I was encouraged to see Joel Klein's recent opinion piece ("What the School Reform Debate Misses About Teachers," Sunday, March 13, 2011) in the Washington Post.
While he ignored the proposals the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has advanced in the last 14 months (A Continuous Improvement Model for Teacher Evaluation and A Framework for Addressing Allegations of Teacher Wrongdoing) and the progress we have made to improve teacher quality, I believe we share some common ground with what Mr. Klein outlines.
The AFT has long focused on good teaching and the critical role it plays in student achievement. We differ with Mr. Klein and others on a very fundamental point: We believe you can't make a thorough and objective decision about a teacher's qualifications without a valid evaluation system. They believe those decisions can be made by the arbitrary and subjective judgment of administrators. In most school districts, teacher evaluations are done -- if they're done at all -- in an uneven way that fails on almost every level. The current evaluation process does not adequately distinguish good teaching from bad, and it does nothing to offer strategies to help improve teaching -- and, thereby, student learning. That's why, in January 2010, the AFT proposed an evaluation framework designed to replace the universally derided systems used currently, a framework focused on promoting consistent and continuous improvement.
We believe that no discussion of teacher quality can be legitimate if you're not willing to concede that a comprehensive teacher evaluation and development system is needed. It's the necessary underpinning of all discussions about how we determine who should or should not be in the classroom. Those who begin and end the discussion of teacher quality with tenure and "last in, first out" reveal only an interest in getting rid of some teachers, and not a commitment to improving all teachers.
If a comprehensive evaluation system -- one similar to the AFT's plan -- were in place all across the country, there would never again be a question of whether "seniority" or "tenure" could be used as a vehicle or excuse to mask incompetence. Tenure would be simply an acknowledgment that after meeting a probationary period, teachers have a right to be treated fairly before facing disciplinary action. And seniority would simply mean experience on the job -- something that is valued in all other professions. Based on the views expressed in his opinion piece, I believe Mr. Klein and the AFT may be able to find common ground on the issue of teacher evaluation.
Improving teaching quality also involves more than overhauling evaluation. Over the last two years, we have worked on innovative reforms to change compensation, promote collaboration and teamwork, turn around struggling schools, and fight for resources and services (similar to those offered at the Harlem Children's Zone) for kids who are economically disadvantaged. In school districts like New Haven, Conn.; Baltimore; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Douglas County, Colo., our approach is beginning to transform schools and prepare children for the new knowledge economy they will compete in.
As a former teacher, I know how critical a good teacher is in the lives of students. I also know from experience that, at times, a teacher can't do it all. I've had success with students in the classroom and helped propel them forward. But I also have known real heartache when, despite trying everything, I couldn't find a way to reach a student.
If Mr. Klein and I can find common ground on using evaluation to help grow and develop good teachers, I hope we can go a step further and agree on other changes that will improve teacher quality and student achievement -- things like supporting teachers and giving them the tools they need to do their jobs; developing deep and robust curriculum that will challenge students and engage them in critical thinking and problem solving; and providing access to wraparound services like health care and tutoring to help children overcome the effects of poverty.
Mr. Klein and I share the goal of transforming our public schools to prepare our children for the knowledge economy. There is no time to waste in finding even more common ground.