Unlike New York City teachers, most Americans have no say in how their employers evaluate their job performance. The process, if there is a "process," usually emerges from an obscure H.R. task force that bases its guidelines on whatever trendy corporate gobbledygook some associate vice president read in the latest issue of Human Resources Executive.
Once the process reaches its lofty conclusion, the employee has to live with the consequences. A glowing evaluation may mean a raise and promotion. A scathing report may trigger demotion or even termination. The processes are not necessarily fair. Bosses often use them to justify whatever they wanted to do all along. Good bosses treat their people fairly. Bad bosses exploit their power for petty politics.
There are some remedies. In cases of contractual violation, discrimination, or whistleblower retaliation, employees can sue. Many large companies also have appeals procedures. But in most cases, the whims of the boss and the vagaries of the process determine the employee's fate. That's just the breaks.
But the breaks are not good enough for New York's teachers union. It has spurned a deal that would bring $450 million dollars of state and federal funding to the system because it rejects the city's proposed evaluation process. The union insists on more extensive appeals procedures and a sunset clause that would end the system in 2015. If a deal is not reached by midnight tonight, the city will lose the funding.
Like other cities, New York's teachers have long enjoyed greater protection from their employers' processes and their bosses' whims than most American workers. The arguments for extra protection for teachers fall into two categories: appeals to academic freedom and criticism of the evaluation processes.
Academic freedom has a terrific ring to it, but it has little to do with today's teachers. The concept goes back to the mid-twentieth century when university professors often faced retaliation for their academic ideas. To a lesser extent, primary and secondary schoolteachers also faced discrimination for their political orientation during the Red Scare, as did many Americans. But in 21st century New York, the rationale is preposterous. New York teachers do not risk dismissal because of their political views any more than the rest of us. Academic freedom is irrelevant.
As for the evaluation process, the bugaboo is the Terrible Standardized Test. Test-driven evaluation has inherent flaws that I will not defend. But in the proposed process, test scores account for only twenty percent of a teacher's score. Classroom evaluations account for sixty percent; local considerations account for the last twenty. This process is almost certainly imperfect, but it seems at least reasonable. More importantly, it seems much less arbitrary than the average evaluation process that most American workers have to live with.
But why should New York's teachers suffer just because most workers lack the same level of protection that they have historically enjoyed? If there were no disadvantage to such protections, than this would be a fair argument. But there are two very big disadvantages:
- Underperforming New York teachers are very difficult to fire. That means that bad teachers are permitted to continue teaching New York's children.
- New York's teachers lack incentive to improve their teaching. Yes, I'm sure that there many self-motivated teachers who need no other incentive than love for their students, but I'm equally sure that there are many teachers who would work harder with the same economic incentives that other workers have.
Imagine for a moment that you are the owner of a company. To succeed, the company has to reward good performance and penalize poor performance. You work hard to put together a coherent evaluation process that spares your employees from some of the whims of your midlevel managers. But the employees reject the process, jeopardizing the entire company, which to be honest, is not exactly the brightest star in the industry.
Now stop imagining. If you pay New York taxes, then you are an owner. These people work for you. They are asking for protection that you yourself do not have--protection from being fired except under egregious circumstances after extensive appeals procedures. Not only is such rigorous protection bad for students in itself; the union's demands also threaten to take $450 million from your school system. If you care about your schools, you should be angry.
If you are a New York teacher, hear me. I know that it's not an easy job and that you're working hard. I applaud your efforts. I support your demands for higher pay, better training, more supplies, and anything that makes it easier for you to do your job. If you're burdened by a bad principal, I encourage the city to replace him or her. But I cannot protect you from being rewarded or punished based on your performance, even if the evaluations are often unfair. The teacher's union serves many worthy purposes. Shielding teachers from evaluation is not one of them, not by a long shot.