Tag Archives: teachers unions

Who Speaks for Teachers? The Supreme Court Will Have an Opinion

This week, the Supreme Court took a case that will ensure the excitement of the last few weeks will continue another term – at least for those in education.

SCOTUS has confirmed it will consider Friedrichs V. California Teachers Association, a case about the constitutionality of mandatory union dues. California teachers are arguing that paying mandatory union fees violates their free speech rights, especially when they disagree with the political positions the unions take. This is not the first time the Court has heard such an argument, and the ruling could have implications for public employees beyond teachers, but the case should be interesting in the education world because it literally pits a teacher, Rebecca Friedrichs, a 27-year veteran educator from Buena Park, California, against her union. It underscores the point that teacher voice is far from monolithic.

This recognition of the plurality of teacher voice is significant, as teacher demographics change and education reform efforts—from teacher evaluation to the Common Core State Standards—effect the daily experience of classroom teachers in different ways. The evolution of teacher voice has likely always been a trend, but the rise of teacher voice organizations has spotlighted the nuance these teachers add to the public debate about education policy decisions.

Take, for example, the debate over teacher tenure highlighted by the state lawsuit, Vergara v. California. Continue reading

Grade-Span Accountability Is A Bad Idea: Just Ask CAP and the AFT

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) have released a joint set of principles for ESEA reauthorization. They call for preserving statewide annual testing requirements for students, but they would base school-level accountability only on tests taken once per grade span—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Like the Education Trust, we think this is a bad idea. Grade-span accountability solves none of the problems of our current system while making other problems worse. Namely:

  1. It doesn’t address concerns about over-testing. Students could be taking the same number of tests as they have in the past, particularly if districts don’t reduce the number of duplicative and unnecessary local tests. CAP has rightly cited these local tests as the root of the problem, but this proposal would not reduce the number of federally mandated tests.
  2. Rather than decreasing the stakes on standardized tests, the AFT/CAP proposal would amplify them. Under their plan, a 5th grader would no longer be taking tests that reflect just on the 5th grade. His or her results would be the basis on which their entire school was judged. How, exactly, does this help “de-link [academic standards] from high-stakes tests”, as AFT President Randi Weingarten suggested a year ago?
  3. It makes it even harder to focus on specific subgroups. NCLB held schools accountable for every subgroup that had a sufficient number of students (called the minimum “n-size”). But under the CAP/ AFT proposal, a school’s 5th grade African-American, ELL, or SWD groups could be too small to meet the minimum n-size and the whole school’s disadvantaged students could go uncounted. This may sound wonky and technical, but it becomes a pretty huge issue even at relatively small n-sizes (such as 10 or 20 students). Arne Duncan has estimated that hundreds of thousands of students were invisible to state accountability systems because of n-size issues. CAP has praised states in the past for lowering their n-sizes, but their plan to have fewer students “count” toward a school’s accountability rating would mean less attention on important subgroups of students.
  4. We already have anecdotes about teachers who prefer to avoid tested grades and subjects. They may prefer teaching in 2nd grade, where there are no required standardized tests, than 3rd grade, where there are. But it’s tough to avoid the current tests altogether because they’re given in 3rd through 8th grade. Grade-span testing would make it even tougher to attract teachers into those few areas with much higher stakes. Who wants to be a 5th grade teacher when they might responsible for their entire school? In most places, they won’t even earn any extra money for all the added pressure! Moreover, this is exactly the kind of policy the AFT previously opposed for teacher evaluations. A year ago, Weingarten wrote: “In Florida, the system went completely haywire, giving teachers value-added scores for students they had never taught.” If it’s not okay for educator accountability, why is it okay for school accountability?
  5. Standardized tests are often criticized for merely reflecting student demographics. While states and districts have been slow to implement accountability systems that incorporate student growth, with annual statewide testing, we at least had a hope of shifting attention to how much progress students make over time. CAP and the AFT once shared this hope. Yes, not all that long ago AFT advocated for an ESEA that “judges school effectiveness—the only valid and fair basis for accountability—by measuring the progress that schools achieve with the same students over time.” With longer gaps between tests that count for accountability purposes, we’re more likely to lean even heavier on raw test scores, measures that are highly correlated with student demographics.
  6. Under this plan, students and families would still get a sense of how much progress they’re making. That’s important, but it’s odd to then turn around and suggest that states and school districts should ignore this same information for determining school progress. As CAP’s 2011 NCLB recommendations suggest, “Measuring and reporting student data is not sufficient to improve our nation’s schools. Congress should take several steps to ensure schools act on that data to boost student outcomes.” We assume they did not mean several steps backwards.
  7. AFT and CAP pitch their proposal as targeting interventions to schools with large achievement gaps. That’s true, it would identify schools with gaps. But, ironically, it would give no credit to schools that are actually closing those achievement gaps. CAP used to support annual gap-closing goals. But now, schools with large concentrations of economically disadvantaged and minority students, English Language Learners, or students with disabilities would all be penalized unfairly, worse than they are under NCLB.

