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Moving the Needle: Illinois Is Notorious for Its Politics, but Compromise on Performance-Based Education Reform Inches Forward - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 17 March 2011 05:23

Insulated Teachers

Experienced teachers now enjoy significant job security. Tenure makes it difficult for a school district to dismiss a teacher for cause, and state law mandates that the last teachers hired are the first to be let go because of budget cuts. Furthermore, the evaluation process used by school districts rarely results in a teacher getting an unsatisfactory-performance rating.

Illinois Business Roundtable President Jeff Mays“The dismissal process in the state of Illinois ... is so cumbersome, so expensive, so time-consuming – all the while that teacher’s in the classroom – that most districts just don’t do it,” said Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable, a school-board member in Quincy, and a spokesperson for Stand for Children.

He said that the vast majority of school districts in Illinois didn’t over two decades give a tenured teacher an unsatisfactory rating or take a teacher through remediation. The Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010 noted: “Many existing district performance-evaluation systems fail to adequately distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers and principals. A recent study of evaluation systems in three of the largest Illinois districts found that out of 41,174 teacher evaluations performed over a five-year period, 92.6 percent of teachers were rated ‘superior’ or ‘excellent,’ 7 percent were rated ‘satisfactory,’ and only 0.4 percent were rated ‘unsatisfactory.’”

In Quincy, Mays said, “the unspoken rule from administration down was: Don’t give an unsatisfactory rating unless you’re willing to take the teacher through remediation. And oh, by the way, we’re not willing to do that.”

Mays said that since he’s been on the school board, evaluations have become more rigorous, “but ... it’s been focused totally on the nontenured staff, on the young teachers.”

And reductions in force – or RIFing – can only be based on years of service. “It’s all seniority,” he said. “And it just strikes me as crazy, when we spend so much on mentoring and induction for the new teachers ... .”

He summarized: “The tenured teachers are absolutely insulated from RIFing. They’re insulated from any performance-evaluation consequences at all from a practical standpoint.”

In interviews, representatives of the teacher unions didn’t dispute Mays’ assertions – or the need to incorporate performance evaluations into staffing decisions.

“The current evaluation system is badly broken,” the Illinois Federation of Teachers’ Preckwinkle said. And he said his organization’s members “really have no desire to have procedures in place to keep teachers who aren’t cutting it in the classroom.”

“We’re not afraid of accountability,” the Illinois Education Association’s Soglin said.

Lightford said she wasn’t surprised that the unions are amenable to a greater emphasis on performance evaluations. “The unions were ready for education reform,” she said. “They bent a lot” last year with the state’s Race to the Top application and the Performance Evaluation Reform Act. She said that Accountability for All is consistent with the union’s recent positions on performance evaluation.

The unions, then, aren’t protecting what they currently have, but are trying to ensure that a new system provides their members with as much protection as possible. To that end, Accountability for All as proposed would include performance evaluations as one element in staffing decisions – but no more than equal to other factors.

“There’s a concern that when there are reductions in force – when people are facing the loss of their job because of budget cutbacks ... – that there be a fair process that recognizes that length of service has a role ... ,” Preckwinkle said. The goal is to find “compromises that protect the due-process rights of teachers ... , provide an objective way of measuring performance, and give that performance rating the appropriate but not total weight in the process.”

“We are saying that it’s a factor, but along with others, including years of service,” Soglin said. And while Accountability for All is a significant departure from the current situation, “the response from our membership has generally been an acknowledgment that we need to make some changes.”

The Potential Roadblock Ahead

While the unions have been willing to give on performance evaluations, at this point they’re suggesting that they’re going to be much more rigid on the collective-bargaining aspects of Performance Counts.

“We’ll have a great deal of difficulty with changes to the bargaining process as they’ve been presented,” Preckwinkle said. “Several of the proposals are really more extreme than what we’ve even seen in Wisconsin, and we’re not inclined to give up what we consider to be fundamental collective-bargaining rights that provide balance between the school districts and our unions and that have worked very, very successfully since they were passed in 1983 in favor of a process that really tips the scale overwhelming to one side of the negotiations. ...

“Should the Performance Counts advocates really choose to pursue those aggressively, those will be tougher issues to deal with than the ones we’ve dealt with so far.”

“We’re not in favor of any ... collective-bargaining modifications,” Soglin said. “Those collective-bargaining issues are not related to ed reform.”

Mays characterized collective bargaining as an issue of transparency. Under Performance Counts, a school district could employ a fact-finding process – which at the tail end includes publication of an independent panel’s report and recommendations. If the district and union can still not agree on a contract, the school board by a two-thirds vote could adopt its own proposal, the union’s proposal, or the fact-finding panel’s recommendation on each disputed issue. Only if the board cannot adopt a contract through that process would a union be allowed to strike.

“The public knows what the facts are. ... It sets transparency in the middle of that process,” Mays said.

The unions see it differently. “That to us really undermines the entire collective-bargaining process,” Preckwinkle said. “For one side to hold that much power in the process really distorts and we believe effectively destroys any real bargaining.”

This issue has the potential to hang up negotiations, and right now it sounds as if proponents of Performance Counts are standing firm, as well. In an e-mail, Mays wrote: “We have seen time and again the threat of a teacher strike to be the trump card at the bargaining table that has stymied education reforms from being implemented. ... It [the collective-bargaining proposal] is an integral component of Performance Counts because we don’t want to see the reforms that are ultimately enacted be stifled in the implementation phase by being bargained away.”

All the people interviewed for this article said they expect legislation to go to the full General Assembly this session, although Lightford declined to say whether she would move a bill forward without the collective-bargaining components of Performance Counts. If that element blocks a consensus compromise, any bill that results from the current negotiations might not have all the stakeholders behind it.

But it’s important to remember that there’s already been agreement on the issue at the heart of all the proposals: making teacher performance a factor in personnel decisions.

As Mays said: “There’s no silver bullet on school improvement. [But] every study shows that the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most important determinant in the success of the kid. ... Look at all the stuff that we’ve tried. All of it. And how much has that moved the needle? We’ve been unable to talk about this [teacher performance] for years and decades, and we’ve done all these other things. ... This is going to make the quality of teaching better. And it ought to move the needle more than anything else we’ve done.”

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