Politicians vs teachers, childrens future at stake

From Education Week

By Sean Cavanagh

State-level battles over changes in education policy have shifted in many places from legislative chambers to courthouses, as unions and other critics of new laws challenge them on the grounds that they violate state constitutions and worker contracts.

Republican governors and lawmakers—their ranks bolstered by the 2010 elections—won passage this year of ambitious measures in many states that often drew strong opposition from teachers’ unions. Points of dispute include changes in how teachers are evaluated and compensated and expansions of private school vouchers.

The strategy of challenging such laws in court, while not new, comes as GOP elected officials pursue agendas loaded with policies reviled by many unions.

“We’ve seen an uptick in [legal] activity because more programs are being passed all of a sudden,” said Dick Komer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a law firm in Arlington, Va., that has defended voucher programs. “We’ve had a small explosion of school choice programs,” he said, including those in “states that haven’t had much action in the past.”

Sweeping changes to school policy have been adopted in several states this year, and now new laws and policies are being challenged in court, in some cases by teachers’ unions.

An INDIANA teachers’ union is supporting a legal action to stop a law that provides private school vouchers to not only low-income, but also some middle-income families.

A pair of OKLAHOMA school districts are challenging a 2010 law, amended this year, that provides public funds to cover private school costs to students with disabilities, claiming it violates the state’s constitution.

In FLORIDA, the state’s largest teachers’ union is opposing a measure, approved by the Republican-controlled legislature this year, to change the language in the state’s constitution in a way that some say could lead to an expansion of school vouchers.

In COLORADO, a judge has blocked the Douglas County school system’s implementation of a new voucher program. The district is appealing the decision.

• Pensions
FLORIDA’s teachers’ union is fighting a law that requires teachers and other public employees to contribute to their pension systems.

In NEW JERSEY, teachers’ and other public employees’ unions claim a new law violates existing contracts the state had made with workers.

• Merit Pay, Evaluation
The 600,000-member NEW YORK State United Teachers union sued the state this year, claiming that the board of regents’ rules for teacher evaluation violated a 2010 law that served as part of the state’s winning Race to the Top plan. A judge ruled in favor of the union on a number of points; state officials have said they will appeal.

In FLORIDA, a union is supporting a challenge to a new law that eliminates tenure for new hires and creates a merit-pay system.

In IDAHO, a union is opposing a law that phases out tenure, eliminates seniority preferences in layoff decisions, and ties teacher and principal evaluations to student achievement, claiming it violates existing contact rights.

In addition to legal actions challenging voucher programs, lawsuits filed in Florida and New Jersey seek to block the adoption of new laws that require teachers and other public employees to contribute more toward their pensions. A second suit in Florida attempts to block a new, far-reaching law that phases out tenure and implements merit pay for teachers. A legal action in Idaho takes aim at a similar law that phases out tenure and ties teacher evaluation to student performance.

Battleground Revisited

Florida has been a staging ground for past legal and political fights over vouchers. In 2006, the state supreme court ruled that a program that awarded tuition vouchers to students in struggling schools violated the state constitution. Two other voucher programs, which provide public money for private school costs to students with disabilities and those from low-income households, have continued.

The 140,000-member Florida Education Association is supporting this year’s pension and merit-pay lawsuits. It is also challenging the placement of a constitutional amendment before voters on the November 2012 ballot. Florida’s Republican-led legislature this year gave its blessing to that ballot item, which would delete language in the state constitution that prohibits public money from being used “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

The FEA, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, believes the measure is meant to open the door to more voucher programs in the state.

FEA President Andy Ford said his union’s legal actions were a response to GOP efforts to “steamroll” the union, which he says have grown more intense since the election of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, last year.

“Everything changed” when Mr. Scott took office, Mr. Ford said.“There are three branches of government in Florida,” he added, and when the executive and legislative branches overstep their legal authority, “we go to the judicial branch.”

Amy Graham, a spokeswoman for the governor, disputed the union’s contentions. She said the tenure and merit-pay policy will improve the state’s schools and its teacher corps.

“Regular working folks don’t have tenure,” she said in a statement. “Why should bad teachers? And why shouldn’t good teachers be rewarded with merit-based pay? By retaining the best teachers, weeding out the worst, and expanding school choice, we are creating a world-class education system.”

Popular Hoosier Program

One of the most closely watched legal battles is playing out in Indiana, where legislators this year approved a law to create one of the broadest voucher measures in the country. Most existing state voucher programs provide public support for private tuition to a relatively limited group of students, such as those from poor backgrounds and those with disabilities. By contrast, the Indiana law set relatively loose eligibility requirements for the state’s new program, so that students from both low- and some middle-income families could take part.

A group of parents and other state residents sued to stop the program, arguing that it violates the state constitution and improperly directs public money to religious schools. The Indiana State Teachers Association, which is affliated with the NEA, is supporting the lawsuit, though it is not a plaintiff.

“It means diminishing resources for public schools at a time when our educators and administrators are being asked to do much more,” Nate Schnellenberger, the president of the 48,000-member union, said of the voucher law.

