L.A. Teachers Must Learn A Lesson From the City Election

President and Vice-President of Community Advocates

Tuesday was a wake-up call for public employee unions—the defeat of Measure B in Los Angeles demonstrated that the voting public is fed up with the abuses that come from the raw and unchecked use of their political power. United Teachers of Los Angeles ought to heed the warning just delivered on Measure B as it battles the school district’s student assessment tests scheduled to be administered in two weeks.

Unlike what was at stake in Measure B (guaranteed unionized jobs for electrical workers and harnessing solar power) the high stakes game that UTLA is playing is about our public school kids and their future—ultimately more critical than electrical workers’ expanded employment or when and how we decide to capture the sun’s rays.

For many years, UTLA couched its policy objectives in language that claimed they were really “putting kids first”—more money in the classroom was to benefit kids, not them, etc. But in the latest battle UTLA has abandoned any pretense about kids being their priority, it is really about, as UTLA has asserted in documents directed to their members, “building unity” and “to organize” the work site. It is also guaranteed to harm kids and their education.

In a common sense-defying decision, United Teachers Los Angeles proclaimed that its members would “boycott a series of unnecessary assessment tests” that would result in “the loss of valuable instruction time spent prepping students for the tests instead of teaching.” The boycott threat was buttressed by a protest at Emerson Middle School with teachers bearing signs offering the stark choice between “Teachers or Tests.”

In reality, the “periodic assessment” tests which UTLA finds so objectionable facilitate teaching the curriculum that these teachers are hired to instruct. The tests’ goal, as the Times has written, is “to give teachers insight into what students need to learn while there remains time in the current school year to adjust instruction.” A statistical analysis by the LAUSD has found that the assessments “contribute to higher student achievement.” The District’s study found that, especially at the elementary level, students who take the full battery of four assessment tests during the course of the year are “much more likely to score proficient or advanced on the California Standards Test than similar students that either do not take the tests or take them only once or twice.”

The tests are designed to provide individualized data to the teachers, within 48 hours of having been administered, of what each student has mastered in English, language arts, math, science and social studies—core academic subjects. If teachers “prep” students for this test they are teaching the curriculum that it is their job to deliver, not teaching obscure skills that are only relevant to a test.

UTLA hasn’t just issued a press release to express theoretical opposition to the tests; they have thrown the gauntlet down and challenged the LA School District in the baldest terms imaginable. They dare the District and its administration to make them perform their duties.

The UTLA website offers model letters for teachers to send to parents explaining why the tests are not being given—we are “increasingly concerned that we are over testing your child and wasting valuable teaching time….your child’s education remains my top priority.”

In a February letter to UTLA’s members its president struck a very different theme, clearly not about “education being a top priority.” He told teachers that the boycott was really about “everyone’s health care, class sizes” and that “jobs are on the line…now is the time for unity among members—not division.” Not surprisingly, the claimed pedagogic problems with the assessment tests aren’t mentioned in his teacher-directed communication.

UTLA is calling not just for a boycott of the assessment tests but of all “district mandated tests that are not required by state or federal law, or that aren’t needed to determine appropriate placement for a student.” The union leadership is challenging its employer, the Los Angeles Board of Education, over whether the Board can act as any other employer does.

It is a sorry move by UTLA’s leadership to advance its own agenda and to put well-intentioned teachers, who truly care about their students’ progress and would like the data the tests provide, in an impossible position.

There will be a moment of truth on March 23 when all Track A schools are scheduled to give the third set of assessment tests for 2008-2009. Will the District require that the teachers, whose paychecks it signs, do their job? It will go a long way in determining who the leader of this district is—UTLA’s bosses or the LAUSD—and for whose benefit the District is run, kids or teachers.

As the defeat of Measure B has dramatically demonstrated, over-reaching public employee unions who manipulate elected officials they have underwritten will ultimately pay a price. In the case of the assessment tests, unfortunately, the LA Unified’s kids may pay an even bigger price first.

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