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Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome to The Real World

I had a colleague ask me what she should say to family members who reply with “welcome to the real world” in answer to her concerns over this budget bill and the drastic decrease to school funding coming in the 2012-2013 budget. I feel sad that these people have had to accept work conditions that make them resent someone who has only slightly better working conditions.

First of all, she could encourage them to explore the history of unions. Labor battles were violent and bloody in the early days of the union movement. Both employers and unionists were responsible for this violence. The workers, however, were responding to generations of mistreatment, working conditions that threatened lives, and pay that kept them in poverty.
Unions help set the standards for all jobs; the 40 hour work week, weekends, and employer benefit programs are just some of the benefits everyone gains from the labor movement. So, anyone who is in a work environment that makes them feel envious should look into forming a union in their own work place. Start by contacting the National Labor Relations Board (nlrb.gov) or the national union organization appropriate to the specific trade. They should do so while private sector unions are still allowed.

In a world where the state dictates working conditions in “civil servant” rules (yet unwritten by the way) the ability of local governments (city boards and school district boards) to establish a work environment suitable for their individual needs will be limited.

For example, this will limit the ability of a school board to control class sizes. Since state funding (which is being cut as well) will be tied to limits on taxes, the ability to hire adequate teaching staff will be gone. Think you child is getting an okay education now? How good of an education will it be when the class sizes are doubled or tripled? I shudder to think what the consequences will be if the rumor is true that Walker is also looking to reject SAGE and Title I funding.

Our school district's board met on Wednseday, February 23 to give preliminary lay off notices. These layoffs were rushed and had to be made with little consideration of how they would impact student learning. We all know that education really isn't free; taxes are collected from various sources and used to pay for the teachers, buildings, and resources needed to provide this education. It is only “free” in that we don't collect admission at the door.

And that will likely be changing too. One of the ideas being considered to make our school's budget balance is to start charging fees for more classes.

These same reductions will likely happen in all areas. What happens when we hire fewer snow plow drivers? What happens when those who help people in need are cut?

One answer is that we will hire private contractors to do the work. This is ridiculous because we are still paying them money. When we had a snow plow driver who lived in this town and was paid by the town to do the work, his money went right back into the local economy. Okay, we might be able to pay a contractor a percentage less, but they are in turn hiring people at reduced wages. The only people who benefit from privatization are the ones who run the companies providing the service, and they will likely take that money out of the local economy.

Paying people you know a good wage to do a job they are good at shouldn't be seen as some sort of commie/socialist evil. This is the way the world should work.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Moving Forward In Spite Of The Anti-Union Bill

Some teachers chose to go and protest. Others chose not to protest. There were those who chose to call in “sick” to go and protest; some chose to call in “sick” as a protest. Many chose to stay and teach. All of these voices have been “heard” in some way. Any one of these choices cannot be used as a ruler to measure an individual teacher's dedication to the profession or their commitment to the classroom.
Choosing to sacrifice a few days of school now is seen by many as insignificant when compared to the long term impact of this legislation. That is just as easy to understand as the counter argument that the inconveniences caused to parents is counter productive to our cause. I believe that we can agree there is valid reasoning on all sides.

Yet I'm also certain that there are teachers amongst us who support Governor Walker and this bill; these are the people who probably feel most alone right now. This controversy has brought the rest of us together to a degree that I've never seen before, while this group is excluded.

While I cannot agree with this last group on their politics, I also cannot agree that they are less worthy of respect or of having their voice heard. We cannot let this issue be yet another wedge to divide us. Instead we have to support each other as much as possible. We have to try to understand our colleagues whatever their position. We still have to work together, we all still (for now) have a job to do, and we do that job more effectively when we work together.

As a personal example of this, I had to resist greatly the urge to remove contacts from Facebook who expressed an opinion counter to mine on this issue. It is unhealthy to shut out anyone who disagrees with you. As long as it is done in a respectful way, it is good to have people willing to call you on you opinions and make you back them up.

Many of these same issues come up in connection with the students we work with. Some support the effort to stop the bill while others support Governor Walker. There have even been groups of students who have walked out in protest over this bill. While I am personally very grateful to these students, I cannot allow a political issue to influence the quality of education I give to individual students.

