An Interview with Tom Mooney

Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, has long been in the forefront of unionists advocating a more activist approach to union involvement in issues of teacher quality. Mooney is also a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and until recently chaired the AFT’s policy council on teacher issues. A founding member of the Teacher Union Reform Network, he is a member of a newly formed offshoot group, the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership. He is also a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and a past member of the board of directors of the Holmes Partnership for Teacher Education Reform. The following is condensed from an interview with Barbara Miner.

RS: What is the role of teacher unions in ensuring teacher quality?

Mooney: Teacher unions ought to lead the way in terms of raising standards for getting into and staying in teaching, for strengthening student achievement, and for boosting public confidence in our public schools. Other than the unions-the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers-there are no organizations that represent the overall teaching profession. We have to address the quality issues or other people-be they mayors, or governors, or whoever-will impose their reforms on us. And it will probably be in ways we will not like and that will not help students.

RS: Has there been progress on local unions taking up the issue of teacher quality?

Mooney: It hasn’t grown as fast or as widely as some of us had hoped. I don’t understand why. Most-if not all-local unions will push for more of a say in decisions about instructional policies and practices. But that doesn’t go far enough. I will stop a hair short of saying that peer review is indispensable as a foundation for other professional advances. But if you don’t bite that bullet, how can you persuasively argue for a significantly increased role for teachers in other educational decisions?

To be honest, I don’t think there is a problem with the rank and file. The problem sometimes is with union leaders. I don’t mean this as a blast, but we inherited and imitated industrial unionism. Why? It was powerful and we were looking for power to counter the bureaucracy and to stop being powerless. That model served us very well in stage one of teacher unionism.

RS: What about pay for performance measures that are tied to scores on tests?

Mooney: There are two raging but separate debates. First, I think it’s absolutely pointless to be knee-jerk anti-testing and say that we cannot measure what we do or the results of what we do. That’s just not a viable position. Sometimes, people on the American left have made the mistake of continuing the 1960s philosophy of “Don’t tell me what to teach because I don’t want to teach the crap in that textbook.” That fight for the right to “do your own thing” has carried into an era where that’s not the issue. It’s time for some of us to give up our countercultural views on these things. I know that’s strong. And it doesn’t mean all these tests are great. And certainly, politicians need to be more realistic about how reliable these tests are. But we have to focus more on making sure students have the skills they need for further education.

There has to be some acknowledgement of accountability: What do we want kids to learn? And how are we going to measure what we are doing?

But then there’s the question of whether we evaluate-much less pay-teachers on the basis of these tests. And I say, on an individual basis, absolutely not. It’s indefensible. On a schoolwide basis, I think that’s an interesting idea worth exploring.

RS: Which aspects are worth exploring and which aren’t?

Mooney: There are different kinds of pay for performance, and I am putting several conditions on the “yes” or “maybe” I just gave. It’s got to be about improvement, not an absolute standard, otherwise it’s a rigged game. Second, it has to be schoolwide results, because you really want to incant everybody to be rowing in the same direction. It really does take everyone working together to improve a school.

Finally, there has to be more humility from politicians about the validity and proven viability of these tests. If you start linking people’s individual and family livelihood to tests that were invented yesterday and will be changed tomorrow, you will drive more people out of the profession.

The bottom line is, if we want to have kids succeed, we have to be willing to take part in the debates about standards and norms for the profession. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring them.