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Will D.C.-Union Contract Benefit Students?

The agreement reached last month between the District of Columbia and the union representing its 4,000 teachers was hailed by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial on July 1 as a model for school districts across the country ("Teacher Tenure Breakout").

The Journal's jubilation was understandable because the contract established the rules for tenure, seniority and pay that the newspaper and others had long fought for. Equally important - or arguably more important - in their eyes, it demonstrated that determined education reformers can stand up to hidebound teachers unions and triumph.

But the question no one is asking is whether the deal reached will help students get a quality education. It's what matters most in the final analysis. If past experience is any guide, however, the outlook is guarded.

First, teacher evaluation will be largely based on student progress on standardized tests. So much has already been written about the subject that I hesitate to comment on it. Nevertheless, it's important to emphasize once again that this obsession leads to the conversion of classrooms into test preparation factories. For the disadvantaged students in D.C. schools, this strategy will certainly boost scores, but it will not provide the enrichment that they so desperately need.

Second, teachers will also be judged by administrators and "master educators" appointed by Chancellor Michelle Rhee's office. The details have not yet been announced as I write this post. But what weight will be given to the former's ratings relative to the latter's? Will either group of observers be required to be certified in the subject matter the teacher is teaching? If not, the practice makes a mockery of evaluation.

Third, when heavy emphasis is focused on standardized test scores, the stage is invariably set for Campbell's Law to make itself felt. The more any quantitative indicator is used for decision making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor. This has been the experience this year in Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia and elsewhere, where investigations have pointed to cheating by educators on standardized tests required under the No Child Left Behind Act. With teachers in D.C. able to add upwards of $30,000 to their salaries if they show progress on high-stakes tests, the provision will create enormous pressure to engage in unethical practices.

Finally, with the union weakened, Rhee will be able to ride roughshod over teachers she does not like for one reason or another. This concern is not an exaggeration. The New York Times published a series of columns a few years ago describing how Lee McCaskill, the former principal of Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City's three elite high schools, so bullied teachers that many with stellar records asked to be transferred ("Principal's War Leads to a Teacher Exodus"). Abusive administrators can make life hell for teachers. Certainly without a strong union, the potential increases.

Nothing I've said is meant to imply that change is not needed in the District of Columbia's schools. It is undeniably a troubled system. But real reform means addressing the appalling socioeconomic factors that characterize the backgrounds of too many students there. In the absence of an announcement of plans to do so, I remain skeptical.

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