One of the most important things to understand about the national teachers unions is their profoundly conservative world view. This is small “c” conservatism, which means preserving existing conditions or institutions and limiting change. The decision by the National Education Association’s membership to accept the widely held belief that how much students learn ought to influence teachers’ evaluations should be seen in this light. But neither should this gesture be dismissed as inconsequential.
The N.E.A. is a democratically governed organization, so its positions are supposed to reflect the collective will of its members. In this case, the vote by the organization’s assembly reflects members’ experience as well as their will. The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top competition, like the Teacher Incentive Fund grants that began under President George W. Bush, gave states and districts incentives to overhaul teacher evaluations to give make job performance carry more weight
Such systems are either in place or being created in about 20 states and thousands of cities. The best known and most closely watched such system is Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT, which has been in use for two years. In this system, which is described here in depth by Education Sector writer Susan Headden, teachers are evaluated based on rigorous, structured observations and critiques of teachers’ performance, as well as student test score gains and other factors. Unlike most evaluations, IMPACT has real bite. The most highly rated teachers can earn bonuses of up to $25,000 while those who are considered inadequate for more than one year may lose their jobs. Hundreds of D.C. teachers are likely to meet that fate next month.
The claim of one pro-resolution union leader, quoted by Education Week blogger Stephen Sawchuk, that the N.E. A. vote “fundamentally changes the national debate about education” is an overstatement. At this point, the union supports factoring in student performance as measured by test scores only in theory. The tests that it would endorse using for this purpose do not yet exist and the union is right that current tests were not designed as evaluation tools. It will be interesting to see whether and how hard the union pushes for development of new assessments that would be more appropriate.
Even so, the passage of the resolution is an important step forward and here’s why: it shows that the union and its members understand that meaningfully connecting teachers’ performance to their job evaluations is here to stay. It shows that, while the N.E. A. is right to be cautious and protect its members’ interests, it can’t be oblivious to changes in the political and policy environment that are affecting them.