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Saturday, September 20, 2014, 11:24 a.m.
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The destructive behavior of teachers' unions

By HANNA SKANDERA AND KEVIN HUFFMAN Special to The Washington Post

This article was published August 3, 2014 at 2:13 a.m.

You can always count on the national teachers unions to behave badly at their annual conventions, and they certainly didn't let us down this year. In doing so, however, they let down many of their members, along with students who are working hard to meet higher expectations.

In classrooms across the United States, higher academic standards are inspiring students and teachers. Students are more engaged and excited in school, raising their hands more often, asking more questions, thinking critically and solving problems instead of just memorizing facts. Teachers feel more motivated, creative and empowered to develop new and better ways to reach their students.

This progress is at risk, however, because of a change of heart by union leaders who are prepared to sacrifice high standards for students so that adults can evade accountability.

Under pressure from the militant wing of her union, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently took the cynical step of backing away from support for the Common Core State Standards, announcing a new fund for teachers to critique and rewrite the standards. This is the latest and most visible step in a year-long campaign by the union to discredit the implementation of higher academic standards and the measurement of student progress against these higher standards.

Meanwhile, the big news coming out of the National Education Association convention in July was a resolution calling for the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The union's bosses have been cross with Duncan before, but most recently, he issued mildly supportive comments on a legal decision that threw out California's teacher tenure and seniority laws because of their appalling impact on poor and minority students.

The NEA also voted in Lily Eskelsen Garcia as its new national president. In her first day on the job, Eskelsen Garcia referred to value-added measures, a common measure of teacher effectiveness, as "the mark of the devil."

Unfortunately, this sort of over-the-top rhetoric is eminently predictable. Union leaders' enthusiasm for reforms often wanes as we move from the planning (and spending) phase into measuring student progress.

In Tennessee, as part of a successful Race to the Top grant, union leaders signed on to high standards and evaluation, and the state developed a nationally recognized training plan for teachers led by exceptional educators. But this past school year, union leaders called for a delay in administering better assessments. The union also sued the state to block the evaluation system it previously supported. As a result, Tennessee children will continue to take easier fill-in-the-bubble tests while taxpayer dollars are spent on lawyers.

In New Mexico, a nationally recognized transition plan was created with the help of talented educators. A local union leader also worked with the state's largest district to implement the plan; another co-authored (with one of us) an op-ed touting the measures of New Mexico's current teacher evaluation system as a "common-sense answer."

Today, however, the unions in New Mexico are staging town halls to stir up parents with misinformation about higher standards and testing, even though the overall amount of testing has decreased since the new standards were adopted. Clearer standards and better assessments offer students, parents and teachers exactly what they want: less testing and less test prep.

Astonishingly, the unions seem to think that they can ask for more taxpayer money while simultaneously weakening measurement and accountability. This is the very course of action that has led the United States to its middling level of performance on international benchmarks.

In our states, this backtracking also comes despite significant student gains. Tennessee had the most growth of any state in the country on last year's National Assessment of Educational Progress. New Mexico high school juniors achieved record gains on state tests and graduation rates rose dramatically after the standards were raised on New Mexico's state exam.

Instead of cultivating fear by spreading misinformation and arguing for less and less accountability, union leaders and their supporters should honor their commitments to our children and parents. They should honor their commitments to employers who rely on our education system to prepare young people to compete in the global economy. They should honor their commitments to civil rights leaders and advocates for the disabled who have fought for decades for greater equity in education, and to parents, who have the right to know how their children are performing.

U.S. teachers and students are ready. They are proving it every day. It's time to stop attacking higher standards and accountability and focus on helping our children reach their potential.

Hanna Skandera heads the New Mexico Public Education Department. Kevin Huffman is the Tennessee commissioner of education.

Editorial on 08/03/2014

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Nodmcm says... August 3, 2014 at 9:26 a.m.

Unions are supposed to represent their members, just like the Chamber of Commerce is supposed to represent their members. The Chamber of Commerce is not 'fair' to workers, because it does not represent them. The Chamber of Commerce puts employers first and foremost, and does not try to fairly 'balance' the interests of its dues-paying members against the interests of workers and customers of Chamber members. The writer of this editorial suggests that teachers' unions should consider other points of view, rather than solely focus on the needs and interests of teachers. I think we can all count on the arch enemy of teachers' unions, namely the Republican Party, to be sure to counterbalance the teachers' unions on any and all issues. As a matter of fact, the Republican Party is almost universally AGAINST any and all unions, believing that employers will always fare better if the workers are unorganized and weak.

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DontDrinkDatKoolAid says... August 3, 2014 at 9:45 a.m.