The Indiana program has drawn strong interest so far. About 3,800 students have signed up, and 259 nonpublic schools have been approved to participate in the program that began this fall, according to state department of education spokesman Alex Damron. More than 80 percent of the participating students, he added, are from low-income households.

The state does not have an official count of how many participating schools are religious, though it believes a majority are, given that religious schools make up a relatively large share of the state’s nonpublic schools, Mr. Damron said. But Glenn Tebbe, the executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public-policy voice of the Catholic Church in the state, said Indiana has about 200 Catholic schools, and a majority of them are participating in the program.

Tony Bennett, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, who supports the law, said that in addition to serving large numbers of impoverished students, early enrollees hail from a mix of urban and rural communities.

“Poverty has no geography to it,” Mr. Bennett said. “This was not a pro-private-school or anti-public-school piece of legislation.”

Clash Over Pensions

Many state leaders entered this year’s legislative sessions determined to tackle a financial issue that has a direct impact on teachers: the costs of state-run pension systems. And new pension laws have provoked lawsuits, too.

Some policymakers initially had shown an interest in shifting teachers and other public employees from defined-benefit systems—the norm in the public sector—to defined-contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans, in which workers’ returns are more closely tied to the market. But ultimately, state officials focused on simply requiring teachers and other employees to contribute more to the existing plans, said Ron Snell, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based research and policy organization.

Sixteen states have adopted such policies in 2011, and most of those changes will affect teacher pensions, according to the NCSL. Lawsuits in Florida and New Jersey, supported by teachers’ and other public employees’ unions, argue that new laws requiring new or increased employee contributions to pensions violate contract rights, among other legal claims.

The outcome of lawsuits over pension benefits often turns on the language in individual state constitutions, Mr. Snell said, and so it’s possible that the legal actions in Florida, New Jersey, and other states with ongoing lawsuits could produce very different results.

“We could very well see decisions that contradict each other,” Mr. Snell said.

Local Impact

Some lawsuits stemming from recently enacted state legislation are playing out in local communities.

In Oklahoma, two school systems, the 11,000-student Jenks public schools and the 15,000-student Union public schools, are suing to try to block a 2010 law, amended this year, that provides private school scholarships to students with disabilities. The districts argue that the law violates the state constitution.

“In the long term, a voucher system will destroy the system of public funding in the state,” said Cathy Burden, the superintendent of the Union school district.

But Eric N. Kniffin, a lawyer representing parents of students in the case, said the program gives families, many of them of limited means, a much richer array of learning environments and services than they could obtain through regular public schools. Mr. Kniffin works for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington law firm.

“They’re willing to make any sacrifice necessary to keep their kids in private schools,” Mr. Kniffin said.


Education reform has become higher risks, lower rewards for teachers

From the Shanker Blog

by Matt DiCarlo

One of the central policy ideas of market-based education reform is to increase both the risk and rewards of the teaching profession. The basic idea is to offer teachers additional compensation (increased rewards), but, in exchange, make employment and pay more contingent upon performance by implementing merit pay and weakening job protections such as tenure (increased risk). This trade-off, according to advocates, will not only force out low performers by paying them less and making them easier to fire, but it will also attract a “different type” of candidate to teaching – high-achievers who thrive in a high-stakes, high-reward system.

As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical as to whether less risk-averse individuals necessarily make better teachers, as I haven’t seen any evidence that this is the case. I’m also not convinced that personnel policies are necessarily the most effective lever when it comes to “attracting talent,” and I’m concerned that the sheer size of the teaching profession makes doing so a unique challenge. That said, I’m certainly receptive to trying new compensation/employment structures, and the “higher risk, higher reward” idea, though unproven in education, is not without its potential if done correctly. After all, teacher pay continues to lose ground to that offered by other professions, and the penalty teachers pay increases the longer they remain in the profession. At the same time, there is certainly a case for attracting more and better candidates through higher pay, and nobody would disagree that accountability mechanisms such as evaluations and tenure procedures could use improvement in many places, even if we disagree sharply on the details of what should be done.

There’s only one problem: States and districts all over the nation are increasing risk, but not rewards. In fact, in some places, risk is going up while compensation is being cut, sometimes due to the same legislation.

For example, Ohio’s controversial legislation (Senate Bill 5) eliminates tenure for new hires and guts collective bargaining rights, while simultaneously rolling back pay increases and increasing health care contributions (effectively a pay cut) for teachers and other public employees. Ohio Governor John Kasich actually promoted the bill as a cost-cutting measure, with the savings coming from public employee compensation, including that of teachers. In other words, more uncertainty in exchange for nothing or even less, all in the same bill.

Similarly, recent legislation in Florida severely weakened teachers’ collective bargaining rights, eliminated tenure for all new hires and instituted merit pay throughout the state. There is still little idea of where the money for performance bonuses will come from, but it’s doubtful they’ll make up for the fact that Governor Rick Scott has already said he will be closing the state’s $3.6 billion shortfall in part by cutting teachers’ benefits. Making things worse, Florida teachers’ base salaries have remained largely flat for the past four years. Again, higher risk, lower reward.

