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In Wisconsin, Scott Walker's Hypocrisy and Michelle Rhee's Lessons

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In concurrence with the launch of John Merrow's book, The Influence of Teachers, he'll be using this space as a place to discuss some central ideas explored in the book. All proceeds from the book, available on Amazon for $14.95, are being donated to Learning Matters, a 501(c)(3) organization committed to independent coverage of education. We invite you to join in the conversation by commenting on these posts or reviewing the book online!

Is the direct attack on collective bargaining for teachers in Wisconsin likely to spread around the U.S. the way the demand for democracy is spreading across the Middle East? I think it just might.

Other Republican governors, notably those in Ohio and New Jersey, have taken strong positions regarding the role of teacher unions (and in fact New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seems to be taking credit for the 'movement'). If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and legislature succeed in limiting or even eliminating collective bargaining, then a lot of other politicians will be emboldened.

There are a couple of points that are being overlooked or minimized in the press coverage about Wisconsin, though.

The first has to do with the hypocrisy of the governor, who is not challenging collective bargaining for the two unions that supported him: the cops and the firefighters. Why is this being reported as if it were a principled stand, when it's clearly naked politics?

And what happened to union solidarity? Do the two unions who supported the governor's election bid really believe that he won't come after their bargaining rights down the road? Is that naïve?

There have been two issues here -- pay/evaluation and collective bargaining. Wisconsin's teachers have conceded on the first, a sensible and long-overdue step. As I write in my new book, The Influence of Teachers:

It may take a hard slap upside the head, but unions are going to have to acknowledge what we all know -- that there's a relationship between teaching and learning, and therefore student learning must be part of a teacher's evaluation.

Suppose a swimming instructor told the 10-year-olds in his class to swim the length of the pool to demonstrate what he'd taught them, and half of them nearly drowned in the process? Would it be reasonable to make a judgment about his effectiveness as a swimming teacher?

Or suppose that nearly all the 10-year-olds studying clarinet for the first time learned to play five or six pieces well in a semester? Would it be reasonable to consider that when deciding whether to rehire the music teacher?

Wisconsin's union has gotten that hard slap upside the head, and it has responded. Other teacher groups ought to take notice. The days of what I think of as trade union dealing are over; teachers have to bargain for more than pay and privileges. They need to be in the forefront of connecting their evaluations with student achievement. They need to be at that table, and I believe they ought to be arguing for school-wide evaluations. If it's just teacher-by-teacher, we will end up with even more bubble testing in more subjects. If it's school-wide, then everyone -- down to custodians and secretaries -- has a personal, vested interest in student success.

Finally, I see the influence of Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor in Washington, on what's happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Because of Washington's unique structure, she did not have to negotiate with a school board before imposing a teacher evaluation system. She would never have been able to do that in any other district in America, she told me, which is why she believes that people in her camp must go directly to state legislatures and governors and get them to take teacher evaluation and other aspects of the job off the collective bargaining table. That will, she said, make it possible to achieve her vision of real reform.

This has the potential for becoming very nasty. As a friend asked me quizzically, "When did teachers become the enemy? What on earth is happening?"

Stay tuned.