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The Boston Globe

Special Reports

Oct. 14, 2010

Union says superintendent bashed teachers

Denounces op-ed on incompetency

The Boston Teachers Union accused Superintendent Carol R. Johnson yesterday of teacher bashing after she joined other superintendents nationwide in signing an opinion piece in Sunday’s Washington Post that railed against unions for protecting ineffective teachers.

One passage the union found particularly offensive: “The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher ... has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.”

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Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president, fired back yesterday morning in a newsletter e-mailed to the union’s more than 5,000 members.

“Let us be very clear: The [union] and its members do not support the retention of an incompetent teacher,” Stutman wrote. “Having an incompetent teacher in a classroom is neither good for our students nor our schools.”

Later he said, “We are tired of being blamed for the department’s shortcomings.”

In an interview yesterday, Johnson defended her decision to sign the piece, which aimed to highlight the urgency in overhauling public education, but she stressed it was not about blaming teachers.

“I have enormous respect for the hard work teachers do every day,” she said.

In signing the letter, Johnson aligned herself with some big names in education, including one polarizing figure: Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., who has angered teacher unions nationwide for her blunt criticisms of teachers. Rhee resigned yesterday, as the city makes a transition to a new mayor.

By contrast, Johnson has been characterized by Boston union leadership as more collaborative, although Johnson and the union have clashed at times, such as earlier this year when she asked teachers at some underperforming schools to reapply for their jobs.

The dispute emerged as the city and the union negotiate a new contract, which would replace the one that expired in August. The closed-door talks have been cordial and productive, both sides have said.

In an interview yesterday, Stutman said that even though the piece and Johnson’s alignment with Rhee upset many teachers, he did not expect the issue to create any obstacles in contract negotiations or disrupt teacher cooperation in overhauling schools.

“It was an unnecessary and unfortunate step on [Johnson’s] part, but it won’t jeopardize anything,” Stutman said. “It’s like writing a bad flier. She has to repair some of the damage.”

Johnson said she primarily communicated with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City in making changes to the piece for the past month or so. In all, 16 school leaders - from Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, and other places - signed the piece, which was headlined, “How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and other education leaders.”

Much of the piece centered on revamping the recruiting, hiring, evaluation, and training of teachers, pointing out that President Obama has said the most important factor in determining students’ success in the classroom is the effectiveness of their teacher.

The piece bemoaned archaic rules outlined in teacher contracts that the authors said impede student learning, such as provisions that require administrators to base layoff decisions on years of experience, rather than performance.

On the issue of firing ineffective teachers, the piece appeared to address a frequent call by unions for more training of those targeted teachers.

“Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let’s stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence,” it said.

Stutman faulted Johnson for agreeing to these passages, pointing out that a report by an outside organization earlier this year faulted Boston schools for not regularly evaluating teachers.

He also took issue with another section of the piece that advocated for the opening of more charter schools, which he found financially irresponsible. This year Boston expects to pay out about $55 million for students to attend charter schools.

“I don’t think that approach, blame-the-teacher, is helpful,” Stutman said. . “I don’t think it’s a recipe for success. It hasn’t been with Michelle Rhee.”

Johnson acknowledged that the school district needs to do a better job of evaluating teachers and is about to embark on developing a new evaluation system. She also defended her support for offering families choice of charter schools, saying that she is confident that changes underway in the system will retain families and attract new ones.

“It is true that if we are not able to persuade parents to choose us ... the district will lose resources,” Johnson said. “That makes it all the more imperative that we work hard to offer families strong schools.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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