Like floods and tornadoes, the attacks on collective bargaining and the imposition of test-score-based teacher evaluations that have swept through states in the Midwest and South this year have not been seen in California. But the incoming president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association expects the state will not be immune for long.
“It’s only a matter of time before what I’ve been calling the ‘pseudo-reform movement’ that’s been sweeping the country is going to come right to us; because all the players are here, and the money’s here, and the argument has spread,” Dean Vogel said in a video interview (go here for transcript). “Both political parties are talking about the need for change.”
The CTA is ready for this, he said, and expects to be in the center of the debate over issues such as teacher evaluations. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Gov. Jerry Brown relied on the CTA’s support to get elected and that Democrats, traditionally allied with the CTA, are firmly in control of the Legislature.
Vogel, 64, the current CTA vice president and a 37-year elementary school teacher and counselor from Vacaville Unified, is politically astute and media savvy. Some young teachers I have spoken with are optimistic that he might be a flexible, different union leader, one who will listen to them and be open to change.
But if that’s to happen, they’ll have to become a lot more active themselves. In an interview last week,, preceding assuming his two-year term later this month, Vogel offered no distinction between his views and the current positions of the CTA. If there are differences, he’s not saying so. That’s not surprising, since Vogel will take his marching orders from the board of directors and the 800-member State Council of Education, which meets quarterly and takes positions on legislation.
Evaluations are an example. Vogel co-chaired a committee for the National Education Association that has proposed a seven-page policy on teacher evaluation and accountability that will be voted on by the NEA delegates at their convention this summer. It’s become controversial because it includes “valid, reliable high-quality standardized tests” among several indicators that could be used to measure student growth and learning.
To teachers in states like Illinois, where the Legislature imposed a policy of using standardized test scores as the predominant factor in judging teachers, the adoption of a nuanced NEA policy would be a victory. But a large portion of California delegates will likely oppose any inclusion of the use of standardized test scores in an evaluation.
Vogel reflected that perspective. Test scores should not be a criterion; what’s important instead is to measure how teachers use the test data to improve instruction. I pushed on this point for clarification. His response: “Let me be really clear. I want to assess the teacher’s use of the data, okay? So if the data’s there, and the teacher uses it appropriately, what it’s going to do is inform better practice.”
On other issues, Vogel:
Defended the traditional step and column method of paying teachers by years taught and graduate credits accumulated. The current system “encourages people to stay in. It’s really to our advantage to have veteran teachers who can be the collegial support to young folks.”
Called for no change to California’s granting of tenure after only two years. Most states award permanent status after three or four years: “Some places are saying three. Some are saying four. Right now, our position is – the ed code (states) here in California, it’s two years.”
Called for considering changing Proposition 98, the 20-year-old formula that sets the minimal levels of funding for K-12 schools and community colleges.However, he restated CTA’s opposition to AB 18, this session’s major finance reform. It that would permanently give districts more flexibility in spending while creating the framework for a weighted student formula providing more money for low-income students and English learners. CTA says more time is needed to consider possible unintended consequences of the bill. “We’re nervous about what can happen when you move so quickly,” he said.
A report commissioned by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and civil rights groups is recommending sweeping changes in the way Los Angeles Unified recruits, hires, evaluates, and pays teachers, as well as substantial changes in state laws in areas such as tenure and seniority rights that obstruct teacher effectiveness. The report will prove instructive to other California districts whose union contracts and personnel polices are similar to LAUSD’s.
“The task force recommendations were very good, but now we are asking for acceleration,” said Alicia Lara, vice president for community investment of the United Way. She said that the partnership with parent and community groups, including the Los Angeles Urban League and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, will include an advocacy campaign to keep information in the report in the public’s eye.** The coalition will present findings to the LAUSD school board today.
Evaluations as linchpin for change
“Teacher Quality Road Map: Improving Practices and Policies in LAUSD” not only criticizes state laws and terms of the teachers contract but also the district itself for not acting on the flexibility it has had within laws and the contract to make wiser hiring practices and staffing decisions. The report offers two dozen recommendations in five areas: staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation, and work schedule. But Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said improvements in many of those areas – policies affecting transfers, pay, layoffs – hinge on more effective evaluations. Deasy recognized that as well, in making a new evaluation system his first priority. United Teachers Los Angeles is seeking an injunction to stop a volunteer pilot test of the program involving 900-plus teachers in 91 schools.
