Union President Seeks Method to Discipline Teachers: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

[The article below, by Op-ed columnist for the New York Times, Bob Herbert, praises American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten for a bold move:  namely to use her influence to collaborate with the federal government in finding a way to fire teachers as (one of) the ways to vastly improve public education in the U.S.  This follows on the heels of the Speaker of the California State Assembly pushing enabling legislation to tie schooling more tightly to No Child Left Behind and the “race to the top.”  Following quickly on the Assembly’s legislative heels, a number of school districts in the state have formally agreed to participate in this process, endorsed by some of the local school boards as well.  And in Washington, D.C. the school chancellor Michelle Rhee has appeared on national television promoting her version of NCLB and bringing up school standards by firing veteran teachers.  I think I see a pattern here.  It’s a pattern which got a huge boost here in Chicago with Mayor Daley taking over the administration of the public schools, charterizing (privatizing) 75 schools and closing dozens in his tenure, and in the process displacing or firing large numbers of teachers.  There is an unintended irony in the title of Bob Herbert’s piece: this proposal may be “serious” but it reads to me more like the parody Jonathan Swift once wrote under the title “A Modest Proposal.”  It is a proposal to solve the problem by destroying it. — Lew Rosenbaum]

Op-Ed Columnist

A Serious Proposal

By BOB HERBERT

Published: January 11, 2010

The president of the American Federation of Teachers says she will urge her members to accept a form of teacher evaluation that takes student achievement into account and that the union has commissioned an independent effort to streamline disciplinary processes and make it easier to fire teachers who are guilty of misconduct.

Bob Herbert

In a speech to be delivered Tuesday in Washington, Randi Weingarten plans to call for more frequent and more rigorous evaluations of public schoolteachers, and she says she will assert that standardized test scores and other measures of student performance should be an integral part of the evaluation process. The use of student test scores to measure teacher performance has been anathema to many teachers. Ms. Weingarten is not proposing that they be the only — or even the primary — element in determining teacher quality.

But she told me in an interview over the weekend that she wants to “stop this notion” that her membership is in favor of keeping bad teachers in the classroom. “I will try to convince my members that, of course, we have to look at student test scores and student learning,” she said.

The use of test scores, as Ms. Weingarten sees it, would be part of a new, enhanced process of teacher evaluation that would offer clear professional standards for teachers. It would replace current practices, which in many districts across the country are lax, haphazard and, in the words of Ms. Weingarten and others, often amount to little more than “drive-by” evaluations.

It is not uncommon for teachers to be observed in the classroom just a couple of times a year for only a few minutes each time and then get a satisfactory rating. Under those circumstances, hardly anything is learned about the quality or effectiveness of the teachers. Most teachers are routinely rated as satisfactory, and many are never evaluated at all.

Ms. Weingarten is urging school administrators to observe teachers more closely and more frequently. (The enhanced, clearly articulated professional standards she is calling for are already in use in some districts. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.) Experts trained in best practices and using a variety of objective data, including measures of student achievement, would do the evaluating. Teachers who are struggling would be given an opportunity to improve their performance. If, after remedial efforts, they still did not measure up, they would be fired, whether tenured or not.

As Ms. Weingarten put it, “We would have to say, ‘Look, we helped you. We tried. You’re just not cut out to be a teacher.’ ”

Ms. Weingarten also addresses the fact that it is sometimes scandalously difficult to remove teachers who have engaged in serious misconduct. While emphasizing the need for due process, she bluntly asserts, in a draft of her speech: “We recognize, however, that too often due process can become a glacial process. We intend to change that.”

The union has asked Kenneth Feinberg, the federal government’s so-called pay czar, to develop a more efficient protocol for disciplining — and when necessary, removing — teachers accused of misconduct.

This would be a big deal. Mr. Feinberg is highly respected and widely viewed as independent. He administered the government fund that compensated those who were injured and the families of those who were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. He also administered a fund set up in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.

He is not the kind of guy to go into the tank for the teachers’ union. (John Ashcroft chose him to lead the 9/11 fund.) It will be very interesting to see whether the union actually goes along if Mr. Feinberg fashions a workable plan to streamline teacher discipline that is viewed favorably by school administrators.

“We look forward,” said Ms. Weingarten, “to working with Mr. Feinberg on this critical undertaking.”

If the union follows through on Ms. Weingarten’s proposals, it would represent a significant, good-faith effort to cooperate more fully with state officials and school administrators in the monumental job of improving public school education. More than 90 percent of American youngsters go through the public schools. The schools were struggling and failing too many youngsters even before the latest economic downturn, which is taking a terrible toll.

My view is that America’s greatest national security crisis is the crisis in its schools.

Ms. Weingarten’s ideas for upgrading the teacher evaluation process are good ones and should be embraced and improved upon where possible by those in charge of the nation’s schools. The point is not just to get rid of failing teachers, but to improve the skills and effectiveness of the millions of teachers who show up in the classrooms every day.

If the union chooses not to follow through on these proposals, its credibility will take a punishing and well-deserved hit.

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