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Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Teacher unions undermine classroom achievement

  • Article by: Gary Marvin Davison
  • June 11, 2013 - 8:08 PM

 Counterpoint

Teachers unions such as Education Minnesota consistently promote practices that undermine excellence in the classroom. Education Minnesota is the second best funded lobbying force in the state, eclipsed only by the National Rifle Association. Having aided the election of Gov. Mark Dayton and a DFL-controlled Legislature, Education Minnesota is vigorously calling in its chips.

With Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius as its agents, Education Minnesota has been hugely successful in disassembling the previous system of school accountability. Cassellius sought waivers from requirements that were effectively identifying failing schools, oversaw the establishment of a murky new system to measure school performance, and prevailed upon the 2013 Legislature to eliminate the grade 9 writing and grade 10 reading tests as graduation requirements.

Thus we enter a fantasy world constructed for us by Education Minnesota. We are asked to trust that teachers who so far have been unable to prepare properly children of color and children of poverty for simple grade level performance will now — functioning under a hazier accountability system — be more successful in preparing students for the much more difficult ACT test measuring readiness for college.

The reality is that we do not have enough teachers who can produce the level of achievement we need. Various stances of Education Minnesota ensure mediocrity. Leaders and members of that union maintain that professional teachers should train in conventional preparation programs. But university-based teacher certification programs are wretched.

Prospective K-5 teachers graduate from university teacher training programs with little content area knowledge, with insufficient pedagogical skill, and with ignorance of approaches most likely to be effective for children of color and young people from families burdened by poverty and dysfunction. Secondary teachers are also inadequately trained. Very rarely does a secondary teacher in today’s public schools have a master’s degree in a legitimate discipline such as physics, mathematics, literature, history, political science, economics, or the fine arts. Instead, graduate programs for teachers are degree mills that result in flimsy master of education degrees.

Alternative paths to teacher certification that could provide instruction by real mathematicians, real economists, and published novelists are opposed by Education Minnesota. The union acted to block funding of Teach for America (“The union case against Teach for America,” June 5), which has filled classrooms in outposts across the country with brilliant graduates from the finest colleges and universities. The union endeavors to protect teachers remunerated not on the basis of performance but on years spent in the classroom and on attainment of low-quality master’s degrees undeserving of the appellation.

So do not believe the rhetoric about the recent legislative session, dominated by Education Minnesota-backed politicians, having been an “education session” that will produce the best workforce in the nation by 2027. We have little guarantee that newly funded preschool experiences, succeeded by all-day kindergarten, will have a sufficiently beneficial effect. Any positive gains made in early childhood programs that are in fact academically substantive do not typically last beyond third grade unless education from that time forward is of high quality.

More money for general classroom education may save or support existing programs, but when funds are dispensed to maintain the status quo, we can hardly expect improved results.

Leading education reformers such as Michelle Rhee and Steve Perry (the latter gave a talk in March for the RESET education reform initiative of the Minneapolis Foundation) have confronted teachers unions in their efforts to hire and retain teachers of excellence. Perry goes so far as to entitle a chapter of his most recent book, “Teachers’ Unions: The Worst Thing Ever to Happen to Education.”

In Minnesota, Education Minnesota inevitably maneuvers to protect the jobs of union members rather than to promote educational excellence. Early childhood experiences and lots of money thrown on the existing system will do nothing to give us high quality public education until the K-12 system is overhauled.

But waiting until 2027 certainly gives the leadership and rank and file of Education Minnesota a lot of time to create diversionary tactics that create illusions of progress while protecting a status quo that cheats our students every day when they step into the classrooms of our public schools.

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Gary Marvin Davison is the author of eight books; he was writer and researcher for “The State of African Americans in Minnesota” (Minneapolis Urban League, 2004 and 2008 editions). For eight years he has served as teacher and administrator for the New Salem Educational Initiative.

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