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Recapping Last Week's Teacher News

Teacher Beat is back in the house, and there were some important happenings in teacher policy last week. Here's a rundown of what caught my eye while I was on vacation—and a few thoughts for you to chew on.

• Baltimore teachers rejected a contract that would have done away with traditional pay increases for longevity and master's degrees in favor of "achievement units" weighted heavily toward effectiveness in boosting student learning for earning raises. The interesting point here is that both the district and the union have already said they don't plan to make major changes to this structure as they re-enter bargaining. In other words, for rank-and-file teachers, these concepts didn't fly.

So what does that mean? Some are blaming communication issues between the district/union and the teacher corps, while others say that rank-and-file teachers' rejection of the contract is an indication that the Baltimore Teachers' Union was too far ahead of its members. Others, like The Washington Post's editorial board, are already comparing the elements of this contract with the one approved, by a wide margin, by D.C. teachers.

But it's fair to point out that these contracts were signed in very different contexts. For instance, local regulations in D.C. gave the district the ability to design the teacher-evaluation system unilaterally, whereas the Baltimore evaluation system must be worked out jointly, and accord with new state laws and regulations governing evaluation. And the proposed Baltimore contract totally re-envisioned the compensation structure, whereas the finalized D.C. contract deals with bonus pay, but not the issue of automatic "step" and "lane" increases.

• Liana Heitin of Teacher magazine writes up a study comparing the selection of new teachers in the United States with those in top-performing countries like Finland, where entry to the profession is generally much tougher than it is here.

Her article also does a good job of surfacing some of the problems with "international benchmarking." We in the education community hear a lot of praise for Finland, but it's difficult to know empirically exactly what features of that system are producing such good outcomes. Is it this issue with teacher quality? Is it, as some have asserted, the lack of standardized testing? Is it a function of a country's generally more homogenous population, its size, its social-welfare model? Notice also that most comparisons don't note some of the other tradeoffs in education systems, such as the fact that countries like Singapore generally have larger class sizes than we do here in the United States.

The New York Times does a front-page profile on the American Federation of Teachers' Randi Weingarten. The key questions raised in the article are still, in my mind open for debate: Is Randi's push to shift her union's thinking on things like teacher evaluation and due process a carefully crafted bid to keep the union relevant and part of the reform discussion, or is it a reaction to the teacher-effectiveness push from above? Would AFT be pushing forward on these issues if, say, a Republican president had pressed the teacher-evaluation issue?

• Alec Baldwin, who's now penning pieces for the Huffington Post, seems taken aback at the often vicious nature of discussions about teacher policy, unions, and the conversation about teacher effectiveness. Buck up, Alec; you should see the stuff that crosses my e-mail box on a daily basis.

Ok, I've posed a lot of questions to these recent happenings...let's hear your take.

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