In Chicago, the city and the teachers’ union are approaching an agreement. Interestingly, neither side said that the strike was over wages. (According to NPR, the average teacher makes just over $76,000 a year, and will receive a raise of about 16% during the next 4 years.)
The most important disagreement in the strike is about measuring teacher effectiveness. Chicago is seeking to implement metrics that will be used in deciding tenure, promotions and compensation. Teachers whose students learn more would be better paid. Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago, says it is all about accountability. I’m no fan of unions and of the teachers’ unions in particular, but if I look at the schools as a business, I have a problem with their definition of accountability.
No sane business owner will argue against accountability. We live with it all day, every day. We bear the consequences of our decisions, both good and bad. We expect our employees to accept responsibility for the jobs they are given, and have prescribed actions (progressive discipline, termination) for those who don’t. What could be wrong with accountability for teachers?
I met a teacher recently who had taken a job in a Catholic school. His previous experience had been in a big city public school system. The Catholic school was in the same area of town as the public school where he taught previously.
Within a week or so, he began experiencing disruption in his classroom. Students weren’t paying attention; listening to music and talking with each other. During his free periods he walked around the school observing other classes, and noticed that none of the other teachers had the same problem. Their classes were quiet and well-behaved.
He felt inadequate. He assumed that the lack of engagement was his fault, because he wasn’t as good a teacher as the others. The problems grew worse. He finally swallowed his pride, and raised the question in the teachers’ lounge. “How do you all keep order so well?”
The others looked at him incredulously. “We have students misbehave, but if they don’t straighten out, we send them to the principal’s office.”
“I know that I can refer them for disciplinary action, but what good does it do?” he replied. “They just serve some minor punishment and come back.”
“No they don’t. If they don’t straighten out, they are dropped from the school.”
He was thunderstruck. “We can do that?”
“Of course. Our school provides an excellent education. To accomplish that, we have to be able to teach. If we can’t teach, we can’t fulfill our promise to the parents who pay us. Students who prevent us from accomplishing what we promise can’t be tolerated.”
The difference was so simple, yet so profound. In order to be held accountable for the result, the school demanded authority for how it was delivered. It is a basic tenet of any contract.
My son attended a magnet high school. Like many such, its 400 students were encapsulated with 2500 others in an urban school. Every single member of his graduating class was accepted to college. The acceptance rate for the rest was in the very low double digits. The magnet school had academic and behavior standards for admission and retention. If you didn’t maintain them, you were transferred to the other student body.
In Chicago, a number of public schools have remained open for the sole purpose of serving meals to the 350,000 students who are dependent on the Board of Education for decent meals. It is part of the role we have mandated for our schools nationally. No one will say that a student should have to watch others eat because he or she can’t afford to buy lunch.
We’ve allowed the social role of schools to overshadow their educational purpose. In business, we expect a different level of accountability from a factory worker compared to a manager. The worker needs to show up and do as he is directed. The manager is expected to get results, and needs the authority to do so.
Providing a safe haven from the streets and basic nourishment is a school’s factory job. Ensuring that a student learns the necessary skills for productive citizenship requires some authority.
I am wholly in favor of teacher accountability; but I can’t imagine telling a manager that his performance review depended solely on his department productivity without giving him the authority to make it happen. I know that he can’t do it with employees who don’t have to show up, or don’t have to work.
I also know that no amount of salary will attract the best managers to a job where they are destined to fail. Educational reform depends on teachers who are held accountable, but there is a lot more involved than just a grading system.