Better teachers, the union way

Great teachers aren’t born -- they evolve. They must have certain things starting out, of course: a passion for knowledge and a love of working with children, to cite two. But it then takes years of study and practice to master the art of teaching.

The recent focus on evaluations as the overriding problem with teacher quality ignores the arc of an educator’s career. Yes, honest feedback and assessment is crucial. But if we truly want to have an impact on teaching and learning, more effective evaluations alone aren’t enough. Teachers need better training programs, better professional development and additional peer support.

As teachers, we want to see our profession strengthened. But that won’t happen simply through punitive measures. Here is our framework for positive change.

Overhaul the way we evaluate teachers and administrators: Most teachers agree that the evaluation system needs to be fixed. Far too often, evaluations are carried out almost as afterthoughts by overloaded administrators who have received little training in assessing a teacher’s performance. We would like to work with the school district to improve teacher evaluations so they can be used to identify areas of strength and weakness, but the process must include a plan to provide the support and resources an educator may need in order to improve. The school district makes a large investment in a new teacher, and it would be counterproductive to simply cast him or her aside without first giving him or her help to become a more effective educator. As officers for the teachers union, we will protect our members’ professional rights. That said, no one supports keeping someone in the classroom who clearly isn’t making the grade. Evaluations should also be a two-way street, with teachers involved in evaluating the administrators they work with every day.


Have top-notch teachers help their colleagues: In 1999, United Teachers Los Angeles was instrumental in passing a state law to bring peer assistance and review to school districts statewide. The Los Angeles Unified School District program, a collaborative effort with the union, provides both new teachers and struggling veterans with ongoing peer coaching from trained consulting teachers. Teachers who receive a below-standard evaluation are automatically referred to the program. So far, nearly 850 teachers have been referred to the program, and more than two-thirds of them have successfully improved their practice or decided to leave the profession. Many more could be helped if the program received more funding. We also need to reinstate the highly effective mentor teaching program (a victim of budget cuts) and tap into the wealth of national board certified teachers in the LAUSD. More than 1,000 in number, these educators have met rigorous national standards for teaching, and their expertise should be put to work helping struggling teachers.

Offer professional support throughout a teacher’s career: The best teachers are lifelong learners, and they need a system that sustains that. Every school should have effective, teacher-driven professional development and common planning periods for collaboration and sharing of best practices. UTLA helps by providing year-round professional development at our headquarters and supporting lesson study, in which teachers work together to design and field-test lesson plans for maximum effectiveness. In LAUSD, lesson study has been incorporated into the intern training program, where it has helped shape more than 15,000 educators, and is being used intensively with staff at five overcrowded inner-city schools.

Offer incentives to keep accomplished teachers in the classroom: Too many teachers move to administration or out-of-classroom positions simply to earn higher pay or avoid classroom pressures. California has among the highest student learning standards in the country, but the state continues to rank almost dead last in per-pupil funding. As part of an overall increased investment in our schools, we must raise teacher salaries and lower class sizes to match the higher demands of the profession. We should also look at pay initiatives that are working, such as the salary increase for educators who earn national board certification. That incentive has kept countless exceptional teachers in the classroom.

Revamp teacher training programs at colleges and universities: Teacher certification programs need to concentrate on the skills teachers need the minute they step into their own classrooms. When we talk to new teachers, they give us similar feedback about what they felt was missing in their training: They want more classes in student discipline. They want to know how to talk with parents about their child’s performance. They need help planning lessons that take into account the different ability levels of their students. Above all, they wish they had had more on-the-job experience in real-world classrooms similar to the ones in which they ended up teaching.

Give teachers a say in hiring their colleagues: A fourth-grade teacher pays the price if a teacher in grade three is not doing the job. At some schools in LAUSD, teachers routinely interview teacher candidates. This should be expanded to all schools. Given the opportunity, teachers will choose to work with the best colleagues.

All of the above will take resources, commitment and follow-through on many levels. We can’t ignore that the task will be made much more difficult by the chronic underfunding of public education and the severe budget cuts, which threaten to cut the heart out of our schools and our communities.

The most ineffective thing we can do to improve teacher quality is a tweak here and a tweak there. If we use this moment as the chance to look at the big picture and make systemwide changes, we will be helping not only those students who are in our classrooms now, but generations of students to come.

A.J. Duffy is president of United Teachers Los Angeles. Julie Washington and Gregg Solkovits are both vice presidents in the union.