But these are just two examples that have gotten national attention. Tenure, job security and collective bargaining rights have been axed or weakened in many other states. There is, of course, Wisconsin, where teachers’ and other public employees’ bargaining rights were severely limited, while health and pension benefit contributions were increased (again, by the same piece of legislation). Bargaining was largely eliminated in Indiana several years ago – one result was a pay freeze in 2009 and 2010, along with higher health insurance payments (again, this is effectively a pay cut). Similar bills have also passed recently in states like Tennessee and Michigan, and we are sure to see more states, such as New Jersey, try to do the same.

I don’t know if the “higher risk, higher reward” model is a good idea for teachers – as always, it will probably depend on the design and implementation of the policies. But I do know that eroding job protections and rights without additional compensation, and especially with pay decreases, is unlikely to have anything but harmful effects on both current teachers as well as the supply of applicants. The fact that some people are presenting these bills as mechanisms for improving teacher quality suggests that they themselves may not completely understand the risks and rewards involved.


Jacksonville study shows poverty hurts more than effective instruction helps

From Scathing Purple Musings

by Bob Sykes

The editors of the Florida-Times Union has published an informative list of conclusions that a national consultant made during a comprehensive study of Duval schools. The even-handed nature of the study is indicated by the fact that there are things that both sides of the school reform debate will not like. Nonetheless, one key statistical finding strengthens the assertion that experienced educators have been making regarding poverty. It matters; and even great teachers are often unable to overcome poverty’s massive burden on a child’s ability to achieve in the classroom.

Less-experienced teachers are overly assigned to high-poverty schools. The gap is the largest of all the districts studied by the consultants. The district invested $2.4 million in bonuses in 2009-2010, but just 11 percent of the teachers who received the bonuses transferred into the turnaround schools.

Even more important, the transferred teachers didn’t appear much more effective than the teachers they replaced.

It probably takes an entire team to turn around a school, the consultants said, starting with a super leader as principal, building a strong staff and engaging community support.

You don’t say.

With the report emphasizing “a super leader as principal” its fair to assert that this means just more than test scores. The Michelle Rhee way is to fire prinicipals whose schools did not test well. You cannot measure leadership through test scores. Principals who are educators know they cannot brow beat teachers – or students for that matter – into good test scores. The ability to lead inside any school is earned. A revolving door of principals doesn’t allow for relationship building with people inside the school – let alone in the surrounding community.


Duped: How Jacksonville’s African American community was tricked out of a future

Generations of African Americans were robbed of their rights and a chance of a decent education here in Jacksonville and that’s not hyperbole that’s just how it was. Exacerbating matters, our cities leaders were resistant to change even as the writing appeared on the wall during the civil rights movement of the sixties. It was kicking and screaming that they agreed to bussing in 1971 when the best solution would have been to provide the proper resources to all the schools regardless of what side of town they were in. Though I can imagine any trepidation the leaders of the black community may have had if that promise would have come through after all they were the recipients of the systematic abuse and discrimination. Unfortunately bussing didn’t work as well as well as some would have hoped.

Children were forced to travel many miles from their homes to unfamiliar parts of town when there was often a neighborhood school close by. African American opponents believed it created problems with discipline and eroded away the cohesiveness of neighborhoods. White opponents claimed their children were being sent to dangerous neighborhoods. Both groups thought it hurt parental involvement and extra-curricular activities and some people think it worsened the problems of economic and racial segregation by encouraging white flight (white families moving to suburbs). It would be disingenuous of me to blame all these problems on the school district because bussing was the nations plan and like the rest of the nation Duval County gave it the old college try.

The next thing the Duval County School District tried was the creation of magnet schools to be located in predominantly African American areas of town. They thought specialized programs could recruit whites to voluntarily travel out of their neighborhoods and they were right. The magnet schools have been an amazing success that at the same time created a whole new set of problems.

They have created a two-tiered system of education of have and have not’s. And however the school board twists the facts they are basically glorified private schools financed by the tax payers dime. Where your students go to school in Jacksonville partly determines what type of education they receive and in a public school system that should be unacceptable. But worse than that the school board has come to believe the hype generated by the academic magnet schools and thinks they can duplicate that success at all the schools and the reality is they can’t, though the school board keeps on trying.

Which begs the question, why do we have academic magnet schools if the graduation requirements such as taking and passing algebra II are the same at all schools. Where preparing every student for college is a laudable goal, it’s also a completely unrealistic goal. Not every child is interested in going to college but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stimulate their growth, interests and needs too.

The county has practically eliminated the teaching of trades and skills despite the fact that’s a lot closer to what many students want to do and are interested in. Plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, chefs, cosmetologists and day care workers will never be outsourced to India and many of those professions make as much if not more than professions that require college degrees. Furthermore many of the kids that do go to college will get liberal arts degrees and why don’t we cater to them as well instead of just catering to the math/science crowd.

