Commentary: Teachers' unions must embrace accountability

The Miami HeraldAugust 3, 2010 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

A year or two ago, I received this email. The writer was upset with me for arguing that school principals should have the power to fire teachers who do not perform. As numerous educators have told me, union protections being what they are, dumping a teacher — even a bad one — is an almost impossible task.

My correspondent, a teacher, took issue with my desire to see that changed, noting that without those protections, she'd be at the mercy of some boss who decided one day to fire her.

In other words, she'd be just like the rest of us. The lady's detachment from the reality most workers live with struck me as a telling clue as to why our education system frequently fails to educate. When you can't get fired for doing bad work, what's your impetus for doing good?

Many of us seem to be wondering the same thing.

Recently, for instance, Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, hired in 2007 to reform the system, fired 241 teachers, most of whom had performed poorly on a teacher evaluation system.

And in a speech Thursday before the National Urban League, President Obama defended his Race To The Top education initiative, saying the goal isn't simply to fire bad teachers, but to lower class sizes, reward excellence and demand accountability.

Earlier this year, officials in Rhode Island fired the entire faculty of a poorly-performing school

Finally, there's 2002's No Child Left Behind Act which, while deeply flawed, at least represented an attempt to bring about critical change.

Americans seem to be rallying around a demand for education reform. Apparently, we've had enough of students failing schools and schools failing students. We know our kids are capable of better -- and that in a competitive, hyper-connected world where China is rising and India aspiring, not delivering better is no longer an option.

Unfortunately, whenever anyone seeks to require better, they seem to find themselves at odds with the last people you'd expect: teachers. Or, more accurately, teachers unions.

No, I don't hate teachers. I've been one myself. More over, I know that whatever I've achieved in life is due in large part to what I learned from Mr. Jacobs, Ms. Sobo, Mrs. Harrison, Sr. Tapanez and many others.

No, I don't hate unions. I support the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively if they choose.

And no, I don't think teachers bear sole responsibility for the failure of our kids to excel. You also have to blame those parents who are uninvolved or who live under the misapprehension that their little darlings can do no wrong, even when said darlings are swinging from the light fixtures in class or running an extortion ring behind the gym.

All that said, it is troubling to see teachers unions reflexively reject anything that smacks of accountability.

Rhee offered a significant raise and big bonuses for effective teachers in exchange for weakening tenure protections. She had to fight the union.

The White House put up $4 billion in grant money to spur innovation in schools. It had to fight the unions.

Those Rhode Island officials fired (and later re-hired) faculty at a school where one child in two doesn't graduate and only 7 percent of 11th graders are proficient in math. It had to fight the unions.

Enough. It is time teachers embraced accountability. Time parents, students and government did, too.

Because ultimately, what is as stake here is not grades, not jobs and not blame. No, this is an argument about the future -- and whether this country will have one. The fact is, it cannot in a world where information is currency and American kids are broke.

People like my correspondent need to understand: There is a groundswell building here. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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