It’s time for teachers unions to lead

By Jennifer Jennings
August 24, 2011

By Jennifer Jennings
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Jennings’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein, Deborah Meier, Alex Kotlowitz and Diane Ravitch as well.

Here’s a thought experiment: if teachers unions disappeared tomorrow, how would American public education change? And would kids – especially poor kids – do better as a result?

Given the tastes of political actors on both sides of the aisle, my best guess is that a new education policy order would look something like this: Teachers would be at-will workers evaluated based on students’ standardized test scores and principals’ evaluations. Compensation would not be a function of experience or degrees, but of these evaluations. Pensions would be restructured to reduce costs and create disincentives to stay in the classroom to collect a payout after a specific number of years in the system. And teachers would not be tenured, but retained or fired based on periodic quantitative and qualitative evaluations.

This all sounds pretty good – the kind of policy prescriptions that sit nicely at the Thanksgiving dinner table with an uncle who prides himself on commonsense. But the folks who’ve punched the clock in the education policy trenches understand that these “first principles” statements mean nothing.

It’s in the mundane details that education policy succeeds or fails. The footnote at the bottom of page 50 in the manual describing the estimation of teacher value-added measures may seem unimportant, but these “minor details” may be what matters most.

That is why Steve Brill’s argument reads more to me like a campaign speech than a blueprint for reform. Take reforming teacher evaluation, on which Brill writes, “Can there really be a debate about whether their performance should be measured and acted on?” This makes a mockery of the very real – and very complicated – decisions and tradeoffs that we need to make in designing evaluation systems.

For example, my colleagues Sean Corcoran, Andrew Beveridge, and I have found that which teachers you choose to reward or punish is largely dependent on your choice of outcome. We found that half of the “high-performing” teachers on high-stakes exams would not achieve the same rating on low-stakes audit exams. What’s more, gains on high-stakes state tests fade out much more quickly than gains on audit tests. These findings alone aren’t evidence of teaching to the test or inflated scores, but they are good reasons to worry about it.

Since these are the very gains used in back of the envelope calculations showing, as Brill writes in his book, that “truly effective teaching” can “overcome student indifference, parental disengagement and poverty,” it should also temper the predictions we make about whether highly effective teachers can close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

Moreover, as any parent knows, good teaching is about a lot more than increasing test scores. It’s also about shaping our kids into the kinds of people we want to live and work with. We often assume that a “good teacher” is equally effective at promoting all outcomes of schooling, even in the absence of evidence to support that point. When my colleague Tom DiPrete and I took up this question directly, what we found surprised us. Elementary school teachers who are good at improving students’ standardized test performance are not usually the same teachers who are most effective at improving kids’ non-academic skills like task persistence and interpersonal skills.  Again, which outcome we pick fundamentally changes which teachers we identify as high or low-performing.

Given concerns about teaching to the test that improves scores without improving learning more generally, as well as widespread disagreement about which goals of schooling are the most important to promote, we need to iron out these details before we start racing at 150 miles an hour on the education reform autobahn. We also need to know where all these high performing teachers are going to come from when we fire the “bad” ones.  With 3.3 million teachers in the country, getting rid of even 10 percent of them means you need an awful lot of talented bodies to take their place. Figuring out who will replace them is neither straightforward nor simple, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.

What so many education pundits seem to forget is that “reform” can make the world worse as well as better.  And because many policymakers have no qualms about treating poor kids like guinea pigs in the education reform wars, those are the kids most likely to suffer when we make bad education policy.

If the last decade of education reform has taught me nothing else, it’s that politicians are too busy chasing the next vote or donation to represent kids’ long-term interests.  They have a dog in the race as much as the unions do, and they love to blame the teachers’ union boogeyman for mucking up our education system.

If teachers unions went away tomorrow, poor kids’ outcomes probably would not change much either way. There is a formidable body of research showing that students’ test scores are largely determined by out-of-school factors, and no credible research shows that unions are the problem. But eliminating teachers unions would certainly open the door for politicians to implement faddish reforms that are unlikely to help kids.

Where I do agree with Brill is that teachers’ unions haven’t stepped up to the plate and offered a coherent critique of current education policy. Nor have they given us something to put in its place. It’s true that when you’re backed into a corner, as the unions have been, marching forward is no small feat. Teachers unions have been clobbered in the public sphere in recent years and have spent most of their time responding to the limitless supply of silver bullet ideas aimed at them.  That has made it much harder to articulate and advance an education reform agenda that would help the poor kids who need it the most.

But this is not an excuse for abdicating entirely. Teachers unions’ failure to propose a credible reform agenda that goes beyond “more of the same” (higher salaries and smaller classes) has left an enormous vacuum in moral and policy leadership, allowing simplistic school reform slogans to go viral.

What’s now clear, however, is that politicians will take the reins if unions don’t do it themselves. This is the moment for teachers unions to prove that they can be stewards of American public education. They need to put their hands in the mud, devise a better plan for improving teacher quality, and figure out how such a plan would work in practice.

That’s asking for a lot, but let’s hope they do it.

One comment

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While it is not an end all fix, improving teacher salaries and reducing class sizes are essential elements to improving the nation’s schools. Teaching is not seen as a desirable profession for top college grads to enter (other than the ones who want to do 2 years of TFA and then move on). If we want America’s teachers to be great teachers we should start with attracting great candidates to the profession.

Pretending that we do not know what a good education entails is disingenuous. Look at Sidwell Friends, or Philips Exeter/Andover. Look at the top schools in the country and you will find small class sizes (around 15 students). The wealthy elites of America know what type of education is best for their children. The same ideas should be brought to public education. We know what works.

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