Opinion: Berkeley High math and the role of unions

Many students rank low in math proficiency. Some parents have tried to address this, but have been thwarted by the union. All should come together to fix the problem.

For decades, the math department at Berkeley High School has had a serious production problem: math proficiency at graduation is in the low teens in major demographic groups. Starkly put, the majority of BHS graduates – and the vast majority of Latinos and Blacks – lack basic math competence. The mission of producing math-ready graduates has failed.

A group of concerned BHS parents and students has tried for five years to address this serious problem. We’ve tried to work with administrators and teacher leaders. We’ve identified specific teaching problems, and proposed systematic strategies (proven effective elsewhere) to improve classroom teaching. We’ve been stymied at every turn.

Our efforts to reform teaching inevitably run up against a Berkeley Federation of Teachers position that teachers are protected by contract from individual evaluation and discipline. Thus, the union blocks reasonable efforts to improve teaching quality.

Let’s step back and take a broader perspective — What should be the role of the teacher’s union in assuring high-quality teaching?

An analogy to another union — the United Auto Workers — may be instructive.

What would we expect the UAW to do if some cars were coming off the production line with defects that caused maintenance problems, or worse, risks of injury and death?

We’d expect the UAW to work with management to identify and fix the production problems. Including: observation of production processes, identification of problematic practices, coaching of under-performing workers, and if necessary reassignment or discipline.

We would consider facilitation of these quality improvement processes part of the union’s responsibility and mission. We would consider hesitation in pursuing quality improvements, in effect ignoring evidence of serious product problems, as irresponsible at best, and perhaps negligent. We would never tolerate the union causing safety problems in order to protect its workers.

We consider the mission of teaching at least as important as the mission of making cars. Successfully producing educated children — students with specified proficiencies — is essential to making economic and social progress. Leaving students with educational shortcomings that could be avoided severely hurts them and their communities. Failing to optimize educational “production” practices should be considered negligent, just as it would be for making cars.

Do we have evidence of quality problems with educational “products”? Absolutely — atrociously low proficiency levels at high school completion.

Do we have evidence of production problems? Absolutely — ample anecdotal evidence of teaching practices that deviate substantially from basic teaching norms. These occur even in teachers with supplemental teaching credentials. We don’t have systematic evidence of teaching quality — and that’s a problem: we need to obtain it via classroom observation, surveys, and student evaluations.

Do we know how to improve teaching practices? Absolutely — extensive evidence of the value of teaching of pedagogical techniques and one-on-one coaching of teachers. We can improve teaching and outcomes.

There is a dire problem with teaching — we’re producing inferior products. There is a serious and urgent need to address this problem. There are tools to address it. The union should and can facilitate this mission, not obstruct it by an undue concern for teacher protection. To obstruct would be like putting unsafe cars on the road, which we’d never tolerate.

Let’s get to work. We propose a six-month special committee comprised of parents, teachers, administrators, the union, and the school board to arrive at an effective, evidence-based plan with maximum latitude to systematically assess and raise the quality of math (and other!) teaching at BHS.

Jim Kahn is the father of two BHS students and is a UCSF professor with 26 years of experience teaching and being evaluated for teaching.