BOSTON – Teacher union officials throughout the nation keep insisting that they are not opposed to teacher accountability, and they agree that some teachers are in over their heads and should move on to other professions.
But when push comes to shove, their actions are not matching their words. In Boston, a new teacher evaluation system has identified a small group of 30 teachers who have been deemed to be beyond repair, and they did not return to work this year.
But union leaders have filed a grievance to halt the removal of “unsatisfactory” teachers from the classroom.
The situation couldn’t be more sickeningly ironic. On the one hand, the union trumpets on its website that, “Having a great teacher has a tremendous impact on how much a child learns in any given year.” But then it sounds a discordant note by demanding that the dregs of the Boston teaching community – the lowly 1.2 percent who were judged to be unsatisfactory – be put back in front of the students who suffer from their incompetence.
“No other component of schooling comes close to having the magnitude of influence on student achievement than a teacher’s effectiveness,” said Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester.
If the union agrees with that statement, and agrees that student learning should be the district’s first priority, there’s no way it could logically oppose the firing of 30 bad teachers.
But maybe the union doesn’t care as much about student learning as its leaders would like us to believe.
Previous union tantrums
This isn’t the first time the union has tried to halt the Boston public schools’ attempt to evaluate and improve its teachers.
The union threatened to take the school district to court just before the 2012-13 school year, because the district, under a state mandate, implemented the new teacher evaluation system without union consent. That only occurred because the union failed to agree to a new system during contract negotiations with the district.
Then, when results of evaluations were released, the union urged the public not to make judgments about individual teachers based on the information. Union leaders claimed that the process was discriminatory because teachers in certain demographic categories scored lower than others – males, African-Americans, Latinos and teachers older than 50.
“We are not arguing against good performance evaluation; in fact we welcome healthy and constructive feedback,” Richard Stutman, president of the BTU, was quoted as saying. “But the evaluation process must be done in a way that does not discriminate.”
Just what is Stutman suggesting here? That evaluators got together and secretly planned to pick on teachers who are male, black, Latino or older than 50? Why would they do that?
Is it possible that, for whatever reasons, some teachers in those demographic groups struggle more than their peers, at least in the Boston district? Will the union continue to protest until the data is altered to make it appear that every racial, gender and age group of teachers performed equally well, even if it’s not true?
As John McDonough, interim superintendent of the Boston school district told the Boston Globe, “We must not turn back simply because there are patterns that we would not like to see.”
Now, the union is digging in its heels to oppose the ouster of the 30 lowest-performing teachers, and the ongoing evaluation of teachers who were deemed to need improvement. The union, apparently, would prefer to return to a seniority system that rewards longevity instead of excellence.
District leaders not backing down
School officials do not seem cowed by the union’s attempts to block reform. McDonough said the schools will not be rehiring unsatisfactory teachers or suspending its evaluation system, despite the union’s grievance.
“No one who was removed for poor performance last year should be placed in front of students again, but this is precisely what the union leadership has asked us to do,” McDonough said. “Performance evaluations are valuable tools to improve the quality of teaching for every child.”
Many observers are wondering why the union doesn’t embrace the positive evaluations given to the vast majority of its members, rather than throw a tantrum on behalf of the incompetent few.
“Many teachers in Boston feel unappreciated and overlooked,” the Herald wrote in a recent editorial. “Perhaps they would feel differently if their own union leaders would demonstrate an ounce of faith in their ability to excel within the framework of an entirely reasonable performance evaluation system.”
The evaluations were developed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in partnership with parents, teachers and education experts. The union supported the evaluations in theory, but did an about face when evaluations became a reality.
The vast majority of teachers scored well under the evaluation system. Looking at the district as a whole, 13.5 percent of teachers received an exemplary rating, 79.5 percent were proficient, 5.8 percent need improvement, and 1.2 percent were unsatisfactory.
If anything, those numbers might prompt some to question whether the evaluations were too lenient.
Statewide results were similar, and, predictably, the number of teachers who need improvement was higher in low-performing schools and among new teachers.
School officials are focusing on helping those teachers who have a chance to improve. Union officials, thus far, are focusing on defending the jobs of teachers who appear to be beyond help.
“We wish the Union leadership would focus its energy on helping us find solutions rather than on weakening our schools’ ability to strengthen teacher teams,” McDonough said.