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NCLB Outrages

How Teachers Unions Lost the Media

Here's what they claim: as a result of data collected under No Child Left Behind provisions, it is easier to figure out which teachers are succeeding. Bad data derived from bad tests determine successful teachers.

This is a new low on education commentary. Consider the source(s). A hack job is a hack job, be it in The New Yorker or the Wall Street Journal.


By Richard Whitmire and Andrew J. Rotherham

Quick: Which newspaper in recent editorials called teachers unions "indefensible" and a barrier to reform? You'd be excused for guessing one of the conservative outlets, but it was that bastion of liberalism, the New York Times. A month ago, The New Yorker—yes, The New Yorker—published a scathing piece on the problems with New York City's "rubber room," a union-negotiated arrangement that lets incompetent teachers while away the day at full salary while doing nothing. The piece quoted a principal saying that union leader Randi Weingarten "would protect a dead body in the classroom."

Things only got worse for the unions this past week. A Washington Post editorial about charter schools carried this sarcastic headline: "Poor children learn. Teachers unions are not pleased." And the Times weighed in again Monday, calling a national teachers union "aggressively hidebound."

In recent months, the press has not merely been harsh on unions—it has championed some controversial school reformers. Washington's schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who won't win any popularity contests among teachers, enjoys unwavering support from the Post editorial page for her plans to institute merit pay and abolish tenure.

Editorial pages of major papers nationwide have begun to demand accountability for schools, despite objections from vested interests. Since the Obama administration took an unexpectedly tough line on school reform, the elite media response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"All the reforms unions oppose—charter schools, testing, accountability, No Child Left Behind, performance pay—have been around for a while now and the disasters the unions predicted have not come to pass," said Richard Colvin, who runs the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media in New York. "The unions are out of touch and are courting irrelevance."

Teachers and administrators who once relied on a steady stream of critical stories about charter schools (which they see as competitors) now witness a flow of laudatory articles. Fly-by-night charter operators still get their comeuppance in the press, but these days reporters are just as likely to profile the high-performing charters saving thousands of inner-city children from near-certain academic death . . . and then to ask why regular public schools can't do the same.

"Through the growing list of high-profile success stories, like KIPP [charter schools], the public is starting to understand that reform is actually possible," says Joe Williams, a former journalist who is now executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. "That's a big deal," argues Mr. Williams, "because the hopelessness that marred previous reform eras took a lot of people's eyes off the prize."

This new attitude in the press has little to do with the media and everything to do with changed public opinion. Parents are familiar with headlines about the educated work force in the U.S. falling behind international competitors. The public, for the most part, no longer sees school accountability measures as a plot to harm public schools. Indeed, according to a recent poll by the journal Education Next, almost three in four Americans support a national test for students.

Plus, as school reform moves from the abstract to the concrete, reporters have more to write about. Take charter schools as an example. For years, they were a messy story for reporters. Of the 4,600 charter schools around the country, most do no better than comparable traditional public schools. Some, in fact, do worse.

But that's not why charter schools are changing the education conversation. Among those schools, roughly 300 high-performing charters have emerged to accomplish something once thought impossible. They take low-income urban students previously viewed as a lost cause and turn them out college-ready. The success of these charters shows that being born black or Hispanic in poverty to poorly educated parents won't necessarily lead to bad educational outcomes. Good teaching might be able to overcome all of these factors. And if charter schools can close the education gap, why not traditional public schools?

How the teachers unions are answering that question explains much of the negative backlash against them. Recently, when the Baltimore education establishment witnessed a highly effective charter school blossom in that city, the union—saying it was responding to complaints from teachers at the school—forced the union-represented school to pare back its longer teaching hours, a key ingredient of its success. The resulting press coverage was brutal: In an editorial called "Don't fix what works," the Baltimore Sun noted that the teachers union "[lost] sight of what's important—the kids."

One of the aforementioned New York Times editorials was prompted by the teachers union's strong-arming of the New York Legislature to outlaw any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers for tenure. (Several states have similar bans, and right now just a few states use data on outcomes to evaluate teachers.) Unions are asking the public to believe that teachers should never be judged on their effectiveness. Even if the media were in the tank for the unions that would be a tough sell.

Of course, in the past it was difficult to measure teacher performance. But now, as a result of data collected under No Child Left Behind provisions, it is easier to figure out which teachers are succeeding. "Data and results are challenging an industry that was traditionally driven by hope, hype and good intentions," says Jane Hannaway, the director of education policy at the Urban Institute. Ms. Hannaway argues that in the long run these emerging databases may be the most important dividend of today's school accountability policies.

The press loves to write about numbers because data make stories easier to quantify. But as more and more journalists—and Americans in general—learn that barely half of minority students complete high school in four years or that only about 15% of low-income students earn a college degree within nine years of starting high school, they're realizing the gravity of the nation's educational problems.

"It's always been hard to get rid of bad teachers," says Linda Perlstein, public editor for the National Education Writers Association. "But now people are realizing it doesn't have to be—especially at a time they're hanging onto their own jobs with their fingertips."

Mr. Whitmire, USA Today editorial page editor, is immediate past president of the National Education Writers Association. Mr. Rotherham writes the blog Eduwonk.com.

— By Richard Whitmire and Andrew J. Rotherham
Wall Street Journal
2009-10-01


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