National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel is fond of asserting that, “A great public school for every student starts with a great teacher.” But his union’s advocacy agenda frequently supports positions that benefit neither children nor great teachers, and in fact work against the best interests of both. Few examples illustrate this as clearly as the involvement of a Bay State NEA affiliate in a lawsuit currently before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
The lawsuit centers round Phanna Kem Robishaw, a tenured elementary school teacher who, after 14 years of experience teaching in the Lowell public schools, was fired by the district in 2003 for lacking proficiency in English. Massachusetts law has required since 2002 that superintendents certify classroom teachers’ fluency in English. Federal law also requires that teachers of children who are English learners must have written and oral fluency in English (a provision opposed by the NEA when first introduced).
Court documents indicate that the results of two separate English fluency tests, as well as determinations by the school’s principal and assistant principal, demonstrated that Ms. Robishaw possessed inadequate English language skills. A Superior Court judge who reviewed an audio recording of one of these tests also concluded that the teacher was not proficient enough in English to teach in a mainstream classroom.
But a brief filed in the case by the teacher union (joined by a range of advocacy groups) seeks to reverse the firing, and charged that the teacher’s due process and equal protection rights had been violated. The brief challenges the validity of the two tests as evidence, arguing that the Superior Court’s use of audio tapes and test scores to evaluate fluency violated the teacher’s constitutional right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses. The opponents further proclaim that these accusations of non-fluency might “stain the teacher’s reputation and threaten her future livelihood as a teacher.”
Several dozen teachers across Massachusetts were fired in 2003 after failing English proficiency tests. Hundreds failed their initial English assessments according to district officials, but were given subsequent chances to pass. Three other teachers were also dismissed from the same Lowell school in 2003 for poor English proficiency.
At Greenhalge School in Lowell, where Ms. Robishaw had taught, 76 percent of students come from low-income households, and 30 percent are English learners (many of these are, like Ms. Robishaw, of Cambodian descent). Standardized test scores trail district and state averages.
Lowell’s administrators noted that communicating with children is a core responsibility of teaching, and argued that retaining a non-fluent teacher is not only wasteful, but dangerous to children’s education and future. But to the leaders of Mr. Van Roekel’s union affiliate and their allies, some things, like the job security of teachers, are evidently more important.
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