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Fresh Air or Hot Air?

A new vision for education reform--and nagging questions about whether it can work.

It's been a good week for Randi Weingarten. In a speech Tuesday morning at the National Press Club, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voiced support for some major education reforms--most notably, tying students' test scores to teacher evaluations and making it easier to fire bad teachers. And the speech is already garnering a lot of positive buzz: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who stopped by the event, praised her for "showing courage," and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert said that her proposals, if implemented, would "represent a significant, good-faith effort [for teachers' unions] to cooperate more fully with state officials and school administrators in the monumental job of improving public school education."

Indeed, Weingarten's speech marks something of a policy shift for unions--and it comes at a critical time in education reform. Applications for Race to the Top (RTTT) are due on January 19, and the heftiest requirement for shares of the $4.35-billion pie is improving teacher quality. Many local teachers' unions have made news by bucking their states' applications, and Weingarten's speech--"to the nation," as the AFT website hyped it--does its part to stomp out the bad press and show that her union wants to work closely, and harmoniously, with state departments of education.

But, even with all of its positive, progressive aspects, the speech still begs several important questions:

--Which test scores should be used to judge a teacher's performance?

Weingarten proposed using "[s]tudent test scores based on valid and reliable assessments"--along with other measures of progress--in teacher evaluations. (She didn't say how heavily scores should be used, relative to the other measures.) But what tests are the most "valid and reliable"? A front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times notes that many states have softened the requirements on exams meant to determine whether students are ready to graduate high school, and Arne Duncan has criticized increasingly weak assessments of student progress as a "race to the bottom." Next month, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers will release the much-anticipated results of the Common Core Standards project, which will propose national benchmarks for math and reading. Will new tests based on these standards--if states even agree to adopt them--be the assessments Weingarten referred to? Or should they be the NAEP exams? Or some other measure? It's unclear. And, adding to the confusion, Weingarten disqualified comparing the test results of a current class of students with those of a previous year's, which The Washington Post noted "would appear to disqualify much, perhaps most, of the currently available state testing data from use in evaluation."

--What about the weight given to teacher seniority?

Weingarten said the union will work with Ken Feinberg, who oversaw the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and currently serves as Obama's "compensation czar," to create a "fair, efficient protocol for adjudicating questions of teacher discipline and, when called for, teacher removal." It's a no-brainer that the union should support firing teachers who've engaged in misconduct. Weingarten also said she wants to use improved evaluations to determine "who shouldn't be in the classroom at all." (She didn't elaborate on what time frame struggling teachers should be given in which to improve before facing dismissal. She did tell Bob Herbert that even tenured teachers should be let go if they're not up to snuff.) But she didn't address the serious problems with seniority policies, which unions notoriously cling to. In many school districts, teachers are given top priority in hiring based on years of service, not whether they're the most effective educators. They can even bump junior teachers out of jobs, and, when it comes to budget-related lay-offs, districts often follow a "first-hired, first-fired" mantra. Perhaps Weingarten was hinting at the need to fix these problems when she said that new teacher evaluations should be used in "employment decisions." But this is no time to be vague: Improving teacher evaluations and due process must happen in conjunction with changes to seniority policies.

--What about performance pay?

Weingarten said new teacher evaluations should create "a system that would inform tenure, employment decisions and due process proceedings." But she didn't explicitly support tying teachers' salaries to their work in the classroom (although she did praise New Haven, Connecticut, for recently agreeing to a school-by-school performance pay scheme). In too many school districts, teachers are paid relative to their seniority, not ability, and performance pay has long been a sticking point for unions in discussions about education reform. (Most notably, an audience of union members booed then-presidential candidate Obama in July 2008 for supporting the idea.) A critical aspect of promoting teacher quality must be rewarding those who are best at their jobs.

--What about implementation?

Nowhere in the speech did Weingarten explain how exactly her proposals would be put into place. Will AFT affiliates be instructed to endorse them? Or will they have the option of doing so? How long will it take to get any of this off the ground (for instance, when will Feinberg be done developing the due process protocol)?

--And what about that other teachers' union?

Weingarten said that she had written to several organizations asking them to join the AFT in improving labor-government relations in education policy discussions. Not on the list? The National Education Association (NEA), the country's other (and largest) teachers' union. The broad success of Weingarten's proposals depends on all unions agreeing to shift their stances--and the NEA isn't ready to do that. Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality for the NEA, told me that, while his union generally endorses Weingarten's speech and "support[s] experimentation," it maintains "a formal position of opposition against using state standardized test scores for teacher evaluations."

Weingarten deserves praise for her progressive speech, but I'm saving thunderous applause until the outstanding questions about her proposals get answered. 

Seyward Darby is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic.

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