Juliet Ellery is the Willie Horton of bad teachers—an extreme exception used to tarnish an entire institution, yet a mark of the system's imperfections just the same. As a veteran high school teacher in the Grossmont Union School District near San Diego in the early 1980s, Ellery refused to answer students' questions, assigned baffling work, and belittled her students. Parents complained and students transferred out of her class. "I had never seen a teacher that bad and the thing that was most damning about her was the complete unwillingness to accept any reason to change," Arthur Pegas, the principal who evaluated Ellery, told the Sacramento Bee. Yet it still took four years for the district to gather what it considered to be sufficient grounds for dismissal. Then, despite the overwhelming evidence against her, Ellery chose to fight her termination, even trying unsuccessfully to get the Supreme Court to hear her case. By the end of the protracted legal battle, which took eight years and cost the school district $300,000 in legal fees, Ellery still refused to admit to any wrongdoing, though she was in fact terminated and she did leave the district. In addition, her license was suspended in 1994—for one year.
Fast forward to 1999, and another California legal skirmish. Depending on whom you ask, Paul Pflueger is either a brilliant, challenging social studies teacher—or an intimidating and tormenting instructor and an insubordinate and offensive colleague. Administrators in the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County believed the latter and in February they voted 6 to 1 to fire Pflueger, thereby sending the case into an evidentiary hearing phase—this despite the impassioned pleas of parents and former and present students. At the hearing, some wore T-shirts emblazoned with "? authority" or "I think therefore I am dangerous" in support of this veteran teacher who they say inspired them to challenge conventional wisdom and seek out their own answers. Pflueger's supporters say the district's charge—its report included 42 misconduct counts—is a classic case of schools encouraging mediocrity and punishing daring teachers whose excellence is unconventional. Teachers unions say that it is the sort of ideological witch-hunt that teachers can expect under the 1995 change in the state's education code, which, among other things, replaced "incompetency" with "unsatisfactory performance" as one of the dozen or so grounds for dismissal. Even with these "reforms," the price tag for removing Pflueger will be big. Paul Crost, Pflueger's attorney, has suggested that total costs could be as much as $500,000.
Everyone has had a "bad" teacher at some point. Incompetent, unfeeling, or maybe just aggressively uninspiring, the occasional bad teacher is as much a fixture in America's schools as lousy cafeteria food and detention hall. Critics regard the presence of bad teachers as confirmation of their worst fears about public education—namely, that some combination of union contracts, tenure, civil service protections, litigation-wary administrators, and general institutional inertia are getting in the way of their child's learning. Stories like Juliet Ellery's have now become part of a considerable arsenal of anecdotal evidence that suggests even flagrant incompetents are hard to fire. But the controversy surrounding Paul Pflueger's teaching suggests a more complex story. Is it yet another reminder of how difficult it still is to get rid of bad teachers? Or is it a cautionary tale about how the "age of accountability" in education reform has made all teachers—even inspired ones—vulnerable and gun-shy, serving as scapegoats for our collective discontent about the state of public education?
The problem of occasional bad teachers has skewed the broader discussion over teacher quality. Focusing disproportionately on the Juliet Ellerys has led public debate to underplay the more consequential questions of how to retain, support, and reward good teachers. This dynamic has painted the nation's teachers unions into a tight corner: How do they navigate between the public's legitimate demands for accountability, their own professional concern for high-quality schools, and their duties to protect the rights and represent the concerns of teachers? These are familiar questions for teachers unions, but the stakes are higher now as a general backlash against teachers—coupled with evidence of real abuse within the system—has transformed isolated anecdotes about the "bad" teacher into a chorus of concern about a teaching profession in crisis.
Reform or Retribution?
Critics can tap into a well of public rancor generated by the occasional truly awful teacher. In 1997, author and education consultant Guy Strickland titled his examination of teaching in public schools Bad Teachers: The Essential Guide for Concerned Parents, and excerpts from it read like a guide to guerrilla warfare. Parents, he warns, should expect the "entire entrenched school bureaucracy" to defend its incompetent teachers "with a myriad of weapons," including "codes of silence . . . stonewalling, and stalling maneuvers."
Parental views of teachers are in fact double-edged. For example, a statewide survey of 2,022 California residents released earlier this year by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that Californians fault teachers—more than crowding, crime, a lack of funding, or non-English speakers—for low-performing schools. Yet in 1996, when candidate Bob Dole sought to demonize teachers unions (strong supporters of the Democrats), his attacks gained little traction. For while the public may have a jaundiced view of unions, polls show that most voters have a generally positive view of schoolteachers, ranking them above many other professions and trumping their skepticism about unions.
