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Teacher union's lesson plan for failure

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By Richard Berman
Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offered Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million, it was a godsend to the cash-strapped school system. But to the American Federation of Teachers, the city's teachers union, and AFT President Randi Weingarten, the idea that school funding might be tied to improving children's education was anathema. The grant had to go.

The Gates foundation's criteria were straightforward: The school district and teachers needed to agree on a method to evaluate classroom performance and to hold teachers accountable for their performance. The union and the district agreed on a metric, but now the AFT and its Pittsburgh local are retroactively arguing that the grading scale is too hard.

Weingarten, the national AFT and its Pittsburgh local chose, instead, to defend assembly-line-style work rules that entrench incompetent teachers in the classroom based on seniority rather than skill, deny teachers the opportunity to earn raises and bonuses based on their ability to teach, and make it excessively difficult to fire teachers for misconduct.

And now, if the union doesn't budge, it could cost Pittsburgh's kids $40 million.

The rot comes from the top of the organization: Weingarten practiced factory-style unionism when she headed New York City's notoriously obstinate United Federation of Teachers. Her union was responsible for keeping NYC's infamous “rubber rooms”— where teachers accused of misconduct were paid to do nothing while union reps dragged out their cases on appeal, sometimes for years. The New York Daily News reported that over a three-year period ending in 2010 (that included the end of Weingarten's time at the UFT), only 88 of the city's roughly 80,000 teachers — an amazingly low 0.1 percent — were fired. In the private sector, the firing rate is 30 times higher in a single year.

It gets worse: By defending archaic work rules that protect bad teachers, high-quality teachers who want to take on and thrive in the hardest jobs in education get the boot while rubber roomers stay on the rolls.

The Commonwealth Foundation reports that Pittsburgh schools are suffering here too: AFT-negotiated seniority rules sent 16 “distinguished” (top-performing) teachers on furlough and cost four of them their jobs, even as 11 “failing” teachers were reinstated.

Pittsburgh's children have suffered the worst possible effect of the seniority-based systems that teachers unions such as the AFT have forced on school districts. The Gates foundation money, offered just a few years after Pittsburgh Public Schools had to lay off teachers, could go a long way toward retaining high-quality teachers who have chosen to teach in the city. But the AFT has chosen to protect bad teachers over necessary school reforms and help for Pittsburgh's children.

When kids who flunk tests whine about the “grading scale,” parents know that Junior's really not doing as well as he says he is. It's time for Pittsburgh leaders to press forward with reform despite the AFT's obstruction and secure $40 million for the children.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, which operates AFTFacts.com.

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