In the Arena

Teaching Accountability

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Ezra Klein seems to be edging toward a more balanced view of teachers unions. He remains pro-union, but acknowledges that union work rules–like the implacable support for seniority rights–can sometimes be counterproductive. In fact, it will be extremely counterproductive if the coming round of teacher layoffs are conducted on a last-hired/first-fired basis.

Ezra semi-praises AFT leader Randi Weingarten’s ridiculously awkward and convoluted proposal for firing unqualified teachers as a step forward. I would raise a red flag about that. Weingarten and her minions have a history of sounding reasonable on reform in public then lobbying (and contributing to) state legislators in opposition to any sort of reforms. This is precisely the tactic that the private health insurance companies have been using in their efforts to scuttle health care reform. It’s taught in Special Interest Tactics 101.

Here’s a better idea, which I saw in action at the excellent Harlem Village Academies charter schools: Teachers are constantly monitored by…each other, and their reports are passed on to the principal, Deborah Kenny, who is able to evaluate the peer-reviewed progress of each and is then entrusted with the ultimate power to hire or fire. A few years ago, I watched an absolutely brilliant 5th grade math teacher at work in one Kenny’s schools. Another math teacher sat quietly in the back, taking notes. The next day, Deborah called to read me the report: the auditing teacher had three relatively small, but accurate, criticisms–the teacher had rushed through one detail of the lesson, for example. (I’d also noticed that.) Kenny’s students, poor kids selected by lottery, have routinely scored extremely well–as well as many suburban schools–on statewide tests. I”d be willing to bet that the cooperative, critical spirit that she has established among her teachers is one reason why; certainly, good teachers love working in an environment like that. The teachers unions have traditionally opposed these sorts of reforms, in whole or part (especially the part where the principal has the power to hire or fire).

Finally, those–like me–who support reform are routinely called anti-union. I prefer to think of myself as pro-student…but I’d also be in favor of paying any teacher willing to work in such an environment a much higher salary.