Given their place as the most powerful public employee union, teachers unions are front and center in the debate going on in Wisconsin. But underneath the high-decibel clashes between tea partiers and public employees unions are some contentious education policy issues reformers, teachers unions, and analysts have debated (and sometimes even collaborated to fix) for years.
Although teachers contracts are often singled out, in practice the rules and regulations most commonly cited as problems by school superintendents, school reformers, and not infrequently teachers themselves, are often found in state law as well. That’s why schools in states without teachers unions tend to operate pretty much like schools in places with powerful unions. In Virginia, for instance, where I served on the state board of education, it would be difficult to tell the difference between most of our schools and schools in heavily unionized Maryland. It’s also why teachers unions are not the only culprit here. They did not unilaterally create these rules and regulations — someone signed those contracts or passed those laws. (See TIME’s photoessay Showdown in Wisconsin.)
So forget the theatrics in Wisconsin, reform doesn’t have to mean abolishing collective bargaining. But, if we’re serious about having school systems that put student learning first and creating a genuine profession for teachers here are five common practices that must change.
Restrictions on evaluation.
Provisions in teachers contracts limit who can do evaluations, how often, and even specify how much notice a teacher must be given prior to being observed. In most professional workplaces, by contrast, evaluation is ongoing and both formal and informal. It’s the same way in many high-performing schools where evaluation is a regular and continuous part of the improving process. Classroom “visits are not just more numerous but dramatically so” in the best schools says Tim Daly, President of The New Teacher Project, a non-profit that recruits teachers and analyzes education policy. In those schools, instead of “zero one or two [visits] it’s 30-40 per year,” according to Daly. (See “Super Bowl School: What the NFL Can Teach Teachers.”)
Last in, first out.
With layoffs looming policies that require “last in, first out” are hotly debated around the country. These rules, which can be found in both state law and union teachers’ contracts, require that teachers be laid-off according to seniority only, without attention to classroom effectiveness. In other words, when layoffs happen newer teachers—who in some cases still have several years of experience—are let go first even if they’re more effective than the veteran displacing them. These policies would make sense if veterans were always better than newer teachers but abundant research shows clearly that longevity alone is not a great predictor of effectiveness. Last month civil rights groups won a landmark court decision in Los Angeles changing how layoffs and seniority rulers work there but just this week an arbitrator in Hartford Connecticut—a city lauded by national leaders including Arne Duncan as a model for labor-management collaboration—ruled in favor of using “last in, first out” there. Bottom line: In any organization that is serious about effectiveness quality-blind layoffs are nothing short of insane.
Forced transfers and “bumping.”
Every organization recognizes seniority in different ways. But frequently in education seniority confers a set of powerful rights when it comes to transferring to new schools. In practice this means veterans can bump teachers with less seniority when jobs open up or that principals are limited in who they can choose from when filling positions. In other words teachers can force their way in to a school. When The New Teacher Project analyzed this practice, they found that the policy contributed to newer teachers leaving teaching. But parents don’t need a wonky report to get the basic problem here: Shouldn’t individual schools get to decide who teaches in them? (See how to fix teacher tenure without the pass-fail grade.)
Tenure and due process rules.
Earlier this month an arbitrator in Washington, D.C. gave 75 teachers—including chronically absent and demonstrably low-performing ones—their jobs back over a technical due process issue. Reformers groaned but union leaders applauded. Long considered a “third rail” of education policy tenure is now under attack in a number of states where various rules are found as part of both state law and in collective bargaining agreements. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t think teachers, and other workers, should have due process before losing their job. What actually constitutes “due process” is a more contentious issue but even teachers union leaders agree that in many cases the rules are out of hand. (See who’s to blame in the Wisconsin teachers’ crisis.)
Inflexible Salary Schedules.
Today teachers are overwhelmingly paid based on two factors, length of service and degrees. Salaries are based on master schedules with columns for degrees and rows for years of service so a teacher moves across lanes and up the steps as their career progresses. Most professions pay more for experience but there is little evidence that most additional degrees improve teaching. More problematic is what’s missing: differentiation based on how challenging teaching assignments are, hard-to-fill subjects like math, science, special education or foreign languages, and how effective teachers are in the classroom. The rules of economics don’t stop at the schoolhouse door and school superintendents privately complain about having to pay physical education teachers and physics teachers the same amount even though it’s easier to find coaches than physicists. Hard to find a better example of something that works great for the adults in the system but not so well for the kids schools are supposed to serve. (Comment on this story.)
Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.
Read more…As Goes Wisconsin… So Goes the Nation