Teachers Unions Push Back Against Teacher Evaluations

Published February 13, 2014

Colorado’s largest teachers union is challenging a 2010 law that includes a new procedure for teacher firings. The Colorado Education Association (CEA) has sued, saying the law is flawed because it allows administrators to approve or deny a teacher’s transfer to their school, a freedom known as “mutual consent.” They charge this will put some good teachers on unpaid leave. Supporters say this is an important modernization of the teaching profession.

Colorado’s 2010 law ensures teachers are paid based on merit instead of input-based measures such as years of experience and certifications, said Brittany Corona, a research assistant at The Heritage Foundation.

“Under Colorado’s law, teachers who work hard and demonstrably improve student outcomes will be rewarded for their success in the classroom, and those who are rated poorly for several consecutive years will lose their tenure,” says Corona.

Unions across the country are beginning to challenge new teacher evaluations the Obama administration has unilaterally required states to implement.

Fed Mandates vs. ‘Smart Policy’
Federally mandated teacher evaluations are distinct from Colorado’s current evaluation system, Corona notes.

“The pushback against federally mandated teacher evaluations in New York and Connecticut was driven by teachers’ unions who do not wish to adopt Colorado’s model,” she said. “The unions correctly recognize that state-level teacher evaluation systems which tie compensation to performance will impose a new level of accountability that has been missing from the vast majority of school systems across the country. Colorado’s evaluation system is smart policy, but efforts by the Obama administration to implement a one-size-fits-all teacher evaluation system from the federal level are another misguided Washington overreach.”

People have to start realizing unions are in the business of protecting jobs, not improving education, said Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“Unions consider teacher evaluations as a threat. They are opposed to a truly serious system of teacher evaluations that may lead to many teachers being graded ‘unsatisfactory’ and thus losing their jobs,” Moe said.

But the political tide is against them, he says, even within the Democrat party. President Obama’s Race to the Top program mandates teacher evaluations, and since it was created in 2009, more than half the states have introduced them, he notes.

What Unions Want
Unions are very active in Colorado and oppose mutual consent, says Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute in Denver.

“Mutual consent … is a way to weed out bad teachers,” he said. “This is a commonsense measure. So we have to ask: Why do unions want to undermine reform efforts and inflict ineffective teachers on school children?”

Even though unions claim to support evaluations, they really don’t, says Moe. 

“The unions, especially Randi Weingarten [current president of the American Federation of Teachers], constantly talk about ‘collaboration,’ or creating a ‘collaborative environment,’ but what they really mean is they want to determine how the laws are written, implemented, and work out in the trenches,” explains Moe.

“As far as they’re concerned, reforms are just a piece of paper. The reality is in the implementation and details. And that’s where they’re particularly strong. Their aim is to see fewer teachers get evaluated,” says Moe.     

Washington state is very much like other states, says Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center. Race to the Top required teacher evaluations, but the state reform law did not require teacher evaluations be tied to student achievement. That’s a direct result of the state teachers union lobbying against such a requirement, Finne said.

“Unions are out of step with serious efforts to reform education. They’re very powerful, and they have all their people on the right committees to protect their members,” she said.

Nationally Coordinated Effort?
The pushback against teacher evaluations, starting in New York and Connecticut, then spreading west through Colorado and other states, could be a nationally coordinated effort by unions, says Robert Maranto, a professor at the University of Arkansas.

“When No Child Left Behind was passed, my assumption was that it would fail because there were so many ways to sabotage it,” he said. “But the administrators agreed to it back then because money was tight and they were willing to undergo a little discomfort in order to get the funds. The same may be true for the new teacher evaluations required by Race to the Top—the unions may have agreed to them [then] because 10 years out they thought they could get them cut.” 

An advantage unions have is that they share information among themselves, while state education agencies don’t necessarily do the same, Maranto said.

Part of the problem with teacher evaluations is that if they work as designed, some teachers will get a poor grade and eventually lose their jobs, he said. That creates a political risk because people who choose careers in education typically don’t do so to “take risks and be unpopular.”

“But in the end, it’s kind of good to be able to fire people. They tried not firing people in the old Soviet Union, and it didn’t work out so well,” Maranto said. 


Image by F Delventhal.