Letter From Union President Randi Weingarten

The following is excerpted from a letter from United Federation of Teacher’s president, Randi Weingarten. In it she details the union’s position concerning many of the policy debates in education right now. In many ways New York schools are the testing ground for new trends, and the trend du jour is increased standardized testing. Here is a rare look inside the world of high-stakes testing from the teacher’s perspective:

January 28, 2008

Dear Colleague:

Usually I write to you twice a year: once as school opens and again in January, when the president, governor and mayor all present their agendas and budgets for the coming year.

Today’s no different, except the challenges are coming from both Tweed and from our worrisome economy. First let’s talk about the DOE’s recurring saber rattling about using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate individual teachers.

This is not a new story at Tweed. This administration has never made a secret of its aim both to pay and to rate individual teachers based on student test performance. My letter to you last January expressly warned about this and a separate letter to Chancellor Klein put the DOE on notice we would fight it every way we could. Here’s what I said exactly a year ago on Jan. 24, 2007:

What’s new is the DOE’s intent to use student test scores as part of a probationer’s evaluation. We oppose this use of standardized test scores. It is neither a valid nor fair way to judge teacher effectiveness, and it’s bad for kids, ….
We have written the chancellor objecting to the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. If necessary we will arbitrate the matter as a contract violation.

Still, in the last year they have tried it three times. (Give them credit for persistence.) Each time we successfully rebuffed them, and we will do so again.

· The first attempt was the effort to base tenure decisions on student test scores. Gov. Spitzer’s initial 2007 legislative proposal allowed them to do that, but it was stopped. The legislative history is clear. The final language enacted into law in April ’07 permitted tenure decisions to include consideration of how teachers use student data to inform their instruction, but not the scores themselves.
· The second try was to institute individual merit pay based on student test scores. In the fall of 2007, Rep. George Miller, cheered on by many, tried to use the reauthorization of NCLB to make individual “performance pay” a condition of federal funding. Some drafts of the bill even permitted an end run around local bargaining. We thwarted that with both the AFT/NEA-led lobbying campaign and our October agreement on schoolwide bonuses — and also got joint support for 55/25 in the deal. (More on this later.) Thereafter, the discussion of NCLB fell apart and Congressional Democrats have been looking at New York City’s school-based bonuses as a way to actually improve schooling rather than the competition and divisiveness of individual merit pay.
· The third effort, the current one, is a potential precursor to using student test scores to evaluate teachers: a supposedly neutral research-based experimental pilot program to see if a teacher’s impact on student achievement could be isolated and measured. Given the way the school system announced it – through The New York Times – there is not a soul on earth watching this who doesn’t believe the DOE is trying to position itself to use the pilot’s findings as a way to rate teachers. Let me be crystal clear. As I said last year, we will fight any implementation of the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. This attempt (if it is one) in particular, is legally wrong, statistically flawed and educationally unsound.

Legally wrong because evaluation is embedded in law and our contract. We have a closed contract that runs through Oct. 2009 – a month before the next mayoral election. And, as discussed above, the tenure law doesn’t permit it.
Statistically flawed because, as most experts agree, it is not possible to isolate the effects of one teacher from all the other influences on a child’s learning – at least not with enough reliability that you can use it to make important decisions. And I’d say that deciding whether a person can work in his/her chosen career is a pretty important decision! For one thing, the tests are not always so great at measuring student achievement, which is their main purpose. Imagine how invalid they are when they are used for purposes for which they weren’t even designed.
On top of that, inadequate data forced the DOE researchers to use all sorts of statistical substitutes, most of which involve complex formulas that are beyond a layman’s comprehension. How can teachers be expected to accept the results when they can’t understand how they were derived? Or when they learn that the results may be based on the test scores of as few as three of their students? Or when they realize that, because the state tests are given midyear, the results include the combined contributions of at least two (and sometimes upwards of five ) teachers? Even the strongest advocates of this “value-added” assessment method insist that it not be used alone and that reliable assessments require multiple measures.
· Educationally unsound because a) it exacerbates the already excessive focus on testing, risking turning our schools into Test Prep Inc and denying kids any chance at a well-rounded education; and b) it is a deterrent to teachers to work with the most challenging kids and in our toughest schools.

So there are plenty of grounds on which to challenge successfully any unilateral attempt to change the teacher evaluation process. We believe in accountability for everyone, ourselves included, but the measurement of teachers’ performance must be fair, accurate and transparent. This experiment fails on every count.

Worse, I resent the anxiety that the DOE caused some of you. Sadly, it could have been avoided had the DOE not been so secretive about this project and informed teachers they were being used in an experimental pilot. They told us this summer they would collect data for schools whose principals volunteered. We refused to participate other than having a staffer sit on the research committee. The DOE would not disclose the schools that were taking part on the grounds that it was confidential, but they assured us, as they had to, that the information collected would not have any role in any personnel decisions. On Jan. 11 a chapter leader told us that her principal was using the individual teacher reports to give “grades” to teachers. We demanded the list of participating schools once again, and the DOE was still refusing, when, within days, the Deputy Chancellor broke the story to The Times.

So, if they continue this “research” and experiment, declare it a success and attempt to make it a personnel tool, we will utilize all our legal powers to stop it.

As to the national scene, the current President obviously does not want to go quietly. In the State of the Union he once again raised the specter of vouchers as a way to “reform” the public schools. Parenthetically, if NCLB worked as well as promised, why, almost seven years later, is the rhetoric just the same as when he was first inaugurated? It’s because NCLB, despite its bipartisan liftoff, did not work to benefit stakeholders in education. It has resulted instead in excessive testing of students, a broken promise on funding its mandates, and more sanctions than help for the nation’s public schools. The next step is to overhaul it completely, or maybe just “scrap” it, as Hillary Clinton suggested when she spoke to our delegate assembly earlier this month.

Yet Rep. Miller and Sen. Ted Kennedy (both of whom just endorsed Barack Obama) want to find ways to rescue NCLB and hold teachers’ feet to the fire. We are willing to accept accountability, but sooner or later others need to take responsibility too and actually support us rather than impede us from doing our jobs. Remember, if you are registered in a political party, vote on Feb. 5.

Meanwhile I hope this school year has brought you more personal satisfaction than frustrations. It’s been a hard year, with the schools’ reorganization making each school an island, graded by new city progress reports. Still, all in all, many of you have told me it’s also been a good year and you’ve been able to work together in schools with colleagues and principals more than ever before.

Finally, as always, please keep in touch. I get my best information and feedback from our members who communicate with me directly. My e-mail address is