Category Archives: Teacher Bashing

District Cuts 676 Teachers, Despite 1,500 Teacher Vacancies

by Ray Guzman and Christopher Paslay

According to the Philadelphia School District’s Teacher Vacancy List, the district is seeking 1,540 teachers for the 2013-14 school year. 

The Philadelphia School District, according to its website, has 1,540 teacher vacancies for the 2013-14 school year.  Of the 376 schools that currently need teachers, 47 are high schools (485 vacancies); 6 are alternative schools (28 vacancies); 15 are middle schools (89 vacancies); and 308 are elementary schools (938 vacancies).

The revelation that the School District is seeking over 1,500 teachers for next fall is shocking but nonetheless true, at least according their website.  Benjamin Franklin High School, for example, is seeking no less than 33 teachers for next school year: 6 social studies, 4 English, 4 ESOL, 4 math, 3 biology, 2 chemistry, 2 art, 1 Spanish, 1 music, 1 learning support math, 1 bilingual math, 1 learning support English, 1 life skills support, 1 culinary arts, and 1 business information computer technology.

South Philadelphia High School needs 34 teachers.  Edison High School needs 78.  Strawberry Mansion needs 36.  Northeast and Washington high schools need 22 and 14 teachers, respectively.

And on and on it goes.

Although the School District has not released any official numbers, these vacancies are most likely the result of teachers either retiring or quitting over budget concerns and the bleak outlook for the 2013-14 school year (well done, Boston Consulting Group).  How has the School District responded to what appears to be a massive teacher shortage for the 2013-14 school year?

By laying-off 676 teachers.

It’s true.  Last week, 676 teachers received pinks slips terminating them as employees of the Philadelphia School District as of July 1st.  This means they will no longer receive health insurance and must file for unemployment.

The Philadelphia School District’s plans for the coming school year—from school closings to the recent layoffs of 3,700 staff—are fishy, to say the least.  Much of it fails to pass the smell test.  The savings achieved on the shuttering of 23 schools and the merge or relocation of five others has been hotly debated.  So has the preposterous idea that schools will be able to run without counselors, nurses, vice principals, secretaries, hall monitors, or learning support staff.

It’s become quite clear that the Philadelphia School District and School Reform Commission are posturing—playing “doomsday” games in front of city and state politicians to squeeze more money from taxpayers and most importantly, to box the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers into a corner in an attempt to get over $100 million in labor concessions from them; the School District hopes to manipulate the PFT the way they did SEIU 32BJ Local 1201.

These “doomsday” games are flat out dangerous.  Although the School District does have legitimate financial problems and money is genuinely scarce (due in large part to the fraud, waste, and abuse of the Ackerman administration), the laying off of nearly 20 percent of its staff, especially 676 teachers, may come back to bite them.

It’s apparent by the employment opportunities on their own website that come September 1st, the School District will need to fill 1,500 teacher vacancies simply to make the schools run.  And when you do the math—when you bring back the 676 teachers who were laid off and subtract them from the 1,500 plus teachers needed—this comes to a massive shortage of over 800 teachers.  This, of course, doesn’t factor in the vacancies created by teachers who quit or retire at the end of the summer.

Why did the School District cut 676 teachers to begin with?  Political posturing, as I’ve mentioned above.  The SRC wants to put the squeeze on the PFT, Mayor Nutter, and Governor Corbett.  They are also doing it to save money—two month’s worth of health insurance premiums, to be exact.

Seniority is also an issue.  Creating all these vacancies gives principals more power to hire their own staff.

A closer look at the teacher vacancy list reveals something else: the School District is full of bologna when it claims it will end all of its art and music programs.  If they were truly cutting all art and music (and not just putting on a grand show for all the city and state to see), why in the world would there exist vacancies on the School District website calling for various art and music teachers?

Currently, there are 78 music teacher positions, and over 100 art-related positions, posted on the website.

Come September, after the Philadelphia School District is done trying to consume itself to save a little money, and after they have finished successfully tap-dancing for tens of millions of dollars in cash from city and state legislators (and, surprise, surprise, find extra money in their coffers), much of its programs will be restored; the School District can only violate state laws for so long.

