I Wonder Why People View Teachers Unions So Negatively

A week after the rest of the state’s newspapers reported AYP results, the Helena Independent Record finally got around to notifying the community about our test scores. Once again, based on the criteria established by the NCLB Act, the results don’t look very good: 11 out of 15 Helena schools failed to meet the proficiency standards.

I’ve written on more than one occasion about the law and Montana schools, so I’ll focus my observations on the response offered by the new President of the Helena Education Association, Tammy Pilcher. Whether her remarks are more disingenuous or tone deaf is hard to say, but it’s easy to see why so many conservatives blame teachers unions for the problems when our leadership responds like this. 

What did Pilcher have to say about the results?

Tammy Pilcher, president of the teacher’s union in Helena, says the goals set forth by the federal government about standardized testing can’t feasibly be met, and with no federal support, failure is inevitable.

That should motivate teachers and students to do their level best in pursuit of education. It’s inevitable that we’ll fail, after all. It’s hard to understand how the schools that do pass manage to, given the inevitability of failure, and it might come as a surprise to the federal government to learn that it does not support education in Helena, despite millions of dollars in funding, but hey, you can’t blame us for the problem.

"It’s unrealistic," Pilcher said. "There is no way (every student will be proficient)."

Good thing, too, because the law doesn’t require that for another five years. In fact, as the law states and the article notes, only 83% of students need to be proficient in reading and 68% in math.

Pilcher said in reference to more than two-thirds of Helena schools not making AYP: "Oh well."

There’s nothing like a little glib comment to make the public feel like education’s important to teachers. Personally, I think we might want to be a little less blasé about the fact that low-income students are struggling and have continued to struggle to meet math and reading proficiency. I’m certainly not comfortable with the head of my union, ostensibly someone who represents teachers, acting like diminished adult opportunities for our students isn’t a critical issue, one that demands our attention and concern.

"Here in Helena we are doing great things, have outstanding educators and a great educational system, and we base educational achievement on more than just one test like the federal government does," Pilcher said.

I wonder if Lake Wobegon High School passed the tests this year, since everyone there is only above average. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t a number of positive things about the Helena schools and its teachers, but broadly proclaiming excellence doesn’t change the numbers: we need to do a better job for all of our students, especially those with disabilities and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

And isn’t it about time to retire the “one test” argument? If educational achievement was truly excellent across the board in the district, wouldn’t more of our students be able to pass a basic writing and math test?

No Child Left Behind is a flawed, punitive policy. I have no disagreement with that argument. I do, however, take exception with the argument that we can dismiss the results out of hand every year. The data should tell us something and lead to interventions to address shortcomings. For a leader of educators to act like it doesn’t matter is an embarrassment for all of us.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • I may not agree with everything you write Pogie, but this is yet another good post. Not knowing an extensive amount about NCLB in the trenches, I’ll leave it’s merit up to you educators and appreciate your views. After watching the NCLB debate for some time, I do believe that if it’s lead author was anyone else (especially a Republican) they would be criticized to no end.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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