Teachers Union Politics Threatens to Compromise Student Learning (Again)September 30th, 2011
By B. Jason Brooks
New York’s new teacher evaluation plan, adopted as part of its federally-supported Race to the Top program, has received attention recently due to the teachers union’s ongoing attempt to block the plan from being implemented because of the degree the plan relies on student-achievement data. What is just now being realized, however, is how difficult local units of the union can be to school districts that are following state law and putting into place an evaluation process for English language arts and math teachers.
The inclusion of student outcomes as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations is a significant step forward. The state teachers union, NYSUT, had successfully lobbied for a law that explicitly forbid the practice; it was only after state education officials used the lure of a potential $700 million federal grant – and a loss in Round 1 of the federal grant cycle without reform – did the union agree to change the law.
Under the new evaluation plan, student test results on state exams will be considered for 20 percent of teacher and principal evaluations and an additional 20 percent will be made up of other “locally-selected measures of student achievement that are determined to be rigorous and comparable across classrooms.” According to the State Education Department (here), the results of the new teacher and principal evaluations are “required to be a significant factor in employment decisions such as promotion, retention, tenure determinations, termination, and supplemental compensation, as well as a significant factor in teacher and principal professional development.”
As the Oswego Palladium Times does a good job of reporting here, upstate New York’s Oswego City School District is doing a dutiful job of moving forward. Filled with hope and optimism, “Superintendent Bill Crist introduced the topic of RTTT as ‘historic with profound changes,’ designed to revolutionize the current educational standard in New York state.” In other words, school districts are hoping the law will finally allow them to use objective measurements in evaluating teachers and principals, find help for those who are struggling, and dismiss those who fail to perform.
What stood out in the story was the issue rightly raised by board member Fran Hoefer who pushed back at the local teachers union’s insistence that teachers be pulled out of classrooms during their scheduled instructional time to receive the necessary training. According to the story, this training will require teachers to “be removed from their classrooms for roughly 10 percent of the teacher year,” resulting in students receiving a significant amount of their instruction – approximately three and a half weeks’ time in a 180-day school year – from less-effective substitute teachers. As Hoefer pointed out, “Don’t pull them out of class to teach them how to teach.” Rather, the staff development can and should be conducted “at other times, such as during non-instructional periods, after school hours, or on weekends.”
While the intentions of the new teacher evaluation program are good, when combined with the rigid work rules of local teachers union contracts, implementation is likely to face numerous obstacles from local unions more interested in playing politics and preserving their sacred half hour in the teachers lounge rather than doing what’s best for students.
Additionally, one has to wonder why the teachers union would push for relying so heavily on substitute teachers to deliver a significant amount of instruction when 40 percent of the evaluations of the regular classroom teachers are going to be based on student outcomes. Oswego’s English and math teachers better have a lot of faith in the subs taking over their classrooms, because if the union has its way a significant amount of the evaluation will be based on content these teachers won’t be delivering.
In another instance, today’s Middletown Times Herald-Record reports here that the Warwick School District may resort to cutting classroom instruction time and dismissing kids early to complete the staff development since union contracts prohibit infringing on teachers free periods during the school day. One parent rightly recognized that the union policy is harming children, noting that, “That is something that in this day and age we just can’t afford if we hope to keep our kids on the path to higher education.”
Although state and local teaches union officials signed-off on the new evaluation program to help the state win its federal grant, the obstacles the union is now putting up leads one to question whether those agreements were made in good faith. The local teachers union’s actions will harm the quality of the education being provided to school children and will hinder the best measurement of classroom teacher performance.
But hey, at least teachers can still leave at 2:30 when the bell sounds at the end of the school day.
B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.