Ultimately, this plan would move us closer to how other countries do testing: fewer tests with much higher stakes. Rather than having regular check-ups on student progress, with relatively low stakes on those results, we’d have much higher stakes attached to a smaller number of test scores. Fortunately, AFT and CAP have already told us why this is a bad idea.

The “Soft Bigotry of ‘It’s Optional’”–and What it Reveals about ESEA Politics, Policy, and Prospects

No matter the final outcome, one things is for certain: the new Congress has energized the debate over ESEA reauthorization. In the span of a weekend, numerous organizations articulated key principles for overhauling No Child Left Behind, including state education chiefscivil rights organizations, and the nation’s second largest teachers union, the AFT.

Now, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stepped into the fray, in a significant policy speech this morning, marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s call to Congress to expand the federal role in education–which resulted in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The big news item here is Secretary Duncan’s “line in the sand”–keeping the requirement for students to be tested statewide in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. But what sets Duncan’s remarks apart from the statements released over the weekend isn’t testing, but how strongly he defended other potential federal responsibilities in a new ESEA, including requirements for states to:

  • adopt college- and career-ready standards;
  • continue producing annual information for families about their child’s learning, and the learning environment and results for their schools as a whole;
  • maintain school accountability systems that include consequences for schools where students don’t make academic progress; and
  • improve teacher preparation programs, and establish teacher evaluation systems that include evidence of students’ learning.

Duncan also highlighted ways the federal government could be even more active in promoting opportunity, such as resource accountability to ensure that low-income and minority kids are not shortchanged when it comes to course access, effective teachers, and fiscal resources; new support for innovation and research that helps schools continuously improve; and an expanded role within ESEA to help states deliver high-quality preschool.

In defending a robust federal role, Secretary Duncan even co-opted President Bush’s talking point by calling out “the soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.’” That’s not just a great punch line. It also revealed much more about the politics of reauthorization, the confusing and convoluted federal education policy landscape, and the prospects of this particular effort to rewrite NCLB. Continue reading

In Defense of Standardized Testing

According to a Gallup poll last fall, one in eight teachers thinks that the worst thing about the Common Core is testing. On the surface, that’s hardly newsworthy. We know states are changing their tests to align to the new standards, and those changes have inevitably bred uncertainty, anxiety, and even hostility, especially when results could carry high stakes someday. But educators surveyed didn’t say they were upset that the tests were changing, or that there could be consequences tied to the results. Rather, they were upset that the tests exist. Specifically, 12 percent of U.S. public school teachers “don’t believe in standardized testing.” Much like the debate over global warming, these non-believers refuse to validate an unassailable fact: standardized testing does have positive– and predictive–value in education and in life, just as the Earth is, indeed, getting warmer.

More specifically, this righteous conviction—“I don’t believe in testing”—is at odds with most policy analysis. Regardless of political or ideological bent, most will admit that NCLB got one thing right: exposing achievement gaps through the disaggregation of student data. Where did that data come from? Standardized tests. Instead of ignoring longstanding disparities in schooling, NCLB’s testing regimen forced states and districts to quantify them, examine them, and most importantly, try to improve them. It gave policymakers, administrators, and educators a common language to talk about student achievement and progress, and evaluate what was working based on evidence, not perception. Sure, standardized testing needed to be refined over the last decade to enhance quality and reduce unintended consequences—and could still use upgrades and be open to further innovation. But the value of standardized testing in terms of better understanding and improving a public education system as vast and fragmented as ours is undeniable, right? Continue reading

NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?

It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.

But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.” Continue reading