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Have the teachers' unions come around?

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
  • William Bennett: NEA says it's OK to tie teacher evaluations to student performance.
  • He asks whether this is a sign that teacher unions are willing to support major school reform
  • Bennett says public has lost patience with forces resisting school improvement
  • Lagging school achievement costs the nation trillions of dollars, he says

Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- The vote to endorse President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012 by the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association (NEA), was not exactly a surprise.

As Jonah Goldberg wrote on Tuesday: "In More Shocking News, Tomorrow Will Be Wednesday ... Major teachers union endorses Obama." And, indeed, just over 72% of the NEA convention voted to endorse the president. The ultimate decision, despite some griping about the administration's support for charters and competitive grants, was never truly in doubt: The NEA has never endorsed a Republican for president and contributes 10 times as much to the Democratic Party as it does to the Republican Party.

Since the vote to endorse Obama, the major news out of the NEA convention has been that the NEA agreed, in principle, to accept certain forms of teacher evaluations that are tied to evidence of student achievement. Most of us in the reform movement who have backed teacher evaluations are pleased with the principle here, but we remain curious to skeptical in seeing how seriously this commitment will play out in practice.

At the same time this resolution was approved at the convention, the secretary-treasurer of the union said "The NEA is and always will be opposed to high-stakes, test-driven evaluations," and the director of teacher quality for the union said the policy was intended to "guide," not "bind" state and local chapters.

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, sums up what we outsiders see with this move: "Rhetorically, it is significant that the NEA has gone this far because it's light-years ahead of the statement that would have been made two years ago, so this has to be seen as progress. ... But there are still holes.''

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What holes, what "outs," exist? The arbitrary standards the NEA can use to argue against any given evaluation system. As its policy states, such evaluations must be "developmentally appropriate, scientifically valid and reliable for the purpose of measuring both student learning and a teacher's performance" -- fair enough as standards go for evaluations, but also arbitrary enough to fight tooth and nail on, with the citation of any expert willing to challenge any adverb or adjective here. As one testing expert put it, these descriptions can be read as "a bar that essentially excludes all existing tests."

Still, there is a principle in play here that both sides of this debate have recognized: The quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most important factor in a student's learning at any given school, during any part of the school day. Summing up the vast research on this, Bill Gates put it this way: "We know that of all the variables under a school's control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching." Reformers recognize this point as much as teacher union members have been promoting it.

The question is what will be done to ensure that quality teachers staff these schools -- and on this question, the unions have been resistant to evaluation and reform. From New York to Washington, D.C., to California, the unions have gone to court to block evaluations of teachers.

But, based on the popularity of the documentary "Waiting for Superman" and the news coverage given to the disputes with unions involving education reformers from Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein in the recent past to Govs. Chris Christie and John Kasich now, the public is showing less and less patience for such resistance and more and more interest in serious reform.

Complementing such efforts at the federal level, Rep. John Kline, R-Minnesota, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has a new plan of reform as well -- allowing states and localities more flexibility with their federal funds, to be used for such things as the localities see fit, including teacher quality grants.

How did we get here at long last? As a friend of mine in the education investment business put it to me, "Education has reached a tipping point in America, a point of no return." When I asked him why he thought this so, he said: "The financial crisis, combined with persistently low test scores, combined with the recognition that we consistently lag behind our competitors in innovation and technology."

My friend is right. When we see reports that assess how our education achievement gap with other countries is costing us trillions of dollars in economic output -- and then we consider that in the context of our budgetary and GDP shortfalls -- it becomes clear that the education system in America not only needs vigorous and meaningful reform, but that our nation's health actually depends on it.

But to get there, we will need agreement from the various parties on what our common assumptions will be. Until now, reformers have wanted to emphasize evaluation, performance and competition, while union leaders have wanted to emphasize the protection of their current workforce. We will know soon enough if the union leaders' most recent vote on evaluations was a serious move in our direction or just words, meant to pacify a political moment in time.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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