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National teachers' union being constructive on performance

Randi Weingarten, head of the national American Federation for Teachers, has endorsed evaluating teachers' performance and a system for firing ones that perform poorly, Matt Yglesias points out.

Weingarten. Photo by CAP on Flickr.

Sometimes schools unfairly try to fire a teacher who doesn't deserve it, but it's clear that there are a number of bad teachers in schools who do deserve firing. Unfortunately, up to now, most teachers' unions have steadfastly fought performance-based evaluation systems.

This strategy puts unions in opposition to the public interest, and diminishes their moral authority and public support for the good things unions can do to fight unjust managers or advocate for decent living wages for people.

Rather than stand up for the status quo, unions should be fighting to design a fairer evaluation system that's not susceptible to a single, perhaps-vindictive vice principal getting rid of someone they simply don't like, but which still allows a school to remove most or all of its bad teachers and improve its educational quality without excessive bureaucracy.

Weingarten's proposal evaluates teachers on several factors, including but not exclusively based on standardized tests. Teachers who score low would get improvement plans designed by administrators and some expert teachers. The administrators, experts, and possibly an arbitrator would then decide after a period of time whether the teacher has improved.

The Times quotes some experts from different ideological backgrounds who have specific quibbles with the details. Whether this is the right process or whether it needs tweaks, this is a huge step forward to making the debate about how to properly and fairly evaluate instead of whether to do it at all. And it's great that a major union is agreeing to come to that table.

Perhaps this is happening because they are under attack like never before. Republicans in Wisconsin tried to take away even the basic ability to organize, and New York and Newark mayors Mike Bloomberg and Cory Booker have proposed objective criteria for firing teachers. Weingarten came across as resisting even the most basic steps to improve schools in the film Waiting for Superman.

Those pressures might be working out for the best if they have made teachers' unions realize they have to be partners with the public in making schools better, not defending their worst-performing members at the expense of kids. Other public sector unions should follow suit.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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The reason Weingarten "came across" as resisting all school reform in Waiting for Superman is because she was edited that way. Green Dot, one of the charters featured in the movie, has an AFT contract negotiated by Weingarten and Steve Barr, which was conveniently not mentioned. In fact, Davis Guggenheim filmed Weingarten certifying the contract, but then edited out of the final cut of the movie.

by Scott on Feb 27, 2011 9:33 am • linkreport

Union contracts are like tax code. They get bloated with nonsense. However, it is very hard to clean them out. That requires careful cooperation between employer leaders and union leadership. Unfortunately, both parties involved are often more concerned about their own personal careers, than about the best interest of their constituents. This is possible because those constituents, tax payers (voters) and union members don't pay enough attention - which is understandable: they have lives to live.

by Jasper on Feb 27, 2011 9:49 am • linkreport

I do not think it is reasonable to call these proposals "constructive" or claiming that maybe they need some "tweaks". I think this is not remotely in the ballpark. It seems to me a figleaf designed to sap any momentum for significant reform.

The idea that it should take a year plus 100 days to fire a teacher who is teaching poorly should be preposterous. Would any of us accept a system where the people who work for us can't be replaced in less than 465 days?

I agree with the idea that a vindictive vice-principal shouldn't be able to fire teachers on a whim. There should be an appeals process. It could take a few weeks.

To call this a step forward or a cooperative signal, reminds me of this: Bush Vows To Eliminate U.S. Dependence On Oil By 4920

by David desJardins on Feb 27, 2011 12:50 pm • linkreport

Two representatives of the AFT as well as Nathan Saunders, the President of DC's AFT affiliate, the Washington Teachers Union (WTU), testified last week at a DC State Board of Education hearing on teacher evaluation in DC. In their statements they criticized DCPS's IMPACT system and they offered their own vision, which had a greater emphasis on several sets of "standards", which sounded more process-oriented and input-based rather than based on student test scores, but I cannot find a copy of the testimony or the presentation slides so I can't recall the details.

