AFT Policy Talk … and Walk?

About a month ago, Eduflack wrote about AFT President Randi Weingarten’s teacher quality treatises nailed upon the schoolhouse door, where the head of the nation’s second largest teachers’ union laid a vision for how AFT could get on board the new ed reform/school improvement train.  At the time, I wrote that she was talking a good talk, but the real challenge would be how AFT, and Weingarten in particular, would be able to walk the walk.

The first stroll of such a challenge took place deep in the heart of Texas earlier this month, when Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier tried to use Weingarten’s rhetoric to get his teachers’ backing for a new teacher quality initiative that allows the school district to remove teachers with lagging student test scores.  Grier’s Houston experiment was unanimously supported by the Houston ISD School Board, but was loudly opposed by local teachers and by the national AFT.  Eduflack reflects on the Houston showdown here, while the National Journal’s Education Experts Blog provides some terrific insights and views here.
Coming out of Houston, there were many an education agitator wondering if AFT is indeed serious about being part of the reform agenda.  After all, AFT is in the business of promoting teachers’ jobs and boosting their benefits.  The reform agenda is now focusing on teacher incentives and so-called quality issues, which leads quickly to a discussion of bonuses for some (but not all) teachers and the removal of teachers who are deemed ineffective.  (Though Eduflack recognizes the rubric for effectiveness is one of the biggest sticking points in the game right now).  So while AFT may be for reform and for teacher quality, can it ever really get behind any plan that will call for the removal of educators from the classroom or the professional entirely, particularly when they are dues-paying members protected under an AFT-negotiated collective bargaining agreement?  How does the reform rhetoric translate into action?
While I’m not sure if AFT has figured out how it truly positions the union on the teacher quality issue (other than knowing that there are few in DC with the knowledge and experience on the issue with the ability to take real action like the AFT’s Rob Weil), it is clear that AFT is not content in simply serving as the “loyal opposition” to the current education reform wave.  Yes, AFT is going to do its share of criticism on policies such as Race to the Top, proposed budget cuts, and the expected ESEA reauthorization, but recent actions signal that AFT may also be looking for some common ground where it can move the needle, make a difference, and be a part of real reforms.
Case in point, earlier this week, Weingarten convened an off-the-record discussion with U.S. EdSec Arne Duncan, WV Gov. Joe Manchin, and 25 or so other business leaders, academics and advocates (supposedly from both the left and right) to focus on the issue of career and technical education, or CTE.  For those not paying attention, CTE is one of those key issues to strengthening our educational pathways, improving high school graduation rates and ensuring more students are ready to enter the workforce with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed.  But it is an issue many stay away from, believing that the current version of “vo tech” isn’t sexy or innovative enough to warrant the spotlight.  So bringing business leaders and educators and politicians and researchers together to discuss how to improve CTE is an important step to move CTE closer to the forefront of the discussion.
Eduflack is told the CTE discussion is the first of many “invitation-only” discussions that Weingarten and the Albert Shanker Institute has planned for the next year.  By hosting a series of salons on what are perceived as the important education topics of the day, AFT is clearly seeking to move issues beyond RttT, i3, and reauth into the education policy spotlight.
Personally, I’m all for such discussions.  The more we discuss such issues, and the more people who discuss it, the better prepared we are to have real, serious, and meaningful policy discussions.  But as usual, the devil is in the details.  Beyond the invitation-only events of the usual suspects, how do we engage a broader discussion with those whose voices are rarely heard in such debates?  And more importantly, what do we do after these discussions are held?  What are the policy reccs that will come out of these meetings? What are the action steps?  What is the call to arms?  Those answers will ultimately determine where we are just talking or adding a little strut behind AFT’s words.

3 thoughts on “AFT Policy Talk … and Walk?

  1. I’m sure not privy to those discussions but as a member I understand the need. Were these RttT proposals to be put to the membership they would be overwhelmingly rejected. We’ve got x number of months for trust-building or the fight will be on. If a district used growth models to identify and propel a process to fire teachers as ineffective and the union did not present a vigorous legal defense, the union would be sued – and it would lose. I’m a moderate, but I wish those infernal VAMs could be univented. (of course I feel the same way about cell phones, but …) Its not the statistical models per se, its the way they are discussing it in a way that is divorced from reality. If systems sought to just fire x% of teachers at random, real world, even that wouldn’t be as bad. Its the assertion that those test growth results are valid in saying something about a particular teacher’s performance. How many teachers will be harmed unfairly? All I can say is enough will be. When a demonstably effective teacher is identified as ineffective, using evidence that is demonstably inappropriate, that teacher must fight. But, if we must proceed with VAMs, the National Jourbnal discussion gives a way out. Unfortunately its the only way out that I can see:”We are working with the Houston In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict (HISD) on a variety of reforms and have suggested that they adopt our Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) process, which we adapted from a system used in Columbus OH for over 25 years. We propose incorporating value-added data in the evaluation as well as applying the system to all teach­ers rather than confining it to new and untenured teach­ers or those who self-enroll.When a teacher is identified – either through observation or through value-added data – as “struggling,” the case comes before a seven-person PAR panel consisting of four teach­ers and three ad­min­i­stra­tors, where a five-vote majority is required for a decision. After checking to see whether the indicators are a “false positive” (extenuating circumstances such as serious illness or divorce explain the aberrant instructional ineffectiveness), the teach­er chooses a coach to work with over the course of the ensuing school year with the goal of bringing his or her instructional practice to an acceptable level…. and (when the teacher doesn’t improve)the pro­cess ends with a recommendation for dismissal.”Hershberg wrote that that approach has never been reversed in court.

  2. In regards to this issue, Gayle Fallon (local teacher org chairperson) noted that she counsels more people out of teaching in Houston ISD than anyone else. This is often the case. Teacher orgs and unions typically do not support ineffective teachers being in the classroom. Everywhere in Texas, the teacher orgs strongly support ineffective teachers being removed from the classroom. What AFT and teachers in Houston are against is the “black box” method used in Houston to identify effective and ineffective teachers. There is no coherent design or plan on how all of this will work. If HISD had sat down and devised a plan WITH the teachers, I am confident they would have worked out a plan that everyone would support. But, in repeating the same mistakes by leaders throughout education history, HISD admins is stuffing this policy down the throats of teachers. It never works this way.The devil is in the details and it seems you have missed the details in this story to make a larger point. Please dig a little deeper into this area before making assumptions about AFT and teacher org support or lack of support for this type of policy.

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