Thursday, September 6, 2012

How is it the Unions' Fault?

Teachers unions take the brunt of attacks in the current education reform movement. Detractors accuse them of making it difficult to fire ineffective teachers and lobbying to block reform efforts such as merit pay and the expansion of public school alternatives. The unions also receive blame for issues within schools in which they exercise no control. These include things such as curriculum, pedagogy, lack of ability-based student grouping, hiring, etc. 

Though the unions are not perfect, I think it is overreaching to scapegoat them when talking about the problems in public education. All states have schools and/or districts that are succeeding and schools/districts that are in trouble, yet they all share something in common. In most instances, all teachers are covered by a union-negotiated contract. For example, in Florida, high performing districts such as St. Johns and Seminole share similar contracts to lower performing school districts. Schools within districts tend to do better than each other, yet those the teachers in these schools are covered by the same contract. Many of the provisions governing the dismissal of a Professional Contract Teacher in Florida is state law and not district and union-negotiated rules. On the national level, several comparisons show that heavily unionized states such as Massachusetts and Vermont tend to perform significantly better on standardized tests than weaker union states such as Mississippi and South Carolina. 

Given this information, quickly blaming the unions for all school woes is intellectually dishonest. If two Florida school districts (or even two schools within one district) are getting different results using the similar or identical contracts, then what could be causing the problem? Could it be the quality of instruction? Do certain schools or districts just manage to obtain better teacher who use best practices? Well, if that is the case, that should change within the next few years. At least 31 out of the 67 school districts adopted Robert Marzano's teacher evaluation system for the observation portion of the new teacher evaluation system. That means, that all of the teachers in this district should be teaching nearly the same way since this system is based on the latest "research" in effective teaching. If the quality of teaching is truly the problem and teachers are now teaching the same way under an evaluation system that now dictates nearly everything they should do in a class period, then test scores should eventually rise at the same rate amongst all schools.

My guess is that this will not happen, and one day, these reformers will have to admit that teachers have been right all along. Issues beyond our control contribute to the poor performance of some of our students. 

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