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Union Shifts Position on Teacher Evaluations


Ohanian Comment: So what should I do? Just reserve permanent space for Outrage of the Day for the teacher unions who, time after time after, time choose "seat at the table" over teacher professionalism? My problem is I'm drained of outrage. The assault has been so constant and gone on for so long, I just feel there isn't any left. And I'm sitting on the sidelines. Imagine how it feels to be a student or a teacher in a school whose population is poor. Just try to imagine it.

By Sharon Otterman

CHICAGO â Catching up to the reality already faced by many of its members, the nationâs largest teachersâ union on Monday affirmed for the first time that evidence of student learning must be considered in the evaluations of school teachers around the country.

In passing the new policy at its assembly here, the 3.2 million-member union, the National Education Association, hopes to take a leadership role in the growing national movement to hold teachers accountable for what students learn â an effort from which it has so far conspicuously stood apart.

But blunting the policyâs potential impact, the union also made clear that it continued to oppose the use of existing standardized test scores to judge teachers, a core part of the federally backed teacher evaluation overhauls already under way in at least 15 states.

âN.E.A. is and always will be opposed to high-stakes, test-driven evaluations,â said Becky Pringle, the secretary-treasurer of the union, addressing the banner-strung convention hall filled with the 8,200-member assembly that votes on union policy.

The unionâs desire both to join and to stand apart from a White House-led effort to improve teacher performance represents the delicate situation it finds itself in as it confronts what Dennis Van Roekel, the union president, called âthe worst environment for teachers Iâve ever seen.â Amid deep budget cuts and layoffs, the union has lost more than 30,000 members this year, and is fighting back against legislative efforts to curtail its collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Arizona and other states.

In response, union leaders, who spent last yearâs Fourth of July weekend challenging the Obama administrationâs promotion of charter schools and high-stakes standardized testing, spent this yearâs trying to close ranks and encouraging even those union members who are furious at those policies to embrace calls for change â if on their own terms.

On Monday, the assembly voted by secret ballot to give Mr. Obama an early endorsement for his 2012 presidential run, a move that will allow the union to begin channeling its considerable political resources to the campaign. The strong showing in favor â 72 percent â was foreshadowed by the standing ovations that greeted Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who gave an impassioned pro-union speech here Sunday.

âThere is an organized effort to place the blame for the budget shortfall squarely on the shoulders of teachers and other public workers, and it is one of the biggest scams in modern American history,â Mr. Biden told the educators. In contrast to that threat, the differences between the White House and the union, he said, were like disputes within the same family.

Bertha J. Foley, a middle school teacher from Fort Myers, Fla., said: âAll of the Republicans are worse on education than Obama. Iâm not saying I agree with everything, but you have to pick the least evil, the one who will do the least harm.â

The unionâs new dual role as defender of union protections and promoter of reform created some unlikely tableaus. At one point an angel-voiced folk singer with a guitar took to the stage to lead the thousands of teachers in a sing-along called âSolidarity Forever.â At another point, the narrator of a video projected on the hallâs multiple Jumbotrons began his report about inspiring teachers with the following sentence: âWe have a huge problem of teacher quality in this country.â

âTheyâre just shifting back and forth,â said Jana Wells, 53, a teacher from Glendale, Calif., who called herself one of the few Republicans representing the California caucus. âAnd on the endorsement of Obama, itâs scare tactics â itâs like if we donât do this right now, our enemies will win.â

The debate over the new teacher evaluation policy largely focused on the concern that by even mentioning test scores, the union would further open the door to their use. Some teachers also balked at another section of the policy â the proposal that failing teachers be given only one year to improve, instead of the standard two. But in the end a clear majority voted yes.

Segun Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the union, said the new policy was intended to guide, not bind, state and local union chapters. It tries to close the disconnect between the many local union chapters that have already assented to using student test scores in teacher evaluations, and the unionâs national policy that explicitly opposed their use. Now the union can offer those chapters support, and conduct research on the impact of standardized tests.

âWhat it says is, now we are willing to get into that arena,â Mr. Van Roekel said. âBefore, we werenât.â

The policy calls for teacher practice, teacher collaboration within schools and student learning to be used in teacher evaluations. But for tests, only those shown to be âdevelopmentally appropriate, scientifically valid and reliable for the purpose of measuring both student learning and a teacherâs performanceâ should be used, the policy states, a bar that essentially excludes all existing tests, said Douglas N. Harris of the University of Wisconsin, a testing expert.

Mr. Eubanks said, âWe believe that there are no tests ready to do that,â though he added that with the new national Common Core curriculum standards being rolled out, new tests might be created that could meet the bar.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nationâs second-largest teachersâ union, with 1.5 million members, has already stated that student test scores âbased on valid assessmentsâ should be a part of improved teacher evaluations.

But how much these new national policy statements will actually shift state and local union practice remains to be seen, experts said, assessing the work of both unions.

âAt the national level, what they are proposing really lacks much specificity at all,â said Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Washington. âThere really isnât much to hang your hat on. And with so many states and locals already out of the gate, itâs hard to see what new proposals they are bringing to the table at this point.â

Priscilla Savannah, a seventh-grade science teacher attending the convention from Shreveport, La., said, âItâs already too late.â

Ms. Savannahâs state is about to start using teacher evaluations that give standardized test scores heavy weight. âItâs going to take a major fight, and a lot of money, to change anything now,â she said.

— Sharon Otterman
New York Times

2011-07-05

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/us/05teachers.html?_r=1

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