Last week NEA, AFT, and Secretary Duncan announced plans for a joint labor-management summit early next year to talk about collaboration in pursuit of education reform. Certainly not a tipping point, but a welcome relief from the seemingly endless focus on ineffective teachers, “jobs for life”, and the infamous “Rubber Room” in New York City.
Perhaps the expressions of outrage from teachers and others are having an impact on the administration. I am not so sure. In any event, collaborative or interest-based bargaining is not a new concept. Anyone who has been involved in it knows that the most important ingredient is trust. And secondly, if one party or the other comes to the table with a pre-conceived agenda, the likelihood of success is severely diminished.
It will take more than a summit to earn the trust of America’s teachers after Mr. Duncan’s unchecked enthusiasm for the firing of the entire staff of Central High School in Rhode Island and the unprecedented release of a Value Added Assessment analysis ranking and naming thousands of teachers in Los Angeles. The LA Times used teachers as a lever to push the school administration to change its teacher evaluation system and fire more teachers.
Since Arne Duncan’s appointment, the ascendant views controlling the education reform narrative have been those of a handful of billionaires and an equally small number of high-profile urban superintendents. Add to this a more than receptive media, ever willing to make a clarion call for sweeping America’s schools clean of ineffective teachers, and you have a recipe for increased alienation among America’s hard-working teachers.
It is time for teachers to rise up from the stultifying impact of an ill-conceived law and reassert their right to be at the table. The Obama administration, whether intentionally or not, has contributed to the increasingly popular notion that all of America’s current ills can be remedied within the schoolhouse walls. The recent “manifesto”, issued by Michelle Rhee and Chancellor Klein along with a number of urban superintendents in the Washington Post, is yet the latest manifestation of the “ineffective teachers are the problem” mantra.
Consider this statement from the Manifesto: “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.” [emphasis added]
Their proposal begins with a deeply flawed premise.
Richard Rothstein, who holds a very different view, responded to this assertion:
It has become conventional in educational policy discussion to assert that “research shows” that “teachers are the most important influence on student achievement.” There is, in fact, no serious research that shows any such thing. The assertion results from a careless glide from “teachers being the most important in-school influence,” to teachers being the most important influence overall. But because school effects on average levels of achievement are smaller than the effects of families and communities, even if teachers were the largest school effect, they would not be a very big portion of the overall effect. A child with an average teacher who comes from a literate, economically secure, and stable family environment will, on average, have better achievement than a child with a superior teacher but with none of these contextual advantages. Of course, some children from impoverished backgrounds will outperform typical children from literate and secure backgrounds, but on average, the extent to which children come to school prepared to take advantage of what school has to offer is a more important predictor than what even the best school can do.
Nicholas Lemann wrote recently in the New Yorker:
It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools.
He concludes that:
We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.
So I don’t see peace breaking out all over – far from it – but there are glimmers of hope.
Even the longest journey starts with a single step.