“I hope that we would all see the report (by NCTQ) as an opportunity to reflect on the way to move forward. I am worried that we will become mired in political moves to prevent improvement of teaching,” Deasy told me.
One message that was clear from the report, which included a survey of 1,317 teachers and 247 principals, is that everyone wants a different system. More than half of teachers reported they got no feedback or feedback once a year from their principals. Los Angeles Unified is one of a handful of the nation’s largest urban districts that, as required by state law, have a binary evaluation system that labels teachers as meeting or not meeting expectations. Last year, only 2.4 percent of teachers got a negative rating, and 79 percent got a passing rating on every one of 27 criteria used. And yet 68 percent of teachers said there were teachers in their schools who should be dismissed for poor performance. One-third of principals said they didn’t try to dismiss a poorly performing teacher because the process probably wouldn’t lead to a dismissal.
NCTQ has conducted similar studies in a half-dozen large urban districts. Most face similar personnel issues, but in some areas LAUSD’s problems are distinct. “The sheer size of LAUSD is reason enough to view its prospects for reform daunting. Add to that mix the state’s extreme financial turmoil and it becomes even harder to envision a successful turnaround strategy,” the report states. “Yet the resolve to alter the district’s course is strong and genuine, energized by the arrival of a new school superintendent and a community that is determined to move beyond rhetoric to action.”
Here are the report’s major findings and recommendations, some requiring contractual changes or legislative action and some inviting independent action by the district itself.
Sacramento: Allow performance to be used as a factor in determining which teachers will be laid off. California is one of only a dozen states mandating layoffs by seniority. Other states allow districts to set their own criteria or make seniority one of several factors.
Sacramento: Expand California’s “lemon law,” which allows principals to refuse teachers voluntarily seeking a position in a low-performing school, to all teachers involuntarily seeking new jobs because of layoffs.
Sacramento: Permit districts to dismiss displaced teachers who are unable to secure a new assignment after one year (they’d be on the district payroll for that year, however. Under the current financial crisis, districts are likely discouraging paying any teachers to sit out).
Contract: Eliminate the priority placement list based on seniority that forces principals to accept teachers who aren’t a good fit for their schools.
On its own: Move up the June 30 deadline when teachers must notify principals if they are returning. That would give the district a head start on hiring for the fall. As it is now, LAUSD loses good candidates to charter schools and other districts and ends up hiring most new teachers in July and August. Deasy says the district has made progress during the past year, although the report notes that the hiring problem is particularly acute in poor schools.
On its own: Educate principals in low-performing schools that they have some flexibility in rejecting priority-list teachers who won’t be a good match.
On its own: Require prospective teachers to present lesson plans (hard to believe, the district doesn’t).
Research finds no correlation between higher pay based on seniority and academic courses taken. LAUSD’s contract is unusual, enabling teachers to max out in pay by taking up to 98 graduate course credits – the equivalent of three master’s degrees, in subjects unrelated to their content area; 60 percent of teachers do just this, which is why a quarter of the district’s teacher payroll goes to compensate teachers for graduate courses. (They can even take the same courses over again every five years for credit.)
Contract: End salary differentials for earning course credit for new teachers and use the savings to award teachers bonuses for effectiveness.
Contract: Give a big raise to teaches who earn tenure, provided the state law determining tenure is changed.
Contract: Offer higher salaries to top teachers who consistently produce the greatest learning gains. On this point, Deasy told me he disagreed with the report’s recommendation that student academic growth be the preponderant factor. It should be a factor but not the major weight, he said, and there should be additional ways to reward excellence in teaching besides pay, though he would not specify because they are under negotiation.
California decides whether to grant tenure – due process rights – after only two years on the job, with notification on March 15 of the second year – the third shortest date in the nation and not enough time to make an informed judgment in many cases, the report said.
Sacramento: Extend probation to four years or, failing that, the right to extend probation beyond two years as an option.
