Column: Teachers unions are leading the way on real education reform
Teachers know better than anyone that Missouri’s public schools need improvement and reform. But while our education system’s struggles are widely recognized, what few people realize is that teachers unions are, in fact, leading the way in making the changes our students need to succeed.
The challenges teachers and students face in their schools every day are numerous and daunting. Cuts at the state level have resulted in ever tighter school budgets, and classroom resources have become increasingly scarce. In many Missouri school districts, teacher compensation is so low that teacher recruitment and retention have become major problems. Many talented teachers are drawn to other states where resources for public schools are more plentiful.
In addition to these challenges, teachers are under attack, often from the same folks who cut their resources and refuse to invest in public education. Our schools are being undermined by parties much higher up the ladder than teachers, but the teachers are the ones getting blamed. These scapegoaters attack teachers by, among other things, trying to eliminate teacher tenure and faulting the current teacher accountability and evaluation methods.
Tenure has become misunderstood as public education opponents have sought to mischaracterize it for their own benefit. Far from being “a job for life,” tenure and seniority protect educators from cronyism, favoritism and political pressures. Tenure gives teachers due process of law. This allows teachers to concentrate on the crucial job of educating our children. Repeated and ongoing attempts to repeal these protections demoralize our teachers and make attracting new teachers to the profession more difficult.
Another favorite attack of those who seek to undermine our schools is that teachers are somehow opposed to accountability. An excellent evaluation system supported by teachers in St. Louis Public Schools belies this claim.
Known locally as the St. Louis Plan, this evaluation system was jointly developed by SLPS and the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Its peer assistance and review process uses a proven approach to improve schools—evaluating teachers effectively and giving them the support they need to succeed while identifying and screening out those who are not succeeding as teachers. Missouri performance standards for classroom teaching are clearly articulated in the plan. An experienced “Master Teacher” reviews other teachers in order to address some of the problems inherent in many traditional teacher evaluation processes. The St. Louis Plan provides a formal process of teacher support and evaluation for both beginning and tenured teachers. It also allows both newly hired teachers and tenured teachers who have shown deficiencies to be given intensive peer assistance to elevate their performance to a proficient level in the four standards of the performance-based teacher evaluation tool: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction and Professional Responsibility.
This process has been proven to be effective in achieving the ultimate goal of all school reform advocates: improved student achievement. After the St. Louis Plan had been in place for two years, a study conducted by the school district indicated that those teachers supported by the process produced significant gains in student learning (based on Acuity benchmark results for 2010-11).
The simple truth is that teachers unions are a major part of good things happening in our schools. With the St. Louis Plan, we’ve embraced a strong process of teacher evaluation, targeted resources, and exit pathways for teachers who aren’t making it, and the results have been significant.
Additionally, teachers unions support expanded early childhood education for all kids, a proven way to increase student achievement. And our union advocates for the creation of more community schools to provide needed services to entire communities through public health programs, language courses and job training.
Despite the talking points and propaganda circulated by enemies of public education, the bottom line is simple: Teachers unions are leading the way on constructive reform of Missouri’s public schools.
Connie Black is an educator with the St. Louis Plan.