Is the AFT Trying to Reform Its Image?

Education reformers were pleasantly stunned when the American Federation of Teachers announced today that two of the winners of their new Innovation Fund grants planned to use the money to create teacher-evaluation systems that give weight to students' standardized test scores. The idea of considering gains (or the lack thereof) in student test scores when evaluating the effectiveness of teachers is an idea that reformers have pushed for years. But it's also an idea that the AFT, the country's second-largest union, as well as its rival, the National Education Association, has repeatedly dissed, insisting that research doesn't prove that teacher quality and test scores correlate. In fact, AFT President Randi Weingarten, while head of the New York City teachers' union, helped push through state legislation banning use of student test scores in teacher evaluations for tenure. 

But perhaps now that the Obama administration has not only embraced the idea but is requiring that states hoping to get a piece of the Department of Education's $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant money must be willing to link teacher evaluations to student performance, the AFT has decided they'd better get a hand in this game. "This is a real about-face, especially after they put up a firewall in New York State to prevent districts from using student test scores when evaluating teachers," said Amy Wilkins of Education Trust, a nonprofit education-reform group. "It's really encouraging that they are willing to join this conversation."

"I suspect they want to figure out how to use this data before it's imposed on them," said Joe Williams, of Democrats for Education Reform. "The [legislative] firewall [between student test scores and teacher evaluations] expires next spring, and I think this may be the surest sign we've seen that they will let it expire."

Weingarten herself acknowledged that she expected reformers to be jolted by the AFT announcement. "Many out there will be surprised to learn these proposals come from unions," she said in her prepared remarks. "Teachers and their unions are not afraid to take risks and share the responsibility for student success." When asked later about the decision to fund grants linking student achievement and teacher effectiveness, Weingarten said the union "isn't shying away from the issue that the evaluation system is broken." While making a point of saying that as national president, she can no longer speak for the New York local, she added that it was always her intention to let the New York ban sunset. Weingarten insisted that she never opposed the general idea of using student-performance data to evaluate teachers, but because of the distrust that had built up between her and New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

As impatience at the slow pace of education reform has grown nationally, the nation's two teachers' unions have been under mounting pressure to do more to rid their ranks of bad teachers. Critics argue that the unions' primary focus on job protection has led to contract rules in many cities that make firing ineffective teachers next to impossible and created situations like New York City's "rubber rooms," where teachers no school wants to hire are paid to do nothing. Recent news stories depicting the problems with New York City schools' tenure system has no doubt raised the pressure on Weingarten to prove her union's avowed reform chops. Last November, right after the presidential election, Weingarten went so far as to promise that the union would not dismiss any reform idea out of hand, short of voucher programs that funnel public money to private-school tuitions.

"This is a good sign that they're living up to that promise," said Williams. "You have to give them credit for opening the door to the conversation itself. They seem to understand that this is where the conversation is moving, and they want to be a part of it, rather than outside looking in. They may also realize that if they're willing to do this, it will be easier to have conversations about testing and whether there are better ways to determine if kids are learning." 

Eight AFT affiliates will share the $1.2 million being distributed to Innovation Fund winners this year. New York State United Teachers and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professions will use their money to develop the new teacher evaluations. The Broward Teachers Union in Florida won for their proposal to develop a new compensation plan for education professionals that promised to include multiple measures of student learning. Among the other winners, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel said they would use their grant to develop a plan to boost enrollment in their school district while creating more charter schools. The grants were funded with about $1 million in members' dues, as well as donations from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Charles Steward Mott Foundation.   

The union wasn't clear about how long it would be before their grantees proposals' would include detailed recommendations and test runs. So while the union is getting a gold star for potential, it won't be clear for a while what kind of grade the AFT's efforts will ultimately earn.