Last month, a school district in Rhode Island laid off 90 teachers because their students were consistently performing poorly on standardized tests. "Boo!!!" said the teachers unions. "Yay!!!" said the "standards" movement. President Obama weighed in with an 'attaboy. His education secretary praised the move. That's how you hold teachers accountable, he said, much to the dismay of his union allies.
Today, those teachers are back on the job. And both the union representing them, the American Federation of Teachers, and the school district, pronounce themselves happy with the outcome.
Such compromises are rare, but this one may provide a clue as to how the administration in particular will proceed on the thorny issue of teacher tenure and teacher evaluation.
The teachers got their jobs back. They'll still be evaluated, and test scores will be part of the evaluation, but so will other factors, like how well teachers are able to get parents involved. They'll work longer hours, too, using the extra time to tutor students who need help. They'll also have more access to teacher development programs. And the concept of mass firings -- the school superintendent now says all she wanted was some flexibility. It's a win-win, in a sense, for the stakeholders: it is not clear whether students will do better, or want to do better, or would have done better if a new crop of teachers had been hired. The teachers won't have to "reapply" for their jobs, but they will have to "recommit" to a set of principles and get interviewed by the school's new principal. Sounds a little fuzzy. Truth is, there was great pressure on both sides to work something out. And teachers in Rhode Island don't think like teachers in, say, Los Angeles, where the problems of poor student performance, parents who don't participate, misallocated funding, lack of funding, lack of training, entrenched teacher tenure -- whatever it is -- are much more acute.
But the RI compromise is a notch in the cap of AFT, which wants to portray itself as a "reform" union that can compromise and adapt. Evaluating teachers by evaluating student test scores is a reality that Obama doesn't want to change, and AFT, instead of fighting this tooth and nail, is helping to shape the policy by accommodating reality. You can bet that the White House is watching.
Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.