overwhelming responsibilities, and we should not blame them for the nation’s failure to ensure a high-quality teacher for every child. But to blame teachers, their unions, and the practice of tenure is to grossly oversimplify the matter. It is also a profound insult to the many teachers nationwide who go to work every day dedicated to improving the lives of children, and who do so effectively with very little external reward.

So how should a dedicated superintendent approach the issue of raising the quality of teaching in his or her school district? To begin with, adversarial relationships between adults do not serve children. As Michelle Rhee has been quoted as saying, “Students cannot wait for accountable teachers while adults argue.” Precisely. Rather than take adversarial positions—the district against the union, and vice versa—superintendents and teachers’ union presidents need to draw on collaborative models of labor relations by design. To clean house, they should work together to identify underperforming teachers, provide them opportunities to improve, and remove them from classrooms when necessary.

Among the tools for doing so is peer assistance and review, which I have studied for many years. Under such programs, designated coaches—teachers identified for their excellence and released from classroom duties full time for from two to three years—provide mentoring to new teachers, support to veteran teachers identified as underperforming, and personnel evaluations of both groups. These coaches are not based at one school site, but rather work across multiple schools, and they report to an oversight panel composed of teachers and administrators from across the district.

For a variety of reasons, peer assistance and review results in dismissal rates significantly higher than those stemming from traditional teacher evaluation by a principal (while also supporting the retention of strong beginning teachers). Coaches have far more time to devote to instructional support and evaluation, which allows for ongoing observations of classroom practices and standards-based assessments of teachers. These in turn produce more data on which to base evaluations. More time also generates more confidence that a teacher not meeting standards was given an opportunity and means to improve. Moreover, coaches do not conduct evaluations in isolation, as principals do, but are supported and held accountable by the oversight panel. Perhaps most significantly, teachers’ union presidents and district administrators co-chair these panels, and become partners in defending the quality of teaching—not the jobs of individual underperforming teachers.

District administrators attack teachers at the peril of their reform goals. No instructional reform can succeed if those who actually do the work—the teachers—do not support it and feel supported. Meanwhile, teachers’ unions must also reform themselves, and work with districts to do the proactive groundwork of identifying, supporting, and when necessary removing underperforming teachers in the first place.

Good, intelligent people can agree on a goal—high-quality teachers for all children—while disagreeing on the best methods for getting there. Let’s be adults—Obama-esque, if you will. Both parties, administrators and teachers’ unions, contributed to the mess. Let’s stop the finger-pointing and start cleaning it up together.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Union Bashing Won’t Reform Our Schools


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