In fact, this very issue provides a great teachable moment. I have talked with many colleagues who are finding ways to deal with their personal political stance while still instructing students about the political mechanisms at work. I am very proud to work with so many people who care so much about the students they work with and endeavor to respect all of them.

I first want to make my students understand the importance of the democratic process; elections have consequences so it is incredibly important to get to know the candidates. More importantly, I want to emphasize to my students that life is complex, not simple.

This is not an issue of blue versus red or Democrat against Republican or liberal and conservative. The reasons Governor Walker proposed this bill are complex and the reasons it is being opposed so historically are equally complex. Since my discipline is English, I don't really have the chance to work through these complex issues with students in my curriculum. I can, however, encourage my students to reject any overly simplistic explanation as they try to understand the complexity of what is happening.

I can also model an acceptance of and attempt to understand differing opinions that they will all need (for this issue and for many to come the remainder of their lives); we need a generation that can rise above petty squabbles and make real progress. I can show them that a hardship (as the passage of this bill will be) should not interfere with obligations. I will show them what it means to do a job you are proud of even when that job is in jeopardy.

Trying to Accept That This Bill Shall Pass Too

I have had more opportunities to learn about the difficulty of moving on this past year than I had ever expected. The death of my wife, the death of my father, and now the attempted assassination of my profession individually have caused a crushing grief; all together, they make life very grim. Whether this bill passes or not, education in Wisconsin has changed forever; my life, and the lives of many people I know, will have also changed forever.

To be completely clear, I think that this bill should not be passed. However, I am realistic enough and have a great enough respect for the legislative process to recognize that this bill will likely pass without many changes to it. So, I have to start trying to understand how this will change my life.
The first thing to cope with is the unknown. We are all left with questions about work environment, income, and job security. I have heard rumors that Governor Walker's budget proposal for the next two years will contain even more drastic cuts in funding to education. We will have even more layoffs and even less income. I have found myself wondering: “How will I survive?”

So, while the protests are really about the bigger issue of workers' rights, all teachers in the state will have significantly less income in the very near future. I will share how this will affect me personally. My total salary package is $50,320.08. My gross income is $32,495.04. My take home pay is $24,465.36. With a 10% loss that take home pay becomes $21,215.86. That $3,000 loss will cause gigantic changes to my life. I also know that other teachers (and other public workers) will be hit even harder. People have made long term plans based on their salary. When they are no longer receiving that salary, they will lose homes, cars, and any sense of financial security.

The decision to become a teacher is complex and rarely made because of the salary. On the other hand, people definitely factor into that decision a desire to work in a professional environment that provides benefits and retirement that guarantee their families will be taken care of. Being a teacher also involves having input into the best way to achieve the goals of education. A lose of this professional voice is likely if this bill passes. The job of teaching becomes much more political and complicated. All that once provided security has now come into question.

I wish I had some great answer to all of this uncertainty. All I have to offer right now is something my brother-in-law said: “Anyone good at their job will always find work.” This is probably true. But even the potential changes suggested by this bit of encouragement are intimidating. Perhaps the only bit of wisdom I have to hold onto is: “This too shall pass.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Deep Desire to Be Reviled is Not Why I Chose to Become a Teacher

I started writing this article under the title of “WEAC Has Let Me Down (and Why You Should Feel the Same)” after the announcement of the “'Moving Education Forward: Bold Reforms' Platform” by WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) president, Mary Bell on Tuesday, February 8. You can find information about this proposal from this link:  http://www.weac.org/Libraries/PDF/WEAC_UNVEILS_MOVING_EDUCATION_FORWARD_-_BOLD_REFORMS_PLATFORM.sflb.ashx

The proposal by Bell was almost completely eclipsed by Governor Scott Walker's announcement on Friday, February 11 that he wants to make severe changes to the relationship between all unionized public employees and their employers. It is still important to take a look back at Bell's proposal as it emphasizes the sweeping significance of what Walker is proposing.

“Moving Education Forward: Bold Reforms” dealt with two of the most popular political topics in education: teacher evaluation and performance pay. It also included a plan to divide the Milwaukee Public Schools into several smaller sections; while this third component raises concerns as well, I want to focus on the first two reforms proposed.

