Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Teachers Unions are Failing Kids AND Teachers

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

Chip Johnson’s recent hit piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Oakland Teachers Failed Kids,” accused the Oakland Educators Association (OEA) of putting the interests of teachers above kids and cheating them out of millions in federal  Race to the Top (RttT) funds by refusing to accept student test scores (also known as Value Added Measures, or VAM) as a part of teacher evaluations.

If Johnson was really interested in better education funding, he would redirect his anger from the teachers, who have no direct control over the matter, to the legislature, which has cut over $20 billion from K-12 education over the last 4 years. This is the main reason why the feds feel they can blackmail teachers into accepting “reforms” that are detrimental to students, as well as teachers. If he wants to blame partisans, he should look to the state’s 87 billionaires (or its hundreds of thousands of millionaires) who have lobbied to get their tax rates down to record low levels; or the oil companies, which pay lower royalties here than in Alaska or Texas; or the prison guards union, which has succeeded in redirecting state revenue from education to prisons, with a resulting  436% increase in prison spending since over the past 30 years. (For more on prison guards’ impact on education, please see “Lack of School-to-Prison Pipeline.”)

Student Test Score Data is Useless and Detrimental to Student Wellbeing
If he wants greater accountability, he is also barking up the wrong tree.  VAM is inconsistent and unreliable except for teachers at the extremes and only if averaged over three years. (For more on VAM, see herehere and here). In practice, test scores are rarely averaged over three years. Most districts want evaluations every two years and some are moving toward yearly evaluations, thus invalidating the data for all teachers. Yet, even if they are averaged over three years, the data would still be meaningless for the vast majority of teachers who fall somewhere in the middle, away from the extremes. While VAM could still help weed out the very worst teachers, it would likely lead to many good teachers losing their jobs and many mediocre ones slipping through the cracks. The consequence for students could be a net decrease in good teachers and a net increase in mediocre ones because of all the false positives and false negatives.

Johnson is dead wrong in his assertion that teachers are harming students by opposing VAM. The use of student test data to evaluate teachers is terrible for students precisely because it does nothing to improve teacher quality, while potentially forcing many good teachers out of the profession. Furthermore, it encourages the continued use of high stakes standardized exams, which take away class time from real learning, encourage teaching to the test, and unnecessarily increase the stress and anxiety children already face at school.

Teachers Unions are Complicit in the Proliferation of High Stakes Tests and VAM
The teachers’ unions, however, ARE hurting students as well as teachers by their inability to effectively resist free market “reforms” like VAM.

Let’s start with the obvious. The free market “reformers” are winning the propaganda battle: large segments of the public support VAM and it has been an easy sell. Their claim that student test scores will rise with good teaching and remain stagnant or decline with bad teaching not only appears self-evident, but it supports the popular belief in meritocracy. Cheerleading for the merits of VAM has become so ubiquitous in the press and among politicians that it is now considered common sense by much of the public. As a result, the “reformers” have easily pushed it through in districts throughout the nation, including the three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The unions have done little to counter this. On the contrary, whenever the “reformers” invent a problem, the unions typically agree with their premises, and quibble over the solutions. A case in point is evaluation reform. Both the NEA and the AFT have jumped on the bandwagon, joining right wing critics in their proclamations that the evaluation system is broken. Many have even consented to the use of VAM, including most recently the CTU, in Chicago, and UTLA, in Los Angeles. The difference is that the unions also want some say in the matter. For example, many are demanding that the new evaluation systems provide teachers with meaningful data that can be used to improve their practice. Ironically, VAM cannot do this, while existing internal assessments (e.g., unit tests, essays, lab reports) are already being used this way by teachers. Likewise, evaluators observing classroom practice could provide useful feedback, but they typically do not because they are overbooked, undertrained and biased.

Digging Their Own Graves
This has been a mistake for the unions both strategically and in terms of the propaganda battle. Rather than educating the public about how devastating VAM and high stakes testing are to children and working to abolish them, union acquiescence sends the message that teachers support them. This only serves to solidify public support for both VAM and accountability through testing.

It also sends the message to the “reformers” that the unions are easily bamboozled. All you have to do is cry “the sky is falling and our precious children will be hurt by the fallout” and teachers will go on the defensive, bitch and moan, and then accept some slightly watered down version of the “reform.” This only encourages the “reformers” to continue with their agenda of slashing public education funding, destroying the unions, and giving away as much of the system as possible to private entrepreneurs.

What a Good Evaluation System Could Look Like
Since VAM cannot accurately assess teacher quality, nor provide useful feedback to help improve their practice, the unions should refuse to accept it in any form. What they should be demanding is a sufficiently-funded system of well-trained outside evaluators (not administrators) who observe teachers blindly (i.e., they do not know the teacher and have no stake in the school or district) and often enough to be able to make valid assessments and critiques. The system should be primarily remedial, not punitive—that is, the goal should be to provide the feedback and support necessary to help improve struggling teachers who want to remain in the classroom, while providing a fair and accountable system for removing teachers who are incapable of or uninterested in doing their job correctly. This would not only help prevent future teacher shortages, it would help all teachers grow and it would improve their morale—an important component of a healthy, collaborative learning environment for children.

A Winning Strategy?
In a sane and rational society, the arguments against VAM would be sufficient to end debate and consign VAM to the dustbin of history. The problem is that few people are aware of these facts, something that could easily be rectified with an effective, large scale public outreach campaign. Unfortunately, the teachers unions have been asleep at the wheel, allowing the free market education “reformers” to frame the debate and then impose their will, leaving the unions in the weak position of constantly having to constantly fight back.

Such campaigns are not cheap, but the teachers’ unions have relatively large war chests and could afford it if they chose to use their vast resources in this way. Instead, they spend the lion’s share of their resources on lobbyists and political campaigns which have done little to stem the decline in education funding and student services, or to educate the public about the implications of the various snake oil “reforms”  they are being sold.

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