- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 11, 2011

Performance, not seniority, would play the primary role in whether teachers keep their jobs under a broad reform plan released by the National Education Association last week.

The nation’s largest labor union, representing more than 3 million teachers, is pushing a revamped system in which instructors would collaborate with principals and school administrators to design detailed peer-review processes, with the results determining “continued employment and advancement.”

“In this system, the need for tenure is replaced,” said Madaline Fennell, who chaired the NEA’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, a 21-member board formed last year.

The policy statement is a dramatic change for the union, which has previously been skeptical of such models. But NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said his organization has now turned a critical eye on itself and is willing to re-evaluate sacred cows, including the teacher tenure system, seen by many as deeply flawed because it allows ineffective instructors to remain on the job and receive regular pay increases simply based on their length of service.

Critics of the reform plan applaud the union for its willingness to address tenure, but think changes are long overdue.

“Kudos to them for starting to move. That being said, they’ve only started. They’re moving, but they’re moving inches,” said Daniela Fairchild, a policy analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

The NEA is now calling for the establishment of 100 peer-review programs in districts across the country during the next three years, based on successful examples in Columbus, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Md. It would be up to local and state affiliates of the union, along with school district administrators, to design those programs.

Ms. Fairchild and other skeptics question whether teachers, with their jobs tied to peer evaluations, would be willing to implement the types of rigorous systems Mr. Van Roekel envisions.

The NEA reform plan “is happening at the national level. But as everyone knows, education is a decentralized system. The head can say one thing, but the hand can do as it pleases,” Ms. Fairchild said.

The union, however, thinks feedback and criticism from fellow teachers are the most effective ways to drive improvement, and ones that teachers themselves should embrace.

If an instructor can’t or won’t improve, “the evidence generated throughout the [peer-review] process provides compelling rationale for school administrators to take action,” including dismissal, Mr. Van Roekel said, and motivated, effective teachers and administrators have the most to gain by removing incompetent instructors.

The union is also pushing a three-tiered “career path” for all teachers, with more effective classroom leaders earning more money and carrying more responsibility. Young instructors would initially be considered “novice teachers” and could not work with “more challenging students until they have proven themselves.”

They could then rise to the level of a “professional teacher” with a higher salary. “Master teachers,” the highest designation, would in many cases work year-round and serve as mentors to younger colleagues.

After graduation from college, prospective teachers would also have to serve one year of residency under a master teacher before being able to lead their own class. The mentor would also conduct a year-end assessment of the young teacher to determine whether he is fit for the classroom.

The underlying goal of the proposals, Mr. Van Roekel said, is to weed out ineffective teachers before they get into the system. About 47 percent of teachers leave the profession after just five years, according to the NEA. Such turnover, the union thinks, is evidence that some of those instructors shouldn’t have made it into the classroom in the first place. Others may have missed their opportunity to improve because they lacked the support structure of an honest, effective peer-review process.

“More than 1.6 million new teachers are expected to enter the profession within the next decade. We must ensure that they are effective practitioners before they are assigned as teachers,” Mr. Van Roekel said.