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Goodell, Brady, the NFL Smackdown, and the Teachers' Unions

Full disclosure: I was a freshman in college living seven miles outside of Boston when the Ray Berry-Craig James-Andre Tippett Pats got beat down in the '86 Super Bowl by that awesome Bears squad. I lived in Cambridge when Bill Parcells came to town and made the Patriots truly relevant. I lived in Cambridge when the Pats got beat by Favre's Packers. I nearly lost it when Tyree made the helmet catch in '07 and again when Manningham made that sideline catch in 2012. The point: I'm partial to the Patriots and to Tom Brady. So let's get that out of the way.

That said, even if I weren't so biased, I think I'd have enjoyed it last week when federal judge Richard Berman handed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league itself a monster smackdown in a New York courtroom. Berman ruled that Goodell's four-game suspension of Brady was lacking in basic fairness, featured "inadequate" due process, and ultimately constituted Goodell's "own brand of industrial justice." This was another in a series of court decisions reversing Goodell discipline as capricious and high-handed. It took Brady, a four-time champ, MVP, and golden boy icon, to stand up to Goodell and win this fight. Even NFL players who have little love for Brady were cheering the decision as rightful comeuppance.

What does any of this have to do with education? It's pretty simple. It goes to the union question. Those of us who think it necessary to overhaul tenure and seniority-based protections in K-12 would do well to remember the kinds of abuses that gave rise to those policies in the first place. We need a clear rationale as to why we're confident that overhauling tenure or collective bargaining agreements won't give rise to new abuses.

Now, I'm confident that there are compelling justifications for overhauling tenure and seniority-based systems. The specific abuses that spurred the adoption of these practices took place generations ago (see The Same Thing Over and Over if you want a more extensive take). Those protections don't do a lot to combat day-to-day dipstick management, even as they create a set of formalistic routines that protect the truly inept and make it harder for collaboration-minded classroom teachers and administrators to cooperate with one another.

Now, there are teachers who feel vulnerable and unfairly treated, and many have a point. But, as my AEI colleague Katharine Stevens has calculated, three-fifths of New York City teachers "convicted through due process hearings of incompetent teaching, excessive absence, verbal abuse, and/or corporal punishment were returned to the classroom." In other words, Goodell's rash treatment of Brady is hardly the norm in schooling. In schooling, even those found guilty of severe offenses still, too often, can wind up back in the classroom.

That said, the habit of denouncing union concerns as uniformly unreasonable doesn't help the cause. After all, there absolutely are times and places when management is unfair or abusive. And some of the new evaluation systems— especially in their reliance on value-added scores— are yielding some capricious, hard-to-justify results. More generally, unencumbered authority has a way of giving rise to new abuses. That means the union is articulating some valid concerns, and would-be reformers are well served by acknowledging these and offering constructive alternatives. One nice example of this is a document that TNTP issued last year, titled Rebalancing Teacher Tenure.

In any event, Goodell's smackdown was richly deserved. Those of us seeking to revamp collective bargaining and tenure in K-12 should see if we can proceed without giving skeptics cause to say the same thing about our efforts.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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