If you ever join a union, advocacy group or trade association, Randi Weingarten is the type of person you want in charge. As head of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten is an open, informed and energetic leader. She’s not condescending, dismissive or arrogant. Her engaging style goes a long way toward being able to reach people who don’t share her views.
But the more I listened to this New Yorker talk during a recent interview, the more I came away admiring President Barack Obama for standing up to Weingarten and her fellow travelers. Obama’s push for a new generation of education reforms comes at the expense of her educational union and others like it, which make up a cornerstone of the Democratic base. He and Education Secretary Arne Duncan run a political risk by taking on the teacher unions, but more power to them. Kids could win.
The most recent tiff is over whether a teacher’s evaluation should include an assessment of how much “value” an instructor adds to a student’s learning over a year’s time. Duncan wants to include that information so districts can use it to help determine a teacher’s pay.
On the field with him are such public school superintendents as Houston’s Terry Grier, New York’s Joel Klein and Washington’s Michelle Rhee. (Although she may not be long for her job since the mayor who appointed her just lost his Democratic primary race.)
Philanthropies like the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation have advanced the use of data in helping schools manage their students, which in turn gives districts a more precise understanding of teachers’ impact on their students. The Dell family foundation recently released a report that partly connected Houston’s progress among its middle schools to the district linking a teacher’s pay to student progress.
Weingarten and her powerful lobby don’t buy into this concept, at least not yet. During our interview, she spent most of her time talking about elements other than how much value a teacher adds going into the evaluation.
When she got to the “value-added” part, she indicated she is open but didn’t believe there is a valid means to determine whether a teacher has added value. She says we need to keep working on our techniques.
By all means, let’s keep working on the models. But it isn’t as if none exist.
The Los Angeles Times recently used one to evaluate how much value that city’s teachers add to their students. Districts like Houston’s have their own models. And plenty of smart people, such as those at the Grow Network, are considering ways of using data to assess progress. Models also are being developed that factor in the challenges teachers face, including that some kids are slow learners.
What’s more, there is no perfect value-added system and there never will be one, just as there will be no perfect employee evaluation in any profession.
But we do have ways to assess how much value a teacher adds to a child’s learning. And we need to use that data in evaluating teachers since we are talking about entrusting our most precious possessions, our kids, to them for nine months at a time.
Parents need to know whether teachers really are helping their children learn. If they are, bravo. If they aren’t, parents deserve the chance to consider alternatives — asking for a different teacher, working more intensely with their child or consulting with the instructor about what issues teacher and parent can work on together. None of that gets done without understanding what’s being added in the classroom.
Weingarten raised this question: How do we help all kids? Here’s a great way in which she could do plenty of kids a favor by getting her union to embrace.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News at firstname.lastname@example.org