Monday, December 13, 2010

Teachers unions often resist school reforms

The Obama administration could not have set the stage for a better demonstration of the power and priorities of Wisconsin's teachers unions. With its Race to the Top competition, the federal government dangled the prospect of a share of $4.35 billion for those states ready to enact reforms, especially related to improving teacher and principal performance.

Eyes on that prize, states launched plans tying teacher pay and promotions to student achievement, giving state officials more control over local schools and overhauling data tracking and assessment systems. Then the game got tricky: Teachers unions had to be on board.

In the end, only 11 states and the District of Columbia ended up with money from the program this year. Wisconsin got nothing.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council had helped kill or watered down critical parts of the state's proposal, with the president of the teachers union attaching a letter to the application that one participant described as "grudging." In the end, only 12% of the union's local leaders endorsed a plan that might have brought in more than $250 million in school funding to Wisconsin.

Perhaps the state is better off, as some educators contend in criticizing the priorities and the strings attached to the federal dollars. But the episode shows that when it comes to assessing and improving teacher quality, the most powerful voice in Wisconsin - and perhaps the biggest obstacle - could be the teachers union.

"The teachers union, they can be very effective in these reforms if they're willing to sit at the table and be fair about it," said state Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon), former chair of the Assembly's education committee. "But, up to now, they've controlled all the cards and there's no reason for them not to do anything they want."

On top of being one of the state's most dominant political forces, with an ability to influence legislation and elections, Wisconsin's teachers unions have a direct effect on teacher quality through the role they play in local contract negotiations and representation of teachers targeted for improvement or dismissal.

By adhering to pay schedules that fail to distinguish between low- and high-performing teachers, protecting ineffective teachers from dismissal and fighting for work rules that provide more benefits for their members than for children, teachers unions stand in the way of improving the profession, critics argue.

For example, then-Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos complained only last year that the district's teachers union leaders had not allowed their members to vote on a proposal that would have used federal stimulus dollars to extend the school day and provide extra professional development for teachers. Research suggests that, if done well, adding instructional time can benefit low-income and other students who have fewer learning opportunities outside school.

Some reform progress

Across the country, teachers unions have taken leadership roles on such reform projects as tying teacher bonuses to student test score results and revamping teacher evaluations.

On Thursday, the National Education Association announced it would form a 21-member commission to study the teaching profession and make recommendations on the union's role in promoting teacher effectiveness and advancing the profession. WEAC is an affiliate to that national union.

"I think reform is most likely to be embraced when teachers have trust in their union leaders and when union leaders have faith in district officials," said Richard Kahlenberg, an education policy expert at the liberal Century Foundation.

Wisconsin's unions largely have not been open to change, however. Dal Lawrence, the former longtime president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers and current member of the Teachers Union Reform Network, called the state's teachers union one of the most "retrograde" in the country, along with New York's. "In Wisconsin, they think they invented labor-management relations in the 1920s and they don't want to hear about anything new since then," he said.

WEAC President Mary Bell challenged the notion that her organization hasn't been willing to innovate, pointing to efforts in districts such as Green Bay, where the union has worked with the superintendent on reforming professional development, and to a statewide licensure overhaul that more closely targets teachers' professional development to their needs.

WEAC - which represents teachers in all but 18 of the state's 425 school districts and counts about 98,000 members - also has advocated for higher pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas and providing bonuses for teachers who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, she said. Such efforts would have been considered anathema in the past to teachers unions, originally formed in the image of factory-floor labor organizations to protect a largely female membership against arbitrary pay and dismissal practices.


British student fee 'savings' will fund windmills in Africa

The cause of the major political story of last week – the row over tuition fees, students rioting and all – was, as we all know, “public spending cuts”. But how much money does the Government actually hope to save on tuition fees? If the immediate problem is our massive state deficit, it seems odd that the Government should risk such unpopularity, not for any immediate saving, but in the hope that it will get the money back over the next 30 years, as students can afford to repay it.

In the short term, the Government’s own projection as to how much it will save is that the funding of university tuition will be cut by £2.9 billion by 2014. As it happens, £2.9 billion is the sum ring-fenced, by the same public spending review, to be given to developing countries to help them fight global warming with windmills and solar panels. It is also slightly less than the £3 billion by which our public debt is rising every week. These much-vaunted “cuts” are not all we are led to believe.


Australia: Appalling medical school teaching

Even something as basic as anatomy stumps medical students -- but you can be sure that they are well up on "cultural sensitivity" and the like

Anatomy teaching has been cut back so much that medical students have been unable to identify important body parts. In some cases, students who volunteered for a catch-up crash course in anatomy could not answer when asked to identify specific anatomical structures, such as major blood vessels, in partially dissected human specimens. In a few cases, students responded with fictitious names of body parts that did not exist.

The seven-week course in full-body dissection, run earlier this year at the University of Sydney, proved wildly popular with the students who completed it -- and had a dramatic effect on their anatomical knowledge. The students were tested again halfway through and at the conclusion of the course, and both times the 29 students achieved almost perfect scores.

The findings, by a team led by George Ramsey-Stewart, professor of surgical anatomy at the University of Sydney, promise to rekindle controversy over the scaling back of anatomy tuition nationwide.

Detailing the results in today's edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, Professor Ramsey-Stewart called for a standard national curriculum for anatomy -- something resisted by most medical school deans -- that included dissection. He also called for "barrier" assessments, requiring students to gain a pass mark before being able to progress in their degree course.

Structures some students failed to identify correctly included the abdominal aorta -- the biggest artery in the abdomen -- and the sciatic nerve, the longest and widest nerve in humans that runs from the lower back into the leg.

Professor Ramsey-Stewart said while it would be wrong to make too much of the students' poor results in the first tests, it was nevertheless "of concern" that one-quarter of all the answers given by the students betrayed worrying gaps in their knowledge. "It's a problem for most universities . . . I hear from my anatomical and surgical colleagues that it's across the board," he said.

However, he said the students involved were too advanced in their course to have benefited from curriculum changes introduced by the University of Sydney in 2007, when anatomy teaching hours were trebled.

Doctor and researcher Steven Craig, who in March published a study that found teaching hours for anatomy varied from as few as 56 hours in one medical school to 560 hours -- said improvements in anatomy teaching to date were mostly "a patch-up job". "These sorts of (voluntary dissection) courses are fantastic -- for the students who get to do them," Dr Craig said. "But if they can only accept 30 of the 250 students (it needs expanding)."

Australian Medical Students Association president Robert Marshall rejected the call for a national curriculum, and said such studies ignored the fact that much anatomy tuition was incorporated into other activities.


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