Somewhere along the way the School Board also initiated an unwritten with a wink and a nod policy of social promotions. If you want proof of this look at the eleven of nineteen failing or turnaround high schools. Children didn’t arrive there and suddenly forget what they had learned. On the contrary they never learned it and were pushed along. I don’t blame elementary and middle school teachers for this. It’s gotten so difficult to fail children and often teachers are called to the mat if they try and do so. Because of this some teachers have told me the C is the new F. The thing is once they get to high school there is nowhere else to promote them to and they are forced to sink or swim with a lot of sinking going on. Social promotions have in effect dumbed down the district, unless of course you are attending one of the academic magnet schools.

If you don’t daily see the frustration on lost children’s faces you might be able to get a sense of the reasoning behind it. Children that fail are more prone to drop out, though what the powers-that-be didn’t take into account was children that have fallen behind don’t always catch up, in fact it’s often the opposite that happens and they fall farther and farther behind.

At the same time the school board started their push to prepare every student for college or what I like to call put every peg regardless of shape into a round hole, they also went soft with discipline too. Like with so many other things they have done I can recognize there may have been some noble reasoning behind it. There was a whole movement afoot for a while, which called for a kinder gentler approach to discipline that the county got behind, unfortunately the county got that wrong as well and have nearly gutted discipline as a result. Many teachers have stopped writing kids up preferring the toxic learning environment rather than being called to the mat for having dared written a referral or have the children receive no consequences for their actions. It’s a waste of my time they often say. Furthermore it doesn’t help that Principal’s evaluations are party determined by how many children they suspend. That effectively takes a tool out of their box when it comes to discipline.

Short of selling drugs or beating up a school board employee it is nearly impossible to remove a child from a school even if they are a constant discipline problem and are failing all their classes. These children often hijack the learning environment and not only stop teachers from doing their job but other students from learning as well. And if you were wondering where civility went to, well you won’t find it at most schools because it’s no longer required. Instead of just preparing children for college, I thought schools had a higher calling and that was to prepare children to be good and productive citizens.

Each of the School Boards quick fixes resulted in even more serious problems. And that’s the problem; they are trying to come up with quick fixes which in some cases are flat out unrealistic as well. They are doing this instead of sitting down and coming up with a cohesive plan that looks at the long term ramifications. Where there are so many students who have been successful despite the school board at the same time the school board has contributed to an ever growing band of students who lack manners and basic skills. Time after time the school board has been filled with good intentions that have gone awry and we all know what is paved with good intentions. I don’t think we as a city can take many more of them.

In Jacksonville there is more than enough blame to go around

You won’t find the right to a quality public education in the Bill of Rights but like the right to bear arms, worship how you please and to speak your mind, it has become one of the cornerstones of American society. Sadly there has been much debate whether all the children of Jacksonville are receiving a quality education.

Jacksonville has a long history of neglecting certain segments of our population, i.e. the African American community and even though we have been declared integrated for some time now, some people think now the city has just traded one form of segregation for another. They believe the school board just provides for the top students through academic magnet schools and other programs while neglecting the average or “special” student. But regardless if you believe that or not you must agree that the cities terrible graduation rates, our high dropout rates and the fact that 11-of the 19 area high schools are either failing or in a “turn-around” status are indicative that local public education is in big trouble.

There are many culprits, the school board in its various incarnations, the city and state governments and the citizens of Jacksonville to name a few. Instead of giving education the resources and nurturing it needs, often we have treated education and our children like a tree planted in the woods, that’s just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. There is another offender to add to that list and that’s the local teachers union.

Now I am not talking about them like the talking heads, Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh do. Where they do have the right to speak their minds it’s just unfortunate how they do so. Instead of using the truth they use random statistics as talking points to prove their point that the teachers unions are to blame for the problems in education, but what’s even more unfortunate is that some people listen to them and actually believe them. They to think the union’s only job is to protect bad teachers and of course like the reality often is when the three mentioned above speak; there is nothing further from the truth.

The waters of the education debate are muddied when people claim the unions’ only goal is to protect bad teachers from losing their jobs, when in truth the only thing the unions are protecting is all teachers’ right to due process. Here in Duval county teachers basically have a three year probation period where they can be let go for basically whatever reason. It’s only after they pass this three year point that they receive protections that can stop them from just being summarily fired. After that point the administration just needs to follow a set of guidelines before they fire a teacher. I remind you that most businesses, even non-union shops have similar procedures in place.

The talking heads often complain about the teachers unions protecting bad teachers but you never hear them saying the same thing about police and fire unions. Wouldn’t it stand to reason if it’s true about teachers it would be true about the police and firemen too? It’s especially ironic when the people of Jacksonville and in the state of Florida blame teachers unions for the woes in education because here they don’t have access to what is traditionally the most powerful weapon in labor disputes and that’s the power to strike.

Furthermore if teachers unions are so powerful then why as a profession are teachers some of the most underpaid, overworked and unappreciated workers around? Why when they shout, hey we need some help, are they often ignored?

Are there teachers that should be replaced? I wouldn’t doubt it but there are procedures in place to do so. And for every teacher that should be replaced there are dozens and dozens more that are underpaid and over worked, who have dedicated their lives and many of their own personal resources to teaching children. These teachers are routinely told to do more with less and suffer in anonymity. These are the people that the union represents; and as dedicated civil servants they are routinely disrespected when people ignorantly repeat the talking point that it’s the teacher’s unions fault when discussing the problems in education.

