Anne Wass

Excluding teachers hinders education gains

By Anne Wass
December 26, 2009

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MASSACHUSETTS HAS one of the finest education systems in the world. Our students are not only first in the nation on measures of math and reading, but also performed better than students in every European country on a recent international assessment of math and science skills.

Teachers are justifiably proud of these accomplishments. Teachers also know firsthand that significant achievement gaps remain: Minority, low-income, and special-needs students, along with English language learners, often struggle to meet education standards.

There is no simple formula for eliminating the gaps, but there are strategies that can help. Teachers must be equal partners with administrators, community leaders, and state officials in figuring out solutions. Other institutions in society must also be part of the mix. The three R’s alone cannot overcome the ill effects of poverty.

A complex education bill being debated in the Legislature seeks to address the achievement gaps. Some proposed changes are helpful and long overdue, while others could actually slow reforms by marginalizing the teachers who must implement them.

A positive feature is a new emphasis on helping underperforming schools and districts. As Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester has said, it is not enough to label and sanction schools; support and expert advice are also needed. The commissioner as well as superintendents would be required to develop improvement plans and work with social service agencies, health providers, and others to help make sure that students’ needs were being met outside of school to improve their chances of succeeding in the classroom.

Unfortunately, some proposals in early drafts of the bill were counterproductive. Positive amendments to some of those provisions were adopted in the Senate, but they may be in jeopardy in the House.

One notable controversy is over how much power administrators should have to fire teachers who work in low-performing schools, even those with outstanding evaluations. A little history is helpful. Teachers in Massachusetts are employees-at-will during their first three years in the classroom. After that, they may be fired, but there has to be a legitimate reason and a process. This protection was adopted decades ago to halt rampant nepotism in the hiring of school staff and to prevent districts from balancing their budgets by firing higher-paid veteran teachers and replacing them with low-cost new ones.

Today, grounds for dismissal are broad and can include anything from malfeasance to incompetence. This is as it should be. Nobody benefits from having ineffective teachers in the classroom.

Early drafts of the education of the bill stood all of this on its head. Instead of being presumed “innocent until proven guilty,’’ many teachers who work with high-need students would be presumed guilty. Teachers in underperforming schools would be required to resign and reapply for their jobs. If they were not rehired, they would be terminated, even if their evaluations over a lifetime of teaching had been exemplary. That’s like punishing doctors who work in urban emergency rooms for having higher mortality rates than those working in suburban outpatient clinics.

Recognizing that such a system would discourage effective, experienced educators from teaching students who need their expertise the most, Democratic Senator Gale Candaras of Wilbraham filed an amendment that reinstates a measure of fairness. It requires the district to demonstrate that the teacher being terminated has contributed to the school’s underperformance. We supported this compromise, which the Senate adopted.

A second amendment, filed by Democratic Senator Kenneth Donnelly of Arlington would require superintendents who propose significant changes in working conditions in underperforming schools to negotiate with teachers over the particulars. If no agreement were reached, there would be an expedited binding arbitration process that would have to focus on the interests of the children. Without this amendment, teachers would have little say over improvements in their schools - and a big incentive to relocate to districts where they would have a greater voice.

Legislators should not strike either of these amendments and relegate teachers to the sidelines. Students are the ultimate beneficiaries of a more collaborative approach to school improvement, an approach that values the experience and wisdom of teachers as well as the insights of school committee members, administrators, parents, and community leaders.

Debating how best to move forward with helping poor children succeed is healthy. Demonizing teachers and the unions that represent them is not. School reform will only succeed if it begins with mutual respect and fair processes that encourage working together to create a quality education for all students.

Anne Wass is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

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