On its own: Only 2.5 percent of probationary teachers receive a bad review, the same as tenured teachers. Therefore, hold a formal review in which principals and teachers present evidence of performance.
On its own: LAUSD teachers tend to use up all of their sick days, nearly 10 per year (6 percent of the school year). They should be required to report absences to a school-level administrator.
Contract: Create more collaboration time by requiring that the 8-hour contractual day be spent at school (this mainly affects elementary teachers, who can leave earlier to do work at home).
LAUSD, like other districts in California, appears limited by the state’s Stull Act, which sets the two evaluation categories, meeting or not meeting requirements for the job. However, the district could be doing more on its own to give teachers more feedback – and earlier in the year, when suggestions would be useful. Deasy pointed out what the study confirmed: In the last year, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of low-performing teachers who have been let go or counseled out of the profession.
Sacramento: Require annual evaluations for all teachers. The minimum frequency of evaluations under the Stull Act has become standard in most districts, with some veteran teachers being evaluated every five years.
Sacramento: Enable teachers without an administrator’s credential to do peer evaluations. This would enable teachers with subject expertise to participate in classroom observations.
Sacramento: Make the evaluations a management right not subject to negotiation with the union or poor ratings on various criteria the subject of grievances.
On its own: Include student feedback as part of evaluations.
Contract: Make student performance the preponderant criterion on which teachers are evaluated. This could be the most contentious recommendation. The proposed evaluations criteria for LAUSD would make students’ academic growth account for 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, although standardized tests might not be the sole measure. Teachers and principals surveyed greatly disagreed, with 60 percent of principals favoring the use of student achievement as the single most important change and nearly the same percentage of teachers surveyed favoring additional classroom observations, including those by teachers with content knowledge. The report mentions a system adopted by New Haven, Conn., in which half of the evaluation is based on observations and half on student growth measurements. A big disparity between the two generates an automatic review by the central office, and teachers who get the lowest or highest rating automatically are reviewed by another evaluator.
Kate Walsh of NCTQ said that two large urban districts, Baltimore and Seattle, altered their teachers contracts significantly after receiving a NCTQ study of their practices, and she is expecting significant changes in Boston as well. In each case, NCTQ was hired by community organizations, like the United Way, and not by districts or unions.
**The report was partially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Teachers of Lucia Mar Unified, near Pismo Beach, are a crack in the wall of resistance to overhauling how teachers are evaluated and rewarded for their performance. This year, teachers in seven of the district’s 17 schools voted overwhelmingly to begin using an evaluation system that combines individual and school test scores and multiple classroom evaluations by teachers and administrators, along with regular discussions about teacher effectiveness.
The system they’ll be using, TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement, was developed in Santa Monica a dozen years ago by Lowell Milken and the Milken Family Foundation* and has been expanded in a number of states and districts nationwide through funding from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund. But it has never been tried in California, until now. What turned the heads of Lucia Mar teachers was traveling to where it’s in place in Texas and Louisiana, Assistant Superintendent Michelle Ellis said, and seeing that their apprehensions – animosity over unequal bonuses and unfair judgments by unqualified observers – didn’t materialize.
In Sacramento, bills to clear away obstacles to identifying effective teachers and dealing with ineffective ones are facing uncertainty this year. Republican Sen. Bob Huff’s SB 355 failed to get more than two votes in the Senate Education Committee last month. It would have given districts the option of evaluating teachers and principals by multiple measures, as long as standardized test results comprised at least 30 percent of the evaluation. It also would have allowed districts to do layoffs based on performance, not seniority.
Democratic Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes’AB 5wouldrepeal the current system, under the Stull Act,and require evaluating teachers using evidence of effectiveness based on professional standards, test results (not necessarily California Standards Tests alone), and classroom observations. It’s beenmergedwith AB 48, by Assembly Speaker John Perez, which would delay more frequent state-mandated evaluations until billions owed to the schools under Prop 98 are paid off.
Regardless of what happens at the state level, interest is stirring in a handful of districts, and there are signs that some teachers, if not union leaders, are ready for change.
