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How Not to Win Support for Teachers Unions

In a blunder that will undermine taxpayer support for teachers unions when they need it the most, A.J. Duffy, president of the 40,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles, urged members to boycott the Los Angeles Times ("Union leaders calls on L.A. teachers to boycott Times," Aug. 16). The newspaper's sin was to publish a front-page story that reported on the use of the value-added model to estimate the effectiveness of teachers in the nation's second largest school district, and include the names of a few teachers as cases in point ("Who's teaching L.A.'s kids?, Aug. 15).

Duffy maintained in a series of automated calls to teachers that the database used was "an irresponsible, offensive intrusion into your professional life that will do nothing to improve learning." He has every right to protest the fairness of the value-added model. But by calling for a boycott, Duffy adds fuel to the fire of criticism that teachers unions obstruct reform. His actions will be seen as killing the messenger, rather than attacking the message.

It's this tactic that will not help teachers unions win friends and influence people. What Duffy should have done is to challenge his opponents to a debate on the issue. If they refuse, then he can always rebut their views through an op-ed, letter to the editor and advertisement. Why he chose instead to try to threaten the Times through a loss of readers is unclear. It was certainly bound to backfire. On Aug. 17, for example, the newspaper's lead editorial defended its coverage of the issue ("Teachers, by the numbers"). In the adjacent letters to the editor column, readers weighed in, both pro and con ("What we can learn"). There will be more to come, despite of, or maybe because of, Duffy's gaffe. What is clear is that his ham fisted strategy is counterproductive.

I say that even though I strongly support teachers unions. But transparency is always the most effective way to address controversy. This is particularly so with the value-added model in today's accountability movement. Although the metric has been gaining popularity over the last few years, it is still arguable that it does what its supporters claim. Duffy could use the opinions of respected psychometricians as ammunition in his rebuttal. Although the Times tried to clarify what the model is and how it works, its judgment in naming and shaming teachers who do not measure up was indefensible.

This latter point cannot be emphasized enough. Finland, which is widely acknowledged to have the best schools and the best teachers in the world, rejects the measures to establish accountability that the U.S. is now embracing ("Dynamic Inequality and Intervention," W. Norton Grubb, Oct. 2007). It selects a sample of some 100 schools annually for testing. The results are used strictly for diagnostic purposes, and never made public. According to Grubb, the tests are "not for invidious comparisons, or excoriating teachers, or demeaning students, or identifying the groups performing the worst."

Teachers unions are at a crossroads in their history. It would be unfortunate if the good work they do in protecting the rights of teachers were tainted by the poor judgment sometimes exhibited by their leaders.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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