The following letter is a response to recent and about the current clash between Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union.
From my 30 years of experience in education both sides of this question are right.
Let's look at teacher evaluation and the role of unions first. The research tells us that our schools produced better results prior to the formation of unions and that right to work states, where there are no unions, do not perform less well than unionized states. Teacher unions provide an important function in negotiating higher salaries and better benefits, but they also protect the veteran teacher that refuses to evaluate and change his belief system or methods even when research tells us there is a better way. Our public school system is the only working environment I can think of where evaluations are considered a rubber stamp of approval and if there is even one critical point they result in a grievance by the union. As a former school supervisor, grievances were brought against me for asking a male science teacher to give equal time to his female students, for expecting a teacher to inform me when she will be off campus, for asking a teacher to prepare lesson plans, and much, much more. How about the teacher that refused to place a nearly straight A female African-American student in an honors science class because the student made a B- instead of the prerequisite required B. Should this teacher be asked to evaluate his motivation for seeing the prerequisite as an absolute rule in this situation? What if this was your child? Wouldn't you want the teacher to give your child the benefit of the doubt? I've seen principals remove all criticisms from an evaluation to avoid confrontations with the union after a teacher starts the grievance process. I know teachers, who would like to make changes to the system, be silent because of their fear of reprisals from the union. What teacher is willing to go up against the union's policies when they know that in the future there may be a time when they will need the union to support them in their own grievance.
On the other hand, school districts need to have a solid and reliable mentoring system for helping improve our teachers methods and to overcome belief systems that hinder students from achieving their full potential. Every district has professional development days, but often these days are unfocused and truncated to the point of uselessness. Districts that are successful in making great strides in improving teacher performance have organized and highly focused professional development that attacks one or two related subjects each year in a progressive manner rather than random shots in the dark that have no relationship or significance to the teachers' needs. More isn't better. It's focused training that produces results. However, there are veteran teachers out there that will resist change under any and all circumstances. This is the teacher who will sit through classes and PD offerings with her arms folded and a scowl on her face, and announce without hesitation that "no matter what you say, I have no intentions of implementing this $&/! in my classroom." Under our current tenure system this teacher knows that it would be very difficult to help her find a different career.
So, yes, we need to allow evaluations to really serve a purpose other than singing the praises of the teacher all of the time, so that deficiencies are identified without the constant threat of union reprisals. However, we also need to improve our mentoring and professional development programs to help those teachers willing to openly and honestly evaluate their teaching with the goal of improving.
- June Siple, Ed.D.