More than 900 teachers in 91 Los Angeles Unified schools have volunteered to pilot the evaluation method developed by the district’s Teacher Effectiveness Task Force. The evaluations would include feedback based on classroom observations and a teacher’s impact on student test scores (value-added measures rechristened for better branding as Academic Growth over Time data). But United Teachers Los Angeles is seeking an injunction to stop the program even though results of the pilot next year wouldn’t count.
As I reported yesterday, LAUSD is one of seven districts in CORE (California Office to Reform Education) that plan to seek $50 million or more from Race to the Top to create, among other projects, new teacher evaluations and performance tools.
San Juan Unified is among districts that remain committed to Peer Assistance and Review, a promising program the state no longer funds, in which teachers and administrators serve on a review panel that evaluates and prescribes assistance for underperforming teachers. San Juan teachers hope to expand PAR into a broader evaluation system, based on multiple measures.
Five charter organizations in Los Angeles (Aspire, ICEF, Alliance for College-Ready Schools, Green Dot, and Partnership to Uplift Communities, or PUC) covering 90 schools are in year two of a seven-year Gates Foundation grant to evaluate and reward high-performing teachers (higher pay, new pay levels). Writing the rubric on which to base observations is among the first steps of the $80 million grant, called The College Ready Promise.
Change, although glacial, may evenbe coming to the California Teaches Assn. Dean Vogel, the incoming president of the CTA, cochaired the National Education Association committee whose policy paper recommends a comprehensive evaluation method. It would measure teacher practices and teacher collaboration and involvement in the betterment of the school, along with student academic growth, including “reliable, high quality standardized tests.” This position, which still must be ratified by NEA delegates this summer, marks a shift in NEA’s position. It’s a sign that national leaders recognize that they’d better engage in change or have state legislatures thrust on them evaluations based predominately on standardizedtest results, as has happened this year in Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
(Note: Speakers from TAP, LAUSD’s Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, and The College Ready Promise gave presentations at a conference last month sponsored by the Education Trust-West. You can download all of the presentationshere. And tomorrow, EdSource will release a study on teacher evaluations that looks at California laws governing them and districts that are trying alternatives.)
No Dispute: It’s not working now
Effective and trustworthy teacher evaluation systems will undermine the rationale for a tenure system that protects jobs based on seniority and a step-and-column pay system that ties raises to longevity. There is an emerging generational divide on these issues.
But all teachers and administrators should agree on the overriding issue: The current system, based largely on cursory classroom observations, is neither weeding out the minority of bad teachers nor helping other teachers improve. Under the 40-year-old Stull Act, some veteran teachers may be reviewed once every five years; only teachers with unsatisfactory reviews are reviewed annually – between 1 and 3 percent in Los Angeles Unified, for example.
How much to weigh test scores?
The extent, if any, to which student test scores are used will be one source of contention. TAP, The College Ready Promise, and Los Angeles Unified are using or intend to use value-added models or similar methods designed to predict student outcomes while controlling for students’ demographic characteristics. But a number of recent studies have criticized the reliability of value-added models for factors out of a teacher’s control and cautioned against heavy weighting of standardized tests, which are a narrow indication of a teacher’s effectiveness. At the same time, test results are an objective measure and can be a good diagnostic tool, telling a teacher which types of students are learning the fastest, and which teachers in a school are having the most success.
Under TAP, schoolwide value-added student test scores count for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation; the teacher’s individual students’ scores count for 30 percent and observations of classroom management, organization, and preparation, for the other half. Under The College Ready Promise, observations by the principal, peer critiques, and parent and student feedback count for 60 percent of an evaluation, with schoolwide, team, and student growth measures counting for 40 percent. Under the Teacher Effectiveness Task Force’s recommendations, 70 percent of evaluations in Los Angeles would be based on classroom observations, teachers’ contributions to the school community, and student and parent surveys, with 30 percent based on standardized test scores and other assessments.
Different ratios aside, those involved with the systems emphasize that the goal is not punishment but self-examination and candid examination of classroom practices and techniques – integral to being treated as professionals.
Foundations and the federal government, through three-year Teacher Incentive Fund grants – a program begun by President Bush and expanded by President Obama – are funding most of the experiments in California, including bonuses and new pay scales for master and mentor teachers under the TAP model. So sustainability long-term will be an issue.