Though that’s not to say the local DTU doesn’t bear some of the responsibility for the problems in education that Jacksonville is facing.

Every day the union allows the school district to violate Article 4, provision E, clause 1, of the teachers contract which states, for the 180 student-contact days, the employee workday shall be seven and one-third hours, including lunch time on campus. If reports or other assignments are given to teachers, the scope shall be that they can reasonably be completed during the workday, about nine thousand times.

That’s to say today’s teachers are assigned more tasks than they can possibly do in a day. They arrive well before the children do and then leave well after. They take home papers to grade and lesson plans to write every night. They work on the weekend and on their days off rarely getting ahead just avoiding falling too far behind. They do all this for free and away from their families and loved ones. Over worked, burned out teachers aren’t the best to have but that’s what the DTU has allowed the school board to create by the thousands.

Furthermore the DTU has tolerated the school board to creating a two tiered system of education with the creation of the dedicated academic magnet schools and it’s not just two-tiered for students it’s two tiered for teachers as well. Teachers at the highly successful magnet schools don’t have to jump through the same hoops as the teachers at the failing or turn around schools. They also don’t have the same type of child who isn’t interested in learning and who thinks they are entitled and can act however they want.

Then the union has allowed the school board to tie principal’s evaluations to suspensions. This not only takes a tool out of their discipline tool box but it has the added detriment of eroding discipline. So many teachers no longer right referrals because they are questioned or nothing happens. Instead they and the student who does want to learn and there are so many of them have to endure a toxic learning environment.

Finally the school board has allowed an environment of fear to be fostered. Many teachers don’t like to openly talk about the problems in the district because they are afraid there will be repercussions and their careers will be hurt. A bad evaluation here, a disapproving phone call there and suddenly a teacher is no longer eligible for performance pay, can’t transfer, is assigned the planning period or teaching assignment they don’t want and/or has to endure a hostile working environment.

When looking around there are many people responsible for the state of education. There is the school board who seems to be in over their head and whose policies often seem counterintuitive to improving education. Theirs the state government who refuses to fund education at acceptable levels preferring to finance tax breaks for a select few and to try and get education on the cheap. Then there’s the citizens of Jacksonville many of who have turned a blind eye and allowed the problems to fester placing their faith in people who either can’t do the job or who don’t care to.
Then finally the local teachers union must share some of the responsibility as well though it’s not because like the talking heads would have you believe that they are protecting bad teachers, it’s because they aren’t protecting the good ones enough.

A few reasons to drop education funding law suits, we will need the money for public assistance and jail

Some concerned citizen groups and prominent citizens are suing the state of Florida to have the legislature fulfill its constitutional duty to properly fund education. I feel their frustration, and – in spirit – I am with them; but at the same time, let me say “Please, please drop the lawsuit – just in case you win”. There is no reason for us to waste more of our money on public education and it is with great sadness I say ‘waste’. Let us save it, instead, to spend on things we are really going to need more of…like more public assistance programs and prisons.

We could double or even triple the amount of money we spend on education. We could go from ‘worst to first’ in spending. We could turn our schools into high-tech palaces and give every child a top of the line laptop, too. We could double the salaries of our teachers and put Wal-Marts in the schools, full of supplies – and not one bit of it would make a difference as long as we kept doing things the same way we are doing them now.

Where money (or lack thereof) is a problem, it pales in comparison to the real problem, and that’s what education has been transformed into over the last decade. Somehow, up became down; black became white; left became right and it became allright to jump on the furniture – basically, none of what we’re doing makes sense anymore. Take the F-CAT for instance: we have a high-stakes test that drives our curriculum. All through time, tests were supposed to be a component of education, not the whole “kit and kaboodle” – and that’s what the F-CAT has become.

Then there is our curriculum. We have a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum, despite the fact that kids come in many different sizes (and by sizes, I mean they come with a wide variety of desires, interests, and abilities). We have all but eliminated the arts, trades and skills as we force kids into remedial academics so they can be ready for a post-secondary education – an education many do not want and for which they will not be prepared. Friends, if they are in remedial academics…well, maybe there is a better road they can travel. Is it any stretch of the imagination to think that if we make school unbearable or irrelevant to kids, then they won’t do well – or worse, that they will drop out?

Our legislation has also ratcheted up the graduation requirements, which might sound good on paper, but this has had the unintended consequence of “dumbing-down” education. Rigor is destroyed as teachers are put in the impossible position of either failing a kid who doesn’t have the skills they need (because they didn’t have a firm foundation to start with), or pushing them along. Pushing kids along has become standard procedure…how else do you explain that over half our kids get to high school and aren’t able to read or do math on grade level (according to the F-CAT, that is)? It’s become nearly impossible, for numerous reasons, to fail a student; but perhaps chief among those reasons is that teachers are threatened with loss of merit pay – or even their jobs – if they do so. “Well, you must not be a good teacher if you fail so many [or any] kids”, they are told, with a wink and a nod.

