Education researchers take a chainsaw to cherished union beliefs

November 20, 2012

Victor Skinner Victor Skinner

Victor is a communications specialist for EAG and joined in 2009. Previously, he was a newspaper journalist.
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By Ben Velderman

LOS ANGELES – Education researchers affiliated with Harvard University have produced a new report about teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District that may end up serving as a chainsaw to a number of sacred teacher union principles.

The findings of a two-year study conducted by the Strategic Data Project strongly contradict  the long-held union practices that base teacher pay on the attainment of advanced academic degrees and use seniority to determine teacher layoffs.

Researchers found that “teachers with more advanced academic degrees are no more effective than those who lack them,” and that LAUSD’s practice of laying off less-senior teachers has cost the district a number of effective educators, reports

Researchers determined that “45 percent of those let go were in the top two quartiles of performers, who, under a more rigorous evaluation system deemphasizing seniority, might retain their jobs,” according to EdSource.

Another core union belief – that teachers are equal and interchangeable – was also turned upside down.


“Researchers found that the difference between a math teacher in the 75th percentile – those whose students performed better than three quarters of other students – and a teacher in the 25th percentile was the roughly equivalent benefit to a student of having eight additional months of instruction in a calendar year (technically one quarter of a standard deviation).”

But the unions’ woes don’t end there. Researchers had nothing but praise for long-time union archenemy Teach for America, an organization that recruits outstanding college graduates to teach in public schools. According to the report, TFA educators provide their students with the equivalent of two extra months of instruction, when compared to the performance of traditional novice teachers.

The Strategic Data Project report also finds that those (traditional) novice teachers are getting assigned to students who are already behind the academic curve. That practice is helping perpetuate LAUSD’s achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers.

The research, which used seven years of student achievement data to examine the effectiveness of one-third of LAUSD teachers, is viewed by district officials as “a call to action.”

“The findings of this study will help us be more strategic about how we maximize the impact of our greatest resource—the educators who are in front of youth each day,” said LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy in a press release.

As the kids like to say, good luck with that.

The research may be on the side of education reformers and conscientious school administrators, but the labor laws governing school operations are what really matter. And in California, the teacher unions hold those cards.

For example, school administrators in the Golden State are legally required to consider a teacher’s seniority – along with other factors – when making layoff decisions.

And by law, California teacher unions have the right to negotiate teacher placement and transfer policies into their labor contracts with the district.

LAUSD officials can glory in the study’s findings all they want, but they are largely powerless to change important district policies without union approval.

And since the unions will never sign off on those changes, that means lawmakers will need to take those powers away from the unions.

Does anybody think that’s going to happen anytime soon?

Neither do we.

Still, this SDP-generated information is nice to know. Hopefully it will inspire legislators in other states to keep on pushing for fundamental education reforms.

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  1. There are lies, d—ed lies and
    statistics. I love Heritage but you are drawing conclusions based on naiveté’
    at best.

    1) You don’t understand that for the most part the best teachers get the best
    students. Teachers in the top quartile most often have students who’s IQ’s are
    in the top quartile. For as much as I dislike the “value-added”
    evaluation systems – for reasons I’ll list later – they at least recognize that
    the quality of student a teacher faces is as important as the teaching itself.

    2) The statement that 45% of released teachers come from the top 2 quartiles –
    is dangerously misleading to the statistically challenged. Who, reading that
    stat, realized that the top two quartiles represents 50% of the group normally
    distributed? The stat actually refutes the statement in the article that seniority
    does not correlate with better teaching as the percentage of least-senior
    teachers in the 2 lowest quartiles had to be 55% or 5% over a normal

    3) Is it good that so many good teachers are lost? No. Is it reason enough to
    get rid of seniority? I argue it is not. I argue that Republicans are in danger
    of destroying what little glue is holding the system together. Tenure is the
    one thing that good teachers have to hold the line against the real
    under-miners of success in education … administrators … especially top
    administration. For those who have only worked in the for-profit sector it may
    be difficult for you to understand as even bad managers in business learn what
    doesn’t work when profits go down. Perhaps if you begin thinking of the upper
    administrators in big (failing) public school systems as kin to the bureaucrats
    in the Kremlin you will get the picture. In short, teachers without tenure (and
    thus the students) would be at the mercy of the Lenin-like political elite. You
    need teachers to have seniority and tenure more than you can imagine.

    If Republicans just began to ask rank and file public school teachers what
    legislation they needed to improve schools they could pick up 40% or more of
    the teacher’s vote and transform the teacher’s unions from instruments of the
    Democratic Party to instruments of school improvement.

    4) Value added evaluation systems-problems: a) They assume all students can
    improve more than a year of progress year after year after year. b) They ignore
    that at the top levels standardized tests allow for no room for improvement. c)
    Valued added scores make the teacher responsible for things over-which they
    have no control. i) I give my students the test questions before the test. I
    give them extra credit if they return these “study guides” to me with
    their answers. In my non-honors classes less than half of the students do not
    bother to complete these study guides? Is that my fault? but V-As make it my
    responsibility ii) I ask every failing student’s parent to contact me and meet
    for a conference. Less than 20% do. My fault / responsibility? iii) Today two
    students told me their parents are taking them for a week’s vacation AFTER the
    3 week Christmas Break. My fault that they will miss work (If you think make-up
    work done on vacation is equivalent to a week of class-homework you’re a fool, so
    you may stop reading this.) iv) The state tests test 69 complex history
    standards written 26 yrs. ago as the broad outline of all things valid to teach
    in 8th grade history. The 69 were NEVER intended to be taught in a 39 week
    school year. My state tests all 69 in the 33rd week of school – and includes
    review material from 6th and 7th grade! Would you like being evaluated in these
    conditions? v) My school district permits no one to fail (administrative/Brd of
    Ed decision) Since this decision my student’s work habits have gone from kids
    trying to do their best to trying to do their best to do a little as possible.
    That dumb bureaucratic-education-elite-Ph.D. decision is supported by no
    teachers, but you want me to be accountable for that stupidity. Again, the
    bureaucrats are never held accountable for their mistakes unlike the managers
    in for-profit businesses

    5) School District policies over
    the years have attracted average college students into teaching. Most of the
    best and brightest leave in years 2-5 as their peers pay rises and their hours
    of work decreases (think of the progression of accountants in CPA firms) Those
    who stay. stay for the job security and secure pension. They endure the insults
    and inequities in #4 above for those securities. When you succeed in driving
    out the old teachers but take away the pension and job securities you will
    either have to pay teachers more or NEVER gain the advantages of having teacher
    who have worked more than 10 years. I’m in my 20th year. The things I do now
    systemically for the benefits of students and parents are thing I could never
    think of in year 10. You will lose that if you change the system.

    I am a Republican because I hate
    how foolishly short-sighted Democrats are in economics and so many other
    things. But my Republican brethren … as Democrats are stupid about economics
    you are on education. And it’s a shame because if you thought of the
    Departments of Education as OSHA and school bureaucracies as the Kremlin you
    could BOTH reform education and steal a lot of votes from the Dems!

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