10/23/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

We Can't Afford to De-Professionalize Education

The fight that pitted the Chicago Teachers Union against performance-based decision making by the district's school leaders de-professionalizes education at a time when we desperately need to recruit the best and brightest to teach in our nation's schools.

What was the fight about in Chicago? Contrary to what most people and media outlets assume, it wasn't about money. The Chicago Teachers Union opposes the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system -- as set forth in Illinois state legislation -- that requires some portion to be based on student performance scores, and in cases where teachers have been laid off due to school closings, they want those teachers to be "recalled" before principals are allowed to hire new teachers. The latter undermines principals' autonomy to hire their own staff that is fundamental to building high performing teams of teachers.

Unions, by definition, protect the jobs of their members. Terry Moe, author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools, eloquently reminds us that collective bargaining advances the interests of their members, not the students. Unions spend a disproportionate effort on behalf of the lowest performers who are most at risk of losing their jobs, and in doing so, fail to recognize performance that excels. Even in states that do not have collective bargaining, state laws provide many of the same provisions for teachers that make it almost as difficult to exit low performers.

Over the past few years, I've worked with many great teachers, and I have profound respect for how important and difficult their jobs are. Teaching and leading our nation's schools is more demanding than ever, but watching union leaders in Chicago fight policy changes to protect jobs for teachers regardless of their performance, and seeing teachers picketing their own schools moves us farther away from high professional standards for educators that would attract the best and brightest to teach, especially in some of our most challenged schools.

This contentious argument in Chicago is not the case in every jurisdiction. Thanks to legislative changes at the state level, many districts and unions around the country are working together to create new teacher development and evaluation systems that support a stronger workforce. This has already happened in major cities in New York, Maryland, Colorado, Ohio and Connecticut.

We are at a crossroads in this country. There is a significant mismatch between where the jobs are and what our educational system is producing. The Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 62 percent of all jobs in 2018 will require post secondary credentials, yet less than 20 percent of students ultimately earn a post secondary degree or certificate. And for the most disadvantaged students those numbers are less than 10 percent.

Attracting and supporting talented professionals to teach and lead in our schools is mission critical to resolving this gap, especially with an estimated 1.8 million teachers eligible for retirement over the next decade.

Why has the teaching profession fallen so far down in prestige given its importance in our society? How can we move teaching back up to the ranks of other professions such as medicine, engineering and law that attract high potential college graduates? In other words, how can we bring back respect and value for the teaching profession?

Districts and states working with the input of teacher groups, unions, and others should adopt a new version of the "3 R's" to professionalize teaching:

Rigorous preparation: Selective and rigorous educator preparation programs must offer relevant content to prepare professionals for the challenging job of teaching and leading in today's schools.

Results orientation: Once in the classroom or leading a school, all professionals must be accountable for student outcomes, and be able to show progress against goals for every student's learning for the year. And since continued improvement in practice is a hallmark of a vibrant profession, educators need to be open to feedback and continued growth in their own capacity.

Recognition: Compensation systems in nearly every district primarily recognize years of service to determine salary and do not offer the differentiated career and salary potential relative to other careers of talented professionals. Performance, based on observed practice as well as meeting student achievement goals, should determine career progress that offers opportunities for mastery of practice and the ability for teachers to have impact beyond their own classroom.

The U.S. Department of Education recently launched the RESPECT project to "start a national conversation to serve as a catalyst for remaking education on a grand scale. To do so, we must lift up the accomplished teachers in our classrooms and bring in a new generation of well-prepared, bright young men and women." Tapping talent for education should be a national priority. In no other country or industry are top tier results found without attracting and supporting talented people. It's difficult to envision how this will happen in the US if teacher unions like those in Chicago control the future of the profession.