Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Reform or “Reform”

Teachers unions are obviously getting nervous about education reform. In an effort to get in front of the movement and lead it instead of standing athwart history, yelling “stop” (and getting trampled for the effort), both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) have released plans that they claim are good-faith efforts at “reform.”

“As more states and districts seek to improve teacher evaluation, the risk is that reform is done to teachers rather than with them,” said the head of the NEA in a statement accompanying the organization’s “Proposed Policy Statement on Teacher Evaluation and Accountability.” In a similar document released earlier this year, Randi Weingarten, the head of the AFT, released recommendations for “a procedure for teacher discipline that could be utilized as a framework for processing fairly and expeditiously allegations of teacher wrongdoing.”

Though both the AFT and the NEA proposals touch on issues of tenure, they are dealing with two entirely different subjects. The AFT is proposing a system that will, after a 100-day process replete with multiple hearings and meetings, allow for the termination of teachers guilty of “wrongdoing such as criminal offenses in the classroom, abusive practices toward students, and discrimination.” It quite explicitly ignores “allegations of teacher effectiveness.” The NEA proposal, on the other hand, is (supposedly) designed to improve the process of getting incompetent teachers out of the classroom.

These proposals come in reaction to nightmarish stories of dismissals that take years and cost school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. Are they superior to the status quo?

Short answer? No, not at all. Longer answer? See below.

Let’s look at the new NEA proposal first. What has been offered by the NEA Board is little more than a reiteration of the status quo. They want to maintain tenure (referred to as “career status” here), which would be achieved after completing “probationary status” and either meeting or exceeding expectations for the final two years of probationary status. Evaluations, meanwhile, will only consist partly of demonstrations of “a teacher’s impact on student learning and growth,” and even then, it might be determined on wishy-washy grounds instead of concrete measures (like standardized testing or value-added evaluations).

What happens if a teacher doesn’t pass muster and a principal wants him fired? Well, “ratings by more than one evaluator must be provided in support of an action.” If a teacher doesn’t like the outcome? “The teacher must have the right to contest the evaluation, and have access to the information necessary to do so. … The teacher may be counseled to leave the profession or subject to fair, transparent and efficient dismissal process that provides due process.” In other words, the same black hole of bureaucratic nonsense that we have now is what the NEA considers a brave “reform.”

What about the AFT proposal? In a way, this document is even more absurd. The long and the short of it is this: It seems that a teacher could not show up for weeks, give no excuse, and still wait out a 100 day hearing process, collecting pay all the while, and still might not be let go.

Imagine how that would play out in the real world:

Boss: “You didn’t come into work for the last two weeks. Is everything okay?”

You: “Yeah, just didn’t feel like it.”

Boss: “OK. You’re fired.”

How does this play out in the education world?

Principal: “You didn’t come into work for the last two weeks. Is everything okay?”

Teacher: “Yeah, just didn’t feel like it.”

Principal: “OK. You’re fired.”

Teacher: “Not so fast, buddy! First off, one of my fellow teachers or a student or a parent needs to file a formal complaint with you. Then, you have to file that complaint with the superintendent. Then, the superintendent has to notify me and my AFT rep via certified mail within three days of receiving the complaint. You have to meticulously detail all the absences. I might ask for a supplementation of additional facts. Then we’ll undergo a preliminary screening process, and follow that up with a formal hearing. (You better hope you can win that formal hearing, because if you don’t, you’ll have to pay my union for the representation they provided.) After that, we’ll select a “Hearing Examiner” (approved by my union, naturally, who you, naturally, will have to compensate), before we finally have a hearing. After the Hearing Examiner hands down their decision and punishment – which can range from nothing to a suspension to a dismissal – I can then file an appeal with the courts as applicable by state law. Did you know that “the vast majority of states provide an appeals process”? Neat, huh!

And this is the improved process, according to the AFT. Leaving aside the problems with using arbitrators (as this New Yorker article demonstrates, they have a vested interest in keeping the unions happy), it’s hard to see how a reasonable person could consider this a real improvement.

In the world of the teachers unions, however, these proposals are seen as legitimate progress. That’s how topsy turvy the system has become. You want a reform proposal? Here’s a simple one for you:

Give administrators the power to fire teachers who deserve to be fired, whether or not it’s for not showing up for work/committing a felony/sexual abuse/drug use/discrimination, or for failing their students in the classroom.

There’s a one-sentence reform package that is infinitely more effective than 15 combined pages from the NEA and the AFT. I offer it to our nation’s school systems gratis.

Categories: Teachers Unions