Effective evaluations will require additional training and professional development and demand additional time by administrators and mentor teachers – this in a state that already had one of the lowest administrator/student ratios in the nation before the recession. It’s easy to criticize the current system of lax, non-demanding evaluations protected by due process rights. If the public and legislators want a comprehensive system to replace it, they should stand ready to pay for it.
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy was asked to talk about a career failure during a breakout session Wednesday at NewSchools Venture Fund’s annual Summit in Burlingame, the Lollapalooza for education reformers. Deasy talked about his first effort to move forward a multiple-measure teacher evaluation system combined with tenure and teacher compensation reform while superintendent in Prince George’s County,Md. This was years before the Obama Administration pushed the issue in Race to the Top and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it at the top of the agenda in a labor-management summit in Denver.
“It all sounded good on paper,” he acknowledged, “but this proved to be a huge problem. There was no appetite at the state level. When it got sticky with labor unions, predictably – and I was hell bent on it – there was no national context, and I was left alone with a great idea.”
Deasy did eventually create the system and pushed it through, but, he acknowledged, “it was always compromised from day one because there was never basis at the state and national level to explain why we needed to move to it.”
Shift to May 2011, and Deasy, one month on the job, has context working for him: New teacher evaluation systems are being rushed forward in many states – in some ways wisely; in many cases, usingtest scores as the predominant factor, not. The Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, created by Deasy’s predecessor, Ramon Cortines, has proposed a new teacher evaluation process, along with differentiated compensation, new tenure laws, and an end to layoffs strictly by seniority. Deasy has district trustees behind him. And Los Angeles is a lead district in California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, which had made collaboration on teacher evaluations a priority.
But the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles is balking at including the impact of any student standardized test scores as a multiple measure in a new system. Deasy wants student test scores to comprise 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, but that’s the maximum, and not a hard and fast figure, he told me during an interview. (Getting this man in perpetual motion to sit down for 15 minutes was not easy.)
By his own admission, in the caldron that is LAUSD politics, Deasy said he has little time: six months, at the most a year on the job, to make good on his stated priorities, or good will and trust will dissipate. Revamping evaluations is at the top of the list.
Other districts have moved deliberately on evaluations, but the reality of LAUSD politics, he told me, is that his board faces reelection in 18 months, and the mayoral election is less than two years away. Time is ticking.
“What matters is to do what you say you are going to do – and be transparent about how you did it,” he said.
On officially taking office last month, after serving as superintendent in waiting for eight months, Deasy listed five goals and 15 performance metrics with ambitious annual targets. He will be judged by the progress:
Increasing the graduation rate (70 percent by the class of 2013-14, compared with 55 percent in 2009-10, with huge gains in students qualifying for a four-year university);
Attaining proficiency for all (English language arts, elementary math, algebra, and reclassification of Engish learners);
Raising the numbers of students and staff with 96 percent attendance ;
Engaging parents (doubling numbers of parents who fill out satisfaction surveys);
Improving safety in schools (lowering violent and non-violent suspensions by about 20 percent).
Everyone in the district will know the 15 metrics, he said. They will be “the guard rails when people want to steer off course.” And the way to achieve them is to improve instruction. “That is the fundamental work that we do as a district.”
The teacher evaluation system will have four goals:
Identify and celebrate top performers;
Provide specific ways to improve the practice of teaching;
Identify underperforming teachers and call for remediation;
Create leadership opportunities for teachers without leaving the classroom for administrative jobs. (The latter would imply a change in pay levels – something that would have to be negotiated.)
Within a day or so, Deasy will release the numbers and names of schools that have agreed to pilot the multiple measure evaluation system that the district has been drafting. How students perform on standardized tests will be one of many benchmarks.
The pilot program next year will be low stakes – teachers won’t be held to the results, and teachers facing discipline action won’t be included. Deasy says the contract with teachers permits this, but he knows UTLA will oppose, possibly fight, the pilot program.
But Deasy says, “I have been overwhelmed by the emails from teachers who want to be involved in the system – thousands of them.”
They may make the difference if Deasy is to avoid the resistance and failings he encountered years ago in Maryland the first time around.
