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MTA Annual Meeting Concludes on Positive Note

The MTA Annual Meeting concluded on a high note after a strained, divisive debate over teacher evaluation. At the 2010 Annual Meeting, it was clear that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was going to issue new guidelines on teacher evaluation as part of the Massachusetts application to Race-to-the-Top -- the misguided approach to education reform by Arne Duncan and the Obama administration. One of the business items last year, accepted almost unanimously, directed the MTA to not support the application if the teacher evaluation component used test-scores. During the year, the MTA worked very hard to influence the development of the evaluation guidelines, releasing a document Reinventing Educator Evaluation. But, in the end, they made some concessions on using test scores. The actual guidelines are not yet finished (they are, in fact, available now for public comment), but it seems clear that they will include test scores in some form.

There is ample evidence to show that test scores are unreliable and frequently misleading when used for assessment of teacher performance. But they're cheaper than meaningful evaluation and administrators like them because they're seemingly easy to interpret. In many states they are used for between 25% and 50% of teacher evaluation. Massachusetts is among the only states where they cannot be used. Until now.

It was an action of the board that enabled MTA to concede on using test scores. Many local union presidents woke up one morning in December to read that the MTA embraced using test scores for teacher evaluation:

The state’s largest teachers’ union, embracing a concept shunned by many educators, plans to offer a proposal today to use student test scores to help judge which teachers deserve promotions and which ones should be fired.

There had been a lack of communication about what was happening and many were surprised -- and angry -- given the unambiguous direction provided at last year's annual meeting. The presidents began organizing and came to annual meeting prepared to raise a revolt against the union leadership.

The issue was brought to a head near the very end of the meeting when a new business item would have forced the MTA to repudiate their acceptance of using test scores. The key phrase was "MTA leadership will oppose any usage of standardized tests in evaluation and dismissal of teachers."

The MTA annual meeting is held in a huge hall with 10 different microphones on the floor. Anyone can come to a microphone and hold up a sign: a yellow sign, to ask a question; a red sign to speak against a motion; and a green sign; to speak for a motion. I think nearly every every card was being held at every microphone.

There was an impassioned debate. Many spoke about holding to our principals and not giving in to pressure to do something we know is wrong. Others spoke about the increasing isolation of teachers unions and the need to accept the inevitable in order to stay engaged and shape the outcome. It was clear that the delegates were evenly divided between those who felt that the leadership had abandoned a crucial principle and those who believed that, pragmatically, we had no choice other than to keep to the course. As the tension rose to a peak, Tim Collins spoke and offered a small amendment: the wording was changed to "MTA leadership will oppose any the usage of standardized tests in evaluation and dismissal of teachers." The amendment passed and, after some initial confusion over the actual meaning of the revised language, the motion was accepted almost unanimously and the tension drained out of the room.

The presidents did get one important change earlier in the meeting. The MTA is going to start running 6 new meetings with local presidents throughout the year: quarterly regional meetings, and two state-wide meetings. This is likely to have sharply positive effects getting local unions more engaged on a state-wide basis. I'm encouraged that we'll see new activism in the coming year as an outcome.

Still, the overall picture is gloomy. Just as the Bush Administration was an object lesson in how any money given to the government could be spent badly on misguided wars and inept governance, the education-reform movement has just about wrecked public education. By de-professionalizing educators, placing evaluation and curriculum in the hands of administration and committees, it has made public education so bad that progressives and liberals are having a hard time supporting it. If we don't do something soon, I expect it will collapse.