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What’s a “Bedfellow”? New Article Takes a Look at Weird Alliances and Tenure Reform

Late last year, I wrote about the sticky testing issue knot. After a series of weird events on the State Board of Education and the early prospect of a strange alliance between Republicans and teachers unions during the ill-fated effort to reauthorize ESEA, we may be looking at more of a sticky testing issue black hole. Now, though, things are beginning to reach maximum weirdness, with the same strange alliances seen in Congress being observed in Colorado.

So yeah, stuff’s complicated. It’s getting tough to make sense of it all. That’s why I was glad to see my Independence Institute friend Ross Izard’s new article, “Strange Bedfellows: Teachers Unions, Conservatives, and Tenure Reform.” I’m pretty sure I’m too young to know what a “bedfellow” is, but I think I see what Ross is trying to convey.

The article takes a long, hard look at the differing motivations behind the oddly aligned conservative and union pushes against testing and for opt-outs. We’ll just do a brief overview of the highlights here in order to avoid unnecessary brain damage, but the article is stuffed with links and references for those whose nerdy proclivities drive them to dig a little deeper into the debate.

I’m a little tired today, so I’ll just let Ross do most of the talking. Here we go:

While the testing controversy has brought about a strange convergence of two traditional enemies—conservatives and teachers unions—the two groups differ significantly when it comes to why they believe testing is a problem. Conservative testing angst has its roots in concerns over data privacy, federal involvement in education, and parental rights—all valid concerns that we need to work through moving forward. The unions, on the other hand, have a singular goal: The preservation of their interests in the face of what they view as an existential threat.

… Although SB 191’s full implementation has been delayed, it is now entering the final phase of its rollout. The threat of SB 191 to union interests is underscored by the more recent Vergara ruling, which emanated from a state long known as a bastion of teachers union control. Unions today correctly perceive that they are facing the most serious threat they’ve ever seen to their outsized dominion in the education space. Tenure may well be their Waterloo.

The article then outlines how and why teachers unions are seeking to undermine tenure reform by attacking the tests and data underlying teacher evaluations.

The unions’ fight against tenure reform is complicated by the fact that tenure as it currently exists is not a popular concept. A nationally representative Education Next poll found that only 32 percent of the public supported teacher tenure. Adding a brief statement about the arguments for and against teacher tenure saw that figure sink to 26 percent.

… Rather than support a deeply unpopular position directly, the unions have opted instead to do everything they can to undermine any meaningful evaluation system upon which tenure decisions could be made. They would like nothing more than to see education systems safely settle on subjective evaluation systems in which nearly 100 percent of teachers are rated as meeting or exceeding state standards for effectiveness—a phenomenon known as rating inflation that has plagued teacher evaluations for years and is evident even in Colorado’s new evaluation pilot program, which does not yet include student learning data.

Before wrapping up, the article takes a research-based walk through the minefield surrounding the use of student growth data in teacher evaluations. Ross’ conclusion? That the best evaluation systems will make use of multiple measures of student learning in addition to subjective measures—a bill (pun intended) SB 191 fits nicely.

I should also note that the article supports codifying parental opt-out rights, but warns against creating dangerous incentives for system gaming and getting too cozy with groups who are openly involved with unions and/or anti-reform positions. (For instance, see today’s totally bizarre Chalkbeat story about United Opt Out’s refusal to support a new bill codifying opt-out rights in the interest of furthering its fight against “the privatization of public education.”)

As the plot thickens in Colorado’s testing debate, Ross makes it clear that he thinks it’s important for us to press ahead thoughtfully instead of returning to the status quo. But we also need to be careful about who we’re dealing with—and aware of why they might be in the game. We don’t, as my dad always says, want to hand over the “whole enchilada” when it comes to tenure reform.