Are unions blocking school reform?

The issue of school reform has been heavily debated in recent months.
The issue of school reform has been heavily debated in recent months.

In a new film called Waiting for Superman, there is a scene in which hidden-camera video shows a teacher reading a newspaper and looking at his watch while his students fool around. Another scene shows slow-motion footage of teacher union leaders giving speeches opposing school reform.

Directed by the same filmmaker who made An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary could do for public education what the latter did for global warming, some observers say: Push the issue into the national consciousness as a dire problem in need of fixing.

Superman investigates student achievement, teacher quality, and assessment as it attempts to explain why U.S. students are falling behind their peers from other industrialized countries on international benchmark exams. But in exploring the troubles of American public education, the film ends up pointing to one culprit above all others, those who have seen it say: teacher unions, which are portrayed as blocking much-needed reform.

It’s the latest in a string of union criticism that has only intensified recently.

Last year, Hoover Institute affiliates and education reform proponents Terry Moe and John Chubb released a book called Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education, which explored technology’s potential to revolutionize education through online learning. The book argues that unions are hampering this potential progress to protect their members.

And some local union chapters have come under fire for their hesitation or refusal to sign onto districts’ Race to the Top applications. Created with federal stimulus funds, this $4.35 billion competitive grant program awards money to states based on how their school-reform plans align with the Obama administration’s goals, which promote charter schools and using student achievement data to influence classroom instruction and teacher pay.

But how much of the criticism is really justified?

The issue is not a simple one. Critics say unions hold too much political power and block important reforms out of self-preservation, putting their members’ interests ahead of students. Others say unions support many reforms but have valid concerns over how those ideas are implemented.

Paul Heckman, associate dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, said teachers have come to represent both the unit of change and the unit of blame in education.

“Children are educated and learn over a period of time, but we have this notion that children are to make a year’s growth for every year they’re in school,” Heckman said. “This is … a problem, because children do not develop in nine-month chunks except during gestation.”

It’s much easier to put the blame on teachers, Heckman said, than it is to suggest that a school’s entire structure plays a role in student success. That’s not to say unions are blameless, he said–but reformers should spend more time re-evaluating education as a whole, and how schools can better support and encourage high-quality teaching.

“Teachers work alone, and they have infrequent opportunities during the workday to come together, talk about what they’re doing, and find out that other people are struggling or succeeding,” Heckman said. “They don’t [have a chance to] share what they’re doing, or challenge what they’re doing.”

Heckman sees stagnant results by U.S. students on international exams as a systemic failure, suggesting that U.S. schools aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping up with the times.

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.

“Teachers must be treated as partners in reform, with a real voice,” she added.

Race to the Top resistance

New York’s state legislature recently failed to pass a bill that would increase the state’s cap on charter schools from 200 to 460, but Gov. David Paterson earlier this month said he would try again in revisions to his proposed budget or as a separate bill.

The move would improve New York’s chances of getting $500 to $700 million in the Race to the Top competition, supporters say.

State union leaders opposed both the charter school bill and a separate proposal to link a teacher’s job evaluation to student performance.

The latter proposal, which failed to pass in December, would have revised state standardized tests so they more closely tracked student performance on national tests, linked a teacher’s job evaluation to student performance under the improved tests, and provided options to close the worst schools, fire the principal and half the teachers, and hire an outside management firm.

The proposal drew quick support from frequent critics of education policy in New York, but concern from the New York State United Teachers Union (NYSUT), a top lobbyist and campaign contributor with strong support in the legislature.

Maria Neira, vice president of the union, said NYSUT insists that the states’ standardized tests be improved and curriculums be aligned with the new tests’ standards before teachers accept student performance as a factor in teacher evaluations.

Neira also warned that the cap in charter schools shouldn’t be lifted until the charter school system is fully evaluated. She said new charter schools should only be allowed if there is no financial cost to the nearby traditional public school.

“Conceptually we have agreement in many of the areas, but we do have some concerns,” she said.

The California Teachers Association (CTA), which represents 340,000 public school teachers, has similar concerns about bills signed last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would improve California’s chances for Race to the Top funding.

The laws give parents and school administrators new clout to make major changes in the lowest-performing schools–including converting them to charter schools and firing teachers.

The new laws also say teachers’ pay should be linked to their students’ test scores, a concept the unions have fought, saying teachers would be punished for working with students who have learning disabilities or speak little English.

But the laws don’t require linking teacher pay and student performance.

“What districts and the state education agencies ultimately do on teacher pay and teacher evaluation is going to be affected by local bargaining agreements,” said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “The reality is the union will be in a very strong position.”

The CTA is using its position to urge local chapters not to sign on in support of California’s application to the federal government for Race to the Top funds.

California’s share of the money could be up to $700 million–a small fraction of what the state spends annually on public schools, but a noteworthy sum in a tough budget year.

The bills California approved were a big step toward applying for the money. But the application asks states to show how many local teachers unions support the changes.

“It’s not going to be helpful if we have minimal union support, and we could end up losing Race to the Top because of that issue,” Rick Miller, the state’s deputy superintendent, said in a phone call with school district administrators.

