Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union recently called a strike over proposed education reforms and, in so doing, helped spark a national debate about education in America. One of the most intense discussions centers around whether we should pursue policies that increase teacher accountability using data on classroom performance and student achievement. In my view, this is just the type of reform needed if we truly care about retaining world-class teachers and giving our children the education they deserve. Here’s why.
Not everyone is cut out for every line of work. Interviews and resumes are only so good at predicting on-the-job effectiveness; actual performance data is critical in determining whether an employee should be promoted or counseled to seek opportunities elsewhere. All Americans understand this.
Indeed, we rightly expect rigorous evaluation of all those who serve us; just as we demand courteous service from waiters and sound advice from lawyers, we also trust that doctors will not harm us when we visit them. We have this faith because we know that those who can’t cut it are eventually held accountable, whether by customers, employers, or through legal action.
How, then, can we accept that those entrusted with our children’s futures should not be held to similar standards?
This is about more than simply rooting out bad teachers. The vast majority of young people who become educators do so because they are passionate about improving students’ lives. Many are willing to start at low salaries and work hard both inside and outside the classroom. Some voluntarily elect to work in our nation’s worst-performing and most dangerous schools. They do this because they care deeply about our children.
I believe it’s important to show these teachers that we care about them too.
Yet, under union tenure rules in many jurisdictions, such passionate teachers are often the first to be laid off – sometimes irrespective of their classroom performance. These rules do more than just hurt students and crush the dreams of our nation’s best and brightest teachers; they also entrench a mindset that says excellence in the classroom doesn’t matter, that it’s all about keeping one’s head down long enough to secure tenure.
Instead of trying to correct situations such as this, for too long the answer to nearly every education challenge has been to simply spend more money. It hasn’t worked. TIME put it this way: “The U.S. spends more per pupil on elementary and high school education than most developed nations. Yet it is behind most of them in the math and science abilities of its children. Young Americans today are less likely than their parents were to finish high school. This is an issue that is warping the nation's economy and security, and the causes are not as mysterious as they seem. The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research.”
Reform, not just money, is what’s needed. As a start, there are teachers out there who should not be teaching. Administrators need the tools to identify them and the power to dismiss them. But, more importantly, school leaders need the ability to effectively reward the good teachers – to incentivize them to remain in our public schools and continue inspiring our kids.
I am the son of teachers. I know that a good education is the key to success. That’s why we can no longer afford to shrink from the hard choices. Making reforms will not be easy, especially when pitted against massively powerful and well-funded unions. But what will our children think of us if they found out we abandoned them in their hour of need just because the choices weren’t easy?
“It’s the biggest social injustice imaginable,” a prominent education reformer recently said. “We are still allowing the color of a child’s skin and the Zip code they live in to dictate their educational outcome, and therefore their life outcome...We are robbing them every single day of their futures.”
“Everybody,” she said, “should be infuriated by that.”
Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees.