Outgoing National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel doesn't believe in bad teachers. Or rather, he doesn't think they should exist. Here's how he described it to NEA members at their recent convention.
"The other day I was talking to a reporter, and they like to talk about performance-based pay. The reporter said to me, 'Dennis, don't you think good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers?' I said, 'No! I don't think bad teachers should be paid anything! They shouldn't be there!'
He accused "corporate reformers"—StudentsFirst Founder Michelle Rhee and Democrats for Education Reform among them—of pushing for less training for teachers and fewer benefits in hopes of shrinking teachers unions.
"What kind of crazy world do we live in when their solution is to let anybody in and then just make it easy to fire all your mistakes? The solution is not to let anyone in who is not profession-ready on day one!"
They were blunt words, but they struck the perfect tone for the crowd. The next day, the NEA voted to call for the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The union said the department is too dependent on testing to assess teacher value.
No one wants to have bad teachers, but there is massive disagreement about how to determine who they are. If Van Roekel had his druthers, they would simply disappear.
But bad teachers are still out there, much to the chagrin of parents, children, and all the excellent teachers who have to live with the public's scorn about their lesser colleagues. Duncan, apparently unfazed by the NEA's insult, made their existence clear last week when he said that unqualified teachers are overly concentrated in low-income and minority areas. In Louisiana, for example, a child's chances of having a teacher rated as "effective" is 50 percent higher if he or she is in a school with a low poverty rate and a small number of minorities.
"Today, race and family income too often still predict students' access to excellent educators," Duncan said at a White House briefing before heading off to lunch with President Obama and a select group of teachers. Duncan then directed states to submit to the department new plans to ensure that disadvantaged kids aren't disproportionately exposed to unqualified teachers. Those plans are due in April.
(By the way, Education Week's Alyson Klein spoke with two of the teachers in at Monday's luncheon. They said the conversation with the president about their profession was free-flowing and the food was excellent. They did not feel at all like political props.)
Duncan also announced that the Education Department will make each state's teacher equity profiles available on its Web site. Sunlight, apparently, is the best cleanser. "Change can only come when we deal openly and honestly with the facts," Duncan said, applauding states like Louisiana, Tennessee, and California for publicizing their ratios of qualified teachers for each school district.
Qualified teachers and their disbursement among school districts presents a hornet's nest of issues, and it would seem that Van Roekel and Duncan both kicked it. Hopefully their actions will spur conversation and no one will get stung.
For our insiders: What is underlying Van Roekel's use of the term "corporate reformers?" Is it true the moneyed interests are looking to undermine teachers unions? How might that affect teachers? What can standardized tests tell us about teachers? Where do they fall short? How can they be improved? Why are substandard teachers in the lowest income schools? What can be done to make sure they aren't substandard? Can we eradicate bad teachers?
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