Pitts:Teaching vs. the teachers unions

2010-08-02T00:00:00Z Pitts:Teaching vs. the teachers unionsBy Leonard Pitts Jr Montana Standard
August 02, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A year or two ago, I received this e-mail. 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. Moreover, 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 at 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.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Copyright 2015 Montana Standard. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(8) Comments

  1. newsfan
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    newsfan - August 03, 2010 4:44 pm
    As usual we get another oversimplified argument about teacher accountability from someone outside of education and the commenters are the same. Just expect more and you'll get it? That"s like telling my students to come to school regularly and expect that they'll just do it. You really don't know what is going on there if you are not there. Are there bad teachers? Yes! Are ther bad newspaper columnists? Yes! The solution is much more complicated than Mr. Pitts knows.
  2. montanamudd
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    montanamudd - August 03, 2010 4:22 pm
    Come on people, you really think you have it nailed by blaming the teachers.LOL. You have to be kidding. The administrators are making the big money and all the decisions. Its just business for them, its not about education. Let the teachers administer and put the extra money into classrooms and I'll bet you'll see change. The education system just needs an enema (overhaul). All the students are not going to be rocket scientist's. Test the kids and put them into programs that will lead them into jobs and a careers. Education is trying to force kids to learn. Maybe there is a great teacher that could help, but not with 30 kids in a classroom. Chances are the kid is dealing with problems that are not allowing growth. Butte is an impoverished area and the teachers get paid crap. The yearly raise goes towards the horrible insurance and the only benefits are that they take all your money and invest it to make money and hopefully you will get some back for your retirement. All the benifits of being a teacher are long gone. Keep going in this direction people and you will pay dearly to educate your children. Privatization is right around the corner and you can pick your favorite teacher all you want for a big "Price"
  3. Gypsy
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    Gypsy - August 02, 2010 7:19 pm
    Almost 40 years ago, when one of my daughters was in the 4th grade, she had a teacher who could NOT spell even 4th grade level words! I remember my daughter coming home and telling me that her teacher could not spell "stallion" correctly, and that she finally asked one of the kids how to spell. During that school year, this class put on a play about well-known explorers, one of them being Coronado. The teacher kept pronouncing this name as "Co-Ran-Dough." She had hand-lettered a banner above a game booth that said, "Prizes Glore." My daughter and others of her classmates were embarassed. This teacher continued on, unchallenged by the school district over her poor performance, until she reached retirement age a few years ago.

    Tenure MUST be removed from union requirements. I worked in a system where my performance was measured and I kept my job only because my performance met required standards. Mr. Pitts is spot on in his column today.
  4. oldie
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    oldie - August 02, 2010 2:26 pm
    Mr. Pitts asks a good question. When a teacher can't get fired for doing bad work, what's the impetus for doing good work?

    This is where the problem is - motivation. I think if you offer a guaranteed job with good salary and benefits you will attract people who are looking for just that. But if you offer a job of teaching our children you will get people who want to teach. They will go after the job regardless of the salary, benefits, and job security. Luckily, the way we do it now we still get a majority of people who want to teach, but you've got to admit we still attract a lot of slackers. Emphasize the duties, not the bennies. You can say a lot about the nuns, but you can't say they were not good teachers as a rule. The nuns didn't get ANY money. They got a place to live, and what they could eat but that's about it. The nuns just wanted to teach. Motivation, see. That's what it's all about, really.
  5. KnuckleHead
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    KnuckleHead - August 02, 2010 2:00 pm
    My overall opinion of Mr. Pitts is that he's an over-rated, over-inflated gas bag. However, he makes a lot of sense on this issue. Teachers should be accountable. As in any job, there should be some progressive discipline for the offending teacher and if they can't tow the line, they find a new profession.
  6. zubie41
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    zubie41 - August 02, 2010 11:48 am
    Well said Mr. Pitts. Also,any kind of progress is dependant on negotiation and compromise
  7. r d
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    r d - August 02, 2010 10:07 am
    This is the best column I've ever seen from Pitts and, hopefully, will clue in the Butte school district, particularly as they develop their policy for implementing the Montana Digital Academy.
  8. Fred Brewer
    Report Abuse
    Fred Brewer - August 02, 2010 9:03 am
    The last sentence sums it up perfectly.

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