Photo courtesy of New York Daily News

Photo courtesy of the Daily News

One of the least-palatable aspects of the Obama administration’s otherwise-successful Race to the Top initiative is the continued emphasis on states and districts getting blessings for their teacher evaluation overhauls and other teacher quality reform efforts from affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The administration may have thought this condition was an important way to gain the kind of co-operation between reformers and teachers’ unions it believes is important to making reforms more palatable (as well as blunt objections from NEA and AFT leaders who are key financial backers of the Democratic National Committee). But as seen last month with the dearth of reform-minded districts battling with affiliates such as Los Angeles Unified School District among the finalists and winners of the latest round of Race to the Top, the condition essentially makes it difficult for school leaders to implement make the strong changes needed to help all children in their districts get high-quality teaching. After all, NEA and AFT affiliates have more incentive to continue do the bidding of the Baby Boomers in the rank-and-file who benefit the most from keeping the status quo in place than to craft deals that essentially lead them to losing more influence.

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngThe latest example of the consequences of the Obama administration’s less-than-sensible insistence on district-union co-operation can be seen today in New York City, where efforts by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to convince the AFT’s flagship affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers, to agree to put in place the new teacher evaluation system being launched by New York State as part of its successful effort to win Race to the Top funding has gone to seed. This afternoon, Bloomberg declared that AFT Big Apple President Michael Mulgrew “unilaterally” ended talks after the mayor refused to agree to a condition that the evaluation system would only be in use until the 2014-2015 school year, effectively ensuring that none of the laggards among the AFT’s rank-and-file would never lose their jobs. [Mulgrew, on the other hand, has called Bloomberg “a liar”, while New York State Education Commissioner John King — not one for mincing words — has claimed that the district itself proposed to sunset the evaluation regime after two years.] Considering that the Empire State is demanding that all districts reach accord with their unions as required under Race to the Top and implement the new evaluation system by tonight in order to get their share of the federal dollars, it is unlikely that the AFT will sign off on the new evaluation regime in time for this to happen. Which means New York City will lose out on $250 million for improving teacher performance management.

Certainly, as GothamSchools‘ Philissa Cramer points out, there are plenty of reasons for both Bloomberg and Mulgrew to not reach an accord. But for Mulgrew, rejecting an evaluation deal is particularly important. For one, Mulgrew is running for another term as AFT local president at a time in which the most-radical of traditionalists within the rank-and-file want a leader who resembles Mulgrew’s colleague in Chicago, the infamous Karen Lewis; blowing off a deal with the district appeals to both Baby Boomers (who may not want to be subjected to performance management under which objective student test score growth on Empire State tests account for between 20 percent and 40 percent of evaluations), and more-militant retirees (who made up 39 percent of the votes in the AFT local’s last election four years ago. The fact that Mulgrew gets to score a victory of sorts against the outgoing Big Apple mayor (even if it angers younger, more reform-minded teachers who are the majority of rank-and-file members and seek high-quality evaluations), also allows for the AFT leader to position himself as a potential successor to national AFT President Randi Weingarten, especially at a time when the union’s Baby Boomers nationwide are demanding more-muscular opposition to reform. And by stopping New York City from putting the new evaluation system in place, Mulgrew also deals a blow to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has worked over the past two years to enact this modest reform; New York State will likely have to hand back some of the Race to the Top funds that would have been collected if Big Apple and other districts put the evaluation system in place.

Sure Mulgrew should be ashamed of himself for refusing to embrace the kind of evaluations that will help good-and-great teachers in the AFT affiliate’s rank-and-file, as well as benefit the Big Apple’s children. At the same time, you can’t blame Mulgrew for gaming the district-union co-operation that is a tacit element of Race to the Top; he’s taking care of most-important constituents within the union, who are the ones whose voices count most to him and his fellow leaders. The true fault lies with the Obama administration for sacrificing systemic reform in order to mollify NEA and AFT affiliates that have no interest in ditching subjective classroom observations whose inherent unreliability (as well as difficulty in actually applying because of collective bargaining agreements that restrict school leaders from observing teachers at work without their permission) keep rank-and-file members on the job regardless of how poorly they perform and thus, keep union coffers fat and happy. As it has been proven over the past two decades, NEA and AFT affiliates only accede to change only after reformers wage fierce and successful battles against the traditionalist policies and practices that union leaders embrace.

The consequences of this will not just be felt by districts. Several of the 34 states were granted waivers from the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act by the Obama administration based on proposed teacher evaluation reforms that were either in pilot stage or had not yet been blessed by NEA and AFT affiliates. Given that these evaluation systems involve using Value-Added analysis of student test score growth data that Baby Boomers within the respective rank-and-files of the unions strongly oppose, one can expect that there will be more sparring that collaboration. If the states can’t implement those evaluations, there is little the Obama administration can do to force states to meet their obligations under the conditions of the waivers. [This fact, by the way, is one reason why Dropout Nation opposes the entire waiver gambit.]

The Big Apple fiasco should force the Obama administration to back away from asking districts to seek permission from NEA and AFT affiliates to enact reforms. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t lead to any form of co-operation (save for weak compromises that lead to things just staying the same). Instead, the administration should, as Greg Hutko of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests, simply require states and districts participating in future Race to the Top rounds to get a statement from NEA and AFT affiliates expressing their support or concerns. It’s time to move away from insisting on union-district collaboration that is unlikely to happen (except when both want to keep the status quo ante).