CTA President David Sanchez said he’s urging local union chapters not to sign memorandums of understanding on Race to the Top because the state hasn’t provided enough detail on what its application will say.

“It’s crazy for them to think that we were going to go out on a limb and sign something off without knowing what the final product is going to look like,” Sanchez said.

Miller disagrees. He said the state has made public all the information teachers should need to sign on.

Even if the unions stop California from getting the federal funds, the state’s new laws on overhauling low-performing schools remain in effect.

In December, United Teachers of Los Angeles sued the Los Angeles Unified School District over a plan to allow a new campus to be run as a charter school. The suit maintained that the district violated state law by not allowing teachers to vote on whether a school built to relieve crowding at a chronically overcrowded high school should be a charter. The new school is among 24 set to open in September, and school officials have proposed handing the new schools over to charter operators.

Union support for reform

Despite opposition in states such as New York and California, many state union chapters support Race to the Top efforts.

On Jan. 18, the Rhode Island American Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, one of the two statewide teachers unions, and the Providence Teachers Union, announced their support for the state’s proposal.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri said his state’s Race to the Top application will reflect the state’s commitment to education reform, student achievement, expanding charter schools, and educator excellence.

The state’s application included plans to develop a model to measure and use student growth as the primary component in determining teacher and principal effectiveness, and using evaluations to improve professional development opportunities and create incentives for highly effective educators, as well as using evaluations to provide information to support decisions on educators’ renewal, tenure, and dismissal.

Thirty-three of 36 school districts, and all charter schools and state-operated schools, signed on as participating districts.

Fifty-nine of Florida’s 67 school districts committed to that state’s Race to the Top application, and five local teacher unions–representing Duval, Hamilton, Hillsborough, Jefferson, and Sarasota counties–signed a memorandum expressing their intent to work with local education leaders to improve teaching and learning.

Eric J. Smith, Florida’s education commissioner, said he hoped that if Florida wins Race to the Top funds, more local unions will sign on.

The NEA Foundation received a $358,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation create the Institute for Local Innovation in Teaching and Learning, which will help stimulate collaboration and reform between education unions and their school districts.

The three-year process will focus on changes in collective bargaining agreements and new methods for measuring student learning.

NEA Foundation representatives said they hope the institute’s model will become a replicable process.

Thirty potential unions and partner school districts will be identified as a next step.

NEA Foundation President and CEO Harriet Sanford said some local unions already have put the idea into practice by collaborating with districts on creating performance evaluations and new induction and professional development models.

Sanford said the plan is a reflection of a “growing movement among education unions that are seeking to reposition their locals to engage in innovative reform in partnership with their school districts.”

“So many of our union leaders, particularly entities involved in the Teachers Union Reform Network [TURN], have been working in isolation to address the complex issues relating to improving student achievement,” said Mary McDonald, core service director for the Consortium for Educational Change, a TURN member, and a planning partner.

“Union leaders have been searching for help and support as they tackle the tough work in their local communities of improving teacher appraisal systems, teacher effectiveness, attracting and retaining teachers, and removing time-honored policies and practices that impede schools from implementing a change agenda,” said McDonald.

“The NEA Foundation’s Institute for Local Innovation in Teaching and Learning will provide an opportunity for local leaders to address these challenges together–learning from and building upon each other’s efforts to improve our teaching profession in every community.”

One example of success

Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, pointed to Denver’s ProComp system, a teacher compensation system that has received national attention, as an example of how unions and school systems can come together to effect real change.

Designed in a partnership between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools, ProComp links teacher pay to the district’s instructional objectives.

Of teachers who taught math, reading, or writing in grades 4-10, 365 received an incentive for exceeding expectations on student growth on Colorado’s state test in spring 2009. Teachers receive the incentive when at least half of the eligible students in their class reach the 55th or higher percentile for statewide student growth.

Denver’s state score gains have outpaced or met those of the rest of the state in all four core content areas, and in 2009 Denver marked its fourth consecutive year of gains and the fourth consecutive year that Denver’s gains have been greater than the gains made by the rest of the state.

In an October 2009 blog post, Cuban said political and education leaders cannot place the blame on teachers and then expect those same teachers to turn around and work endlessly to correct the wrongs in public education.

“Over 3.5 million teachers do the daily work of teaching; they teach reading, wipe noses, find lost backpacks, write recommendations, and grade tests,” the blog post says. “No online courses, charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, or any other star-crossed idea that business-driven, entrepreneurial reformers design will replace them. So blaming and shaming teachers into working harder is no recipe for improved student learning.”

Teachers do need both prodding and support, Cuban wrote. They receive enough prodding, but school leaders fall short of giving teachers the support they need.

“De-escalating the virulent rhetoric about unions and incompetent teachers would be a reasonable first step,” he wrote. “Respect for teachers, never high in the U.S. to begin with, has unraveled even further with constant bashing. But hard as it [is] to ratchet down the noise level does not mean it is impossible.”

School-reform proponents should not feed into “critics’ obsessive concentration on unions and the small number of incompetent teachers,” he wrote. Instead, they should “focus on the structures that keep even mediocre teachers from improving.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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