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Districts Return Teacher Incentive Fund Dollars, Unable to Reach Agreement with Unions

By Charles Barone, Director of Federal Policy

In a piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and AFT President Randi Weingarten gave themselves a grade-inflated "gold star" for their role and that of their members in the recent strike. They make a couple of good points about the substantive parts of the agreement. But they devote far too much space to the cathartic value of the strike for teachers and in doing so crowd out other points that deserve, at the very least, equal space.

First, striking may have been a feel-good moment for teachers, but there's no denying that it came at the expense of children and their parents. As a former clinician and direct service provider in both public school and community settings, I found that the most important thing one did, especially for the most disadvantaged children, was to show-up when you're supposed to. Striking teachers repeatedly referred to the troubled and, in some cases, dangerous neighborhood and home environments of students as an obstacle to effectively educating them. You would think the last thing teachers would want to do is throw them back into such situations on short notice with less, and in some cases no, adult supervision.

Surveys showed most parents supported striking teachers. Parents, however, also made significant economic and personal sacrifices, in large part because CTU decided to strike first rather than try to resolve outstanding issues. The least you might have expected from Lewis and Weingarten was gratitude for the hardships endured by children and parents. Apparently that was less important than a few extra paragraphs trumpeting their victory.

Second, disagree as they may with the reforms the mayor and school officials sought, the agreement both sides reached in the end differed from what the city proposed originally only by degree, not by kind. There will be a longer school day. Teachers will be evaluated based, in part, on student gains on achievement tests in basic academic skills. Principals will have more autonomy in choosing their staffs. Chronically low-performing schools will be subject to interventions including, in extreme cases, being replaced by other higher-quality schools. While it may have slowed the pace of reform, CTU did not change the trajectory.

Third, the equity issues involved in such things as teacher evaluations and school staffing are not even mentioned by Lewis and Weingarten. Many people seem unaware of, or uninterested in, the fact that whatever one thinks of a seniority-driven staffing system, it generally works to the disadvantage of children in high-poverty schools. Many, but certainly not all, teachers do not teach in such schools by choice. Since those with more seniority tend (again, not invariably) to choose more desirable and less difficult places to teach, the schools with the highest concentrations of disadvantaged students tend also to have the least experienced and effective teachers. First year teachers can be effective, especially if they have completed highly selective alternative preparation programs. But none of this changes the fact that the vast majority of first-year teachers find themselves woefully unprepared. It's no wonder so many are angry and frustrated.

Did the union insist that such teachers in Chicago get pre-teaching residencies or more time for professional development in their first years of teaching? Nope. Did they push to devote any of the 16% salary increase for incentives to get more effective teachers into hard-to-staff schools? Not one iota. In fact, the New America Foundation reported just last week that Chicago had to turn back $35 million in federal Teacher Incentive Funds to recruit and reward effective teachers where they are needed most because CTU could not agree on the terms of the agreement.

To its credit, the city did press to prevent principals having the least effective teachers forcibly placed in their schools. The union agreed to compromise so that principals could only be forced to accept half of their new hires from a pool of laid-off teachers. It's a start, but nonetheless one the union conceded to only grudgingly.

The last, and far from the least, misleading part of Lewis and Weingarten’s op-ed is their complaint about "top-down" dictates. Here’s an idea on what teacher unions could do to stop top-down dictates in the future: Instead of its standard "rope-a-dope" strategy of letting pressure for no-brainer policy changes build, pleading victimization, and then patting themselves on the back for half-way compromises, they could start initiating fundamental reforms themselves.

After sitting on the sidelines and heckling the players and referees during more than two decades of the standards and assessment movement, the union's position is that there is still not a valid test out there. If that's indeed the case, then a union-designed test that teachers would accept as valid and reliable is about twenty years overdue. And that's the most charitable takeaway. If the unions really think tests are invalid, then they should stop using them as achievement-gap whitewashing arbiters of their own success in high-achieving states like New Jersey; they should stop deploying them selectively to evaluate charter schools, alternative certification, merit pay, and other reforms which they oppose based on self-interest and ideology.

And if unions want teachers to be treated like the professionals we all want them to be, then they have some serious housecleaning to do. Stop letting schools of education take the lowest-achieving students and award the vast majority of them with A's and B's for class work. Tell teacher preparation programs you demand fewer phys ed majors and more graduates with real subject matter knowledge in language arts, math, and science. Insist such teachers be paid their fair market value, even if it means that something other than seniority drives wages. Don't let a single teacher into the classroom unless he or she is prepared for the responsibilities. Realize that whatever self-esteem you may save by ignoring a teacher's shortcomings will be taken down much more when he or she eventually realizes that they are not up to the job. Don't defend a rating system which tells 99% of teachers they're doing fine, shortchanging the best, and lying to the worst. Every profession has reached this point in its history. If ever we're going to have one in teaching, the moment is now.

Prior to joining DFER in early 2009, Charles Barone spent five years working as an independent consultant on education policy issues.  His clients included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, Education Trust, and the National Academies of Sciences. In 2007, Barone authored the DFER briefing "Keeping Achievement Relevant: The Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind." Read his full bio here.