I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, November 19, 2012

Teachers Unions As Evaluators: A Conflict of Interest?

Let's say you're a teacher in a city with a large population of children in poverty... like, say, Newark.

Under the district's new evaluation system, you are judged "ineffective." You don't think you've been treated fairly. Maybe you were assigned many children who live in deep poverty, or don't speak English at home, or who are just generally known in your school to be the hardest kids to educate; consequently, your students "growth" on test scores was not as large as your colleagues.

Maybe you don't think your principal wrote up your evaluations correctly, and you're prepared to challenge them. Maybe you're outspoken about changes in your district and the central office administration thinks of you as a troublemaker.

So you turn to your local union, and ask for representation. You've been paying dues - frankly, a lot in dues - and now you need your union to step up and defend you. You need professional representation to make the case that you've been treated unfairly.

And that's when you realize: your union has been part of the system that evaluated you in the first place.

From the Memorandum of Agreement for the Newark teachers contract:
B. Peer Oversight Committee
1. As the new evaluation system is implemented, a joint union/management evaluation
committee – called the Peer Oversight Committee – shall meet regularly to review the
implementation and make suggestions for improvement. 
2. The Peer Oversight Committee will be comprised of an equal number of NTU and NPS
representatives (no more than 5 representatives each). The committee will meet monthly
during the first year and quarterly in future years with dates to be determined and notice
given in advance to committee members. 
3. Committee will be apprised where specific schools have particularly high or low ratings
as compared to other schools in NPS. For example, if an inordinate number of teachers
are evaluated as ineffective or partially effective and/or if other systemic issues are
discovered, the committee will review such matters. Peer Validators will be deployed to
review such instances and report back to the committee. 
4. The Peer Oversight Committee shall provide recommendations on:
o The qualifications and selection process for Peer Validators
o A process for analyzing the quality of the Peer Validators and making recommendations for improvement. 
5. The Superintendent will consult with the NTU President on candidates for Peer Validators. The Superintendent will retain ultimate authority over the selection criteria, selection process, and management of the Peer Validators. [emphasis mine]
See the problem? The union selects the Peer Oversight Committee's representatives. The NTU president consults on the Peer Validators. Suppose the NTU members who serve in this capacity say, "Well, we agree with the judgment of the administration on this teacher." How can the teacher feel assured then that she is getting fully committed representation in the process when the union has been facilitating her evaluation?

Now, I'm not necessarily against peer review. Lawyers have the Bar, and doctors have medical boards; teachers should police each other as well. The thing that doesn't make sense to me - and the thing that has always bothered me a bit about systems like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland - is how the union can serve in the role of both facilitator of the evaluation system and defender of a teacher who is accused of unprofessional conduct.

It would be like a defense attorney's law firm putting its partners on a defendant's jury. Sure, you'd think that would help the defendant... unless the partners thought he was guilty. In that case, would the client feel he was getting the best possible defense from his attorney? Would anyone feel the system had integrity when a conflict of interest like this was actually part of the system's design?

Of course, part of a defense attorney's job is to counsel clients to plead guilty and get the best possible deal when the evidence is stacked against them. But that's not the same as rendering judgment; it's still serving the needs of the client first. And isn't that a teachers union's top priority: serving the needs of its members?

One other thing (and look, this is a hypothetical; I'm accusing anyone of anything, but I think we need to discuss this): doesn't this give the union leadership power over its members who are critics? If a corrupt union official wanted to silence a critic, few things would do the job better than holding an evaluation over that critic's head.

So I like the spirit here, but I'm worried about the implementation. Job one of a union is to ensure their members who are accused of poor performance get the best possible defense against the charges. It seems to me that there is an inherent conflict of interest when unions both defend teachers and facilitate their evaluations.

In other words: maybe teachers should be involved in peer review, but that doesn't mean unions should.

ADDING: Can you tell I'm hesitant here? Someone tell me I'm wrong and why, because my opinion is not yet fully formed on this.


Rod viquez said...

So if you feel ATF does not advocate or support you due to an evaluation from a fellow ATF member, could you the sue the Newark association?

Duke said...

That's a hell of a question, Rod. I hope someone at AFT asked it.