In the press release linked above, Bell is quoted as saying, "The union is accepting our responsibility for improving the quality of the profession, not just for protecting the due process rights of our members. Our goal is to have the highest-quality teachers at the front of every classroom across the state.”

I disagree on a fundamental level; the only purpose of a union is to protect the rights of and secure benefits for its members. I understand the argument that the union can and maybe even should be involved in discussions about teacher quality as it might relate to helping preserve jobs. This proposal was, however, a very unsuccessful and near sighted attempt to insinuate the union into this process.

The proposal laid out by WEAC for teacher evaluation includes a component of teachers evaluating other teachers. Once you are passing judgment on a colleague you are no longer a colleague. While I understand the logic of having someone who is a classroom teacher be part of the evaluation process, I am all too familiar with the realities of human nature that will cause this program (if it is adopted) to allow teachers to be targeted unfairly for termination.

More over, this proposal might cause people to avoid actual constructive collaboration. I seek out the advice of colleagues all the time on classroom management issues, curriculum development, and specific teaching activities. In a future where my colleagues are in a position to judge the quality of my work, seeking such advice might give them reason to consider me a flawed teacher. Or if they have a personality conflict with me, they could use my genuine desire to improve my teaching as false evidence of my inability to do the job.

Such a radical change in position should have been put to a vote of the members. These proposals add considerably to the role of the union and alter the relationships between locals and school districts.

In the press release Bell goes on to say, “This is a pivotal time in public education and we’re in an era of tight resources. We must have systems in place to ensure high standards for accountability – that means those working in the system must be held accountable to high standards of excellence.”

I will interpret this quote sentence by sentence: The state legislature has made it clear they are not going to live up to their obligation to fund education. So, we have to figure out how to make all of these changes they want on the limited budgets we have - that means we are going to focus on the only thing the politicians care about, test scores.

All of these evaluations (test scores, evaluations, etc.) would be part of a pay for performance plan. These plans simply make no sense. It has been proven many times over the last 50 years that trying to pay someone for creative and/or cognitively challenging tasks is counter productive. On the other hand, pay for repetitive, manual tasks can encourage a slight improvement in output. So, are we believing the lie that we can pay for performance or are we saying that it is okay to dumb down the profession of teaching to the point where little cognitive effort is required?

Dan Pink explains the findings that prove the disincentive that pay for performance represents in this video from the TED Talks: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html.

When you ask people to do the unlikely sometimes they are able to succeed; however, when you demand people do the impossible they will either cheat or resign themselves to defeat. We have already seen ample evidence of teachers and administrators altering test, removing failing students from rolls, and coaching students on test answers in order to meet the impossible to reach goals of No Child Left Behind.

Governor Walker's proposal adds just one more layer of difficulty to an already difficult job. No one does their best work when they feel they are under constant threat.

Mary Bell seems sincerely distraught in her response to Governor Walker's proposal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTfy8ZTEjzQ. I believe her when she talks about the reasons she got into teaching and became involved with the union. I also suspect that she is upset because her big political gambit failed and the impact of that failure is settling in.

I believe that Bell got into education for much of the same reasons I did. Becoming a teacher provided (what I used to believe was) a stable job in a community where I could build a life. It doesn't provide pay that will make me rich, but it pays the bills. Teaching allows me to be involved in a field I am passionate about while also working with young people. I have come to greatly appreciate the chance to see adolescents mature into young men and women.

In his own biography, Walker boasts about the small town values that he learned going through “lean times” in Delavan, WI. He seems to only remember the values of balanced budgets and “small government.” I suspect he must have learned a lot more than that.

Though times were tough Walker still got a good enough education to be selected for Badger Boys Nation, attend Marquette University (though he didn't graduate), and work for IBM. The proposal he has made will guarantee every student in this state receives a lower quality education than they should. As a teacher in another small town in Wisconsin, I wonder how Walker has forgotten other small town values such as the importance of an education that allowed him to “escape” that small town. I can't imagine what his former teachers at Delavan-Darien High School are thinking today.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Problems With Public School Choice

One of the many transformations happening in public education today (brought about by a corporate approach to running schools) is the increased "necessity" of marketing public schools. While also disturbing, I'm not talking about the use of public schools as places to market to children; I am referring to the practice of using public relations tactics and advertising campaigns to encourage students to attend a school/district other than their "home" school/district.
Most states now have some version of public school choice or "open enrollment." While this program existed before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the language around it was very similar to ideas later reflected in NCLB. "Why should a student have to stay with a failing school?" "If a private school can provide a better education, why shouldn't it be an option?" NCLB made it a requirement that public schools notify parents of public school choice as part of the consequences for not meeting growth requirements for two years in a row. Most of the choice programs states have adopted make “open enrollment” possible even when a school hasn't demonstrated a history of “poor performance.”

