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Why Teachers Unions Are Losing Support

Teachers unions have been called practically every bad name under the sun for so long that it seemed impossible to add to the list. At least that's what I thought until I reflected on events unfolding in California, particularly in the Los Angeles Unified School District. On that basis, I'd now like to add another name: oblivious. Let me explain.

In June, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that the district had been violating children's rights to an equal educational opportunity by ignoring the Stull Act of 1971. That's because the act required student test scores to be used in teacher evaluations. The court, however, held that the details of teacher evaluation be collectively bargained. But then Assembly Bill 5 was reintroduced. If passed, it would leave the court's decision "moot by gutting that provision of the Stull Act" ("Sorry, teachers, test scores should count," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16). Its resurfacing at this time can only be attributed to the efforts of the California Teachers Assn., widely considered to be the state's most powerful union.

Adding to my dismay, United Teachers Los Angeles sent messages to 38,000 teachers and healthcare professionals on Aug. 13 urging them to avoid participating in the district's voluntary performance review system that includes student test scores. The system is an experiment that uses standardized test scores as one factor in determining teacher performance. Last year, approximately 700 teachers and principals at 100 schools participated. UTLA defended the messages at this time for three reasons: test scores are notoriously unreliable for high-stakes decisions; state standardized tests will be gradually phased out over the next three years; and the system was created in the absence of negotiations ("LAUSD, teachers unions spar over voluntary evaluation system," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16).

As readers of this column know, I've long supported teachers unions. I haven't changed my view. But the events described above are going to backfire by turning off voters who are on the fence. I don't blame them for their new disaffection. Why should teachers who willingly want to take part in an experimental program be discouraged from doing so? Even though standardized test scores have been found to be unreliable in identifying effective instruction ("Problems With The Use Of Student Test Scores To Evaluate Teachers," Economic Policy Institute, Aug. 29, 2010), I believe there is a need for further confirmation to settle the matter once and for all. By taking the position it has, UTLA is unwittingly shooting itself in the foot. Its action will be seen by many as further proof that teachers unions exist primarily to protect its members, rather than to serve students.

The leadership of teachers unions across the country needs to realize that public schools are at an historic crossroads. Whether they will even exist decades from now is uncertain. If they somehow manage to survive, however, I don't think they'll be recognizable. That's why teachers unions need all the support they can muster. They're certainly not going to get it by repeating what is taking place in California. It's no way to win friends and influence people.

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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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