Looking at the headlines coming out of Houston last night, it was a regular showdown at the school improvement corral. Teachers versus parents. Reformers versus status quo. Process versus outcomes. And in the words of far too many Simpsons episodes, we can’t possibly forget about the children!
For those late to the rodeo, last evening the Houston Independent School District School Board voted (unanimously, 7-0) to approve HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s teacher quality efforts. The plan allows the school district to terminate (as a last resort) teachers whose students are unable to make the grade on standardized tests. According to the numbers being circulated, about 3 percent of the HISD teacher force, or 400 teachers, could be affected by this new initiative. For those who want more on this, the full story can be found here in the Houston Chronicle.
Most see Grier’s efforts as a direct response to the current calls for teacher quality and accountability coming from Arne Duncan and the folks at the US Department of Education. Student performance remains the king. Effective teachers are the path to student performance. Ergo, students whose test scores don’t improve have ineffective teachers who may not be suited for the classroom. Or so the SAT logic goes. Grier is moving a real, tangible plan aligned with Duncan’s teacher quality pillar.
This vote has been brewing for weeks. As part of his negotiations with the teachers union, Grier tried to use AFT President Randi Weingarten’s speech from nearly a month ago (Eduflack’s analysis here) as grounds for the union to support his efforts. His argument was straightforward. If Weingarten was serious about rhetoric to fix a broken system and focus on effective teachers and student achievement, she should side with him on his teacher quality efforts. Why should 97 percent of HISD teachers be tarred by the student test scores of just 3 percent? And don’t forget, Weingarten embraced the idea of using student test scores as part of teacher evaluation.
The AFT prez failed to see the connection between her speech and HISD’s plans. As expected, Weingarten rose to the defense of her teachers and in opposition to any plan that would put the jobs of AFT teachers at risk. As she told the Houston Chronicle, “Houston is a perfect example of what not to do. The plan has all the wrong components, and it’s one of the reasons why teachers and parents are opposed to standardized testing.”
Typically, these sorts of battles are local. We see the local union and the local school district spar. Local parents and teachers lay their hearts on the rostrum at public hearing, and then a vote comes and all sides live to fight another day. If most national voices get involved at all, it is after the fact to either praise or condemn the local decisions. After all, who knows better about how to deal with student achievement and teacher quality in Houston than the folks in Houston.
Of course, this wasn’t the typical local issue. Superintendent Grier’s plan was the proverbial canary in the teacher quality mine. If he could get the board to approve his efforts, they could serve as a blueprint for similar efforts in other urban school districts across the country. If he failed, then the teachers unions would be able to demonstrate their strength, even in a weak union state like Texas (where most still refer to the unions as “teachers organizations.”
So heading into last evening’s vote, two of the loudest voices in education reform/school improvement gladly took up arms on Grier’s behalf.
Under the header “Nation’s Edu-Eyes Are On Houston Tonight,” Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform came out as Grier’s bad cop, going after Weingarten and the AFT:
We don’t question President Weingarten’s intent or sincerity, nor do we doubt her assertion that ineffective teachers are a minority of the teaching profession.
But far too often in the past, promises by union leaders for real reform over the airwaves have been squarely contradicted by the positions advanced by union officials in political backrooms. Both national unions have steadfastly treated teaching, despite the high stakes for children and communities, as a right rather than a privilege.
The first test of AFT’s commitment to the principles it outlined last month will begin tonight in Houston, and play out over the days and weeks ahead.
And the Education Equality Project, in the voice of its director, Ellen Winn, played good cop, offering a far more positive and forward-looking defense of Grier’s reform agenda:
Together, Superintendent Terry Grier (a signatory of the Education Equality Project) and the Houston Board of Education are embarking upon a comprehensive project to dramatically improve student achievement by placing a highly effective teacher in every classroom. Rigorous research efforts have demonstrated that – in the words of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind – “teacher quality is the single most important school factor in student success.”
Last month, the Board unanimously approved a plan to improve teacher evaluations starting next year. Going forward, teacher evaluations will give teachers an honest assessment of how much they’re helping their students learn. The evaluation process will include standardized test scores as one indicator of teacher success.
Tonight, Grier is asking the Board to approve a policy that would require principals to use all the information available to them—including value-added test scores—when making decisions about renewing a teacher’s contract. Value-added analysis is a statistical method used to measure teachers’ and schools’ impact on students’ academic progress rates from year to year. (The process only analyzes the change across one year relative to where a student begins, thereby leveling the playing field.)
The Education Equality Project emphatically encourages the Board to approve this critical proposal and commends Superintendent Grier for leading the charge to close the achievement gap. If Houston approves this policy, hundreds of thousands of students will be impacted. Think of the doors that will open to these students with better teachers and better chances at a good education – the chances they will now have for meaningful work and a real opportunity at attaining the American dream. How can we afford to keep those doors closed?
Together, DFER and EEP are defining a new paradigm with regard to urban education reform. We are now recognizing that school districts are no longer islands unto themselves, where local decisions are made to stay within the city boundaries. Instead, when one of the big 50 school districts acts, its repercussions can be felt across the nation. A good idea pursued by one is replicated by others. A plan that goes down in flames is avoided by any means possible. Houston is looking to do what is best for student success in the district. DFER and EEP are looking to defend and support those activities that can feed into the larger national objectives of school improvement and closing the achievement gap. And now both sides are working together to put a squeeze play on the system of old. One thing is for sure, this is the first in what will be many, many local skirmishes on new policies and plans aligned with the new federal education improvement agenda.
Many have been longing for the day when education decisionmaking would leave Washington DC and return back to the localities. The advocacy dynamic down in Houston may show just how that works in practicality. Let the locals act, and then have AFT, DFER, and EEP square off in the Lincoln-Douglas debates that will occur during and after the decisionmaking process.
Act locally and opine nationally!