The kicker, of course, will be finding a way to deal with the massive teacher shortage they have created.

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Ending the Myth That Seniority Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and seniority are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report “Teacher Quality Roadmap: Improving Policies and Practices in the School District of Philadelphia” is a case in point.  According to the Inquirer, the report stated:

Tenure and satisfactory evaluations are virtually meaningless for Philadelphia educators, and bad teachers can linger in the public school system too long. . . . Teacher pay ought to be revamped to keep strong performers, and effectiveness, not start date, should guide layoff decisions.

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom?

Hardly.

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true.

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and seniority, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is loaded with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report, in fact, recycles an old argument, one that Michelle Rhee, former Washington public schools chief, has been pushing for some time.  In a November 2011 Inquirer commentary headlined “Experienced teachers aren’t the problem,” I refuted her claim:

Rhee insisted that Last In, First Out laws are getting rid of our best teachers, arguing that layoffs should be based on job performance instead of seniority. . . . The authors [of the study Rhee quotes] do admit, however, that first-year teachers are generally ineffective, and that it takes a teacher an average of five or more years to become skilled. This is not surprising: New teachers tend to struggle with classroom management, they lack experience and objectivity, and they have yet to perfect their instruction methods.

. . . If all the teachers in a particular school are rated effective, what’s to stop a principal from balancing the budget by laying off the highest-paid teachers and keeping the least expensive ones? What would protect experienced teachers from politically motivated reprisals if they encourage their students to think critically about school reform and other public policies? And what will keep the new teachers we’re relying on from constantly leaving the system? In my 15 years with the Philadelphia School District, I’ve watched at least a dozen Teach for America educators leave after fulfilling their two-year contracts, off to use their urban teaching experience as resumé padding.

“Last in, first out” isn’t causing us to lose our best teachers. Far from it. Ending seniority-based layoffs might occasionally save a young talent. But it would also harm teacher morale, leave experienced teachers vulnerable to budget cuts and experimental reforms, and populate our schools with inexperienced teachers who are likely to leave.

Scrapping seniority isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our city’s best educators.

*This blog post is an adaption from a 3/20/12 post titled, “Ending the Myth that Tenure Protects Bad Teachers.”

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California Teachers Union Video Shows Rich Man Urinating on Poor

Photo

by Christopher Paslay

A new video produced by the California Federation of Teachers spreads propaganda and gives unions a bad name.

Every so often I run across a person, usually on philly.com’s comment board, who hates teachers unions with the fire of a thousand suns.  I’m talking about a palpable, venomous hate, as if teachers unions were not a collection of hardworking professionals dedicated to educating America’s youth but a pack of child molesters who hung out with Jerry Sandusky and his crew of pedophiles.

I never understood this level of disgust, and have written tens of thousands of words trying to defend the good name of teachers and our unions in an effort to improve our public image and show the world who we really are.  Recently, however, I ran across a video produced by the California Federation of Teachers that boiled my blood and helped me understand why some folks detest teachers unions with such passion.

Fox News reports:

An animated video produced by a California teachers union uses the crude imagery of a rich man urinating on common folks to decry what narrator Ed Asner claims is rich people’s refusal to pay their share of taxes.

The crude footage is part of a “Tax the rich: An animated fairy tale,” an eight-minute video written and directed by California Federation of Teachers’ communications director Fred Glass. In it, Asner describes a mythical land that seems to represent the U.S. and how it financed its services. He says the rich sought to evade taxes and put their money into “Wall Street” – yet another clue to the real identity of the storybook country. . . .

The word “trickle” is illustrated with the bodily function metaphor, which Kyle Olson, founder of the Michigan-based Education Action Group, said left him disgusted.

“That was the most galling thing about it, the image of the rich guy standing at the top of the scale urinating down on the poor,” Olson said. “It’s nothing more than leftist propaganda.”