The tent sign on a table at the food court at Valley Fair Mall in San Jose read, “I am a teacher. Ask me what I do.” So I did.
Jennifer Thomas,an English teacher at Lincoln High in San Jose Unified, was reading 94 two-page essays by her three freshman classes on the topic “Should there be a curfew at the malls for students?”
She was one of 100-plus teachers seated around tables, papers and computers out, at the “grade-in” after school at Valley Fair, one of dozens of similar events up and down California on Tuesday, the second day in the California Teachers Association’s week-long State of Emergency actions. Their colleagues went to the barricades at the Capitol; thousands more went to the mall to reach out to a tuned-out public.
The macro message, at sit-ins, leafletings, and rallies, is for the Legislature to extend $11 billion in taxes, due to expire this month, to prevent as much as $4.8 billion more in cuts to K-12 schools. The micro-message at the grade-in, for passersby who asked (few actually did) is the inverse ratio of shrinking budgets: the bigger the cuts, the larger the classes and the less time teachers can spend with each student.
At 5 minutes per paper, with no time to dawdle or dwell on writing, it will take Thomas 470 minutes, or nearly eight hours, to grade them all. That’s two hours after school, four straight days, to get them back within a week. And it’s 100 minutes more on that one homework assignment than a few years ago, when there were 25 students per class – and 2:05 more than a decade ago. Under class-size reduction back then, there were 20 students in ninth grade English.
And she’s not including additional time reading homework for her two junior classes in English.
Thomas, for one, doesn’t begrudge the extra work. “It’s what we do for our children,” she said. But she and her colleagues wanted to remind shoppers that Tuesday was a typical day: Their jobs don’t end when the last bell rings. The work they brought to the mall is what they take home every night.
The grade-in was a perfect non-confrontational event for teachers who don’t want to hand out fliers to strangers or sit in at legislators’ offices. On Friday, CTA is counting on the week to end in a crescendo at six big regional rallies – in Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, San Bernadino, Los Angeles, and Visalia.
CTA is hoping that tens of thousands of voices can change five minds: those of Gov. Jerry Brown and four Republican legislators: two in the Assembly and two in the Senate needed for a two-thirds majority to extend taxes. So far, their message has been lost in translation.
Brown continues to insist on his campaign promise, that the electorate approve any tax extensions. At the earliest, this can happen this fall, assuming the Legislature can be persuaded to put the issue on the ballot.
But that timing would be disastrous for school districts and the 20,000 teachers they will have to lay off. Districts will have to build their budgets based on a revised state budget with $15 billion in cuts, including $2 billion to $5 billion for schools, that Brown will release on Monday. So the CTA wants lawmakers to extend the taxes on their own by mid-June. Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez agree with the CTA. The CTA, a big backer of Brown in last fall’s election, is also warning the governor not to count on its money for what’s bound to be a tough ballot on taxes.
Can the CTA and legislative leaders jam Brown to renege on his promise? No sign they can yet.
Republican legislators, meanwhile, are really messing with teachers’ minds. Last week, the State Department of Finance revealed that, as of April, the state had taken in $2.5 billion more in revenue than projected. Budget builders can assume that there will be at least that much extra next year as well. Starting with Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway on Friday and continuing this week, Republicans are declaring “crisis over.” They are promising both to defeat new taxes and to commit all of the extra revenue to K-12 schools and community colleges, thus meeting funding obligations under Proposition 98, which the Legislature suspended this year. “That’s a nonstarter,” Conway said. “Assembly Republicans are not going to vote to suspend Proposition 98.” When teachers show up at Republicans’ offices, they are told, We’re with you; go talk with the Democrats.
The extra revenue won’t be nearly enough to offset other cuts to state services, including as much as $1.5 billion less to the UC and CSU systems. And there are reasons for Brown to be conservative in projecting ahead; some of the cost reductions he is counting on won’t happen – they never do.
But the unexpected GOP response has caught the CTA off guard – and given the few Republicans who might possibly vote for tax extensions more reason to resist – or strike a harder bargain.
