Are unions blocking school reform?

In most schools, he explained, teachers do 80 percent of the talking; adults ask the questions, instead of students asking and inquiring.

“The 21st century is calling for creativity and problem-solving. … Those are not the skills that are being urged on children, nor do we urge their engagement. I’m never surprised when we say that a lot of these kids aren’t doing well,” Heckman said.

Pay-for-performance at issue

Waiting for Superman estimates that, by 2020, the U.S. public education system will have produced just 50 million students capable of filling more than 120 million jobs.

Critics of unions cite their support for tenure and their resistance to basing compensation on teacher effectiveness as key factors that are blocking educational progress. The film highlights Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s efforts to reward excellent teachers through a pay-scale adjustment, and the local union’s attempts to block that effort.

Unions object to such approaches largely because they would define teacher quality too narrowly, based on results that–to some extent–are beyond a teacher’s control. (See “Teacher quality under the microscope.”)

In looking at student achievement, it’s important to consider not only a child’s school or classroom experience, but also his or her home life and socioeconomic status, Heckman said. Children are learning all the time, but much of their out-of-school experience is discounted when they step into the classroom.

“We don’t account for background knowledge and resources,” he said, especially when it comes to economically disadvantaged children.

Children spend 13 percent of their life from ages 5 to 18 in school. They sleep 33 percent of the time. But that leaves 54 percent of a child’s time outside of school–time when the learning gaps widen between students who have different opportunities for enrichment.

That’s a key reason unions are wary of attempts to tie teacher evaluation to student achievement data.

In a Jan. 12 speech, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten acknowledged the need for broad reforms, but she cautioned that schools need a better model for strengthening teacher development and evaluation.

“In a global knowledge economy, filling in the bubbles on a standardized test isn’t going to prepare our children to succeed in life,” she said. “If we are going to thrive in the 21st century, our entire approach to education must change–from what goes on in the classroom, to how we care for children’s well-being, to how labor and management work together.”

Weingarten said improving schools, ensuring high-quality teaching, and raising student achievement takes a much more comprehensive approach than merely doing away with “bad teachers.”

“The problem with the so-called ‘bad teacher’ refrain isn’t just that it’s too harsh or too unforgiving, or that it obscures the fact that ineffective teachers are far outnumbered by their effective peers. The problem is that it’s too limited. It fails to recognize that we face a systems problem,” she said.

Weingarten said a comprehensive and robust evaluation system is a necessary predicate for developing high-quality teachers–and for a fair, expedient process to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. An effective teacher development and evaluation system “is essential for a fair and efficient due-process system,” she said.

Rigorous, periodic reviews, conducted by trained experts and peer evaluators and principals, would help lift whole schools and systems, she said: They would help promising teachers improve, enable good teachers to become great, and identify those teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom at all.

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Laura Ascione

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