Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Taking on the teachers unions

Taking on the teachers unions
By Frederick M. Hess and Martin R. West  |  March 29, 2006

IT IS RARE -- and risky -- for a governor and national political aspirant to put the interests of children above those of a constituency that has as much electoral clout as the teachers unions. Yet Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has done just that with the education reform package he proposed last September and is touting nationwide.

The governor's bill seeks to upend the status quo in teacher pay and evaluation that has been written into collective bargaining agreements across the Commonwealth. Specifically, it would offer annual bonuses for teachers with a math or science degree who pass the teacher test in their subject, forgo tenure, and receive a satisfactory year-end evaluation. It would also make teachers in all subjects eligible for a bonus upon receiving an exemplary evaluation and empower superintendents to reward teachers who work in low-performing schools. Crucially, the bill would remove teacher evaluation from the collective bargaining process and establish statewide criteria for assessing each teacher's ''contribution to student learning."

While several states and districts nationwide are experimenting with differential pay for teachers, Romney's proposals are noteworthy for their breadth and the size of the proposed bonuses. All told, an effective math or science teacher could receive up to $15,000 a year in three bonuses.

Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, predictably criticized Romney's proposals as ''inequitable, divisive, and ineffective." The MTA denounced the proposal as ''uniquely designed to destroy collegiality in a school," ignoring the fact that performance pay is routine in such other professions as medicine, law, and engineering, not to mention in the Commonwealth's first-rate universities, including those that are unionized by the MTA.

The governor can expect a similarly abrupt reception nationwide -- a fact he should consider as he eyes a presidential run. Teachers unions control enormous political resources, including a network of readily mobilized voters. Moreover, the public likes to think that the interests of teachers and kids are always aligned, a line tirelessly advanced by the unions. The National Education Association's political action committee even bills itself as the ''Fund for Children and Public Education."

However, what the unions want may not always be good for students. Teacher pay is exhibit one. While unions have fought to boost salaries, they have resisted efforts to ensure that this money recruits, rewards, and retains the most essential or effective teachers. Current pay scales reward teachers only for experience and graduate credits, neither of which is a meaningful predictor of quality. The result is that districts reward long-serving veterans while failing to recognize those teachers who improve student achievement, possess high-demand skills, or take on more challenging assignments.

Proposals to revamp collective bargaining by tackling teacher pay are only a start. Teacher collective bargaining agreements extend far beyond bread and butter matters, frequently privileging the interests of employees over those of students.

Across the nation, contracts include clauses that prohibit principals from factoring student achievement into teacher evaluation, that allow senior teachers to claim the most desirable school and classroom assignments, and that engage in a dazzling array of minutiae, such as when teachers are allowed to wear an NEA membership pin. As a result, schools are organized and managed more like mid-20th century factories than professional 21st century centers of learning. None of this serves students, valuable teachers, or communities.

Improving teacher collective bargaining is not only a question of knowing what to do, but of persuading school boards and the public to tackle the issue. State policymakers must change the environment in which negotiations take place by maintaining pressure on local officials to raise student achievement. Local newspapers must shine light on contract provisions that serve adults rather than children. School boards and superintendents need to push for fundamental changes in contract language and fully exploit ambiguous language where it exists. Civic leaders and citizens must support management measures that may entail, at least initially, disgruntled unions and increased labor unrest.

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Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Martin R. West is a research fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

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