Who Holds Teachers' Unions Accountable?

With the extreme protection of teachers by their union, to whom are they accountable? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Dave Consiglio, Chemistry and Physics High School Teacher and Community College Professor, on Quora:

Many teachers have almost no union protection. Whole states offer effectively no union rights and privileges.

But even teachers, like me, who do have union protections are hardly what you'd call "protected." This is a common lie perpetuated by politicians (mostly Republicans).

I've seen dozens of teachers laid off, fired, or reprimanded throughout the years, often for trivial or even non-existent offenses. I was once written up for sending text messages to my students--after all teachers were instructed to send text messages to students. Those messages weren't inappropriate, just things like "please put your phones away" and "test on Tuesday--don't forget to study!" But a parent complained that the messages were "rude." The school reprimanded me to appease the parent.

Other teachers I know have been fired or laid off, or cut back to part time, based on "poor evaluations." But these poor evaluations are usually "the district doesn't like you" or "a parent complained about you" or "you are high on the pay scale."

In the end, teachers are quickly becoming at-will employees, and this is a very bad thing. Teachers need protections because so much of our job is unmeasurable and intangible.

Here's an example:

Several years ago, my district started reprimanding and laying off teachers who failed too many students. Some teachers failed no one, while others failed many students. Those who failed "too many" (a number which was arbitrarily chosen) were evaluated poorly and then terminated.

Seems reasonable, yes?

Well, the teachers who failed lots of students often taught remedial classes. Teachers who failed no one usually taught AP courses. The teacher in the remedial classes usually had about 50 percent as an average attendance rate; the teacher in AP had nearly 100% attendance.

Is a teacher bad because he or she fails students who hardly ever come to class?

Suddenly it's not so reasonable.

What's worse, plenty of teachers (myself included) softened our grades to fall under the cut line and keep our jobs, effectively sacrificing our integrity for our paychecks, something that made us all less effective teachers.

In the end, teachers are accountable to students, parents and the districts for which they work. But measuring quality teaching is nearly impossible. When there are 30 to 200 confounding factors (aka "students") who sit in front of you every day, it is effectively impossible to tease out the difference between noise (which courses you teach and in what district) from the signal (whether or not a teacher really helps students more than some other teacher).

So how do you fix this problem?

  1. Evaluate teachers based on concrete and research-driven criteria. Things like attendance, using multiple techniques, differentiating, etc.
  2. Do not take grades or test scores into account, especially without correcting for that teachers' student makeup.
  3. Give teachers ample time to improve if areas of weakness are found.
  4. Support teachers by giving them the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Pre-screen new procedures and rules implemented by teachers to make sure that everything being done in the classroom is approved and supported by the district.

But even doing these things will still put teachers in the crosshairs of parents who just want A's for their students, regardless of the student behavior, and students who are willing to say or do anything just to get a teacher in trouble.

Teaching is hard, much harder than most people suspect. Teachers deserve a degree of protection from wanton and capricious dismissal.

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