"Instead of cultivating fear by spreading misinformation and arguing for less and less accountability, union leaders and their supporters should honor their commitments to our children and parents. They should honor their commitments to employers who rely on our education system to prepare young people to compete in the global economy. They should honor their commitments to civil rights leaders and advocates for the disabled who have fought for decades for greater equity in education, and to parents, who have the right to know how their children are performing."
~
There you go again Nodmcm. It is always the Republican Party, never mind that parents want "accountability" also.

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Populist says... August 3, 2014 at 9:51 a.m.

Nodmcm,

This column is exactly on the mark. Many of the teachers' unions are fighting teacher accountability. It is a mistake for any union or trade association to cater to the least capable of its membership. Teacher pay and professionalism should go hand in hand. I spoke in favor of increasing teacher pay in Montgomery County, Maryland because the teachers are incredibly professional and hardworking (any they can be fired if they are not). In Arkansas and many other states, the teachers unions are increasing standards because some of the teachers are not qualified enough to be teaching and want to avoid accountability. As technology increases, it is so important for the education levels to increase. Those who fight education also are fighting America's chance to be economically prosperous and to remain a great power. Lawyers and doctors who commit malpractice get sued, and their licensing organizations set minimal standards of competency. If teachers want high pay, they should expect to meet similar levels of competency. The teachers unions and those Democrats who support them need to get on board with increased teaching standards, and Republicans need to get on board for spending on summer programs and computers etc. Education should not be a liberal or a conservative issue. It is important to all of us for the prosperity of the nation.

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RonalFos says... August 3, 2014 at 10:26 a.m.

Teachers unions are not the only entities fighting Common Core. "Lawmakers in roughly 15 states, wary of what they see as federal pressure to adopt the common core and of other problems they associate with the standards, have introduced legislation during their current sessions to repeal the standards or replace them with other standards." In most cases teachers are doing more than their share to educate our children. Parent failure usually is more likely the cause of poor school results.

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Nodmcm says... August 3, 2014 at 10:35 a.m.

My point is that unions, any unions of any profession, take care of their members first. Why can't people see unions the same way they see corporations? Corporations are totally into making profit for themselves (they are people, right?), and it is not their place to consider the interests of their workers or customers, only and unless it pertains to increasing profits. Why can't the unions be the same way, wholly focused on the welfare and pecuniary interests of their members? I guess if you just hate unions, you can never compare them with lovely, wholly profit-seeking corporations.

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Dontsufferfools says... August 3, 2014 at 11:21 a.m.

When people start bashing teachers wholesale, I always ask them, how many bad teachers did you have growing up, K to 12? Most are like me, they had 2 or 3 that were subpar, but mostly, the teachers were solid and some were great. As to the worst teachers being in the poorest schools (economic wise), some places, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, have identified their best teachers and pay them premiums to teach in the lowest achieving schools to give these kids a better chance. Teachers Unions may drag their feet on change, but, really, I think school administrations are the biggest anchor being dragged around. They're not responding to what needs to be changed, such as longer school days, longer school years, better paid teachers (because they'd be working more, right?), and student and parent accountability. I like what Estem is doing, and every public school should look at its design.

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DontDrinkDatKoolAid says... August 3, 2014 at 11:31 a.m.

Currently Pop and I have been the only ones to know of what we speak.

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NoUserName says... August 3, 2014 at 11:35 a.m.

"Why can't the unions be the same way, wholly focused on the welfare and pecuniary interests of their members? "
.
In the private sector, sure. Let the market deal with it - or not in the case of certain companies. Public sector is different. But the issue here is multifaceted. Unions ARE bad at getting rid of dead weight. Schools are often top-heavy. Kids get to school completely unprepared and don't have the home support they NEED. How many things like 'common core' have we tried? Enough to know it won't work and is a waste of useful dollars.

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Populist says... August 3, 2014 at 12:06 p.m.

NUN,

Read "Common Core" at commoncoredotorg. It is just set of milestone standards--not really very controversial when you actually read them. The best way to improve education is to emulate what works at the best school districts. The best schools in the country are requiring extra doses of old fashioned reading and writing. In 6th grade, kids often have an hour of reading and an hour of English every day. Social studies also is reading and writing intensive. The urban prep academies in Chicago which cater to young black men from poor neighborhoods are achieving 100% college acceptance rates. These programs also stress reading and writing and summer programs. The RonalFos attitude that nothing can be done if the parents aren't educated is ridiculous. Kids who attend good schools learn. The standards need to be increased. We need better teachers, smaller classes, and longer school days and years. Most importantly, the kids need to master reading and writing. Once they have that down, they can learn just about anything.

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