On Thursday I wrote an article here on Chalk and Talk about Capitalist Pimps and Marxist Hustlers fighting for their piece of the educational pie which prompted some readers to ask for specific examples of such behavior.  Well, this video by the California teachers union is a glowing illustration of Marxist Hustler nonsense.  I understand the need for political persuasion and spin–even for a touch of propaganda to brainwash the uninformed.  But a rich old white guy pissing on the working class people (specifically, right on a black woman’s head) is over the top.

A number of my fellow teachers claim class warfare is a tactic used only by the right, such as Mitt Romney’s now infamous “47 percent” comment.  Compassionate folks on the left, they argue, are above this kind of divisive behavior.  Not true.  The california teachers union video is not only class warfare at its mud-slinging worst, but it’s also race and gender baiting as well.  The CFT disagrees:

Union spokesman Stephen Hopcraft said the complaints about the image amounted to “mock outrage,” but said it may be edited out to prevent it from overwhelming the underlying message of the video.

“We’re very proud of the video,” Hopcraft said. “But maybe we’ll adjust that frame so it doesn’t take over the video. We don’t want any distractions about the message, and we don’t want any debate about a particular frame to drown out the real issue.”

Proud of the video?  Amazing.  This makes me ashamed to be in a teachers union.  I understand full well that as a union member I’m not supposed to say such a thing for purposes of solidarity–our power is in our numbers; both the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the California Federation of Teachers are members of the American Federation of Teachers.  Good little union members are supposed to swallow this garbage whole for the sake of the big picture.  But I can’t.    I can’t stomach that whole leftist blind allegiance group-think mentality.

Besides the tasteless crudity of the video, the facts aren’t even accurate; the top 10 percent of America’s earners pay 70 percent of federal income tax, and the top 1 percent pay nearly 40 percent of income tax (and the bottom 50 percent pays a measly 2 percent).  According to Education Action Group News:

The video also claims that when the housing market crashed, the government printed money for “rich people” but they didn’t give any to “ordinary people whose houses and jobs were broken by the crash.”

That’s a patently false statement, as evidenced by a handy-dandy chart courtesy of the New York Times. Here’s a sampling of what was contained in President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package:

  • Help states prevent cuts to essential services like education – $53.6 billion
  • Extend and increase unemployment compensation – $35.8 billion
  • Health coverage under Cobra – $25.1 billion
  • Increase food assistance – $20.9 billion
  • Increase the maximum Pell Grant by $500 – $15.6 billion
  • Provide cash payment to seniors, disabled veterans and other needy individuals – $14.4 billion
  • Provide additional money to schools serving low-income children – $13 billion
  • Provide additional money for special education – $12.2 billion
  • Create new bonds for improvements in public education – $10.9 billion

And the list goes on and on.

The California Federation of Teachers’ video is little more than unsurprising leftist propaganda, aimed to indoctrinate children with no basis in fact.

Video creator Fred Glass at least got the pissing part right–the golden showers part.

Speaking of golden showers, why stop there?  If you’re reading this, Mr. Fred Glass, why not let the CFT get real raunchy and incorporate some brown showers or a little scat play?  You could edit in some rich old white curmudgeon squatting and taking a dump right on a black woman’s head.  Maybe some feces fingerpainting?  Perhaps the CFT could ask Ed Asner, the video’s narrator, to do the dirty work.  He’s a white old rich Marxist fart (I’m sure Ed would go for it being that he also supports convicted Philadelphia cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal).  We could have old Lou Grant himself fingerpaint a KKK on the woman’s back and incorporate some “coded racism.”

Bravo, Mr. Glass, you goofball.  Way to sweeten the image of all us hardworking school teachers.

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The Emotional Appeal for Blaming the Teachers

Despite challenges facing public education today, teachers are not solely to blame.

From the Daily Kos:

 I was disheartened to hear Chris Hayes on C-SPAN say that the educational “reform” movement is “winning the argument.” That’s not to say they’re winning on any factual level, Hayes meant that in terms of public debate, anything short of blaming the teachers means supporting the status quo.

It’s worth noting that this scapegoat has resonance for a reason, there’s an emotional appeal for blaming the teachers.

