March 25th, 2010

Race to the Top
Teacher Unions: Friend or Foe? - Pt. 3

How will union support, or opposition, affect Race to the Top?

With almost 5 million members nationwide, teacher unions are one of the most powerful labor organizations in the country. For years they’ve been accused of calling the shots in our nation’s classrooms. But Race to the Top, with its emphasis on tying teacher evaluations to student performance, is challenging the unions. Some of the 16 state finalists in the competition for $4.35 billion entered with almost no backing from their local unions. When winners are announced and plans enacted, it’s anybody’s guess what role unions will play.

Are union objections to Race to the Top legitimate, or are they simply protecting their members? We take you to one small city in Pennsylvania where, despite its one high school failing for the past six years and despite only 50% of kids being at grade level, the local union refused to be part of Pennsylvania’s application. They are wary, to say the least. Are their suspicions justified?

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Dear Learning Matters - I am a big fan, therefore I feel I can make a big criticism without feeling too cranky. Throughout the interviews Mr. Merrow asks union representatives about their hesitancy to embrace RTTT and their apparent disdain for basing teacher pay on student “success.”
While I am no fan of unions (even though a member!) I must speak up and say that using the term “success” instead of “standardized test scores” was in disservice to this complex issue. Most teachers, me included, do not want incentive pay to be based on our students standardized test scores alone.
A case in point is my performance as a teacher this year - it has not been my best teaching year - I have a class that has totally sapped my energy (although, yes, I must say they are darling - perhaps it is the fifth year teaching vortex I have heard about.) However, they are so bright and at such a great developmental point personally they have done very well on standardized tests. Yet, I would say, and so would my principal most probably, that last year I was a better teacher. While my class last year did not perform as well - my skills and focus were sharper - I gave them more and the 55% gain I got from them took more, and was potentially worth more than the 99% gain from my class this year. Let’s face it, taking a Charlie 55% of the way, was harder and more rewarding than taking a Justin 99% of the way. If you have been a teacher you understand that and that is why we do not like the idea of so much riding on a state-developed-fill-in-the-bubble test. It demeans and trivializes the complexities of teaching. So please, in the future, when addressing this issue, please do not make it sound as if teachers do not want to be assessed based on “student success” just because we consider “success” something much more complex then one test!

Believe it or not, standardized tests do measure something about math and reading ability. Do they measure every aspect of a student’s knowledge and skill? No and they are not designed to. They are designed to measure basic competencies not creativity, complex problem solving, or even critical thinking. Tests do what they are suppose to do: give us an idea of whether a school is teaching basic skills. Can these tests distinguish between good teachers and bad teachers? I think so. I’ve looked at the questions and I believe that I can help students do well on these tests, as well as understand a lot more about mathematics. And that over a sufficient number of students my ability to do that will show up. I don’t believe that this demeans or trivializes teaching, as long as we understand that tests are simply an indication of one aspect of my teaching abilities and do not capture every aspect of it.

Liz is wise about this in several different ways, but the problem of “metrics” - of measuring the impact of good teaching - is more complicated than the indirect measure of student learning gains. First a story and then its - and other - implicatons:

Several years ago I did a workforce study for a regional board on “at risk” schools, kids, teachers, etc. I found one district that routinely held back the lowest 25% of it’s 9th grade. They ritualistically justified this grade retention with complaints about students being “ill prepared” for high school and requiring more time. I exploded - as a citizen, an educator, and researcher. If there is a problem, I exclaimed - in several ways and venues - then fix it, don’t merely enforce it.

I then discovered that the Superintendent and Principal had conspired to give the high school the highest “gain scores” in the state by focusing test skills on the bottom 25% for an extra year, and comparing 7th with 10th grades, as Massachusetts still does. On that scale, they looked great. But, as I said, again in several venues, the school is cheating.

A new Superintendent and new Principal and new Guidance Director, they created an intensive tutoring program, developed more outreach, and reinforced the assimilation process with much more peer support, and cut that retention from 25% to 5% within three years.

Those are the data Duncan would use. No one has talked about correlating test scores with attendance with age, or about early interventions to prevent later dropouts, or about a host of other well researched tools available to teachers and schools to reduce retention - the absolutely worst thing a school can do to a student (according to virtually all relevant research, as reviewed in John Hattie’s Visible Learning). In other words, in the face of decent and large scale research, they want to use the least useful indicator - test scores.

There are also whole libraries of research on what kind of “standards” to develop and maintain, against which scores (and other metrics) might be graded. The states and systems fall back, again, on the least relevant metrics - knowledge and rapid recall, rather than skills, interactivity, and adaptability. They retreat to these “standards” because they can use standardized tests, ignoring the many other metrics which have also been normed, standardized, even automated. Adaptive tests, for example, could be used to measure how quickly students use new knowledge or adapt to new conditions; projective tests could be used to examine how well they attend to different conditions; collaborative projects could be used to assess interpersonal problem solving, etc., etc. And these have all been subjected to standards and normed, whether by distinctive college admissions - like those at Olin or Tufts - or by the military.

But no, Duncan & Company, and their union opponents, stay with the least relevant, least interesting, and least adaptable “standards” and metrics to define student gains. They want to incent school fraud - like that I found in the district with high retention rates - rather than real measures of student changes, which might be attributed to particular teaching styles or conditions.

Finally, they also ignore 20 years of research on teaching and learning styles, on differentiated instruction, on mindfulness and a host of psychological variables that demonstrate often dramatic growth attributable to distinctive teaching. What fools they are, and how foolish we are to abide their absurdities.

Interesting. I don’t know how your moderation system works, but you approved a post that is time stamped after mine, which perpetuates a myth about learning styles (see and don’t approve mine which makes some unpopular, but valid points about standardized testing. What’s up? Do you want me to provide references for support? Do you want it written more formally? Or is there a particular set of people you accept posts from?

@Michael: We have one comment moderator and sometimes it takes a while for comments to get approved. However, previous commenters skip the approval/moderation process. That’s why Joe’s comments appeared before yours. Hope this clarifies the issue.

As Hillary Clinton says, “It takes a village”. Good teachers are important, yes, but the single most important factor to student achievement is whether education is valued at home. The Denver Post recently ran a series on several schools and, lo and behold, those schools with the greatest number of resources and the least percentage of free and reduced lunch were the highest performers on the state exams. I think this is consistent across the country. I think this is because uneducated individuals do not value education (what they had clearly didn’t help them much) and therefore they do not see it as a priority. Likewise because many of these parents are holding down two or three jobs, they do not have the time to read to their children. Let’s figure out how to break the cycle of poverty by helping parents instill the value of education in their children. At the same time, let’s get rid of protectionism from unions and let good teachers really do their jobs while bad teachers either learn how to improve their craft or do something else.

Yes, Ruth, agree with you, and support your idea to break the cycle of poverty by showing the importance of the education.

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