Teaching Profession

UPDATED: On Weingarten, Houston, Test Scores, and Collaboration

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 25, 2010 2 min read
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A few people have written in urging me to write a bit about the situation in Houston over the district’s new criterion for dismissing teachers. The gist of it is that Houston Superintendent Terry Grier referenced Randi’s Big Speech to support a policy that would allow the dismissal of teachers with low value-added scores. (It is now one of 34 factors that could be used to dismiss teachers.) Weingarten responded with a letter accusing Grier of misrepresenting her words. Eduwonk and others called Weingarten’s bluff. And on the other side of things, Diane Ravitch lept to Randi’s defense.

There are several things going on here that should be parsed. (1) Grier promises that the Houston situation isn’t just about test scores but it’s difficult to figure out from this document how these 34 factors will relate to teacher dismissal. (2) Weingarten was insistent that any evaluation system that included consideration of test scores be coupled with documented support for teachers, i.e., peer review and mentoring. The document linked above says teachers will get remediation support, but it’s not clear whether those measures pass muster with the AFT. (There’s no peer review, for instance.) (3) Assume, now, what would have happened if Grier had addressed teacher support and multiple measures of performance more explicitly in his letter. Would he have earned the same rebuke from Weingarten? Good question, and it gets at the heart of what I think is take-away number (4), which is that whether you think Grier’s letter was willful misrepresentation, as Weingarten asserts, probably depends on where you stand politically on teacher unions. And finally there is (5), that no matter what Weingarten says nationally about evaluations, her affiliates have to get this done on the ground.

The folks over at AFT wrote in with some additional details. Regarding number 3 above, it looks like I got the timing wrong; Grier’s “Dear colleague” letter went out after Houston Federation of Teachers presented Randi’s statement at a board meeting. Also, regarding number 1 above, the union asserts that Grier said the value-added scores could be a stand-alone reason for dismissing a teacher. For the other side of things, including a comment from Harvin Moore, who sits on the Houston Board of Education, read some remarks in the comments of this Eduwonk blog item.

The bigger question this all raises for me is the whole union-management collaboration theme Weingarten has been talking about. Randi appears to be absolutely committed to the idea, but the definition of “collaboration” remains pretty vague. Take, for instance, the fact that Weingarten’s vision of collaboration appears to be deeply linked to collective bargaining, something many districts in Texas (including Houston) and right-to-work states don’t have. Can collaboration exist outside of a bargaining context? How would it work in Texas? Also, what about districts with meet-and-confer arrangements?

Ultimately, Weingarten and the AFT may have to be a bit more specific about what collaboration entails if they want others to believe that it can change the labor-management dynamic. Maybe her entreaties to some of the Washington groups (read the last three grafs here) to develop mechanisms and protocols for collaboration will yield concrete examples. Otherwise, though, the term remains subjective and slippery, and might even be viewed as a tactical ploy rather than a genuine plea for reform.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.