Teachers Unions vs. Education

DC schools superintendent Michelle Rhee has radically transformed the system for the better. Naturally, the teachers unions want her gone.

Ben Smith‘s report, “Teachers union helped unseat Fenty,” reminds me how tangential the education of our children is to the aims of teachers unions.

The American Federation of Teachers spent heavily to unseat Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and to put the breaks on his aggressive efforts to shake up the city’s schools system.

The national union spent roughly $1 million in contributions to a labor-backed independent expenditure campaign — also supported by the public workers union AFSCME — and on its own extensive political operation, a Democratic political consultant familiar with the details of the spending told POLITICO. The spending suggests that the vote — while not a referendum on Fenty’s attempt to shake up the school system — was deeply shaped by that policy. And while the teachers union has been careful not to claim the scalps of Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, the election may serve as a political shot across the bows of other urban officials considering similar policies.

The union’s president, Randi Weingarten, sought to downplay its role in the election, and denied that the union had targeted Rhee. “For our members in Washington, it was what it was for other Washingtonians – about jobs, about the economy, about the city,” said Weingarten. “This was not a proxy vote on Michelle Rhee.”

Weingarten declined to comment on whether Rhee, who has clashed bitterly with the union, should be retained. “I learned a long time ago that you are very very careful about advice that you give to potential and to new mayors,” she said. But she indicated that she prefers a different style. “Collaboration is the right way to do reform,” Weingarten said. “That’s who Vincent Gray is, that’s why our members supported him.”

But there appears to be no love lost between the union leader and the schools chief, who coincidentally spent Wednesday night together on a panel after a screening of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” of which Rhee is a hero.

Rhee’s tenure has been legendary.   TNR’s Seyward Darby (“What Will Happen to D.C. Schools If Michelle Rhee Leaves?“):

She’s closed down underperforming schools, revitalized special education, revamped teacher evaluations, pushed for performance pay, fired educators who aren’t up to snuff, supported the expansion of charter schools, garnered large sums of private donor money, and seen students’ test scores rise. She’s also drawn a national spotlight to D.C.’s long struggle with education and become a leading figure in the broader school reform movement, which counts President Obama among its supporters.

Some of the groundwork Rhee has laid is here to stay—for instance, the 2010 teachers’ union contract (at least, until it comes up again for renegotiation or side-agreement discussions) and the push to improve school facilities. If Rhee were to go, however, some D.C. education observers say schools and the city would suffer. “Anyone you talk to in the country about urban school reform will tell you that it takes at least five to ten years,” says Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, a Washington think tank. If Rhee’s tenure is cut short at just over three years, it could diminish the energy Washington has invested in fixing its schools—and which recently led to it being named by the Fordham Institute as the second-most reform-friendly city in the country (just after New Orleans). “The sense of urgency won’t be sustained,” says Sara Mead, a senior associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners and member of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

On the most basic level, if Rhee goes, some of her top staff, who came to D.C. to work with her and have been critical in reorganizing the city’s sclerotic education bureaucracy, could go, too. Similarly, teachers and especially principals who’ve come to Washington to be a part of Rhee’s reform charge could leave—and ones who were thinking of coming to the city might change their minds.

The fate of the city’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system, which Rhee installed and recently began using to make staffing decisions after years of fierce contract negotiations with the WTU, could also hang in the balance. Gray hasn’t said definitively what he thinks about IMPACT, except that he wants to conduct an investigation of the system. (In fact, he’s offered relatively few specifics on education.) But Gray’s union backers have repeatedly challenged IMPACT. And, while the system could perhaps be improved, Gray could go farther, choosing to mollify the WTU by not using the resulting data to fire bad teachers—thereby undoing a major change Rhee made to the way D.C. regulates teacher quality. “An evaluation system is only as good as the will of the people who are using it,” Carey says, pointing out that numerous urban districts across the country have evaluations but rarely use them to dismiss anyone.

Performance pay, which teachers can soon receive based on their IMPACT scores, could also be on the chopping block. Private foundations have pledged money to help finance big bonuses for D.C.’s best teachers, but they’ve made their donations contingent on Michelle Rhee being chancellor. More generally, too, philanthropies that have chosen to give to D.C. schools because they like Rhee’s reforms could withhold further support—especially in tough economic times when there is only so much to give.