At the same hearing, a rep from DCPS and from KIPP DC also talked about their teacher evaluation systems. DCPS's IMPACT has a prominent test-score based component, relevant for teachers in tested grades and subjects. KIPP's system had a busy graphic that I was not able to read or understand. If anyone has a link to the presentations that would be great.

I also testified at the meeting, but did not use a powerpoint. My presentation, along with Russ Whitehurst, was meant to summarize points we made in a policy brief we issued this past November through the Brookings Institute. Our mesage was that using student test scores in teacher evaluation is fraught with risks and potential for error, but it should still be done, with careful design of the policy consequences, because the alternatives are much worse.

I don't think any local newspapers or bloggers covered this event, which is too bad. It was an interesting set of perspectives.

by Steven Glazerman on Feb 27, 2011 9:40 pm • linkreport

There's got to be a better way to run a railroad, or in this case, a school system! Unions had better find a way to evaluate teachers that they can endorse and that is more than seniority-based, or unions will soon become marginalized, if not a thing of the quickly vanishing past.

by KMM on Feb 28, 2011 7:52 am • linkreport

It's simply disappointing; There are no repercussions for a poorly performing teacher. I am new to the area, but from one of the states that has a proposal to strip the power of the teachers' union.
In Ohio, there are hundreds of teachers fresh out of college looking for an opportunity to shine, and there are hundreds of poorly performing teachers sitting pretty collecting a paycheck.
There is no question in my mind why our education system is the laughing stock of other countries. The issue at hand is the vague disconnect between the marginal 25+ year veterans that cannot communicate with young students in a technology driven world.
I don't want to see these people lose their jobs, however if they are unwilling or unable to catch themselves up with the time, it would be more beneficial to give the twenty-something year old teacher a chance to thrive.

Unions in the education industry are necessary, however like most unions, they lack a way to gauge their members to the increasingly demanding field.

In places like DC, these problems are more widespread than unions. It is simply more difficult to get a good teacher to fill all the positions available in the area. Here a merely qualified teacher need only to apply for a position, and they will find a good one with time. In the areas that are affected by union problems, most open positions are filled internally and many newer teachers find their educator certificates becoming outdated as they are forced to find employment outside the Education industry.

by Brad K on Feb 28, 2011 8:41 am • linkreport

I'll just re-state my preferred method of teacher evaluation: no tenure, and every year 5% of a school's staff is "voted off the island" by their peers to be replaced by freshman teachers.

You're welcome; next problem please.

by oboe on Feb 28, 2011 9:22 am • linkreport

I see absolutely nothing wrong with empowering all vice-principles to make whatever judgments they care to make. Good teachers who are fired will still be capable of proving themselves in other schools or other school districts. The "arbitrary" vice principle will have to stand or fall on his/her record of overall classroom performance as well. In this situation, everyone has to do a good job or everyone's job is at risk.

This new union position is just another example of a strategy to bypass a formal reporting structure so that they can manipulate an arbiter behind the scenes. DC's unions have proven adept at mysteriously and against good judgment acquiring very favorable arbitration hearings.

by ahk on Feb 28, 2011 9:34 am • linkreport

The saddest indictment of 25+ year teacher tenure is the "technology" options at most public high schools. In an age where /advanced/ computer skills need to be taught and integrated into every aspect of the curriculum in order to compete with Asian students, we're teaching "Excel" and "Powerpoint" as mini-labs by people who've never used either in any important function.

Neither of these tools, as they are being taught, represent "skills" any more than being brought to the library to "look around a bit" represents a skill. However, to most politicians who also lack basic "skills", they appear to satisfy the checkbox of "technology" offerings.

by eb on Feb 28, 2011 9:40 am • linkreport

@ eb That's not a teacher problem, it's a curriculum problem. If it's true that advanced computer skills need to be taught (and I'm not convinced it is, although that depends on the definition of advanced), then school systems need to add it to the curriculum.

