Teachers union embraces reforms following Milwaukee newspaper series

The Wisconsin teachers union said this week it is in favor of efforts to improve teacher quality and even would allow student data to be used in teacher evaluations.

The announcement comes on the heels of an eight-part series on teacher training and evaluations reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in collaboration with The Hechinger Report. The front-page stories, which ran in November and December 2010, took the state and union to task for not moving quickly enough on reforms.

The union outlined its vision for a new statewide teacher evaluation system on Tuesday.

The plan proposes to:

- Establish a system to ease underperforming teachers out of the profession

- Use “various student data to inform evaluation decisions and to develop corrective strategies for struggling teachers”

- Offer performance pay for teachers

- Break up the Milwaukee Public Schools into smaller, “more manageable” components (though the local teachers union in Milwaukee has not signed off on this, says the Journal Sentinel).

The union says it wants to work on legislation that would put these reforms into place by 2015.


POSTED BY ON February 10, 2011

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john thompson

Had the series been framed in a more objective manner, and a few misstatements been corrected the story might had read something like this:

IN WISCONSIN, there has been only tepid interest shown across the state in major change, BUT THERE HAS BEEN A LONG HISTORY OF REFORM IN MANY PARTS OF THE NATION. TODAY, “REFORM” IS MORE COMPLICATED BECAUSE OF DEEP DIVISIONS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL REFORMERS AND DATA-DRIVEN REFORMERS WHO HAVE COME UPON THE SCENE IN THE LAST TWO DECADES.

TRADITIONAL REFORMERS SEEK DATA-INFORMED ACCOUNTABILITY AS OPPOSED TO DATA-DRIVEN POLICIES because paying close attention to what can be learned from student scores is valuable, but few believe using scores alone as the basis for pay is a good idea. Standardized tests don’t capture everything students learn or teachers teach.

After so many reforms and initiatives in other areas of education have failed to have much impact, the spotlight has turned to trying to make the teacher (DELETE STUDENT AND RELATIONSHIPS?)-student relationship a more powerful force for achievement.

TO DATA-DRIVEN REFORMERS, WHO RARELY HAVE MUCH EXPERIENCE IN THE TOUGHEST NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS (AS OPPOSED TO THE VERY DIFFERENT WORLD OF SELECTIVE SCHOOLS, It’s a simple equation: Improve teacher effectiveness and you improve outcomes, including, some supporters hope, narrowing the gaps between the haves and have-nots of educational good fortune.

The drive for change is not without setbacks. Plenty of lessons are being learned already about what doesn’t work. One prominent example: An experiment with providing teachers in Nashville, Tenn., bonuses …

IT COULD BE ARGUED THAT you can’t talk about improving the effectiveness of teachers without talking about improving the effectiveness of principals. Teachers need a good environment to thrive, and that environment – call it school culture – starts with the principal.

Bad experiences with principals are a big reason many teachers leave MPS and elsewhere.

ON THE OTHER HAND, principal jobs are grueling and pressure-filled, and have gotten more so in recent years. … it is hard to attract people. … it is hard to increase the number of dynamic principals when there are so many conflicting demands from above. Principals are under pressure from national and state political leaders to get better results.

Principals … can describe how many directions they can be pulled in the course of a day. Instructional leadership is a hot phrase now, but it is a weak spot for many principals who are more comfortable running the business of a school rather than leading, modeling or coaching what and how to teach. Large amounts of on-the-job training for principals now focus on developing instructional leadership, BUT THERE IS NO WAY OF KNOWING WHETHER THAT TRAINING IS HELPFUL IN REAL-LIFE SCHOOLS.

In addition, evaluating teachers is ideally a major priority of principals. In practice, it often gets short shrift … It is impossible is to carve out time to observe teachers leading classes so he can offer feedback. .