Then there are charter schools. The Fordham Institute recently gave the city an “A” grade for its charter environment, which Rhee has supported developing. For his part, Gray has reached out to the charter community for support and promised equitable funding for its schools. But Mead says that, in her experience on the city’s charter board, which authorizes schools and monitors their quality, she’s seen Gray hint that he’d like to more tightly regulate charters. “We have a law that gives a tremendous amount of autonomy to the schools but enables them to implement programs that can be effective. If you try to put more regulation on that, if can dissuade people from opening certain types of schools,” Mead says. On the flip side, though, Kevin Carey says that, if reform efforts in public schools diminish significantly without Rhee, there could be an exodus of students to charters that would leave regular schools more or less defunct.

So, why do the unions hate Rhee, who’s widely credited with radically transforming the system for the better in three short years?   Actually, the question answers itself.    She’s been given extraordinary leeway to do her job and has upset a lot of apple carts.

Darby notes that, “Rhee’s warrior-like approach to her job has caused some problems—and not just with the slow-to-change WTU. Some D.C. residents, particularly in the city’s poor, high-minority areas, feel alienated by her tough persona, just like they feel alienated by Adrian Fenty’s distant one.”

There’s the natural human reaction against high-handed leadership, of which Rhee has doubtless been guilty.   Despite her relative youth, she’s had success in previous stops and is extremely confident that she’s right and everyone in her way is an idiot.   So, she hasn’t helped her cause.

Especially since  the nature of the reforms Rhee has enacted go against the grain of the teacher’s unions, who want rapid tenure, zero accountability, and the ability to blame anyone but teachers for failure.

Standardized evaluation systems?   But what about tenure?  Teachers should have guaranteed employment for life after putting in three years of service.   Indeed, they prefer not to measure success through outside testing and evaluation at all.

Performance pay?  That upsets the  seniority system.  The unions want teachers to be paid based on years of service, with bonuses for attaining advanced credentials that have little to do with success in the classroom.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Chris Christie is likely to face the same backlash in New Jersey from the NJEA. Starting next year with the legislative elections and then in 2013 for the re-elect.

    Hopefully, he’ll have better luck than Fenty did.

     

  2. […] Teachers Unions vs. Education (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

  3. JKB says:

    Teachers’ Union:  All your stupid kids belong to us.

  4. Mr. Prosser says:

    Yglesias opines that part of the problem is/was Rhee’s high-handed attitude. There seemed to be no effort at selling her concepts in the neighborhoods, aiming more at a national audience and covering her lack as an “I don’t do politics” excuse. The WTU is in every neighborhood every day. Christie is a politician so I think the conflict will be different in NJ.

  5. F says:

    wow, so you guys are done with ACORN and have moved on to the Teacher’s Union.
     
    so long Teacher’s Union you had a good run.

  6. Franklin says:

    I was shocked to learn our elementary school cut its computer teacher for this school year.  I guess it was better to keep the pension plan that allows some to retire at age 47.
    /it’s all for the children, of course

  7. Brett says:

    <blockquote>Especially since  the nature of the reforms Rhee has enacted go against the grain of the teacher’s unions, who want rapid tenure, zero accountability, and the ability to blame anyone but teachers for failure.</blockquote>
    Without the unions, teachers have little power over their classrooms, curricula, and so forth. Look at the tendency in public education – greater power and consolidation of authority at the top of the administration, like with Rhee.

  8. Brett says:

    I swear, that’s the last time I do that-

    Especially since  the nature of the reforms Rhee has enacted go against the grain of the teacher’s unions, who want rapid tenure, zero accountability, and the ability to blame anyone but teachers for failure.

    Without the unions, teachers have little power over their classrooms, curricula, and so forth. Look at the tendency in public education – greater power and consolidation of authority at the top of the administration, like with Rhee.
    Which is not to say that the unions are good. They’re a blunt instrument, one that exists because most public school systems reserve all the power for the administration, and said administrators tend to turn into petty tyrants without checks.

  9. MstrB says:

    You should see the meltdown that United Teachers of Los Angeles is currently having, they have taken to protesting and boycotting the LA Times for writing about assessing teacher effectiveness.

