Higher Standards—Just Not for Teachers

If you’re a regular reader, you already know our conclusion about teachers unions’ newfound opposition to the Common Core State Standards: It’s less about the standards themselves and more about deflecting any real accountability for making sure students actually meet the standards.

In fact, unions have been hiding their objections to increased accountability behind various bogeymen for years. Sometimes it’s a scary caricature of a superintendent (think Joel Klein or Michelle Rhee several years ago, or Cami Anderson today). Sometimes it’s a policy like Common Core. Sometimes it’s just an all-encompassing “anti-teacher” conspiracy theory.

Unions are forced to rely on these diversions because they know their underlying position—that teachers shouldn’t bear any meaningful responsibility for helping their students learn—would be a pretty tough sell. The easier road is to court public support by embracing the notion of higher standards while ensuring that blame for any failure for meeting them is laid elsewhere.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten came shockingly close to admitting as much in a recent Huffington Post piece co-authored with longtime education reform skeptic Linda Darling-Hammond. Weingarten explains that “the main concern is not about the standards, themselves, but about the consequences of high-stakes tests attached to the standards.” She goes on to argue that Common Core can only succeed under a “support-and-improve” model of accountability, which she defines as better curriculums, resources, and professional development for teachers.

Weingarten distorts a lot of the specifics about how standardized tests actually factor into things like teacher evaluations and school closures, and her analysis of the most recent NAEP results is woefully misleading (for example, she completely ignores the fact that the two states that made the biggest gains, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., have taken the exact approach to accountability she criticizes). But I want to set those details aside for now and make three quick points about Weingarten’s broader argument:

Insisting that teachers do their jobs well is not “punishment.” In any other profession, everyone accepts that if you do your job poorly, you won’t get to keep your job. I guess you could technically call this a threat hanging over the head of every single gainfully employed person in the country, but nobody views it that way. It’s just called “doing your job.” Weingarten insists that teaching is different, and that any attempt to replace teachers whose students aren’t learning amounts to unfair “punishment,” even though most reasonable people would agree that helping students learn is a teacher’s most important responsibility.

This attitude—fueled by union leaders across the country—is one of the biggest reasons teaching still lacks the elite status it deserves in our society. That’s not going to change until Weingarten and her allies recognize that embracing accountability for a tough job isn’t punishment; it’s a mark of professionalism.

What happens when professional development isn’t enough? Everyone wants teachers to get the support they need to do their best work. But unless you believe that anyone can be a good teacher and anyone who isn’t should get unlimited time to improve, you have to explain how you’d deal with the inevitable situation where certain people just aren’t cut out for the job, despite trying their hardest and getting a lot of support. This is something superintendents and principals have to deal with in the real world of running schools, where the only other alternative is knowingly giving kids bad teachers. But Weingarten offers no ideas on this front, and until she does, she can’t credibly claim to be supporting any form of accountability, “new” or otherwise.

This is a refreshing moment of honesty. It’s much easier to have productive policy conversations when everyone is honest about their positions. This is one of the few times that a union leader has been truly honest about where they stand on holding teachers accountable for student learning: They don’t want to do it. It makes complete sense, because they are charged first and foremost with protecting their members—even the ones who are not getting results.

In the case of Weingarten’s “new accountability” idea, here’s the million dollar question: What, exactly, are the circumstances under which she would support a process that removes teachers from the classroom—without years’ worth of paperwork and months of hearings—when they consistently don’t help their students learn? And where is she willing to put this process in place? This isn’t the most pleasant thing to talk about, but it’s an essential part of real accountability.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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