While normally great news, the extra revenue is complicating the CTA’s narrative of the budget crisis. And that’s unfortunate for Jennifer Thomas, other teachers and their students, facing bigger classes, less one-on-one time with their teachers and possibly fewer days in school.
Given the national wave of public sector union bashing, it’s not surprising that people like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is out making speeches about the virtues of collective bargaining in public education.
The case against teachers unions has been simmering for decades, with horror stories about the rubber room in New York (now gone); countless instances of union resistance to modification of rigid seniority rules in promotion and layoffs, and, often, general insensitivity to the needs of children and the concerns of parents.
It had to blow – and what more likely time than during a recession and the accompanying tight state and local budgets. Nor does it come only from the Republicans of Wisconsin and Ohio (and Washington, D.C.), but from national foundations and from fully certified liberals like Davis Guggenheim, whose film Waiting for Superman portrays Weingarten as a villain in the struggle of parents to get their children into decent schools. Even Barack Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan don’t seem so sure.
But Weingarten’s effort – I heard her in the East Bay suburb of Lafayette last week – was but a frail dike against that wave. She told stories to illustrate how bottom-up input in collective bargaining from the people in the classroom helps make schools both more effective and fiscally more efficient.
She argued that her union has worked hard to make teacher evaluations – including dismissals of bad teachers – fairer and faster; that there should be more focus on improving teaching and less on testing; and, perhaps most tellingly, that debates about federal policy – most immediately revisions in the fraying No Child Left Behind law – are almost irrelevant when states and local districts are being ravaged by fiscal crises and laying off thousands of teachers.
She left out much on both sides of this complicated story. She said little about the long history of union intransigence, especially by the National Education Association, far and away the bigger of the two national unions, which brought us to this point. (Asked whether her stories about the leadership of her own organization in school reform applied to the rival NEA as well, she diplomatically allowed that there was a lot of diversity in the movement; slowly, she also seemed to suggest, the NEA was letting itself be dragged into the 21st Century.)
Defenders of public schools against privatization
But she didn’t say anything about – or maybe forgot to mention – things that may have been all too obvious: It’s been the teachers unions, for all their intransigence, that have been the most effective defenders of the common schoolsthrough three decades of increasingly virulent attacks from the voices of privatization. It’s the common schools that promise, even if too often they fail to deliver, the acculturation and social integration on which citizenship rests.
Even as she was speaking, the Republican-dominated Indiana legislature was passing HB 1003, the most sweeping voucher law in the country. It will provide a private school voucher to any child from a family with an annual income of under $60,000 who’s currently enrolled in a public school.
Proponents of the plan argue that since the voucher, which would come out of the budget of the transferring student’s school and vary according to the student’s family income, is never worth more than 90 percent of a school’s public funding (and often much less), the schools would in fact gain from the program.
But since schools can choose applicants according to their usual standards, it in effect makes the public schools, which have to take all comers, the default system for those rejected by the private schools – assuming any were accessible.
And since parents can supplement the voucher with their own funds, the program not only becomes a public subsidy for families who can afford private schools, but a subsidy for those schools. Eventually, if the statements of the law’s proponents are credible, the means test will be liberalized and children already in private schools will also become eligible. They’re playing with similar ideas next door in Ohio.
Unions modeled on industrial labor organizations were never a comfortable fit for teaching, which is not supposed to be assembly line work but a profession unrestrained by fixed working patterns and rules.
Moreover, they sit on top of a civil service system already providing tenure and promotion rules (themselves sometimes debatable) and exercise great political power in state legislatures, on school boards, and in the Democratic Party. That’s clout on top of security on top of yet more security.
But after all that’s said, public employee unions are not even remotely the cause of our present budgetary difficulties, they’re the fall guys in a fiscal system that – no secret to anyone – tilts heavily toward the rich and powerful and a public ethos that’s nearly forgotten the critical importance of community, equality, and public services in the maintenance of a good society.
For the 30 or 40 years after the mid-1930s, recalling what things had been like before, Americans celebrated and broadened public services provided by social democracy. In the past generation or two we’ve forgotten that past, or take it for granted. At this moment, for all their flaws, it’s the unions that are the biggest defenders of adequate public services. That history, too, is something that people like Weingarten – and a lot of others – should be talking about.
Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.