Teacher Accountability: The Next Front in the School Reform Wars

The other day I floated the proposition that tenure reform, not choice, is the “Holy Grail” of education reform. Several thoughtful folks pushed back, including Kathleen, Greg Forster, Jay Greene, and Rick Hess. (And Adam Schaeffer offered a very funny satirical response.)

Their comments  helped to sharpen my thinking and reconsider my argument. Here’s the new version, straight from the brand-new Education Gadfly. I’ll post it here in full for your convenience.

Why teacher accountability is the next front in the school reform wars

Be forewarned: It’s going to take me a while to get to my main argument. I hope you agree it’s worth the wait.

For going on two decades now, the twin movements to expand parental choice and foster accountability have been the major drivers of reform in the K-12 education system. And while choice and accountability can be seen as ends in themselves, for many reformers they have been primarily means: tactics for creating a high-performing education system, one that puts the needs of kids over the needs of adults. They are tonics meant to overcome the corrupting influence of complacency and protectionism within our public schools.

This brand of reform diagnoses the school system’s disease as primarily political rather than structural, behavioral, or attitudinal. It’s not that educators don’t work hard enough, or care passionately enough, or know enough. It’s that organized interests have a stranglehold on the system, creating incentives for managers at all levels to avoid making the hard decisions that are necessary for any organization to thrive. Most obviously, union contracts and civil service rules make it next to impossible to fire low-performers, whether they be central office bureaucrats, principals, teachers, or aides. And this creates an insidious cycle of cynicism that permeates the schools.

Enter choice and accountability. The theory of change goes something like this: Offer parents and their children real options outside the (unionized) public schools. Attach public dollars to the kids so that the money leaves the bureaucracy. Grow enough options so that the outflow of kids and money is large enough to get the attention of the district, and to cause real pain for the union (as the number of teachers–and union members–shrinks).

At the same time, hold districts accountable from the state and federal levels, by making their (bad) results transparent and forcing them to adopt meaningful (and unpleasant) reforms in their failing schools. The combination of competitive pressures from below, and accountability pressures from above, will create a new political environment, one in which unions and civil servants have no real alternative but to accept reform instead of oppose it—out of sheer self-interest.

And finally, after this long and circuitous route, districts will adopt critical changes, such as those that make it much easier to remove ineffective teachers (or principals or staff) from their jobs. And managers, newly empowered, will take bold action to weed out the low-performers and usher in a new era of excellence and accountability.

Sounds great, but how has this theory turned out in practice? Not so well. For instance, ten cities boast a charter school “market share” of greater than twenty percent, places like Detroit, Kansas City, and Dayton, which means that their districts have lost loads of kids and cash and teachers. And these districts are also subject to NCLB-style accountability from on high. But to date, their unions and central office staff aren’t exactly burning a path to reform’s door.

Then again, there’s Washington, D.C. Here we have a city where a third of the students have decamped to charter schools, creating an environment in which the union is desperate to stanch the loss of teachers. And we have a tough-minded chancellor, backed by a strong mayor, willing to wield a tough accountability stick. And sure enough, just last week, Washington’s union leadership reluctantly embraced a reform-minded contract that will make it much easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. (Of course, pay raises for everyone surely helped too.)

But it turns out that DC is the exception and not the rule. It is unique in one very important way: It is a city without a state. And, as we learned in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s report, Invisible Ink, many of the key policies that protect teachers and create complacency are enshrined in state law, not in district contracts. The NCTQ authors write, “State law dictates how often teachers must be evaluated, when teachers can earn tenure, the benefits they’ll receive, and even the rules for firing a teacher.” The Washington contract could address these issues because they weren’t already buttoned-up in state policy.

All of this helps to explain why “teacher accountability” is now the reformer’s primary rallying cry—and why the battle is primarily being fought at the state, rather than district, level. After twenty years it’s become clear that choice and accountability are necessary but not sufficient to create the conditions for high-performing systems. They were too indirect; now it’s time to tackle teacher tenure and evaluations head-on. And that means fighting the unions in committee rooms in state capitals.

That’s what we’re seeing in Florida, with the far-reaching bill just vetoed by Governor Crist. That’s what we’re seeing in Colorado, with a bold proposal  just released by state senator and uber-reformer Mike Johnston. And that’s what we could see nationwide if states were willing to step up to the Race to the Top’s challenge for meaningful teacher accountability.

But reformers shouldn’t expect this to be beanbag. In Florida, the unions have pulled out all the stops, and managed to get the Democratic caucus in the state legislature to more or less march in lockstep against the proposed changes. This same caucus split 50-50 when it came to expanding the Sunshine State’s private school choice program, demonstrating that teacher reform is now more radioactive than vouchers.

Tackling tenure and related reforms will be a fight to the finish, but after two decades of preliminaries, it’s about time for the main event. May the good guys win.

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