Even so, many Democrats as well as Republicans are rallying to the idea that teachers need to be held more accountable. In California, Democratic Governor Gray Davis has proposed a narrowing of tenure protections and a crackdown on social promotion. California has already lowered the legal standards for teacher dismissal. Colorado and Florida have replaced tenure with short-term, renewable contracts. In Massachusetts, Boston University Chancellor John Silber, a nominal Democrat appointed to chair the state board of education by a Republican governor, has spearheaded the drive for teacher testing. Silber's efforts produced something of a debacle when 59 percent of prospective teachers flunked the new teacher exam, and critics charged that Silber had rigged the test to mirror the Boston University curriculum so that graduates of his institution would fare better. The Silber faction now wants the test revised slightly and extended to all veteran teachers as well. And Al Gore, declaring education to be a top priority of his campaign, has coupled calls for more federal investment with demands for higher standards for new teachers.
In this climate of rising public demands for higher quality schools, what is a sensible set of policy reforms? How might we give venturesome and creative teachers due process while still encouraging the truly bad teacher to clean up his or her act—or get out? What is a reasonable balance between mentoring programs that help weak teachers to improve and the occasional outright dismissal? What systems of teacher evaluation truly assess teacher performance? And how can unions play a broader role as advocates of education reform while still protecting their members?
A series of interviews for this article suggests that education observers across the political spectrum agree that if bad teaching can be caught early and dealt with through comprehensive evaluations and improvement plans rather than formal legal proceedings, teachers can take pride in their craft and the occasional hopeless case can be successfully counseled out of the profession. For example, Jon Saphier, an education consultant and founder of Research for Teaching, outfits districts with evaluation and professional development programs. Saphier believes that good evaluation systems can help principals document bad teachers and give them the courage to take the necessary steps to remove them from the school. Moreover, when evaluations are conducted fairly and thoroughly, unions are more likely to accept the administration's decision without a fight.
Unfortunately, administrators often have neither the time nor the training to go after incompetent teachers. Without an adequate paper trail of accountability and a clearly developed, fairly administered evaluation process, charges of incompetence or unsatisfactory teaching can be easily challenged by the teacher with the support of her union. It is simply easier to send up a "satisfactory" assessment or float the teacher to another school within the district than face the mere possibility that the teacher might refuse to leave quietly and force the district into the formal legal dismissal process. Many principals avoid confronting an incompetent teacher, particularly when the teacher is tenured. Tenure, with its due process guarantees, creates a formidable legal buffer between teachers and termination. Overlapping statutory civil service procedures and union contract provisions, initially conceived when teachers were more susceptible to arbitrary dismissals or discrimination, often translates into automatic job security for all but the very worst teachers. Officials in the Juliet Ellery case, for example, were required to give her a written warning that she would be fired, an explanation of the district's evidence for dismissal, and an opportunity to respond. Ellery had 90 days to improve—she failed to do so and was dismissed in 1986. But since Ellery chose to appeal the dismissal, her case then went before the three-person Commission on Professional Competence. Represented by attorneys, both the district and the teacher were allowed to present testimony and call witnesses—in the end, the hearing took 14 days and included 44 witnesses and 85 exhibits. The commission then had to decide whether the district had demonstrated adequate grounds for dismissal. Either side could then appeal this decision to the Superior Court, then through the state court system, and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court. James Plosia, an attorney who works on behalf of several school districts in New Jersey, admits that he usually advises his clients to avoid the hassle of fighting a bad teacher and simply make a buyout offer. "It's a horror show," he says, noting that even if the district wins, the entire process can still take 18 months to two years and cost $100,000. Ever practical, he usually tells his clients, "'You're getting off cheap . . . let the next district figure it out.'"
Unions to the Rescue
Confronted with this depth of cynicism, both national teachers unions have taken steps to deflect backlash and even to champion reform. Since delivering his now famous call for "New Unionism" at a 1997 speech before the National Press Club, Bob Chase, president of the two million member National Education Association (NEA), has been criss-crossing the country urging organized teachers to join administrators in promoting educational reform. Thrust into the role of union visionary, this former social studies teacher and onetime opponent of many of the reforms he now pushes is now calling for a moratorium on traditional, adversarial tactics of collective bargaining. In their place, he proposes mentoring, serious professional development, and more rigorous accountability measures for teachers.