The Poverty Problem

The US education system isn’t broken, it’s being disrupted by poverty. As the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test shows the United States ranked in the low 20s but at the same time it has some of the highest child poverty in the industrialized world.

When the effects of child poverty are factored in, the US actually outperforms every other country in the world. That is, all things being equal, we still have the best education in the world: an area with 10% child poverty in the US will, on average, do better than an area with 10% child poverty in Finland.

While the struggle with being poor has an obvious effect on learning, it also has effects for funding. Schools that have a higher poverty rate will have lower funding for the schools because of a lower tax base.

Indeed, these problems have been expanded by education policy and increases in poverty following the recession.

Bad Teachers

This leaves a problem, if it’s objectively shown to be poverty then why is there an effort at demonizing teachers, or rather, why assume people would believe its the teachers that are the problem? It’s the dominant position, everyone from Fox News to Jonathan Alter thinks its the teachers fault. So, agendas aside, why even push the story?

The answer lies in the anecdotal and emotional experience of people. Lets face it, you’ve had a bad teacher in your life. The problem is that one bad teacher is out of dozens of good (or at least adequate) teachers. Thus it’s wrong to assume that someones personal experience accounts for a national epidemic.

Unfortunate the media does just that, it takes a personal experiences and turns it into a national problem. . . .

This is an excerpt from an article published Sunday on the Daily Kos headlined, “The Emotional Appeal for Blaming the Teachers.”  Click here to read the entire article.

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If Police and Firefighters were Treated Like Teachers

by Christopher Paslay  

While politicians view police and firefighters as heroes, they tend to see schoolteachers as Ichabod Crane.     

In 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law, George W. Bush boasted that it would transform education in America.  By 2014, he insisted, 100 percent of our nation’s children would score at least “proficient” on state exams in reading and math.  Despite learning disabilities, poverty, single parent families, an increase in autism, institutional racism, poor nutrition, the drug culture, and dozens of other biological, psychological and societal ills, every single kid in the U.S. would be able to read and perform math at the highest levels in history.  Those schools not achieving this lofty goal would be shut down or overhauled, and their teachers and principals fired or reassigned.   

From NCLB’s onset, real life teachers in the real life trenches of America’s public school classrooms knew the law was misguided, oversimplified, and pie-in-the-sky.  At its heart it was about control—a politician’s battle for the billions of dollars in raw materials that go along with the institution known as American Public Education. 

To highlight the absurdity of NCLB, imagine this law being applied to police and firefighters, both of which, like teachers, are public servants. 

Let’s start with police.  Imagine a law that required all crime in the United States to be abolished by a given year, say, 2018.  Murder, rape, burglary, assault, etc. would be measured in every precinct in every city in the United States, and the results would be assessed by race and socioeconomic status.  Any precinct not reducing crime levels across all predetermined racial and economic subgroups and meeting “adequate yearly progress” would be eligible to be reconstituted and overhauled.  Officers in neighborhoods with the highest crime would be fired, their captains replaced, and their resources and budgets cut.  Policies on policing would also be rewritten.  The replacements, as well as the new policies, would be filled and enacted by non-police officers with zero law enforcement experience. 

How about firefighters?  Imagine a law that required every building and home in the United States to be up to fire code by 2018.  Any ladder company that didn’t wipe out death by fire and smoke inhalation in their neighborhoods would be up for overhaul.  Money and resources would be cut, their personnel fired and reassigned.  New expert “firefighters,” who were career politicians with no fire-rescue experience, would now run the show. 

People like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, of course, say you can’t compare teachers with police and firefighters.  Bloomberg has said, according to a story in Capital New York, that police and firefighters are interchangeable widgets, and that teachers aren’t.  Which is why teachers can be evaluated and publically scrutinized, and police and firefighters can’t:

This is not like police and fire.  You think about it. Police and fire, we assign a cop or a firefighter to a station, to a post, to a firehouse, to a piece of equipment. And all of the firefighters and all of the cops are changed. Not only are they interchangeable, we deliberately move them around, because that helps their careers and they learn more things and they’re better able to perform their jobs. . . .

