The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand?

Assessment, Learning, Teacher Quality

In case you missed it, Steven Brill wrote a relatively balanced piece in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the national education reform landscape — and how teachers unions are truly facing a sink-or-swim moment of reinvention.
As someone who feels neither allegiance nor antipathy toward either of the increasingly polarized camps (I actually like and respect both Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Schnur), I see the partial truths in each side’s argument. On one hand, for example, it’s clear that K-12 teachers should not be granted lifetime tenure so easily — tenure, after all, was originally designed to protect the free-expression rights of college professors, and since the First Amendment barely even applies to public employees anymore, that point is moot. So I say bring on this reform.
It’s also clear that teacher evaluation systems need to be dramatically retooled. When educators can only be scored ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory,’ that’s a huge problem. So again I say yes to any reform that results in a new system that creates a reciprocal flow of feedback and helps educators improve the quality of their professional practice.
However, I see one massive problem — and it’s a problem that no one, Brill included, seems interested in addressing:  Everyone wants to tie these new teacher evaluations to student performance data, but no one wants to talk publicly about the fact that we lack sufficient metrics for truly evaluating the full extent of whether or not young people are learning and achieving at high levels.
As I’ve written many times before, basic-skills tests in reading and math provide a single, useful proof point that is, in the current climate, dramatically overvalued. To help students learn to use their minds well, schools — and teachers — need to focus on not just basic- but also higher-order skills; they need to engage children in not just reading and math but also the arts and sciences; and they need to focus less on just data per se, and more on how well we’re equipping our teachers to respond to data in ways that improve the overall learning conditions (and outcomes) for kids.
A system, therefore, that incentivizes compensation and job security by using a single measure to count for as much as 50% of an evaluation will incentivize — you guessed it! — a relentless focus on basic-skills reading and math scores. But that’s not enough if we want the achievement gap to mean more than test scores. And more people need to start calling it out.
The good news is that although we may not yet have these more sophisticated metrics in place, at least we know what we should be looking for. This month, I’m finalizing the manuscript of a book that brings together 50 powerful stories about teaching and learning — selected from the many hundred that have been submitted by people across the country as part of a national campaign. The stories recount a wide range of experiences — from third grade classrooms to Outward Bound courses to church missions to prison sentences — but what they combine to make visible are the core conditions of a powerful learning environment. (See for yourself at And although they do not reveal a simple, single answer to the deeply complex question of how to improve our schools, they do clarify the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn — How do we create more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential learning opportunities for children?
Imagine if more people started asking that question. Imagine what a new statewide teacher evaluation system would need to look like in response. And ask yourself — would you want that sort of environment for your child?