"There are indeed some bad teachers in America's schools," Chase admitted in his speech, "and it is our job as a union to improve those teachers or—that failing—to get them out of the classroom." This was seen as a radical departure for the NEA, which has until recently focused largely on traditional labor issues of wages and benefits.
Sandra Feldman, president of the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has adopted increasingly blunt language. The AFT has long been considered the more reform-friendly union of the two, a reputation it earned under its former president Al Shanker, who was known for allowing and encouraging its locally independent affiliates to experiment with reform measures long before they became in vogue. Today there is a new urgency in their declarations. In her keynote address to the 1998 AFT Convention in New Orleans, Feldman announced, "Even one incompetent teacher is too much for the children she teaches, the parents she faces, the members who get her students in subsequent grades . . . and, frankly, for the good of our union." By emphasizing its support of joint union-directed peer intervention and review programs, the AFT hopes to "reverse the public misperception" that the union, and its advocacy of due process and a fair tenure system, protects incompetent teachers.
Receptivity to this "reform from above" varies at the local level. Some union locals are as protectionist as their detractors claim; others are eager to put the union on the side of reform. In Wisconsin, four locals objected so strenuously to Bob Chase's plans for reinventing teacher unionism, according to Education Week, that they likened his stance to that of appeasers of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
In Seattle, the local NEA affiliate has risen to the occasion. A few years ago a threatened challenge from the AFT prompted the Seattle Education Association (SEA) to ask teachers, parents, and administrators about their perception of teachers unions—and the response was an alarming wake-up call. "Across the board," Verletta Wooten, president of the Seattle Education Association admits, "the perception was that all unions did was . . . protect bad teachers." In an effort to change this negative opinion, NEA leaders initiated the Seattle Teacher Assistance and Review (STAR) program for "peer review and evaluation," aimed at improving the skills of first-time teachers and veteran teachers who are experiencing some difficulty. Half of Seattle teachers have been through the program, which has allowed weak teachers to be counseled to leave the profession. Union-district relations have improved to such a point that in 1997 they were even able to negotiate an extremely progressive contract that allows greater teacher involvement in determining how money is spent on staffing and materials, a new hiring system that allows committees of teachers and principals—not seniority—to determine each school's teacher assignments, and the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation. School officials called the contract a "leap of faith," while the late superintendent John Stanford proudly declared it a "historic agreement" that placed everyone in the position of accountability.
In New York City the powerful AFT local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and then-Superintendent of the East Side's District 2 Anthony Alvarado, a take-no-prisoners kind of educational leader, seemed like unlikely allies at first. But Alvarado fashioned what has been hailed as a national model of flexibility and innovation within a big city school system, empowering principals, parents, and teachers. The UFT, though skeptical at first, became an ally, and now touts District 2 as an example of how decentralization can work without resorting to vouchers. Harvard University's Richard Elmore, who has studied District 2 extensively, says he is still surprised at how eager the AFT has been to promote its involvement with the district as a model of effective school reform.
When Alvarado decided his poor, wildly diverse district needed to concentrate its efforts on teacher learning if it wanted to see any major improvements in student learning and literacy, he chose to place most of his resources and money behind professional development for teachers. UFT Vice President David Sherman, now a self-described Alvarado-convert, maintains that what made Alvarado appealing was the way he reached out to teachers—professional to professional—and offered them a fair accountability model. Teachers are used to being infantilized by school systems—being told what to do and when to do it, Sherman says. By contrast, Alvarado held teachers accountable for results. AFT President Sandra Feldman agrees that Alvarado made it easy for the union to go in and lend its support to his reforms because they saw that he was willing to treat teachers as professionals and do everything he could to provide compensation accordingly. District 2 went from being tenth in the city in reading to being second, and now it is considered by educators around the country as a model for sustained focus on leadership and instructional development.
Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts, nestled in a wealthy suburb of Boston, offers another example of how unions can help create an educational environment in which demands for accountability do not detract from an emphasis on creating a culture of learning. According to Dr. Bob Furey, president of the Concord-Carlisle Teachers Association and a social studies teacher, teachers at Concord-Carlisle have negotiated paid sabbaticals in exchange for lower pay raises because they see themselves as lifelong learners who need time and space to educate themselves, while principal Elaine DiCicco uses her evaluations to promote constant improvement in the classroom. As long as the evaluation procedure has been followed, the union, which was itself closely involved with the procedure's development, does not argue with the administration's decision to fire a teacher for unsatisfactory performance. Furey attributes his association's position to the sense of pride the teachers have in what they do. "We recognize that teachers are judged by the lowest common denominator," he adds. "If there's a bad teacher in the school, it makes all teachers look bad, and we want to protect the profession." Because the teachers' association stands first and foremost for the rights of teachers, it also has the authority to participate in getting rid of the few bad teachers to ensure that the best interests of all teachers are served. In practice, union and management work together on assessments of teachers deemed incorrigible, who are allowed to resign rather than be fired or subjected to lengthy administrative proceedings. This preserves both the dignity of the teacher and the credibility of the union with management and membership.
