media
April 17, 2008

Vice President Neira: 'Bad grades for linking tenure to test scores'

Source: Albany Times Union

In the Apr. 17, 2008 edition of the Albany Times Union, NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira writes:

NYSUT Vice President Maria NeiraFully understanding last week's battle in Albany over whether student test scores should be used to determine which teachers earn tenure requires a broader appreciation of what it means to be a classroom teacher.

Too often, teachers' views on classroom issues are not taken seriously. School boards, think tanks, politicians, business leaders and other self-styled educational experts all think they know our jobs better than we do.

Former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker would warn that these powerful figures were sending teachers a message: Be obedient. Keep your mouth shut. Don't rock the boat.

Yet, too often, teachers must rock the boat, such as when school boards and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to muscle the Legislature into allowing a flawed plan to use student test scores in making tenure decisions.

The assessments, given in third through eighth grades, are designed to measure students' progress in math and English language arts. They are not designed as tools for evaluating teachers' knowledge, classroom management skills, ability to collaborate with other teachers or efforts to involve parents.

In addition to excluding guidance counselors, physical education teachers and those who teach grades -- or subjects -- that are not tested (a point few ever considered), inappropriately linking test scores and tenure would also discourage new teachers from taking assignments in high-need school districts.

If your career is riding on how a handful of students answer questions on a single test in mid-January -- and you have no control over the resources available to you, or your students' health care or home circumstances -- wouldn't you choose to teach children who don't face educational challenges?

A better way to determine which teachers get tenure is for administrators to take their supervisory responsibilities seriously. Good administrators regularly observe new teachers at work, make suggestions for improvement and follow up to see if their teachers incorporate those suggestions into practice.

Probationary teachers should also receive meaningful professional development, mentoring and peer support, and should know how to use test results to diagnose student learning problems and, if necessary, to reshape their instructional practices. The most important decision about a teacher's career should follow a thoughtful, comprehensive review of the teacher's skills, not be based on a simple snapshot.

Every day, it seems, teachers have to fend off ideas from so-called experts who have never worked a day in a school. And then, when the teachers union -- the voice of the profession -- objects, they accuse the union of being the problem and begin the finger-pointing and public shaming.

Can you imagine the reaction of corporate CEOs or prominent doctors at big research hospitals if teachers weighed in on their business models or medical therapies and made decisions without their input?

How would they like it if they had no opportunity to use their professional judgment, were micromanaged from afar, denied the resources they know they need and then were told they are not working hard enough?

You can almost hear them protesting that teachers don't have the necessary expertise in finance or medicine to make those kinds of changes. They would be outraged.

To end the achievement gap and improve school performance, there must be recognition that teachers and their union aren't the problem; they are the solution. Instead of marginalizing teachers, teachers must be part of the dialogue -- from the very start.

As professionals, teachers should be equal partners and at the center of decisions that affect their profession and, more importantly, the lives of their students. When teachers -- and, for that matter, parents -- are pushed to the sidelines, students are the ones who pay the heaviest price.

Teachers believe in accountability for what they can control and welcome the meaningful, true accountability that comes with having a place at the table.

True accountability is done with teachers -- not to them. It is only possible when educators have a voice in setting the standards and benchmarks upon which accountability is based. Until then, teachers and their unions are going to be passionate, persistent advocates for the alternative -- standards and policies that make sense and benefit our students and the profession.

To get to that point, you can bet teachers will continue to rock the boat -- on tenure, and all the issues that impact learning and teaching.

Maria Neira, a former New York City elementary school teacher, is vice president of New York State United Teachers. She lives in Loudonville.