Last week, Time magazine caused a stir with its cover story, “Rotten Apples: It is Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher.” Then, this past Sunday, the Jewish Daily Forward published an article, “At American Jewish Day Schools, Unions are Rare – and Becoming Rarer.” In the Forward article, Hillel was cited for its role in dissolving the union in 2005. Our action caused other schools to follow suit, two just this past year.
Time’s article describes the lawsuit Vergara v. California filed by nine California public school children in May 2012 that sought to strike down the laws “handcuffing schools from doing what’s best for kids when it comes to teachers.” On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down five decades-old California laws governing teacher tenure, and other job protections, on the grounds that they violate the state’s constitution. Judge Treu wrote, bad teachers violate the students’ rights to “basic equality of educational opportunity.”
Improving our schools is one of the greatest challenges facing our country. Putting the blame on teachers is not the way to address the issue. Most teachers want to do their best and make a difference in the lives of their students. Judging the competence of teachers based on high-stakes, standardized testing is not the answer either. In fact, it makes the entire situation worse. In the public system, to judge teachers using “cookie cutter measures,” when every community and circumstances are different, makes no sense. Imagine holding teachers in the inner city to the same standard as teachers in affluent suburbs. And why do we measure the competencies of teachers on the narrow focus of a standardized test when children come to us with so many different talents, strengths and intelligences?
What our teachers need are more vigorous teacher training programs, more time to work with master teachers as apprentices, and more respect in the community. Expectations must be high, and they need to be fair and recognize the complexity of student learning. Teachers should be one of our most respected and valued professionals in the community. We place our most precious and sacred children in the hands of teachers several hours a day, five days a week, and yet we do not support them or train them commensurate with their responsibility.
There is no doubt that, in the twentieth century, unions served as a positive force for workers in achieving fairness, and I know that was true for teachers as well. But fair is not equal. And when bad teachers are protected by unions who make it time-consuming and costly to remove them, children suffer. When unions make it cumbersome to institute change or make professional demands on teachers that would benefit the educational environment, students suffer.
Tenure and seniority are obstacles to educational reform and school improvement. Without a union at Hillel we have been able to place the best teachers in the right positions regardless of longevity and we have been able to remove (the very few) ineffective teachers in a timely manner. We are able to create a professional culture that reflects the mission of the school and to establish clear criteria identifying what excellence in teaching looks like at Hillel.
We work hard to create a professional climate that respects teachers, invites their input and asks for their feedback. Teachers are encouraged to become teacher-leaders and to be the agents of change and growth at Hillel. The partnership is direct, with no third party (union) running interference. Every teacher at Hillel has a voice. There is no doubt that Hillel is a demanding place to work. With those high standards come excellent teachers who challenge themselves to grow, take risks and work together as collaborators and colleagues.
Public education can take a lesson from independent schools. Schools like Hillel can identify and evaluate excellent teachers based on specific, research-based criteria. In addition, there are more meaningful and deeper approaches to assess and monitor student learning and growth beyond the limited, multiple-choice standardized test. Perhaps it is time to take education away from the politicians and put it back in the hands of educators.