It’s not as if teachers can teach like they used to, anyway; many have their classrooms hijacked by an unruly kid or two. “Ignore behavior” has become the new mantra. Referrals aren’t always processed, and true consequences are rarely given when teachers dare to write children up. If a kid doesn’t respond to a teacher’s “teacher voice” or “teacher look” and doesn’t care about what meager rewards (or consequences) a teacher has for them, then there has to be some back-up. Many of today’s schools have no back-up, and the teacher is forced to either risk their job or pay, or endure a toxic learning environment. Just like not everybody is going to go to college, despite the state’s insistence that they all can, some kids aren’t suited for a regular teaching environment -and at some point, as contrary as we might feel about it, we should cut a few out to save the many. “No child left behind” should be changed to “we are leaving about five to ten percent behind until they learn how to behave”. Though, if we had started with real consequences at school at an early age, that number could have been only one to two percent now.

Another reason not to fund education is that there is already way too much pressure on teachers. Teachers have become the scapegoats for the woes in education – can you imagine how bad it would be if we doubled the budget? There would be the occasional teacher lynching accompanying the weekly mass firings when teachers couldn’t meet what ever arbitrary number was in vogue. Teachers have all the responsibility but none of the authority to teach our state’s children. They can’t discipline or fail kids, and they are put on schedules and given curriculums that rob them of creativity and initiative and practically ensure a new topic must be covered before an old topic is mastered. No thank you. I would rather keep my paycheck-to-paycheck existence than be put in that position.

It doesn’t matter to me that since 2001, only 37% of students taking the 10th-grade FCAT read on grade level. Florida ranks 47th in the nation in high school graduation rates with only 57.5% of the classes between 1996 and 2006 earning regular diplomas, that from 1997 to 2006, the white-black achievement gap among 10th-graders grew from 11% to 18%, and, that unsurprisingly, our state ranks 50th in total public education spending when compared to in-state wealth (statistics taken from http://jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2010-09-17/story/parents-are-demanding-florida-educate-its-children). None of that will change unless we change the way we do things. If we keep doing things the way we are then even if we threw an unlimited amount of money at education it will not improve.

I believe that education is woefully under funded. I believe that the citizens of Florida should be embarrassed that we value our children so little that we have allowed our leaders to fund education at such a meager level – we’re 50th out of 50, for goodness’ sake. I also believe there is no greater duty than for the present generation to prepare the next. Furthermore it says it right in the Florida constitution that the paramount duty of the legislation is “to provide and fund a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools”. I also believe this is a paramount duty that has been ignored for quite some time.

Because the state of Florida has been shirking its duties for quite some time, some citizens groups of Florida (Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund education now.org) and other prominent citizens have become angry enough to take the state government to court in order to get them to do what they should have been doing all along. While I find this very admirable, I also believe they are wasting their time and I believe if they won it would just mean we were wasting more money. Finally I believe we would be better off saving our money for jails and public assistance, because we’re still going to need plenty of money for those things if we keep doing things the same way.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Why first hired first fired in education is almost a necessity

When I was in elementary school my third grade teacher was in her mid thirties and that was as young as I got. Back then most of my teachers were considerably older. They all had years if not decades of experience. You won’t find that now. It’s possible today for kids today to go all through school and not have a teacher who hasn’t been on the job for more than five years. Teaching isn’t a profession like it was just a generation ago, it’s a just a job and a job with a fairly high turnover rate at that and that is part of the problem.

Teaching is also a job that has tenure, which means if you do it fairly well it’s a job one can have for life. Teaching is a job that starts at a pretty decent wage and is also a job that has every holiday off. Despite all this, sadly this is a job that fewer and fewer people want to do, a job that fewer and fewer people stick with.

When John Thrasher and his ill-conceived senate bill six made the headlines a few months ago, one of his selling points was that a first year teacher could be as good as a tenth year teacher and where this is true it’s also highly unlikely. It takes years for teachers to hone their craft and I don’t know any teacher that thinks they were a better teacher when they started.

First year teachers even the ones with teaching degrees often don’t know what to expect and they don’t know what questions to ask. This is often compounded by the fact that most first year teachers are sent to the most struggling schools and are often inundated with extra paper work and tasks to do. The first few years of teaching is less about teaching and more about surviving. I have said it and it’s the same thing I heard my first year; “Just get though the first year kid, it will get better.”

In Jacksonville at the start of the 2009 school year 27 percent of teachers had less than four years experience. This matches up well with the fact that forty percent of teachers don’t last five years and this at a job that many say with a smirk gets summers off while they sit in front of their televisions and think to themselves I could do that.

Starting in year five and going through year 22 the amount of teachers in each subsequent year declines, 509 495 419 329 279 264 237 227 226 196 148 129 157 135 130 117 124 115. Over half of our teachers have less than nine years experience. Now nine years is a long time but as I stated above the teaching profession has changed.