Bloomberg went on to say that education was different.

But is it really?  Under No Child Left Behind, the very reform that was enacted to increase teacher effectiveness, teachers are treated like widgets, too.  “Failing” teachers at “failing” schools are recycled and re-circulated, much like the changing of police and firefighters. 

Recently in Detroit public schools, pink slips were sent to over 4,000 teachers.  The teachers who want their jobs back must reapply for their position.  If they aren’t hired back at their current school, they will be eligible to apply to teach in another school in the district; a similar mass layoff took place in Detroit last year.   

Still, politicians will never hold teachers in the same regard as police and firefighters.  Police and firefighters—especially firefighters—are viewed as heroes.  Schoolteachers, on the other hand, are commonly seen as Ichabod Crane: gangly and self-serving.

Until true educational experts are at the helm of school reform, public schools and their teachers will continue to be at the bottom of the political pecking order.

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Despite ‘Putting Students First,’ Michelle Rhee Has Some Very Adult Agendas

by Christopher Paslay

The former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools launches statewide political lobby group in New York.     

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools who was forced to resign because of her draconian style of management, is back and ready to settle old scores.  Last year she launched studentsfirst.org, a so-called “movement to transform public education.” 

According to its neatly packaged website, its goal is to cut through politics and adult agendas in order to give America’s children a first-rate education.  Ironically, its policies are driven by politics (privatizing public education to put public tax dollars in the pockets of charter operators), adult agendas (union busting to get back at those who had Rhee fired in D.C.), and Rhee’s own misguided and elitist reform ideas (discounting teaching experience in favor of keeping on novice teachers, which Rhee claims are the nation’s “best”).

But now it appears as if Rhee is no longer trying to hide behind the “interest of students”.  She’s just recently launched a statewide political group in New York called StudentsFirstNY.  Anna M. Phillips wrote about the group in a recent New York Times article

. . . On the board are some of the most well-known and polarizing figures in public education, including Ms. Rhee; [Joel] Klein, now a News Corporation executive; and Eva S. Moskowitz, the former councilwoman who now runs a chain of charter schools. Also on the board are former Mayor Edward I. Koch; Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone organization, a network of charter schools; and a number of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, who have served as the movement’s financial backers.

Aside from promoting changes throughout the state, members of the group hope to neutralize the might of the teachers’ unions, whose money, endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts have swung many close elections. . . .

Those paying close attention to Rhee’s agenda, however, understand that her lobbying is nothing new.  Last November, in a Huffington Post article, Joy Resmovits wrote about another politically motivated arm of Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization:

. . . In New Jersey, StudentsFirst, a new reform group founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, spent $400,000 on two successful Democratic legislature candidates through its local arm Better Education 4 Kids New Jersey, a group recently founded by hedge fund managers that backs Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda. . . .

According to the policy agenda on Rhee’s StudentsFirst website, “In too many American schools, current laws, policies, and practices put adult interests ahead of students.”

It appears Rhee and her group’s political backers clearly have a few “adult interests” of their own.

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The Romney Education Plan: ‘Get the teacher unions out’

by Christopher Paslay

Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.    

Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first!  “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday.  “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.” 

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman.  His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools. 

Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?

Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.               

As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less.  Where is the “lifetime appointment”?      

Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700.  As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension).  This can hardly be considered “cushy”.               

As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized.  NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.

Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students.  Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.

Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?   

 Teacher Pay: Old vs. New

Romney wants to pay new teachers more.  “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”

By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience?  The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources?  The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth?  Those “older teachers”?             

By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience?  The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management?  By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years?  Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?    

 Class Size

Romney doesn’t think class size matters.  In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending.  “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois.  “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.” 

Really?  So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23?  No difference in classroom management?  No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction?  No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents?  Or the money needed for resources and supplies?  Money for paper?  Books?  Laptops?  Field trips?  No difference between 23 and 33, huh?             

There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program.  And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.    

From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base.  Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.

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Secretary Duncan Changes His Stance on ‘Shaming’ Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

After backlash from the education community, Arne Duncan rethinks his position on making teacher evaluations public.      

