Friday, October 23, 2009

Looking at the States

Another New York Times column of interest, "The Quiet Revolution". David Brooks talks about what Obama is doing for education reform in the United States.

The most interesting part of the article for me is where Brooks talks about teacher unions as one of the main obstacles to education reform. This makes me uncomfortable, because I am a member of a teachers' union, but I feel like I am a strong proponent of education reform. I fully recognize that teachers' unions can be stupid and short-sighted when it comes to changes and reforms. But one thing that I think education reform advocates miss is that a lot of reforms in the past have been poorly executed and have hurt teachers in ways that hurt the education system. The teachers' unions are all, to some degree, trying to prevent those kinds of mistakes from happening again.

Brooks says:
The changes also will mean student performance will increasingly be a factor in how much teachers get paid and whether they keep their jobs. There is no consensus on exactly how to do this (my italics), but there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores, and that teachers who do not need to be identified and counseled. Cracking the barrier that has been erected between student outcomes and teacher pay would be a huge gain.

The problem with making a reform when "there is no consensus on exactly how to do this" is that the reform can easily be done poorly. And teachers have too many experiences of short-sighted, foolish, or politically motivated administrators and politicians shoving lousy "reform" down their throats to be sanguine that this particular reform will magically come out all right.

For my part, statements like "there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores" sound great, but what exactly does that mean in terms of dealing with teachers. Are three years of bad results evidence of bad teaching? Five bad years? Two good years, then three bad ones? A good year, two bad ones, another good year, then another two bad ones? It seems like no one knows, yet the reformers want programs in place NOW to link student results to teacher pay and job security. Pardon my cynicism, but I find it hard to believe that a program put in place with this little understanding has much of a chance of working fairly or properly or efficiently.

If education reformers want to get the majority of teachers on their side, the reformers need to come up with some valid and verifiable ways of linking student outcomes to teacher pay. Anything else is going to harm and infuriate the teachers who are the ones who will truly be implementing any reforms.

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