  10. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    When did it happen that people you hire to do a job get to decide what that job is?  Are not teachers paid by the public?  Then the public, through their elected school board members decide what is to be taught and to whom.  The school administration is responsible to see the jobs are carried out.  Pay and benefits should be decided by the school board.  If you do not want to teach, get another job.  I suggest hod carrying, or concrete work in general.  When did the public allow for collective bargaining against the public interest?  That is a big bunch of BS.  These unions have to go.

  11. sam says:

    @Zels

    When did it happen that people you hire to do a job get to decide what that job is?
     

    Think about that next time you go in for brain surgery.

  12. sam says:

    Well, let me rephrase:
     
    Think about that next time you go in for surgery.

  13. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Sam, you are obviously the product of unionized teacher style education.  Doctors can be sued if they are hired and something goes wrong with an operation.  But Sam, I would not allow a Doctor to tell me I needed to rewire my house if I hired him to perform some sort of surgery.  I have to say that was the stupidest anology I have ever read.  Unlike you, if I were to need brain surgery, I would seek out the assistance of a neurosurgeon.  You would probably need both a neurosurgeon and a proctologist.  For obvious reasons.  And, If I did hire a surgeon, I do will not be required to pay for his services long after he retires.  Once a teacher gets into your pocket they stay there for life.

  14. Trumwill says:

    Without the unions, teachers have little power over their classrooms, curricula, and so forth. Look at the tendency in public education – greater power and consolidation of authority at the top of the administration, like with Rhee.
     
    I can understand why teachers don’t like that, but the school system does not exist for the benefit of teachers. I personally don’t care whether teachers or administrators have the power so much as I care what kind of job they do.

  15. mk says:

    Dear Mr. Joyner,
    Were you as outraged when the unions spent plenty to campaign for Obama?  Everyday new glossy campaign flyers arrived at my home and school.  As a (basically forced) union member, I was appalled that my dues were spent this way.

    Also, do you have any proof that Rhee was successful as a teacher and that her ‘miraculous’ test scores really happened?  No on seems to have any real “DATA”, (as we teachers always have to have) to prove her claims?  Are the DC test scores truly showing her methods are working?  I don’t think so.

    And lastly, as a professor, do you think it would be fair to base your effectiveness as a teacher on a once a year test that all your students had to take?  I can only imagine that you have had some students who didn’t care about what you were teaching or also dropped the class due to poor scores or no interest….public school students don’t get to get out of classes….they still have to stay in class and take the test. 

    In fact, I am curious as to what your accountablity is!  Please enlighten us as to what measures your college takes to measure your effectiveness in teaching your students.

  16. mk says:

    There is nothing wrong with holding teachers accountable, but basing that on a test that is given once a year is just not a valid measure.

    Also, if you are not in education, you have no idea that teachers are forced to do whatever the district tells them.  Plenty of us see many of the “decrees” coming from our administration as not being the best way to teach children, yet we do not have any choice.  If they come in our room and we doing what we know works but are not following what “they” decide is the best way, we get fired.  Yet when we disregard what we know will work and follow what we are told to do….and then the children fail, we are fired. 

    We are the scapegoats of stupid administrators who have no idea about educating
    children.  Give us some credit for what we know.

  17. Trumwill says:

    There is nothing wrong with holding teachers accountable, but basing that on a test that is given once a year is just not a valid measure.

    On what basis would you hold them accountable, then? Who or what makes the determination? We can’t trust the test. We can’t trust the administration. How do we do it?

  18. mk says:

    Generally if you want a more accurate picture of ability you provide numerous chances to demonstrate ability and then calculate a mean score.  It is just basic common sense.  My son is very smart but has major test anxiety…it is not an idication of what he knows at all.

    Also, you have to take into account the differences between school districts in regard to services available to students/staff and the involvement of parents.  If you have any experience in education, you know the difference!  Yet students are compared equally as to how much they have learned.  For example, I doubt too many inner city students have parents that pay private tutors to help their children.  It is not a level playing field and it does make a difference.

    A teacher can do everything right and still have a student perform poorly on a high pressure test.  What is needed is highly qualified principals who know what to look for when observing teachers…not ones who look for silly demands from the higher ups who have no idea what good teaching looks like.

  19. anjin-san says:

    > When did it happen that people you hire to do a job get to decide what that job is?
    Actually, that can be a good thing. Unless of course, you simply want drone timeservers waiting to be told what to do while keeping one eye on the clock as they work. I suggest you read Richard Branson’s “Losing my Virginity” for thoughts on just this subject from one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.