In August 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, an editor of the New York Tribune, stating, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” 

Although I can’t read the mind of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and find out how he truly feels about publishing the evaluations of public school teachers in newspapers, I’d be willing to bet his thinking is similar to Lincoln’s: If he could save his credibility without shaming any teachers, he would do it; and if he could save it by shaming all the teachers, he would do it; and if he could do it by shaming some and leaving others alone, he would also do that.     

At least that’s how it appears.  In August of 2010, when the Los Angeles Times made public the ratings of all of the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Secretary Duncan supported the idea.  The Los Angeles Times covered the story:      

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that parents have a right to know if their children’s teachers are effective, endorsing the public release of information about how well individual teachers fare at raising their students’ test scores.

“What’s there to hide?” Duncan said in an interview one day after The Times published an analysis of teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system. “In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.”

Duncan’s comments mark the first time the Obama administration has expressed support for a public airing of information about teacher performance—a move that is sure to fan the already fierce debate over how to better evaluate teachers.

Last week, in an interview with Education Week writer Stephen Sawchuk, Secretary Duncan did a complete about-face and said newspapers shouldn’t publish teacher ratings.  Sawchuk wrote about his interview with Duncan on his blog:

Publishing teachers’ ratings in the newspaper in the way The New York Times and other outlets have done recently is not a good use of performance data, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview yesterday.

“Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do,” he said. “There’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers. We’re at a time where morale is at a record low. … We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them.”

Why the sudden change of heart?  Perhaps Duncan is just now realizing how pointless it is to make teacher ratings public.  Other than exploiting the public’s urge to see teachers pilloried, what good can it do; it’s counterproductive to think you can humiliate educators into becoming better instructors.  Plus, the “value-added” ratings are flawed and based too heavily on standardized test scores, which policy experts argue is harming education by narrowing curriculum and overlooking the intangible benefits of good teaching.     

Of course, Duncan could be changing his tune for political purposes, because he’s suddenly realized shaming teachers isn’t going to score the kind of points he thought it once would.  Surprisingly, his attempt to fan the flames of the public’s anti-teacher mentality has backfired.  When powerful education philanthropists such as Bill Gates write opinion pieces in the New York Times titled “Shame is not the solution,” explaining that embarrassing teachers “doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback,” and that such methods are a “cheap” way to fix real problems, people like Duncan start to listen. 

Duncan did attempt to address the reason for his sudden flip-flop in the Sawchuk interview, however.  Basically, he suggested that the whole debacle was the fault of the Los Angeles public schools.       

“What I was reacting to in L.A. was this mind-boggling situation where teachers were denied access to this data. The only way they could get it was through the newspaper,” he said. “There was clearly some level of dysfunction [in the district], that this was the only way they could get it.”

The only way teachers could get their own personal evaluation data was through the newspaper?  Did I hear this correctly?    

It’s clear there’s some egg on the Secretary’s face, and on President Obama’s by association.  But only time will tell if Duncan’s attempt to save his credibility will be as successful as Honest Abe’s strategy was to save the Union from succession.

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Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and collective bargaining are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial “Firing bad teachers” is a case in point:

“One way to improve public education is to speed up the process to remove bad teachers from the classroom.

Unfortunately, getting rid of bad apples has become nearly impossible under union tenure rules that were crafted to protect teachers’ rights but too often deny children a decent education.

The antiquated system fails to hold teachers with a bad performance record accountable. They should not be allowed to wear tenure like a badge of honor that entitles them to a lifetime appointment in the classroom.”

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom? 

Hardly. 

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true. 

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less 
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.      

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and collective bargaining by unions, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.            

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.     

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is rife with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?   

Interestingly, school teachers and their unions remain society’s whipping boy.  Dom Giordano’s recent commentary, “To help Philadelphia students learn better, let’s start grading teachers,” is a prime example:     

“Unfortunately, that is why you have schools in which an all-star teacher is helping children learn and excel; next door, an incompetent teacher is protected by collective bargaining and is allowed to give kids an inferior education. We are told by their union that no difference exists. Tell that to the parents of kids stuck with the inferior teachers.”

