Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chicago Teachers' Strike: What ARE the Answers?

The start of the Chicago teachers' strike this week and my extensive reading on the causes of the walkout has caused me to take a long look at how our teachers should be paid and evaluated.  It's been a difficult examination with no easy answers - and in approaching friends who are both teachers and non-teachers, I've found that even those more directly associated with the profession don't have the answers.

When I first looked at the what the CTU was saying were the reasons for their walkout - pay demands that weren't being met (the city offers 16% over four years, while CTU sought 29% over two years, all because the length of the school day was extended beyond the current five-plus hours?), tenure and contract renewal being tied to student performance, and a list of other items that are currently being negotiated (a longer list can be found in this article from the September 11 edition of the River Bend Telegraph) - I can honestly say I wasn't initially sympathetic, particularly on the salary issue.  Teachers in Chicago, for instance, make an average - according to the city's school system - of $76,000 per year for nine months in the classroom, with the average starting salary in Illinois (based on statistics from the NEA) being $42,740.  (I'll interject here that, having been the son of a schoolteacher, I am aware that the work in preparing for the classes goes beyond those nine months with refresher training, renewing accreditation, conferences, etc.)

Additionally, according to the website teacherportal.com, "If you are considering becoming a teacher in Illinois, you will make the fourth highest teacher salary in the country. The average Illinois teacher salary starts at $42,740 and averages $64,509 a year. Starting salaries are the 20th highest in the nation. This fact is especially attractive to new teachers who want to complete a masters degree early on in their careers; bumping them up the pay scale."

For outstanding teachers, I believe you cannot pay them enough.  I was blessed with some wonderful teachers during my elementary, middle and high school years - and I know that they were underpaid for the amount of work and the average class sizes with which they had to deal.  If you're an outstanding teacher, you've earned it.  But what about under performing or poor teachers - why should they be entitled to tenure and a higher salary?  And if they do feel they are entitled, then why shouldn't there be some sort of benchmarking to show that their work and student performance justifies long-term contracts and raises?

I'm also curious to know whether the teachers striking in Chicago have given any thought to (a) the impact of this strike on the kids who are now not learning anything, and (b) the parents who are having to juggle schedules, take off work, and potentially lose their own pay to make alternate arrangements while the schools are out. I saw one lady quoted in a Chicago paper who said she is not getting paid as long as the strike is going on, because she's had to take off work to stay home with her children.  Is this indicative of  teacher concern for the students?

In discussing this the past several days, friends who are teachers (in both high school and college) have raised some very interesting points in response to my efforts to get a grasp of both sides of this issue:

"Teachers don't choose their students - they are not being evaluated on their performance, just on their students' test-taking ability.  Good students can hit the achievement marks in spite of a weak teacher; some students will NOT hit those marks, even with a good teacher.  There are more variables than just assessment data.  The pressure to teach to the test is creating a mess for those of us in higher ed who inherit students driven to acquire material without a developed capacity for higher-order thinking."

"ALL teachers are underpaid. It would be great if good teachers were rewarded, but those very teachers are the ones who teach for reasons other than financial gain."

"Too much weight is given to multiple choice tests which are not the whole picture by any stretch ... [I]t would be like taking one day of observing your performance and making a bonus decision.  For most professionals, evaluation is based on a year of work."

What are the answers?  How do we evaluate and reward good teachers?  How do we encourage and incentivize (and, in the worst case, let go) of the bad teachers?  How do we raise the performance levels of all of our schools?

I hope the Chicago strike is ended quickly, because it's the kids who are hanging in limbo right now.  Unfortunately, the answers to the largest questions won't be found anytime soon, but the conversations - with friends and teachers, administrators, policymakers, and yes, even the unions - must go on.  In a country that's slipping further and further behind other countries around the world in terms of proficiency in math and science, and with children in many instances not being equipped for life after high school, it's imperative that we work for them - not for ourselves.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Education and Politics in a Head-On Collision

The York, Pennsylvania Suburban School District pushes for a property tax increase of 1.4% to pay for a $3.8 million budget gap. The Clay County, Florida school board proposed raising teacher salaries 1.5% in a time of high unemployment. In both instances, local Tea Party groups said - yelled - "No!"

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting story today on the involvement of national Tea Party groups in the fights against what are perceived to be irrational, unnecessary, and unwarranted spending and tax increases. After the public debacle arising from the governor of Wisconsin's battle with public sector unions, it's interesting to see how the tension between the Tea Party and school boards from around the country is rising as well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Los Angeles Unified School District: A Team of Cowards

When it comes to administrators and cafeteria staff ensuring that our children have the best food available to them at school, what should they have to hide? Well, if you're talking about the Los Angeles Unified School District school board, apparently there is a lot to hide. In fact, they appear to be so apprehensive about the general public knowing what is spooned onto their students' trays each day that they have fought tooth and nail to keep Jamie Oliver and his camera crew out.

Oliver, the Essex, England-born chef who has made it a personal crusade to improve the food provided to boys and girls in school - and, through side projects, to help families make wiser and more healthy dietary choices - is now in season two of a show which I love, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. After a successful first season tackling the cafeterias of Huntington, West Virginia, Oliver has moved on to Los Angeles. Through two weeks, we've seen him blocked at every turn from even stepping foot into a cafeteria to simply look at what's being served, much less into the kitchens to see how it is prepared.