The Tough Cases
None of this is meant to imply that the renegotiation of power and responsibility among local unions and school districts is easy. Many of the reforms instituted by the Seattle Education Association, for example, were recently overshadowed by statewide teacher walkouts over demands for a 15 percent across-the-board pay raise, leading one local columnist to complain that this new unionism seemed strikingly like "crusty old unionism."
In Milwaukee, currently the only city in the country to boast a constitutionally tested program that provides public vouchers for low-income students, the local teachers union has a reputation as being an obstacle to reform. In addition to opposing national calls for "new unionism," the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) has dragged its feet over the issue of charter schools and, until recently, seniority. A 1995 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel presented disturbing evidence of the MTEA's role in reducing or avoiding punishment for teachers with severe problems by relying on contractual safeguards negotiated with the Milwaukee public schools. Some observers speculate that the MTEA's tarnished reputation has been one of the primary reasons Milwaukee has become ground zero on education reforms such as school choice and charter schools. In the recent school board election, which came to be seen as a kind of referendum on the issue of school choice, all five candidates endorsed by the MTEA lost in spite of active campaigning on their behalf by the union and by organizers from the liberal People for the American Way. The verdict from the voters, crowed the Journal Sentinel, was clear: "Business-as-usual is unacceptable."
In many ways, the city of Boston offers a more recognizable example of the struggles taking place on the ground level of education reform. There, opinion is divided over what sort of influence the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) has had on that city's important efforts to turn around its flagging schools. In his 1992 book Reinventing the Schools, Stephen F. Wilson, now of the conservative Pioneer Institute, lamented that for the BTU, "Due process is the ordinary course of business, and union solidarity has become pathological." But in recent years the BTU has gained a reputation as a reform-minded union that has worked closely with district administration to enact the series of reforms mandated by a 1993 statewide education reform package, the city's own "Boston Schools for Excellence" reform plan, and recent union contracts. After years of lackluster performance by its schools and acrimonious city politics, all parties involved now speak of a new "consensus" and "alignment."
Boston Superintendent Thomas M. Payzant, who in 1995 was brought in to oversee the transformation of Boston's schools, finds that there is "a real sense of urgency that is proving to be a catalyst for change." The BTU has supported a number of progressive union contract provisions, including district pilot schools free of union regulations, greater flexibility for principals in scheduling and staffing, linking teachers' evaluations to comprehensive plans for individual schools, and higher standards for teacher training and evaluations. But even officials who publicly support the union's efforts privately admit that until such sacred cows as seniority in transferring and hiring are scrapped, reform will be mostly cosmetic.
The problem of how to handle bad teachers often seems like an intractable one. We have an American public increasingly convinced—by media reports, by the results of standardized tests—that teachers and students in America's public schools aren't making the grade. We have unions finding that it isn't easy to shake off the old stereotype that they are "intractable, intransigent, and uninterested in quality"—even when their efforts at reform are sincere. Meanwhile their members, worried by recent attacks on teacher rights and growing resentment over teacher quality, are feeling demoralized, defensive, and apprehensive about giving up hard-won prerogatives like seniority or tenure. And finally, we have a public school system that often seems unable to punish bad teaching or reward excellence—a sign to many critics that the solution lies outside, in charter schools and voucher programs. To compound the problem, there is now a looming teacher shortage. Gayle Fallon, the outspoken president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, complains that the prevailing attitudes about teachers has led to a situation in which young people don't want to become teachers on account of the low pay and low respect, and older teachers are leaving the profession because the system adequately rewards neither knowledge nor expertise.
The silver lining is that the scapegoating of teachers and their unions has forced teachers unions to become a lot more creative. It remains to be seen whether these new strategies will be embraced by the most intractable school systems and union locals, and whether reform will come packaged with adequate resources. But teachers unions have every reason to become champions of genuine reform. If they fail, bureaucratic testing and mandated standards on one flank, and vouchers on the other, could make classroom life even more hectic and insecure.