Incompetent teacher right next door, protected by union tenure?  Sounds like someone needs to call the cliché police on Mr. Giordano, and quick.  The chances are the teacher in Giordano’s example doesn’t even exist, and if he does, the odds are that he’ll eventually be run out of his classroom by displeased parents, an angry principal, or the draining effects of disruptive students.    

Scrapping tenure isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our nation’s best educators.  Collective bargaining is simply no match for the Darwinian principle of Natural Selection.

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Former Teach For America Recruiter Tells College Grads to ‘Teach for Someone Else’

by Christopher Paslay   

Gary Rubinstein, a TFA corps member and former recruiter, explains how TFA spawned leaders are ‘destructive’ to public education, and how current TFA teachers are ‘mostly harmful’ to students. 

Michelle Rhee, former D.C. schools chancellor who is on a political crusade to save America’s “best teachers” by ending seniority and “last in, first out” laws, needs to have talk with Gary Rubinstein, a Teach for America corps member and former recruiter.  Rubinstein, like Rhee, was part of TFA in the early 1990s when the organization was still in its beginning stages.  But unlike Rhee, Rubinstein has come to terms with the fact that TFA has become a public relations machine responsible for spawning a number of destructive leaders, and acknowledges the fact that the majority of TFA teachers are a far cry from America’s “best”. 

Here are some highlights from Rubinstein’s powerful blog post titled “Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t.”  (Click here to read it in its entirety.)          

. . . When I joined TFA twenty years ago, I did it because I believed that poor kids deserved to have someone like me helping battle education inequity in this country. At the time, there were massive teacher shortages in high need areas. . . . If not for us, our students, most likely, would be taught by a different substitute each day. Even if we were bad permanent teachers, we WERE permanent teachers and for kids who had little in life they can call permanent, it was something. The motto for TFA back then could have been ‘Hey, we’re better than nothing.’

. . . Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people. In situations like this, it is hard to say with confidence that these under trained new teachers are really doing less harm than good.

As TFA tried to grow and gain private and federal money, they had to develop a public relations machine. . . . TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.

Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. . . . TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

. . . And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in its infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.

So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.

So if you’re about to graduate college and you want to ‘make a positive difference’ the way I wanted to twenty years ago, you should not do what I did and join TFA. . . . I know that this was not the idea of TFA, but I do think that when people teach for two years and then leave, it contributes to the instability of the schools that need the most stability.

. . . But if you truly feel that TFA is really the ONLY way that you have a chance to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided you such opportunities, I suppose that you can apply, but there are some things you should demand before accepting their offer.

First, you should refuse to be placed in a region that is currently suffering teacher layoffs. In those places, you will be replacing someone who, most likely, would have done a better job than you. Why would you want to live with that guilt?  I was horrible my first year, but I was better than the rotating group of subs I replaced.

Second, you should refuse to go to a charter school. Though there are some charter schools that are not corrupt, I believe that most are. They NEED those test scores and they do anything they can to get them. This often means ‘counseling out’ the kids that TFA was created to serve.

Third, you need to demand that you get an authentic training experience. TFA signs contracts with districts where they promise to train you properly. But team teaching with three other teachers for twelve days with classes with as few as 4 kids is not fair to you and it is really not fair to the kids that you will teach. They deserve someone who is trained properly. 

Fourth, you should commit to teaching for four years instead of two.  America let you practice on their kids for your first year — you’ve got to give back three good years to make up it.

. . . . I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able, again, to sing the praises of TFA and advise people who want to make a positive difference for kids to become a member.  For this to happen, though, TFA will have to make some changes.  Primarily, they will have to break the alliance they currently have with the so-called reform movement.  It’s not working and it never will work.  Pretending it is, like pretending that all the first year corps members are succeeding because a few outliers are, or that all alumni run charter schools are succeeding because a few outliers are.  All this proves is that in a large enough data set there will, inevitably,  be outliers.

If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA:  While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids.  And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too.  I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings.  These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them.  These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success.  We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us.  If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.

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