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Teachers unions sacrifice high standards to evade accountability

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

By Hanna Skandera and Kevin Huffman July 24 at 8:35 PM

Hanna Skandera heads the New Mexico Public Education Department. Kevin Huffman is the Tennessee commissioner of education.

You can always count on the national teachers unions to behave badly at their annual conventions, and they certainly didn’t let us down this month. In doing so, however, they let down many of their members, along with students who are working hard to meet higher expectations.

In classrooms across the United States, higher academic standards are inspiring students and teachers. Students are more engaged and excited in school, raising their hands more often, asking more questions, thinking critically and solving problems instead of just memorizing facts. Teachers feel more motivated, creative and empowered to develop new and better ways to reach their students.

This progress is at risk, however, because of a destructive change of heart by union leaders who are prepared to sacrifice high standards for students so that adults can evade accountability.

Under pressure from the militant wing of her union, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten took the cynical step this month of backing away from support for the Common Core State Standards, announcing a new fund for teachers to critique and rewrite the standards. This is the latest and most visible step in a year-long campaign by the union to discredit the implementation of higher academic standards and — most important — the measurement of student progress against these higher standards.

Meanwhile, the big news coming out of the National Education Association convention one week earlier was a resolution calling for the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The union’s bosses have been cross with Duncan before, but most recently, he issued mildly supportive comments on a legal decision that threw out California’s teacher tenure and seniority laws because of their appalling impact on poor and minority students.

The NEA also voted in Lily Eskelsen García as its new national president. In her first day on the job, Eskelsen García referred to value-added measures, a common measure of teacher effectiveness, as “the mark of the devil.”

Unfortunately, this sort of over-the-top rhetoric is eminently predictable. Union leaders’ enthusiasm for reforms often wanes as we move from the planning (and spending) phase into measuring student progress.

In Tennessee, as part of a successful Race to the Top grant, union leaders signed on to high standards and evaluation, and the state developed a nationally recognized training plan for teachers led by exceptional educators. But this past school year, union leaders called for a delay in administering better assessments. The union also sued the state to block the evaluation system it previously supported. As a result, Tennessee children will continue to take easier fill-in-the-bubble tests while taxpayer dollars are spent on lawyers.

In New Mexico, a nationally recognized transition plan was created with the help of talented educators. A local union leader also worked with the state’s largest district to implement the plan; another co-authored (with one of us) an op-ed touting the measures of New Mexico’s current teacher evaluation system as a “common-sense answer.”

Today, however, the unions in New Mexico are staging town halls to stir up parents with misinformation about higher standards and testing, even though the overall amount of testing has decreased since the new standards were adopted. Clearer standards and better assessments offer students, parents and teachers exactly what they want: less testing and less test prep.

Astonishingly, the unions seem to think that they can ask for more taxpayer money while simultaneously weakening measurement and accountability. This is the very course of action that has led the United States to its middling level of performance on international benchmarks.

In our states, this backtracking also comes despite significant student gains. Tennessee had the most growth of any state in the country on last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. New Mexico high school juniors achieved record gains on state tests and graduation rates rose dramatically after the standards were raised on New Mexico’s state exam.

Instead of cultivating fear by spreading misinformation and arguing for less and less accountability, union leaders and their supporters should honor their commitments to our children and parents. They should honor their commitments to employers who rely on our education system to prepare young people to compete in the global economy. They should honor their commitments to civil rights leaders and advocates for the disabled who have fought for decades for greater equity in education, and to parents, who have the right to know how their children are performing.

U.S. teachers and students are ready. They are proving it every day. It’s time to stop attacking higher standards and accountability and focus on helping our children reach their potential.

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