Teaching Profession

AFT Chief Vows to Revise Teacher-Dismissal Process

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 12, 2010 6 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

The president of the American Federation Teachers is putting the sensitive issue of due process on the education reform table, with a pledge to work with districts to streamline the often-cumbersome procedures for dismissing teachers who fail to improve their performance after receiving help and support.

She has also commissioned an independent expert to help revise due process for those teachers accused of misconduct.

“We recognize that too often due process can become glacial process,” Ms. Weingarten said this morning here at the National Press Club. “We intend to change that.”

The pledge—a formal acknowledgment by the AFT that due process, a hard-won labor right, could benefit from some revisions—comes with a caveat: Districts must agree to work with unions to devise fair, meaningful systems to evaluate teacher performance and to help ineffective teachers improve, as part of any plan to reform due-process procedures.

In the speech, Ms. Weingarten also reiterated that student test scores should be a part of evaluation systems, coupled with multiple other measures of teacher performance.

She took pains to say that her union’s membership supports the work, pointing to an internal survey conducted by the AFT showing that teachers, by a 4-to-1 ratio, said their union should put a higher priority on promoting good teaching than on defending the job rights of teachers facing disciplinary action.

The give-and-take flavor of the proposal, one of several outlined in the speech, underscored Ms. Weingarten’s broader theme of the necessity of labor-management collaboration and its place in education reform, a theme that is also coming to define her leadership of the 1.4 million-member union. Since assuming the AFT presidency in 2008, Ms. Weingarten has asserted that the collective bargaining process can serve as a vehicle for school improvement by giving educators a place to experiment with new ideas.

Last year, the AFT championed several examples of the principle, including contracts in New Haven, Conn., and Detroit that create joint labor-management panels for determining policy around evaluations and “turnaround” schools, and agreements with charter schools in New York City and Boston that take new approaches to pay and working hours.

Critics note that not all of her attempts at collaboration have proved successful. Contract negotiations in Washington have languished for nearly two years and are now in mediation, despite attempts by the AFT to reach a compromise with Michelle Rhee, the District of Columbia schools chancellor.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed support for her ideas.

“I give Randi great credit for publicly sharing data showing that her members are more interested in professional stature than job security,” he said. “Randi is really showing courage by raising these issues.”

Evaluations a Focus

The speech marked Ms. Weingarten’s most elaborate vision to date of what a good teacher-evaluation system might look like. She presented a framework based on feedback from union leaders and teacher-quality researchers, in which evaluations would be based on a clear set of performance standards. Such an evaluation system should include “implementation benchmarks,” Ms. Weingarten said, to assure that administrators charged with overseeing the system follow through on their duties and provide tools and assistance so teachers can improve.

Teachers, she said, should be judged on a variety of measures, including classroom observations by peer evaluators and administrators, self-evaluations, appraisals of lesson plans, and reviews of student work, in addition to student test scores.

The discussion of test scores struck a timely note. Ms. Weingarten has previously expressed openness to using test scores as one component of evaluations, and her union has even supported several local affiliates’ plans to incorporate scores through its $3.3 million Innovation Fund, but the issue remains a thorny one for many unions. (“Two State Unions Balking at ‘Race to Top’ Plans,” January 6, 2010.)

Most recently, it has been a subtext in several state unions’ hesitation to endorse state plans for $4 billion in competitive grants to be awarded under the federal Race to the Top program. Among those unions are AFT affiliates in Florida and Minnesota.

The program gives an advantage to plans that would tie teacher evaluation, promotion, and compensation in part to student achievement.

Ms. Weingarten elaborated on the issue of scores by stating that those included in teacher evaluation should measure the growth of the same students over the course of the year, not compare successive classes of different students.

She said that a model evaluation system could be used to link tenure, employment decisions, and due process. But she did not refer to the issue of pay, one of the elements in the Race to the Top competition.

Due-Process Revisions

Ms. Weingarten added that the AFT will work to align due process, a protection afforded to teachers who attain tenured status, to the new evaluations once they are firmly in place.

Due process requires districts to present evidence of incompetence in order to dismiss a teacher, and it gives teachers the right to appeal such decisions. Critics argue that, in practice, the process is so time-consuming and costly that few administrators attempt to pursue it, thus leaving many poorly performing teachers in the classroom.

For those educators accused of misconduct or malfeasance, the union said it will tap Kenneth Feinberg, who served as special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and is currently the special master for executive compensation for the federal Troubled Assets Relief Program, to lead due-process revisions.

Ms. Weingarten did not elaborate on whether an overhaul of due process might make it easier to dismiss teachers or merely allow adjudication of more cases in a timely fashion.

Still, her discussion of due process drew support from observers, even those who have been critical of teachers’ unions.

“Although I don’t think that it is a practical idea to premise a high-quality teacher force on firing, I also think a high-quality teacher force cannot be achieved without that particular tool in the arsenal,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research group. “The laws that all states have on the books regarding teacher dismissals make it just too costly and time consuming to fire a teacher for merely being weak. Good for Randi Weingarten and the AFT for recognizing that fact.”

Ms. Weingarten also outlined plans to engage a variety of educators in building better labor-management relations that would be based on trust and common goals. In many instances, the federal Race to the Top program, she contended, has exposed “fault lines” in relationships between unions and management rather than fostering collaboration.

She said she has approached the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the American Association of School Administrators, among others, to design a mechanism to improve relationships between districts and teacher representatives.

“We must transform our mutual responsibility into mutual commitment. Our relationship should be a constant conversation that begins before and continues long after we meet at the bargaining table,” Ms. Weingarten said. “So much of what is bargained is an attempt to codify behavior that, in a trusting relationship, would never need to be codified.”

Mark Simon, a former union leader in Montgomery County, Md., said he viewed the focus on collaboration as a rebuttal to so-called reformers who paint teachers as the cause of poor education systems.

“I think Randi is trying to put an end to the conflict-ridden debates that underlie education reform,” said Mr. Simon, the head of the Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, a group that trains union leaders. “She is creating a picture of a path to dramatic improvements in the quality of the teaching force.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week

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