From the point of view of citizens, choice programs have taken on several different roles over recent history. While voucher and choice programs might have initially been about allowing parents to choose a school that is the best fit for their child's abilities or that is more in line with their religious beliefs, NCLB made choice programs punishment for “failing” schools. Now, the near universal adoption of choice programs have made public schools develop bumper sticker slogans and take part in advertising competitions. Look at almost any Wisconsin school district website in the months of January and February and you will find open enrollment pitches prominently displayed. It is unfortunate but easy to understand why.
According to the frequently asked questions about open enrollment listed at the Wisconsin DPI website (http://dpi.state.wi.us/sms/psctoc.html) the following is what a student was/is worth to a school for a given school year:

1998-99 $4,543
1999-00 $4,703
2000-01 $4,828
2001-02 $5,059
2002-03 $5,241
2003-04 $5,446
2004-05 $5,496
2005-06 $5,682
2006-07 $5,845
2007-08 $6,007
2008-09 $6,225
2009-10 $6,498
2010-11 $6,796 (estimate)

In times like these, when local school budgets are so constrained, that “income” per student is undeniably attractive to administrators trying to make ends meet. At $6,796 per student, approximately every seven students who enter a district will pay for a teacher (approximately 22 students will pay for a district administrator and about 13 will pay for a building level administrator). While open enrollment (and districts' focus on it) might be argued to be a good thing, the negative consequences of this program need to be considered.

There are bad teachers. There are even bad schools. Open enrollment, however, encourages people to look for these two situations in too many places where it doesn't exist. Running away becomes an option when confronting the actual problems would be much more beneficial to the student. Not only is the grass rarely greener on the other side of the fence, sometimes your grass looks worse because you are neglecting it. Growing up is difficult and filled with hardships; learning from those hardships comes by confronting them not by running away.

Yes, maybe you have a terrible teacher. How can you learn from them anyway? Yes, maybe your school is struggling. How can you make sure that you learn from it anyway? Can you maybe even be part of making it better? Are there other people dealing with the same issues? Maybe you can work together to bring about changes. This might sound idealistic; it is, however, much more realistic than thinking a system that puts a price on each student's head will fix the problem.

Another problem with this system is the time it takes away from the true goal of public education. Administrators taking time to develop advertising campaigns and carry out public relations work lose time to lead curriculum development, maintain school environment, encourage professional skills in teachers, and maintain relationships with parents and community. Securing funding should not be the primary concern of people in these positions. With educational leadership receiving lower priority, teachers and students cannot be as successful as they should be.

If you look at the problem of school funding from a distance greater than the local school's balance sheet, you can observe the greatest insanity of the system. School funding is a zero sum game; there is a limited number of students to go around. More importantly there is a limited amount of money provisioned for funding education. The problem is not how many students attend your school; the problem is how much money the district is given for each resident student You can get a series of reports that show how the dollars and cents of open enrollment works in the state of Wisconsin from the DPI website (http://dpi.state.wi.us/sms/oedatrpt.html). This kind of spread sheet number crunching is great in the corporate world and it appeals to some school administrators as well. There are clear winners and losers. The problem with this approach is that we are not talking about producing widgets. What is a well educated person worth? How much should a K-12 education cost?

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Parents need to stop pulling their children out of a school unless there is an extreme circumstance. Schools need to stop chasing after the carrots that the politicians are dangling in front of them. The teachers' unions need to move beyond holding hands with the politicians and start having the difficult conversations with them about the consequences of what they are doing. Politicians need to find a new way to fund education that allows for local control and adequate funding while taking away the purse-strings control the federal government has over education. Okay, maybe these solutions aren't that simple; maybe they just makes sense.