Education reform targets unions

A narrow view of reform that focuses on firing bad teachers is incomplete and misguided.

by Eric Murphy

On Monday, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill that would allow schools to take into account performance evaluations of teachers in addition to seniority while making layoffs. This measure is part of a larger education reform movement that, at its best, tries to improve teacher quality, but at its worst, tries to marginalize and destroy unions and privatize public education.

Teachers’ unions have been treated as the villains in education reform lately. The argument goes that students need great teachers — which nobody disagrees with — and that unions protect bad teachers, often accompanied by a particularly egregious example.

Unions protect all teachers because that’s their job. Lawyers defend violent criminals, but we don’t publicly berate them for doing so because that is how the process is supposed to work. Using only seniority in teacher layoffs protects teachers from being fired for political, personal or other reasons; seniority is a more objective measure than an evaluation. If seniority is not a factor, schools also have an incentive to dismiss more experienced, higher-paid teachers during layoffs to save money.

However, only using seniority means some good teachers will be laid off while some relatively worse teachers will stay on. Again we return to the problem of teacher quality. The reform movement’s solution is to make it easier to fire bad teachers. Not only does this ignore the many other problems that contribute to a poor education system, like poverty and racial isolation, it’s also only a partial solution to the problem it tries to confront.

There’s not a line of thousands of great teachers just waiting to get into the classroom right now — especially in the lowest performing districts. Reducing the power of teachers’ unions and getting rid of bad teachers doesn’t mean they’ll be replaced with great teachers, or anyone at all. Unions don’t control teacher education programs. They don’t control certification requirements. They don’t determine who is hired or how they are developed professionally. All of these factors are crucial for teacher quality yet rarely appear in discussions of education reform.

 If reformers, like the Republicans in the state legislature who passed the bill ending the “last in, first out” system really cared about teacher quality, one would think they would also support more investment in teacher education programs and higher pay for teachers so that more young people would enter teaching and be well prepared when they get there. But instead, the “reform” message continues to be that we can fire our way to the top, that getting rid of “bad” teachers is sufficient.

This brings up another problem with including performance evaluation in teacher layoffs: What makes a “good” or “bad” teacher? Frequently, it’s students’ test scores. When these test scores are tied to incentives like  whether a teacher gets laid off, problems arise. Schools teach test-taking instead of reading and math. Subjects that aren’t tested, like the arts, are forgotten. There are even cheating scandals, like the one that occurred in Atlanta public schools in 2008 and 2009.

Pressure for performance on standardized tests failed miserably with the No Child Left Behind Act. Forcing teachers’ unions to adopt similar policies in the name of improving teacher quality will lead to similarly botched results. Focusing only on the issue of being able to fire teachers is a woefully incomplete view of education reform that ignores other ways to improve teacher quality and other problems facing our education system.


Eric Murphy is the Minnesota Daily Editorials & Opinions Editor. Please send comments to [email protected]