My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

There Is No 'War on Teachers'

Note: This is an interesting oped on education which appeared in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The author (Eric A. Hanushek) is a professor at Stanford University (and a frequent co-author with Steve Rivkin), and is a well-regarded expert on issues in education.

No longer is education reform an issue of liberals vs. conservatives. In Washington, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program rewarded states for making significant policy changes such as supporting charter schools. In Los Angeles, the Times published the effectiveness rankings-and names-of 6,000 teachers. And nationwide, the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which strongly criticizes the public education system, continues to succeed at the box office.

All sides of the educational policy debate now accept that the key determinant of school effectiveness is teachers-that effective teachers get good achievement results for all children, while ineffective teachers hurt all students, regardless of background. Also increasingly accepted is that the interests of teachers unions aren't the same as the interests of children, or even of most teachers.

Until recently, the unions asserted that they spoke for teachers and that they should judge which reforms are good. Any proposal they didn't like, they labeled part of a "war on teachers." Their first response to the Los Angeles Times and to "Waiting for 'Superman'" has been to drag out that familiar line. According to the American Federation of Teachers, "The film's central themes-that all public school teachers are bad, that all charter schools are good and that teachers' unions are to blame for failing schools-are incomplete and inaccurate, and they do a disservice to the millions of good teachers in our schools who work their hearts out every day."

What's really going on is different. President Obama states that we can't tolerate bad teachers in classrooms, and he has promoted rewarding the most effective teachers so they stay in the classroom. The Los Angeles Times published data identifying both effective and ineffective teachers. And "Waiting for 'Superman'" (in which I provide commentary) highlighted exceptional teachers and pointed out that teachers unions don't focus enough on teacher quality.

This is not a war on teachers en masse. It is recognition of what every parent knows: Some teachers are exceptional, but a small number are dreadful. And if that is the case, we should think of ways to change the balance.

My research-which has focused on teacher quality as measured by what students learn with different teachers-indicates that a small proportion of teachers at the bottom is dragging down our schools. The typical teacher is both hard-working and effective. But if we could replace the bottom 5%-10% of teachers with an average teacher-not a superstar-we could dramatically improve student achievement. The U.S. could move from below average in international comparisons to near the top.

Teachers unions say they don't want bad teachers in the classrooms, but then they assert that we can't adequately judge teachers and they act to defend them all. Thus unions defend teachers in "rubber rooms"- where they are sent after being accused of improper behavior or found to be extraordinarily ineffective-on the grounds that due process rights require such treatment. (In a perverse way, rubber rooms are good as long as it is not feasible to remove teachers that are harming kids; it is better to pay these teachers not to teach than to have more children suffer.)

So we are seeing not a war on teachers, but a war on the blunt and detrimental policies of teachers unions. If unions continue not to represent the vast numbers of highly effective teachers, but instead to lump them in with the ineffective teachers, they will continue doing a disservice to students, to most of their own members, and to the nation.

There is a place for an enlightened union that accepts the simple premise that teacher performance is an integral part of effecting reform. As the late Albert Shanker said in 1985, when he was president of the American Federation of Teachers: "Teachers must be viewed . . . as a group that acts on behalf of its clients and takes responsibility for the quality and performance of its own ranks."

The bottom line is that focusing on effective teachers cannot be taken as a liberal or conservative position. It's time for the unions to drop their polemics and stop propping up the bottom.

Mr. Hanushek is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.


Tom Porter said...

In response to many requests from the community, Amherst Cinema has worked hard to obtain exhibition rights to Waiting for Superman, referred to in the post, which opens tomorrow (Friday) at the Cinema.

I encourage all who have an interest in education and school issues to see this film while it is showing here in town:

Anonymous said...

Just a note: the Hoover Institution that Hanushek is affiliated with is known for taking conservative and/or libertarian positions.

It's definitely the case that teachers' unions have protected poor teachers for too long.

It's also the case that "Waiting for Superman" glorifies charter schools as *the* solution to all ills in the public education system.

(Just think it's important to view this editorial in context.)

Anonymous said...

"(Just think it's important to view this editorial in context.)"

What context? That conservatives are anti public education?!

Go for it, it's more gasoline thrown on the tea party movement.

And let's see what your approach accomplishes Tuesday Nov. 2nd...

Yes we can!

Todd Rees said...

I so prefer that we use the concept of "client" when discussing these issues, and I'm please to see a similar sentiment from Mr. Shanker (who you can't agrue with in terms of equality and support for teachers).

As Wallace Stevens poemed, "let be be final of seem", as we the client are required to address the reality of that which has passed and failed our children.

Good teachers will always find a home in Amherst and in any town in America, and poor performers are just that.

Ed said...

Just a note: the Hoover Institution that Hanushek is affiliated with is known for taking conservative and/or libertarian positions.

And the Mass Teachers Association (UNION) is running attack ads against Charlie Baker. This is somehow less sinister than Hoover funding basic research? How about Pioneer -- they want good schools so that the evil corporations can hire people here in Massachusetts and not have to go offshore.

Come now folk -- unless you become politically celibate, you can't ask others to do likewise.....

Anonymous said...

No war on teachers, unless you live in a district that is undertaking a search for a superintendent and you aren't valued enough to have a forum specific to the voice of teachers.

No war on teachers, except Sped teachers, who according to Steve, aren't really teachers, and don't really count.

Curious observer said...

Having a forum for teachers on the superintendent search -- interesting idea. Though is it ordinary to ask employees what they want in a boss? Not having a forum -- well, not exactly a war against teachers unless you're feeling combative.

Anonymous said...

To October 23, 2010 2:52 PM

If you don't like what's on this blog, start your own. Quit complaining.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response to Anonymous 2:52 - just to clarify, there are two separate forums specifically for teachers and staff: one for elementary and one for MS/HS. That will include some staff (e.g., secretaries, custodians, etc.), but I imagine both meetings will consist largely of teachers. There are separate meetings with principals, and assistant principals, at both the elementary and regional levels. In addition, teachers are welcome to participate in either of the two public forums and to participate in the on-line survey. Those all seem like fabulous opportunities for teachers to share their views, and in fact, this is more opportunity for teachers to share their views about what they want than they had in 2008 when we last did a search, or in any other time prior to that (based on what I've heard from central office).

Anonymous said...

"If you don't like what's on this blog, start your own. Quit complaining."

Oh yea, this is the place to come to have an intelligent conversation or discussion about topicss. As you can see, its only a good place to come if you agree with the Catherine Sanderson view of the world.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 7:36 - I post whatever people print. If you agree with me, I post that. If you disagree with me, I post that. If you read through the various posts on this blog historically, you can see plenty of both.

I can't control what people post, but I can certainly respond to whatever people post -- and if you have specific things you'd like to share with me, please do so, and I'll respond. I'd like to discuss content of education in our schools ... what thoughts would you like to share with me?

Anonymous said...

Where in the real world has any employee ever been asked for their input on the hiring of their supervisor? I would think that education has to be one of the few fields where their input is sought out. I'm not sure that's a good thing. Since the tax payers are paying the superintendent's salary, maybe the tax payers and the school committee should have the only say. Tax payers... not just people who have children in the school system, but all tax payers in the town have a say.

Tax payers are your bosses said...


Anonymous said...

So if those said "taxpayers" are also teachers and parents does that negate their input?