This is the second part of a three part series that I wrote to talk to members of my part about education reform. It’s time we did a better job. Last week I spoke about the basic premise and problems with being a progressive who supports education reform. This week I want to talk about the elephant (no pun intended) in the room- the Teachers’ Union.

Martin Casas
Martin Casas

Let’s start with the idea that you can be pro-union and not agree with the teachers union 100-percent of the time. Standing up for those who are not represented, who lack a voice – not the principals, not the superintendents, not the teachers, but the kids, many of whose parents lack the time and/or resources to advocate on their behalf – is  a completely rational and frankly very liberal thing for someone to do.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher tenure, which teachers’ unions say is absolutely necessary. Tenure was developed so that university professors could pursue controversial lines of scholarly inquiry without fear of being fired. In the 19th century, professors largely served at the pleasure of a university’s board of trustees. Sometimes, major donors removed professors or prohibited the hiring of others, usually for interfering with the religious practices of a college, and most boards were reluctant to discipline professors. The courts rarely intervened in dismissals. So tenure was developed to allow our scholars the ability to think, research, and write freely without fear of reprisal. Around 1970, the idea was embraced by K-12 public school teachers, who do not produce doctoral thesis’ and are not contractually required to publish academic research.

Tenure was offered in the public school system to protect teachers from students who would make false claims, parents who would blame teachers for their students underperformance, and sexist bosses. It protected teachers from being unjustly fired and guaranteed the teachers’ union membership dues for the duration of that teacher’s career. This did have its advantages; because of their swelled membership dues and pensions, teachers unions in Chicago and New York have bailed out their cities in times of budgetary crisis.

Where liberal leaders and union leaders clash is accountability. Effective teachers wouldn’t need tenure protection (defined in Missouri Revised Statutes as an indefinite contract) if they were being evaluated on multiple objective measures, such as student performance.

Asking for more accountability from teachers to ensure that childrens’ needs are being met shouldn’t be too much to ask – but it is. It’s where the political conflict in the progressive community occurs. Like other labor unions, if someone on a job site isn’t getting the job done they are replaced or moved somewhere else. It should be the same for teachers. especially for teachers. Teaching isn’t just a job or a career; it’s a life mission. Teachers have to be committed to making sure their students want to learn and preventing them from falling between the cracks.

The fact is, sometimes bad teachers are hired – as is true with other public employees. Don’t police officers, firefighters and politicians all have to have the same interest in serving their community as a teacher? Yet, many people can point to a bad police officer or (especially) politician who doesn’t do his job well and should be removed. Because of a lack of information about teacher performance and student progress, it is very difficult to ascertain which teachers are severely underperforming.

Bad employees are hired in every business organization around the world. It happens. The employees that aren’t performing are removed in an appropriate amount in time. In the St. Louis Public Schools system, a principal must observe a teacher for 90 days before firing a teacher. That means that on top of running a school, administrators must sit in on a class and observe the teacher they want to dismiss for an incredible amount of work hours. Essentially their jobs become “teacher observers,” and since it is so difficult to meet the hours required to properly observe a teacher, they frequently drop the case altogether. We’ve all heard of the “rubber rooms” in New York City- a place where teachers who are disciplinary leave are forced to go with full pay and benefits for weeks, months and in some cases years.

Teachers’ underperformance can be attributable to a variety of causes: sometimes bad teachers are hired, sometimes good teachers stop caring, events may intervene that that lead to a teacher failing to live up to expectations… But we have to be adults and make the hard decisions: that teacher has to go. I remember a story my wife told me during her first year of teaching. Having run out of paper, she went to the neighboring classroom to borrow some and found an unruly room with the teacher putting on makeup at her desk. “I’ve got a job interview after school today,” the teacher said. “I can’t deal with this right now.”

Compounding the problem is an SLPS administration that spends millions of dollars a year on wasteful projects and supplies, supplies that often do not reach the teacher. Smart boards, computers, printer cartridges, pens, paper, electronic microscopes, backpacks, reading guides, printers and the latest device that will supposedly make a student into a world-class scholar are purchased and then put into storage. Supplies that teachers have to dip into their own pockets to buy for the good of students who can’t afford them are sitting in warehouses collecting dust.

Accountability via performance evaluation, reallocation of resources, and provision of more opportunities to help struggling teachers improve is the recipe for student success. A student is not going to learn how to love learning with the latest educational gadget- it’s going to come from the caring teacher who wants that student to succeed and teachers that have a partner in the district to get the job done. To accomplish that, school administrators must be able to fire teachers who aren’t up to the task of teaching children in poverty. We need a system that is flexible enough to adapt to the needs of students instead of blaming them and their parents.

This, of course, will require the teachers union to swallow a bitter pill: they must accept the facts that 1) they are protecting bad teachers from being dismissed; 2) five years of barely acceptable performance shouldn’t merit a lifetime of tenure; and 3) they may have to work harder to recruit new teachers to their cause to offset poor performers who may be eliminated.

(One possible source of new recruits? Charter schools are full of teachers who may desire union representation…just sayin’….)

The temptation of union dues is strong, but the reward of having a child that is better prepared to end the cycle of poverty into which she is born is much richer. Teachers’ unions can most effectively join reform efforts by standing up for kids – and realizing they may lose a couple of members who don’t need to work in the field any longer.

So, say it with me- you are still a progressive if you demand a union reform and you disagree with its practices. In fact, your ideology demands you do so.

See part one of Casas’ column here.

Martin Casas lives in St. Louis with his wife and very funny daughter. He is the former owner of Frontyard Features and currently “guy who runs the thing” at Grand Market at new outdoor marketplace in Grand Center. He is also active in his community, working on whichever issues cross his path.