Why do teachers leave? Well many feel overwhelmed, they are given more tasks than they can possibly accomplish or do well. If it was just teaching more would make it but sadly teaching today has less and less to do with teaching than many might think possible. Furthermore teachers are put in unattainable positions, every year the pressure on teachers seems to grow, while at the same time, parents, the community, the administration and the government seems to get a pass. Then others quickly grow weary of having to raise other people’s children. Teacher’s sighed up to teach and when they did so they knew some mentoring would go with the job. They didn’t know they would have to teach manners, basic rights from wrongs and how to be respectful as well. Others and I personally think this is the biggest reason that many have left the field is a lack of support.

The first year teacher shows up bright eyed and filled with optimism, ready to change the world, and this is an incredible feeling to have, though it is fleeting as many first year teachers have to go into survival mode. They try all sorts of methods to get the children to take care of their responsibilities, which are simple enough, come to class, listen and learn; First they come in as a strict disciplinarian, as this is the standard advice given to first year teachers. They are told to come in tough and then they can ease up as the year progresses. If this fails with some students, the first year teacher often reverts to being a social worker, trying to figure out why they act the way they do and tries to help solve their problems, then with some students they try to become their friend, figuring if they were friends, the students would treat them better, that’s treat them with some with dignity and respect. They do this because it takes different strategies to get through to different students.

And for the most part with one of these strategies they are successful, as ninety percent of all students want to be there, they want to learn, or at worse are followers, which means if there ring leader isn’t there they fall in line with the children who do want to learn. After a while it’s just that ten percent of students that no matter what they try to do continue to cause them problems.

They talk to their mentors, as every first year teacher is assigned one, and their colleagues and department head as well. They ask what they can do to get these last few students in line. The first year teacher laments when the unruly students are absent, “it’s dreamy, I can actually teach”. They veterans look at the rookies with sympathetic eyes but they also have problems of their own. Just survive the first year; we tell them, it gets easier. But how do I get through to them they ask, we shrug our shoulders and suggest, try and get the parents involved maybe they can help somehow, but in our hearts we know they are fighting an unwinnable battle with some students.

So they call the parents trying to set up parent teacher conferences, to discuss the child’s performance both academically and behaviorally, because often-poor performances in these areas go hand in hand. Some of the parents can’t be bothered figuring it was the teacher’s problem once the child came to school, others report having the same difficulties at home where they to are at a loss. The two parties might get together and try a few interventions and some students might actually turn it around, but just as often many students don’t.

Backed into a corner the first year teacher writes the student up, only to find them back in class before the period is over or at best the next day and angry that they were written up, the problem begins to worsen. You see most likely the child received no meaningful consequences for their behavior, and thus continues it. The teacher writes the child up again and again the child is back in class the next day, except this time the teacher is paid a visit by an administrator or called to the office. Why can’t you control this child, they are asked, they explain all that they have done and how none of it has worked. The first year teacher is then told, that referrals are only to be written for the most extreme circumstances and then only after every alternative has been exhausted. Most likely they aren’t given any new alternatives as they slump their shoulders and heads back to the classrooms. Because of this lack of support many won’t make it.

When school starts up I will meet twenty or so first time teachers. Of those twenty a few won’t last through the first semester. I say this with some assuredly because this has happened every year that I have been a teacher. They just don’t make it, preferring to get a job at the mall or waitressing instead of sticking with the job that many of them spent years preparing themselves for.

Forty percent of teaches won’t last five, over half won’t last ten and probably less than a quarter of all first year teachers make it a career.

Even numbered Star Trek movies don’t suck, an education metaphor

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, puppies are cute and the combination of chocolate and peanut butter was masterful. These are irrefutable truths. Another irrefutable truth is even numbered Star Trek movies don’t suck.

Star Trek First Contact was the second film with the next generation cast and is no exception to the rule. In fact some people think before the latest film it was the best the series had to offer. It featured a sleek new enterprise traveling in time to fight the, you will be assimilated, Borg.

If you don’t know, the Borg are like locus descending on a lush green field. Then once they leave it’s barren, devoid of anything meaningful. Their goal is to assimilate everything into their collective and to make everything the same.

During one dramatic moment where things looked particularly grim, it was suggested to Captain Piccard that they give up and run away. He however chose not to saying; I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We’ve made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And *I* will make them pay for what they’ve done. It’s an awesome, memorable speech if you haven’t seen the movie and it make me wish we had a Captain Piccard in charge of education.

In education we to have made too have made many compromises. We have allowed behavior to become a secondary concern. We have practically eliminated the teaching of the trades, skills and arts to appease the “everybody most go to college and be an engineer or doctor crowd.” Those that think every child is suited for and wants to go college, that every child should be lumped into that one group are the Borg of this little narrative and they have been just as devastating to educating, as Captain Picard’s adversaries were to his ship and crew. We have retreated into a one size fits all curriculum that sees so many children fall through the cracks and we have made teachers the scapegoats for all that is wrong in education and like Captain Piccard said, a line must be drawn, and why can’t we draw it here in Jacksonville, Florida.