PRINCIPALS HAVE TRADITIONALLY BEEN RELUCTANT TO INVEST THE TIME NECESSARY TO CONDUCT EVALUATIONS IN THE TOUGHEST SCHOOLS, WHERE THE TEACHER QUALITY ISSUE IS MOST ACUTE BECAUSE, If you’ve got openings that nobody wants, you’re going to get a struggling teacher,” Sonnenberg said. He praised the teaching staff overall, but said the joke in his building is, if you show up for a job interview, you get the job – unlike some suburban situations, where there can be hundreds of applicants for each opening

PRINCIPALS ARE NOT SHY ABOUT THEIR CHALLENGES, rom dealing with misbehaving students to filing mountains of reports to his bosses, … BUT PRINCIPALS ARE UNDERSTANDABLY RELUCTANT TO GO ON THE RECORD WITH THE COMMON BELIEF THAT PART OF THE REASON FOR THE PAPERWORK IS PRESSURING PRINCIPALS TO NOT ENFORCE ATTENDANCE AND BEHAVIORAL POLICIES, AND TO JUST “PASS STUDENTS ON.”

A HUGE QUESTION IS WHETHER PRINCIPALS SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO INTERPRET VAUE-ADDED ESTIMATES AND TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE FAILURE OF TEACHERS IN THE TOUGHEST SCHOOLS TO MEET THEIR TEST SCORE GROWTH TARGETS IS DUE TO TEACHER INEFFECTIVENESS OF THE CONSTRAINST PLACED ON PRINCIPALS BY THEIR BOSSES, ESPECIALLY IN PREVENTING THEM FROM ADDRESSING CHRONIC DISORDER IN NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS, MADE WORSE BY THE CREAMING OF THE EASIER-TO-EDUCATE STUDENTS TO CHOICE SCHOOLS.

A PRINCIPAL IN a religious school on the north side, said: “Many high quality teachers want to spend their lives helping underserved students succeed. Give them a classroom full of students who want an education and they’ll work in the poorest neighborhoods and may even accept below-average pay. Place them in a school full of unruly, undisciplined, unmotivated kids and they’ll give it their best shot – but ultimately they’ll quit if they can’t achieve success.”

UNIONS AND TEACHERS HAVE LONG ARGUED THAT THE SUCCESS OF SELECTIVE SCHOOLS could be achieved more broadly IF HIGH-QUALITY ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS WERE AVAILABLE. FOR IDEOLOGICAL, POLITICAL, AND FINANCIAL REASONS, DISCUSSIONS OF ALTERNATIVE SETTING HAVE BEEN THE THIRD RAIL OF SCHOOLING. THINGS MAY BE CHANGING AS THE GATES FOUNDATION, LEARNING FROM ITS SMALL SCHOOL EXPERIMENT, HAS PRESENTED STRONG EVIDENCE THAT ALTERNATIVE SETTINGS MAY BE NECESSARY OF 5 TO 10% OF URBAN STUDENTS.

THIS IDEOLOGICAL DISPUTE IS PERSONIFIED BY the Education Trust, A POWERFUL Washington-based education advocacy group, WITH A CONTROVERSIAL RECORD IN PRODUCING EDUCATIONAL POLICY PAPERS, FROM AN ANTI-UNION PERSPECTIVE. FOR INSTANCE, THE TRUST AND ITS ALLIES HAVE SAID THAT IT WOULD MAKE NO SENSE TO order teachers to work in the neediest schools.

IT IS FEARED THAT THE TRUST’S PROPOSED POLICIES WOULD LEAVE DISTRICTS WITH NO CHOICE BUT TO DO SO. IN FACT, IN THIS POLITICAL CLIMATE, SOME EDUCATIONAL LEADERS ASK, “Why can’t the employer determine what is best for the organization?”

Ultimately, it is tough to make people take jobs they don’t want, AND SUCH A POLICY COULD UNLEASH AN EXODUS OF THE BEST URBAN TEACHERS TO THE SUBURBS OR INTO EARLY RETIREMENT, BUT PERHAPS THOSE SORTS OF DICTATES ARE NOT UNTHINKABLE BECAUSE when MPS sent hundreds of teachers layoff notices last spring, that meant three of his most promising teachers were bumped out because they lacked seniority. (They were later recalled but assigned to other schools, while Sonnenberg was sent experienced teachers whom he had not sought, nor had they sought him.) THIS HAS LONG BEEN CONDEMNED BY UNIONS AND DISTRICTS ALIKE AS THE DANCE OF THE LEMONS.

