Commentary | Education

Unions not an important impediment to removing ineffective teachers

This commentary was originally posted at the National Journal web site.

Response posted on January 21, 2010 10:30 AM
Ball Now in the Other Court
Richard Rothstein
Research Associate, Economic Policy Institute

Randi Weingarten has announced that she will press her union’s locals to agree to contracts that include systems for fair and balanced evaluation of teacher performance (including, but not limited to measures of student achievement); and for the speedy removal of ineffective teachers, with simplified due process rules, when appropriate support fails to correct inadequacy.

Indeed, the AFT president may encourage local unions to proactively propose such procedures, even where school administrators fail to do so. The speech has the potential to shift our debate about responsibility for raising student achievement, calling the bluff of those who claim that union protection of poor teachers is mostly what retards student learning.

Yet some are making too much of this speech. Although it is conventional to blame unions for protecting ineffective teachers, the union does not unilaterally impose teacher discipline rules. Every teacher contract negotiation requires agreement between school district administration and a union. From the commentary on Ms. Weingarten’s speech, you’d think that school superintendents have been proposing fair and balanced teacher evaluation systems, with expedited due process disciplinary procedures, and teacher unions have been refusing to agree. This is far from the truth. There is no case where a school superintendent has proposed a teacher evaluation and discipline system of the kind Weingarten described in her speech, and where a union then refused to go along.

And if a union had, initially, balked? The reality of collective bargaining is this: administrations have the right to propose such systems, and to impose them if, after bargaining, a union continues to resist. At that point, the union’s only option is to strike (where public employee strikes are legal) or to beg for further discussion or mediation. In the absence of eventual agreement, management has the right to impose its proposal without union consent. It is impossible to imagine a realistic situation where a fair and balanced evaluation system, with due process protections, would be a strike issue for any local teachers union. Unions strike if salaries lag far behind inflation, if pensions are cut, if health insurance coverage is slashed. When adequate compensation is in place, unions don’t strike (and haven’t) to resist fair and balanced evaluation with due process protection.

In contrast, strikes over grossly unfair teacher termination policies remain likely – recall the United Federation of Teachers strike in 1968 over arbitrary dismissals in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Recently, when the New Haven school administration proposed a system that takes small steps toward the kinds of procedures endorsed in the Weingarten speech, the AFT was a willing and enthusiastic partner.

Of course, some local union leaders today stupidly adopt a posture of resistance even to reasonable teacher evaluation proposals. But it is only a posture. They have no choice but to go along with such proposals if, in bargaining, management insists.

So why, then, don’t we have fair and balanced evaluation of teachers with simplified due process rules for the removal of those who are persistently ineffective? Only because school district administrations do not propose such systems. No speech by Randi Weingarten can change this reality.

Administrations don’t propose such systems mostly because they are very, very expensive. Evaluation of teachers, including the mentoring of novices and of veterans in need of improvement, requires the employment of many additional supervisors of teachers. Call them master- or mentor-teachers, not supervisors, if you wish. The cost implications are the same. Schools today are under-administered. Frequently, one principal supervises as many as 30 teachers. No principal can evaluate and mentor this many. In addition to teacher evaluation, principals are handling curriculum, scheduling, student discipline, parent and community relations, and supervision of buildings and grounds. Lately, in our enthusiasm for administrative decentralization, we’ve added budgeting and purchase of supplies to her load. Even with the addition of an assistant principal, the challenge is impossible. The reason we have such terrible “drive-by” teacher evaluation systems, with principals taking perfunctory peeks into classrooms, is that principals have no time (or training) to do it right.

No other profession operates with such inadequate supervision. Can you imagine a nursing supervisor overseeing 30 nurses? A newspaper editor overseeing 30 reporters? A law firm partner overseeing 30 associates? Even an assembly line can’t rely on only one foreman for 30 workers. Management theorists recommend that no leader should have more than 5 direct-reports. The failure of public education to organize itself around this common-sense principle is the roadblock to fair and balanced evaluation. Blaming teacher unions for this failure is demagoguery.

If, as Randi Weingarten supports, we were to simplify teacher discipline rules to make it easier to terminate an ineffective teacher, there are two core elements of due process that must be retained. First, a principal must be able to demonstrate to a hearing officer that the teacher’s weaknesses had been identified, that the teacher had been notified of those weaknesses, and that the teacher had been given the opportunity (with appropriate mentoring, if necessary) to correct them. Second, a principal must be able to demonstrate that other, similarly-situated teachers, were treated similarly: the principal wasn’t using the weakness as a pretext for arbitrary discipline while other teachers with similar weaknesses were ignored. Meeting both of these conditions requires an intensity of oversight and observation of instruction that is impossible to achieve with existing supervisory ratios, except in the most extreme cases of gross incompetence.

Teacher unions will continue to resist proposals that fail to meet these requirements – such as those that evaluate teachers primarily by their students’ standardized test scores – and nothing in Ms. Weingarten’s speech suggests otherwise.

There are some districts today where teacher unions influence, even control, administration policies because of union members’ participation in low-turnout school board elections. In such cases, unions may, in effect, be bargaining with themselves, and administrations may never be able to insist upon reasonable and simplified due process rules. But such circumstances are rare, and do not characterize big-city school systems, especially those where mayors appoint school boards or administrators. In these districts, the question we should be asking is not, “what would the union say if the chancellor proposed and insisted upon a fair and balanced evaluation system,” but “why hasn’t he?” And if he did, are we prepared to provide the funds for all those additional teacher supervisors and mentor teachers an effective system would require?

(Note: Randi Weingarten serves on the Board of Directors of the Economic Policy Institute, where I am a Research Associate, and the American Federation of Teachers has made financial contributions to EPI. Neither Ms. Weingarten nor anyone at the AFT has seen this post in advance, nor did she or anyone at the AFT approve its contents. This post represents my views alone and is not necessarily consistent with the views of Ms. Weingarten or the American Federation of Teachers — Richard Rothstein)

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