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Teachers Unions Are Changing Course

Facing mounting criticism that they prevent even the worst teachers from being fired, teachers unions are taking steps to streamline the dismissal process. No doubt their actions are hastened along by their realization that they are at risk of becoming an anachronism. But there's more to the story than mere self-survival.

In late February, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, proposed a plan that would give tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory by their principals a maximum of one year to improve ("Leader of Teachers' Union Urges Dismissal Overhaul," New York Times, Feb. 24). Those who did not would be terminated within 100 days. This is a dramatic change from the existing policy of sending such teachers to the euphemistically titled Temporary Reassignment Center, or more widely known as the Rubber Room, where they receive full pay and benefits while their cases drag on for years ("The Rubber Room," The New Yorker, Aug. 31, 2009).

Less publicized was the position taken on the same issue by Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association ("Dismissal of Teachers,"New York Times, Jan. 30). Since 2003, N.E.A. affiliates have also been working to speed the fair dismissal process along. For example, Clark County, Nev., has operated under a joint agreement that has reduced the average time for dismissal by 75 percent. And the New Jersey Education Association proposed a plan to replace administrative hearings with binding arbitration.

So far so good. But it's important to put these changes in perspective to avoid getting our hopes up too high. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote that replacing the bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers with an average teacher would "dramatically improve student achievement. The U.S. could move from below average in international comparisons to near the top" ("There Is No 'War on Teachers,' " Oct. 19).

I seriously doubt his prediction. Both Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute and Paul Thomas of Furman University have shown that even the best schools can do only so much. That's because students spend about 1,150 waking hours a year in school, compared with about 4,700 waking hours a year with their families and in their neighborhoods. If this is the case, then it's overly optimistic to believe that getting rid of dreadful teachers will catapult American students to the top.

I want to make it clear that bad teachers have no business being in the classroom. They need to be identified early on using multiple measures and provided systematic support to improve. If they do not improve within a year, they should be fired. I emphasize, however, the importance of relying primarily on peer rather than administrative evaluation. First, administrators do not possess the subject matter expertise needed to accurately evaluate instruction across the wide range of courses typically offered. Moreover, teachers are much less likely to let favoritism influence their ratings of other teachers. Finally, contrary to widespread belief, teachers are far tougher in their judgments than administrators, probably because they directly feel the negative effects in their classrooms of their colleagues' ineffectiveness.

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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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