By ANDREW BRENNAN
On Sunday, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. posed the question of whether teachers and their associations support accountability (“Shouldn’t teachers unions want teachers to be effective?”).
The public is rightly concerned about the quality of educators. Teachers associations have come under increasing criticism, often accused of being devoted solely to the protection of adults at the expense of students. It is import to understand why this is untrue. We are devoted to supporting teachers in their efforts to educate students and have no fear of supporting valid accountability.
Teachers associations developed to ensure that educators would be viewed as professionals and receive protection against retaliation by those who would place politics over sound educational practices. Before there were unions, it was not uncommon for teachers to be fired for getting married, becoming pregnant, having an adult beverage with friends, teaching about evolution, or being a member of the wrong political party. It is against these forces that teachers unions have worked to provide protections through collective bargaining. This process allows for the creation of a contract establishing fair working conditions, fair compensation and a process for dealing with unfair treatment.
It is often argued that unions protect ineffective teachers and that we refuse to acknowledge this. Let us set the record straight: Yes, there are ineffective teachers, and yes, they do have an impact on student achievement. The question is what to do about it.
Although teachers range in quality and effectiveness, truly substandard teachers represent only a very small fraction of all teachers. The way to deal with them is in both the education code and in our collective bargaining agreements.
The key is to conduct rigorous evaluations and for administrators to accurately document their findings. A teacher who is deemed to be substandard can be let go, regardless of permanent status. The problem has routinely been that administrators have too often failed to follow through on this process. Let us again be clear. Ineffective teachers detract from our profession. We believe they should be dealt with just as the public does, but to prevent arbitrary firings, we must have a fair and consistent process for doing so.
The problem we see with the current focus of accountability is the overreliance on standardized test scores. We have no problem being accountable for our actions; our concern is that it be done fairly. Measuring learning is an imprecise science, as anyone who has studied learning in depth knows. The recent political arguments have focused solely on these scores as the gold standard for measure learning. While they are a useful tool, they are subject to all sorts of variables which can invalidate the results. However, in combination with a strong emphasis on thorough evaluations, comparisons to similar groups at similar times, and clear links to what was taught, they can be useful part of determining effectiveness.
We are not against reform, but we are against ill-conceived reform. We will fight against attempts to enforce politically expedient reforms that are not backed by solid data. We recommend that you read national leading education reformer Diane Ravitch’s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” to further understand why we oppose some of the current reforms. Reform is only good if it improves education, not if it hinders it.
We know that effective teachers are the key to educating our students. Teachers don’t do this because they can’t do other things; they become teachers because they care. They believe in being held accountable for the things in their power to achieve and so do we. Teachers and their associations are not the problem; they are part of the solution.
Andrew Brennan is president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association.