If the bottom 6% of teachers were forced out of the profession, it would have a broad elevating affect. If there were fewer weak teachers, there would be fewer to put in the worst assignments.

Wisconsin’s unions largely have not been open to change, BUT NATIONALLY THE STORY HAS BEEN DIFFERENT. Dal Lawrence, the former longtime president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers and current member of the Teachers Union Reform Network, called the state’s teachers union one of the most “retrograde” in the country, along with New York’s.

IT HAS BEEN ARGUED THAT unions need to get away from their “completely contractual approach,” with work regulated to the minute and restrictions on both the timing and frequency of supervisors’ classroom visits, ON THE OTHER HAND THERE HAS BEEN NO EFFORT TO DOCUMENT WHETHER SUCH RETROGRADE ATTITUDES ARE WIDESPREAD IN SCHOOLS.
SIMILARLY, DISAGREEMENTS OVER DUE PROCESS HAVE BEEN COMPLICATED BY THE ADVERSARIAL NATURE OF THE AMERICAN LEGAL SYSTEM. THERE IS NO WAY OF DETERMINING WHETHER TEACHERS UNIONS HAVE BEEN MORE OR LESS SUCCESSFUL IN SEEKING STREAMLINED PROCESSES.

THE SERIES DESCRIBED a hearing that spanned seven evenings in which she was represented by a union attorney, the teacher was reinstated to her job by an arbitrator. The district eventually settled a federal lawsuit with the teacher that kept her from returning. THE AFT RECENTLY ADVANCED THE RECOMMENDATION OF KEN FEINBERG FOR STREAMLINING TERMINATIONS BASED ON TEACHER MISBEHAVIOR.

THE MUCH MORE COMMON, AND MORE COMPLICATED QUESTION, WHETHER UNIONS HAVE MADE IT MORE DIFFICULT TO TERMINATE EDUCATORS FOR INEFFECTIVENESS WAS NOT ADDRESSED IN THE SERIES.
AS IN OTHER LEGAL PROCEEDINGS, ACTUAL PROCESSES ARE MUCH MORE COMPLICATED. OFTEN, UNIONS WILL BE VERY FLEXIBLE, EVEN ASSISTING ADMINISTRATORS IN CROSSING t’s AND DOTTING i’s, IN TERMINATIONS, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE ADMINISTRATORS HAS A RECORD OF CREDIBILITY. OTHER TIMES, UNIONS HAVE A LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY TO DEFEND TEACHERS WHO THE UNION WOULD LIKE TO SEE REMOVED FROM THE CLASSROOM, DUE TO ADMINISTRATIVE MALPRACTICE AND/OR THE PRECEDENT THAT WOULD BE SET IN THAT CASE.

THE UNION HAS OPPOSED REFORMS, INCLUDING THOSE ENCOURAGED BY THE RTTT, WHEN IT BELIEVED THAT THOSE REFORMS ARE WRONGHEADED AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. THIS IS COMPLICATED BECAUSE President Barack Obama has taken on teachers unions – traditionally partisan allies. THIS HAS CREATED A COMPLEX SITUATION WHERE THE NATIONAL UNION LEADERSHIP HAS RISKED A BACKLASH FROM ITS RANK-IN-FILE BY BENDING OVER BACKWARDS WITH POLICIES WHICH MANY TEACHERS SEE AS DEEPLY OFFENSIVE.

FOR INSTANCE, THE UNIONS HAVE OFFERED TO MEND, NOT END SENIORITY. BUT CONSTRUCTIVE REFORM IS UNLIKELY WITHOUT FIRST ESTABLISHING FAIR DUE PROCESS PROCEDURES. Even three years ago he would have said it is impossible to change tenure, WHICH IS NO MORE THAN DUE PROCESS RIGHTS, “It’s now changing, despite everybody’s predictions.”

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