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Commentary: Why shield teachers from performance reviews?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept 13, 2012 - The Chicago teachers’ strike has once again thrown our educational system into the spotlight. The strike juxtaposes the push to improve academic outcomes with the union’s role to protect members from capricious evaluation. At the end of the day, the questions are which will triumph and what that victory portends.

Several high-profile slug fests have taken place this year between public officials and teachers’ unions. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to rein in tenure for K-12 teachers, similar to efforts by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Why go after tenure? Often gained after only a few years on the job, tenure creates a condition in which only the most incompetent teacher can be fired. And once attained, tenure too often removes an incentive for faculty to engage in continuous improvement. (By the way, this is my attitude toward tenure at universities as well.)

But the Chicago strike isn’t about tenure. It is about reforming working conditions, which includes required time on the job, and how teacher performance is evaluated. 

Earlier this summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago teachers’ union negotiated a change in the instructional day. It was increased from 308 to 360 minutes, but the agreement did nothing to affect the teachers’ working day. That remained fixed at 7 hours.

How was the additional instructional time filled? By hiring several hundred new (many recently released) faculty to cover music, art, physical education and world languages. This concession will cost the Chicago Public School system $40 million to $50 million a year, which will swell its operating deficit, which is projected to be several billion over the next few years.

The strike is more about evaluating teacher performance. That is more difficult than many imagine. Is there an easy, transparent way to measure a student’s ability to think critically? To see combinations of ideas that coalesce into something new? The easy alternative is the standardized test.

Why do teachers resist this “outcome” based approach to assess academic achievement? One argument is that such tests do not capture the student’s capabilities. Such tests are not perfect, but students who do well on such tests also, on average, do well in general. For example, the correlation between a high ACT score and future success in college is fairly high.

Another reason to question this approach is the fact that some teachers simply “teach to the test.” This obviates the usefulness of test results for evaluation of faculty. It also lessens the usefulness for universities and employers in using test results to judge student ability.

Can unions expect public sympathy when they strike to insulate themselves from the rigors of the private sector? Many will look askance at teacher workloads and salaries (the average income for a Chicago teacher is more than $70,000).

And traditional support for unions is fading, even considering their considerable political clout. One reason is that unions generally have become viewed as unnecessary for job security and advancement, particularly as people are more mobile and do not plan to stay in jobs for a lifetime.

Analysis by Barry T. Hirsch of Georgia State University and David A. Macpherson of Trinity University indicates that union membership in the private sector dropped from 20 percent coverage in 1980 to less than 7 percent in 2010. This trend doesn’t exist in the public sector, of which teachers belong. Public sector union membership remains almost exactly where it was 30 years ago, 36 percent.

High job security at comparatively high incomes may not be the best position from which to bargain for less oversight. The fact that the two most recent advances on the teachers union comes from liberal-leaning Mayors Bloomberg and Emanuel and not fiery-eyed Tea Party members should not be dismissed.

The stakes are high for the Chicago teachers. If they are smart, union leadership should lead the reform movement. Walking out on students at the start of the school year is not leadership, more like the behavior of a school-yard bully.

R.W. Hafer is a research professor of economics and finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Rik Hafer is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a scholar at the Show-Me Institute.