I don't even live in California, but I think that this is utterly disgraceful. The LAUSD's argument is that this "reality show" would cause chaos in the schools were Oliver and his crew to be allowed in. Apparently, the superintendent, Ramon Cortines (and yes, I've linked his name to his email address), has never actually watched a reality show. This isn't "The Apprentice" or "Survivor" or "Amazing Race"; there are no drunk kids wasting their lives as you would see on "Real World", and there is no "Jersey Shore" plot where ... well, drunk kids are wasting their lives.

This is about the lives of the children. I strongly believe that good dietary standards start at the home, and parents bear a lion's share of the responsibility here. However, school is about more than mental education; there is also physical education and good health - areas where the board of LAUSD seems to have fallen down.

No, Jamie Oliver still has not been allowed into a school cafeteria in Los Angeles, but the school did recently announce that they were improving the school menu a bit. They were quick to point out, however, that this is something that was in the works for a while and not something where they felt a responsibility to do so as a result of the pressure brought to bear by Oliver. For that, I'm proud to present them with the Pee Wee Herman Award, the motto of which is, "I meant to do that."

I would encourage everyone to sign Jamie's petition for the Food Revolution; our kids deserve the best. I also encourage you to watch this video, which is Jamie's TED Award speech from 2010. It definitely gives you a lot to think about...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Missing Revenue and Ineligible Students - A Further Tale of D.C. Educational Woe

An investigation by the Washington Examiner has revealed that the Washington, D.C. public school system is owed at least $648,000 in non-resident school fees - and that in just the past three years alone. An investigation by the DCPS Student Residency Office (which, as has been noted, is extremely understaffed), identified 235 non-resident students using fake addresses or addresses belonging to relatives or friends. Some students withdrew, while others were billed their oustanding fees - and they still have not paid.

Uncollected revenue and unavailable slots for Washington students. Things just keep getting better...

Read the entire story here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Washington, D.C. School Voucher Success Story

The debate over use of a voucher program in Washington, D.C. has been long and contentious, and with the signing into law recently of the continuing resolution to fund the federal government for the remainder of this fiscal year, the city's receipt of $300 million to reinstitute that program is sure to draw some fire. Indeed, Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and others are decrying the inclusion of this funding and - in their opinion - stripping away the city's home rule, despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution and the 1973 Home Rule Act dictate that final authority over the administration of the D.C. government, including the budget, remains in the hands of Congress.

In all of this debate, however, the voices who are being drowned out are those of the families who have benefitted from having this program in place. Political posturing aside, aren't the students and their parents or guardians the ones who should have the greatest say in decisions involving their educational opportunities? I was reminded today of a guest piece submitted to the Washington Post on February 5, 2011 by a parent whose child was the beneficiary of the voucher program. As the mother writes,

Jerlisa isn’t the only one who has benefited from this experience. I, too, started to feel more confident. Now I ask about resources and fill out scholarship applications with ease. I found a way to buy new uniforms for my daughter. Instead of washing uniforms every afternoon, I use the time to help my daughter with her homework.

And seeing Jerlisa’s growth over the past six years has inspired me to take some hard steps in my own life. I’m now applying to programs to become a home health-care nurse. Meanwhile, Jerlisa is deciding where to apply for college.

These are things we never dreamed were possible before. I am extremely proud of my daughter, and she is proud of me. Jerlisa’s scholarship has been worth so much more than $7,500.

You can read the entire piece here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Truth About D.C. Public Schools

Here are some frightening statistics about Washington, D.C. public schools - an indication of the work that remains:

1) Over 70,000 students attend D.C. public schools - and 41 percent of them will drop out (2007).

2) 38 percent of all D.C. students attend charter schools.

3) As of 2008, only 14 percent of D.C. eighth graders can read proficiently, and only 18 percent are proficient in math.

4) Despite this, a total of $29,808 is spent per student each year in D.C. public schools, as opposed to $17,525 per student in charter schools.

Scores have begun to climb in the past two years, but more work remains...

Tennessee Considers Ending "Last In, First Out" Policy

An opinion piece in today's Tennesseean, penned by former Senator Bill Frist and former D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, references legislation currently moving the state legislature which would address the "last in / first out" provision of teacher collective bargaining laws. As Frist and Rhee write:

Any change to Tennessee’s collective bargaining laws for teachers must include explicit language removing seniority as the basis for making personnel decisions. Legislation currently moving through the General Assembly and endorsed by Gov. Bill Haslam (HB 130, Amendment 1) contains this important language.

I have read the amendment in question, and in some ways the Frist/Rhee description is a bit misleading. Rather than addressing "last in / first out" in its entirety, Amendment 1 only refers to the removal of teachers subsequent to a strike by the union. Specifically:

When the local education agency has determined which employees engaged in or participated in the strike, those employees may be subject to dismissal or forfeiture of their claim to tenure status, if they presently have attained tenure, and the employees may revert to probationary teacher status for the next three-year period. Any employees who engaged in or participated in the strike but who are not tenured teachers may also be subject to dismissal.

Now similar moves to repeal LIFO provisions are underway in New York and Illinois, among other states, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has also weighed in with his opposition to the current practice. So am I missing something here with regard to Tennessee? Is there a provision of which I - and presumably others - are not aware which would carry forward the post-strike provision into layoffs? If so, shouldn't Frist and Rhee be more clear in that regard?