The Last Word August 2011

By Anne L. Bryant

Recent news stories seem to imply that civil wars between teachers unions, state legislatures, and governors are under way in several states. I’m concerned that these stories oversimplify the issues, and that school boards and local governance could be injured by the crossfire.

We see in some places that both sides feel embattled. Legislators’ attempts to gain flexibility in work rules that might actually benefit teachers and students—and give much-needed relief to local budgets -- could be cast as undoing protections that teachers unions feel are necessary.

To become leaders of school reform, teachers unions must be full partners with school boards, asking the tough questions, discarding old rules, and setting up processes instead of protecting or defending teachers who are not contributing to our mutual goal of student achievement and success.

But neither can we -- as leaders of school systems, board members and teacher leaders -- attack one another. Attacking a teachers union could be compared to attacking NSBA or a state school boards association because a school board is not operating perfectly. Blaming organizations will not solve problems.

Are there some school boards that are less effective? Yes. But NSBA and our state associations are in the business of helping boards to get better, and in many cases they do. Are there poor teachers who have a negative effect on children? Absolutely. And to deal with that, we need to change the less effective rules and regulations and create policies and processes to enable good teachers to grow and develop, provide mentors for new teachers, and build strong evaluation systems that will help improve performance. And when poor teachers can’t improve, we need to remove them.

There is an effort to tackle issues around evaluation systems and performance, but we also know that some local unions and state organizations do not follow what their national organizations preach.

How can school boards help?

We know great teachers love their subject matter and inspire their students. We also know teachers leave the field for a variety of reasons, often because of the culture and climate in their schools. Surveys tell us they may need more time to plan; more time to work with other teachers to improve their craft; or they want more respect from each other, and from students, parents, and administrators. This culture of learning and growth is one that school boards can truly zero in on, and there’s good research showing that strong school board policies make a difference.

The report Beyond Islands of Excellence is as relevant today as it was when the Learning First Alliance published it in 2003. Its findings are simple: School boards, administrators, and teachers must be in alignment around the issues of professional development and professional learning communities. A leading element in NSBA’s Key Work of School Boards, which was first published in 1999, challenges school boards to create a culture where teachers love teaching and students love to learn.

School boards must consider these climate issues as we create 21st century teaching and learning environments. Today, in addition to all of their other roles, teachers must be fluent with the latest technologies and they must inspire their students to be creative, be critical thinkers, and understand project-based learning.

Are our current evaluation systems and rewards systems adequate for these new duties? Not nearly. So school boards must ask, how can we create truly effective teacher evaluation systems?

Shanghai, China, boasts the world’s top PISA scores. Their teacher evaluations use simple and fair tools: student and parent surveys, peer reviews, administrator surveillance of teaching, and the teacher’s self- reflections. But also inherent in Shanghai’s system is a respect and trust for the teaching profession, and an understanding that what parents and students want probably will improve student learning.

So do we need to change the way we think about the preparation of teachers, professional development, evaluation, and compensation? Absolutely.

We’ve seen many districts get it right, where teachers and administrators work together to ensure the climate for teaching and learning ties into student achievement. These districts connect goals for learning and achievement to processes and systems. The school board focuses on critical tasks such as budget alignment, community engagement, and full accountability to parents and the community. And effective boards always ask, “How can we get better?”

Does this sound like the Key Work of School Boards? Bingo!  

Anne L. Bryant (abryant@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA and the publisher of ASBJ.