You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Union Wind Blows

Twenty years of schooling in Los Angeles and you’re lucky if you can get any job, let alone one on the day shift.

Bob Dylan penned the words in the headline (sans the union part) almost a half century ago but having been quoted by many, they live on. The latest example of the lyrics’ relevance can be applied to a new 58 page report commissioned by United Way and several civil rights’ groups, produced by the National Council on Teacher Quality and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation…and the reactions of a teachers union boss.

Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in LAUSD was published last week, and there were no major surprises in it. Education reformers have been aggressively campaigning for similar changes for many years, and various recommendations from this report are already in force in other states. (While dealing specifically with Los Angeles, its findings could be readily applied to the rest of California. Local school districts do have some power, but education policy decisions are typically made at the state level.)

Among other things, the report, which included interviews with over 1,500 teachers and principals, recommended changes to the current union contract and to state laws regulating staffing, evaluations, tenure, compensation and work schedules. Some of the prescriptions include using criteria other than seniority if layoffs are necessary and utilizing standardized test scores as part of a teacher’s evaluation and when making staffing decisions. Additionally, it was suggested that teachers be denied permanent status until they have been in the classroom for four years instead of the current two.

The report also suggested giving principals considerably more power, stating they should be able to hire any teacher of their choosing, and at the same time make it easier for them to get rid of incompetents. As things stand now, perverse incentives may lead principals to overlook the failings of poorly performing teachers which, over time, make it difficult to get rid of them: “The online evaluation system includes a pop-up warning telling principals who have selected ‘needs improvement’ for 3 or more of the 27 indicators to contact Staff Relations and present documentation to reinforce the ratings.”

The report was particularly tough on seniority, claiming that California is one of only 12 states that mandates layoffs be conducted in order of reverse seniority. In other words, under the existing system, layoffs are made by last hired, first let go, regardless of the quality of the teacher.
Since many of the recommendations are in place elsewhere, why not California?

Other states either have weaker state teachers unions than the California Teachers Association, or they have governors and state legislators who refuse to cave to unreasonable union demands. Conversely, we have the most powerful state teachers’ union in the country, as well as a governor and legislature that for the most part regularly kowtow to the organization that helped put them into office.

While CTA has not formally responded to the report yet, United Teachers of Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy did, and his wind blew in a very predictable direction. Here are just a few of his reactions with my comments following in parenthesis:

• He criticized the study, calling it misguided and performed by non-educators. (What he means is that the union wasn’t consulted and therefore the study is bogus.)

• He sniffed, “Many must-place teachers are fine teachers,” (These are teachers that no principal wants but nevertheless must be given a teaching job as per the union contract.)

• He thinks that teachers should be encouraged to go back to school to “improve the quality of education for our kids.” As such, he faulted the study’s finding that too much money ($500,000,000) is wasted giving raises to teachers who take post-graduate coursework. (Studies have shown that teachers who take post-graduate courses are not more successful after taking these classes, but get salary increases anyway.)

• He charged that it is wrong to talk about reforming the evaluation and tenure systems without talking about how teachers are trained. (Yes, many of our schools of education are atrocious, but this has nothing to do with tenure – two years in the classroom should not guarantee a teacher a job for life.)

• He called the salary recommendations ludicrous. (Performance pay is a bête noire for the union crowd. Any deviation of the current salary schedule whereby teachers get an automatic yearly raise, essentially rewarding a teacher for not dying over the summer, is off-limits.)

• “Educational equity and teacher quality are important and we should all be talking about them,” he said. “But it should not be about an attack upon teachers unions.” (The teachers unions are the biggest obstacle to any meaningful education reform. Should we just get together, sing Kumbaya, blow kisses at each other and ignore the 500 lb. gorilla in the corner?)

• He said, “The people that put this report together are non-educators who believe that a market-driven approach is the only way to improve public education and we believe that is absolutely the death and destruction of public education.” (Since private school teachers are not organized, privatization is particularly irksome to unionistas.)

• He insisted that UTLA leaders are willing to agree to some changes, including revamping the evaluation system, but still vehemently opposes any use of student test scores to determine which teachers are the most qualified. (Reformers want to use standardized test scores as a part of teachers’ evaluations because they are an objective measure.)

Less than three weeks from being termed out as UTLA boss, A.J. Duffy is going out in a windstorm of union predictability. Incoming president Warren Fletcher has been very quiet throughout all this, giving some optimists hope that a new regime will be more accommodating to badly needed change. I would alert those folks to another song which came out 40 years ago this month. The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” included the lyric, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Yup, you still won’t need a weatherman; an unfavorable, unified wind will still be blowing in an all too predictable direction.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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