Believe it or not, there are teachers who've been teaching for 25 years who know how to use computers. Hell, at this point there are teachers who have been teaching for 25 years with computers in their classrooms the whole stretch.

by jcm on Feb 28, 2011 10:02 am • linkreport

@jcm: Agreed that there are teachers well above the curve... however the point is that most that tenured aren't skilled in the essential technological skills that are needed today.

This is one example of where tenure is more important than current performance in the eyes of a union.
Not saying you are wrong, because you are 100% correct, just trying to put it in to perspective.

by Brad K on Feb 28, 2011 10:13 am • linkreport

Brad, if there are no repercussions for poorly performing teachers, how were they fired prior to 2007?

It's more accurate to say that there are obstacles to getting rid of poor performers. You're statement is 100% untrue.

Your post reads like a teach for america screed and seems to lack a modicum of respect for veteran educators.

by HogWash on Feb 28, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport


My mistake-- I guess when I write "there are no repercussions" i expect that someone can read between the lines and understand that what I meant was that it is difficult.

There are obstacles, and there are a lot of them... If it seems like I have no respect for veterans, I do apologize... as I said in a previous post there are teachers well above the curve, in my opinion, they are few and far between.

I am not trying to start a flame war... I am simply trying to restate what I feel the teachers' unions (at least the ones I have experience with) are doing which could be improved on.

by Brad K on Feb 28, 2011 3:48 pm • linkreport

Hey Brad, point understood. In my conversations, it seems as if the automatic position of school reformers is to lay blame at either the teachers or the unions. That's why I responded to your post.

I think we can all agree that there are many things unions can improve upon. In many cases around the country, it seems as if that's exactly what is happening.

Yes, teachers and unions need a wake up call. But, they represent only a fraction of the problem w/our poor educational system. Everybody should step up and shoulder the blame. No one wants to. They would rather kick the bucket and absolve themselves of any responsibility.

Keep teaching and respecting!

by HogWash on Feb 28, 2011 5:15 pm • linkreport

It's easy to blame one side of the triangle and ignore the other two: parents and students. American parents are often lazy or disinterested in academic excellence, and students who don't aspire to anything. Parents in America are the biggest flaw in the system, no matter what teachers you put in the mix.

In a country where religion all too often interferes with teaching, tenure is a requirement. The nation is too wracked with fanaticism to have any other system. Being at the beck and call of those same parents is an instrument of failure.

The performance based system is a move in the right direction, but grading someone on something they cannot control, even as many try to do so, is clearly inequitable. Parents need to be bound into the system, such that those that do not engage with the teachers, are not held to a standard they cannot fairly meet. Go for a performance based system, but with balance. No Rhee-isms, no psychological warfare and demeaning most for the flaws of some.

by copperreddc on Feb 28, 2011 11:22 pm • linkreport

Teachers despise under-performing teachers more than anyone else I know. The problem that teachers have with firings, is the lack of rhyme, reason or "due process." A standard is set, and if it's not met your gone; I have seen numerous firings and/or teachers asked to leave a position with zero in-fighting between authorities and unions. The problems we've seen so far have been over the randomness involved.

by TeachDC123 on Mar 2, 2011 7:27 pm • linkreport

@TeachDC123: The problem that teachers have with firings, is the lack of rhyme, reason or "due process."

Isn't this like the working conditions of just about everyone else in America?

Most people are at-will employees and can be fired at any time for any reason or no reason. The constraint on that process is that there is a job market and they can go get a job somewhere else.

There are good reasons for public employees like teachers to have somewhat more process and protections, both because turnover in teaching is more of a problem than in the private sector, and because management is supposed to be acting in the public interest rather than in a private interest. But not a whole lot more process, just a bit more.

by David desJardins on Mar 2, 2011 7:39 pm • linkreport

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