Teacher Accountability in Public Schools

The second-largest teachers union in the country recently dropped its former president’s speeches from its website. Are they trying to hide the fact that their former president–whom their website calls a “relentless proponent of democracy and freedom”–fought for a competitive, incentive-based public school system?

Al Shanker was president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 until his death in 1997. His biography is titled Tough Liberal. But Shanker doesn’t fit the mold of a typical teachers union leader. The Huffington Post‘s Marcus Baram managed to track down some of Shanker’s speeches which are no longer on AFT’s website (nor at the research library AFT links to). In a speech on “Unions and Collective Bargaining,” Shanker said:

As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don’t perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we’re playing a game as to who has the power…

What would happen if we had a system where you had pay for performance in the sense of a series of graded sets of rewards depending upon student outcome? Let’s imagine that this September a system goes into effect where five years from now all the teachers in schools that made the most progress in student achievement could get bonuses of $30,000; in other less successful schools, they could get bonuses of $5,000; and in others they could get cost-of-living increases; in schools that made little or no progress, the teachers’ salaries would be frozen; and the worst schools could be closed down, the faculties dismissed, and the school later reopened on some sort of restructured basis by a faculty from, let’s say, the top schools, like a bankruptcy and hostile takeover.

Shanker also advocated the widespread growth of charter schools and competency tests for teachers.

AFT claims that the removal of Shanker’s speeches from their website wasn’t a political decision; it was simply part of an initiative to redesign the site. But one can’t help but note the difference between Shanker’s (pro-market) rhetoric and that of the current AFT president (and regular HuffPo contributor) Randi Weingarten, who a couple of months ago said, “It’s cathartic to say ‘fire the bad teachers,’ but it doesn’t do much to improve schools.”

I’m not saying that Shanker would necessarily be doing a better job than Weingarten to improve schools today. But if the leaders of today’s teachers unions were willing to consider market-based rehauls of the education system, they might not need to spend so much time in D.C., begging for scraps from the federal budget.

Al Shanker once drily joked, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Given the trajectory of the American public school system–and the staid policy positions of most teachers unions–that joke isn’t very funny anymore.