Advancing Student Achievement in the United States Public Schools through Labor-Management Collaboration: The Fmcs's Evolving Role in Education Reform

By Cohen, George H. | St. John's Law Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Advancing Student Achievement in the United States Public Schools through Labor-Management Collaboration: The Fmcs's Evolving Role in Education Reform


Cohen, George H., St. John's Law Review


INTRODUCTION

I am privileged to submit this paper addressing a task that is at once vital to our national interest while posing a potpourri of daunting challenges.

In the United States, alarm bells have been ringing about the quality of education in public school classrooms since the 1983 publication of the landmark government-sponsored study, A Nation at Risk.1 The widely-publicized report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, declared, in ominous terms, that "the educational foundations of [U.S.] society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."2 The report, statistically flawed as some suggest,3 nonetheless served as an across-theboard wake up call for our educators, academics, legislators, and concerned parents. The report generated a multi-decade effort to reform our education system that continues today, and it spawned ongoing finger-pointing by educational experts, critics, and advocates who have been and remain disappointed with the results.4 By accepted international measures of educational attainment, the dual related problems of underperforming schools and underachieving students persist, despite many years of U.S. government grants, incentives, and programs aimed at improvement.5

In a November 2010 speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan provided a gloomy assessment of American public school education.6 One quarter of our high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time, he said.7 A separate report rendered by retired U.S. military leaders concerning recruitment for our armed forces in 2009 found that more than twenty percent of recent high school graduates in the United States were unable to enlist in the military because they did not possess the necessary math, reading, science, and problem-solving skills, as measured by the Armed Forces Qualifications Test.8 The stark reality is that in 2009 the United States ranked seventeenth among the sixty-five nations participating in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Program for International Assessment, based on the results of an international sampling of reading, math, and science skills among fifteen-year-olds conducted every three years.9 The message is sobering. As President Obama aptly observed, "whoever out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow."10 What more perfect introduction to this global conference?

In recent years, the debate concerning how best to address this problem has been shaped by reform-minded critics, armed with the scores on standardized student tests, who pointedly blame incompetent, union-protected teachers for the lack of student achievement.11 Zealous education reformers are currently focusing with laser-like intensity on teacher unions and the job protections and lay-offprocedures they have attained through collective bargaining. They contend that such protections and procedures primarily serve to grant immunity to those teachers.12 In the words of Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York Public Schools and an outspoken critic of those teacher rights, "[t]he long-standing holy trinity in education-life tenure, seniority and lock-step pay (followed by a lifetime pension)-encourages sticking around rather than doing well. You can expect that, in an effort to truly professionalize teaching, the assault on this established, dysfunctional structure will be vigorous."13 The remedy these reformers espouse is the abolition or modification of seniority and tenure systems and the implementation of teacher evaluation systems based in whole or in part on student test scores.

The potential short-sightedness of this simple fix has not escaped the notice of many professionals in the education community. For example, they have pointed out that if student test scores become the do-all end-all barometer of teacher performance, this would create an incentive to remove from the curriculum subjects for which there are no standardized tests, but which assuredly are critical to establishing a well-rounded student body-subjects like history, poetry, and art. …

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