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Eye on the News

Marcus A. Winters
Teachers’ Unions vs. Progress—Again
New York resists reforms that would bring in millions and improve teacher quality.
14 December 2009

Ever wonder how effective your child’s teacher is? Officials in Albany would rather you didn’t know. At least that’s the lesson one has to take from their refusal to allow data systems to match students to teachers, though doing so would help the state compete for a pot of perhaps hundreds of millions of federal dollars. Narrow political interests stand in the way of improving our schools and easing New York taxpayers’ burdens.

The use of data to improve student learning is a crucial modern education reform. Standardized tests produce rich sources of information that researchers can use to identify effective policies and practices. The data revolution, moreover, promises to move education policy away from politics. Numbers don’t have agendas or run for reelection. Accurately collected and properly analyzed, data can reveal truths that escape our sight.

One such truth is the effectiveness of individual teachers. Data analysis is far from perfect, and no one argues that it should be used in isolation to make employment decisions. But modern techniques can help us distinguish between teachers whose students excel and teachers whose students languish or fail. There’s just one problem with the data revolution: it doesn’t work without data. States must develop data sets that track the individual performance of students over time and match those students to their teachers.

Unfortunately, New York has deliberately refused to take that step. The state already has a sophisticated system for tracking student progress, but it doesn’t allow this statewide data set to match students to their teachers. No technical or administrative factors prevent the state from doing so. Only political obstacles stand in the way. The premise underlying the policies favored by the teachers’ unions, which govern so much of the relationship between public schools and teachers, is that all teachers are uniformly effective. Once we can objectively distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers, the system of uncritically granted tenure, a single salary schedule based on experience and credentials, and school placements based on seniority become untenable. The unions don’t want information about their members’ effectiveness to be available, let alone put to practical use, and thus far they’ve successfully blocked New York State’s use of such data.

Along with its refusal to improve its data system, the state has kept cities from adopting reforms. When New York City hinted that it would use its own data system to evaluate teachers based on student test scores, the state legislature passed a law banning the practice. Fortunately, that law is set to expire next year and may never actually be enforced, thanks to the city’s new reading of it, which frees city officials to use test scores for tenure decisions this year. Still, the legislature’s actions illustrate its opposition to using data in any way that would identify ineffective teachers.

New York’s stubborn resistance to the data revolution not only harms the education our children receive; it leaves hundreds of millions of federal dollars on the table during a massive budget crunch. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant competition will distribute $4.35 billion to states that pursue modern education reforms. According to the competition’s rules, however, any state with a law that prohibits the use of test-score data to evaluate teachers is immediately disqualified from consideration. A state’s application also becomes more attractive under the guidelines if its data set matches students to teachers. Currently, New York fails on both counts.

It’s time for New Yorkers to push Albany politicians for real information about teacher quality. Getting New York into the running for Race to the Top funds is a compelling reason to make the change now rather than later.

Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, conducts research and writes about education policy, including such topics as school choice, high school graduation rates, accountability, and special education.

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