The powers-that-be have long touted how they are on the cutting edge of education, what with their magnet schools, magnet programs and advanced graduation requirements. The thing is despite these innovations the district and the city as a whole have languished in recent years. Our graduation and dropout rates are high and are reading rates are low. Many of our graduates that go to college have to take remedial classes and those that don’t have trouble finding jobs that are appropriate for their skills. We have created a generation of children that is capable of taking one test, the f-cat but not much else. Why doesn’t Jacksonville say enough is enough and become a real leader in education? Why doesn’t Jacksonville say we’re no longer going to do it the way the experts who have led us to the abyss say we need to do it, we’re drawing a line here and we’re going to start with behavior.

Kids need consequences for their behavior and remember or a consequence to be effective it must be meaningful. If we don’t give them consequences at school then how are they going to know how society works, because society will give them consequences for their behavior? Then not everybody is going to win a trophy either and kids must be allowed to fail so they can have a second opportunity to succeed to get the skills they need. Pushing them along hoping they will somehow these lost skills will miraculously appear, only serves to compound the problem and like not disciplining them will, this too will have grave consequences when they enter adult hood.

We also can’t keep putting kids and teachers in impossible situations and then wondering why they don’t succeed. High school is eight classes, many kids have no electives and they are tested nearly into a coma. Students are in classes many aren’t interested in or prepared for too is it any wonder they don’t do well? How would you do? Also teachers are overwhelmed with task after tasks that only have a peripheral relationship with education, and they have had their creativity, initiative and moral all but destroyed. They are also held responsible for how a child does, regardless of the lack of support and resources they receive, or the ability and desire that the kids in their classes have.

Friends we need to draw a line in the sand and go enough is enough? We have to say we will not stand to have education eroded any farther because quite frankly we can’t have education eroded any farther. Ask a long time teacher if they think it has changed for the better and then ask an employer if they think society has changed for the better too. Captain Piccard said he would make the Borg pay, well friends our children and our city are already paying a step price for the lines that we have allowed to be crossed. How much more of a price are we willing to pay?

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, puppies are cute and the combination of chocolate and peanut butter is masterful and even numbered Star Trek movies don’t suck, these are irrefutable truths. Another is we are headed on the road to ruin unless we say enough is enough, unless we draw a line. Why not here Jacksonville? Why not here?

When it comes to education, who is the smartest guy in the room (rough draft)

I spent ten years in college. I picked my degrees based on the math (well, make that the lack of math) I would have to take. My mother would lament that I would have to make it on my looks because making it with my brains was out of the question. And nobody – nobody – mistakes me for the smartest guy in the room; however, when I hear these so-called education experts talk about what education needs, I can’t help but think I just might be.

Experts yell about charter schools and merit pay, but study after study indicates that nothing makes a greater impact on children’s learning than your run-of-the-mill neighborhood school taught by your run-of-the-mill teacher. They also talk about mentors and early literacy programs and paying our best teachers to go to our worst schools – but the reality is that we have been doing these things (to no avail) for about a decade now.

They come up with the same tired old answers to the same problems as if suddenly, this time, they will work. Well, friends – they will never work as long as we ignore the elephant in the room which is not every kid is the same. As long as we insist on treating them that way, then nothing will change. We might not like it, (and for the powers-that-be, it’s hard to admit) but not every kid is cut out for (or interested in) going to college – and that should be okay. We should strive to help all our children be as successful as they can, whether that means college or not. The simple truth is that for some of our kids, we should celebrate them getting a job with room for advancement as much as we celebrate other kids getting into an Ivy League school.

So many kids don’t enjoy going to school. They only do so because they are required to…and here is some more honesty – why should they enjoy or like going to school? We push them along until high school, where there is nowhere else to push them to, and then we overwhelm them with classes they both aren’t prepared for and aren’t interested in. Often, their schedules are crammed with remedial this or intensive that and they don’t have a break from their academics with classes they like. Also, many are sitting next to kids who don’t care at all; who turn learning environments toxic; who have been pushed along, too, never having received a consequence for their behavior. I think it’s a tribute to our fine teachers that we are doing as well as we are.

Friends, we don’t need charter schools, and merit pay is one of those ideas that sound good on paper, but in reality it’s nearly impossible to apply. First, we need discipline; but then, we need multiple curriculums that service all our kids’ needs – not just the ones who are going to college. We need to bring back the trade and skills programs and make the arts just as important as science and math. You want to know how to improve student’s grades? Well, tell a sixteen-year-old that if they complete an apprenticeship program in carpentry, plumbing or some other skill, they can start making $20.00 an hour upon graduation. That will improve grades. Just pushing college has the opposite effect, as many of them know that college is just a mirage. I am not saying that college isn’t important; I am saying it’s not the be-all/end-all, and many of our students aren’t even remotely ready for college upon graduation from high school. What would be wrong if they worked at a good job for a while and then went to college when they were ready?

I have written before that we don’t need to bribe our best teachers to go to the worst schools because, quite frankly, many of them are already there – and they have chosen to be there. They have chosen to show up day after day and put in the work under the most trying conditions. Often, their reward is to be overwhelmed with task after task that, at best, has a peripheral relationship with education. Volumes of data are nice and all, but there are diminishing returns and most of the information they need they get from working with the children for a few weeks.

Mentors are also important, but buses to take kids home after they stay at school to receive extra help (or a consequence for bad behavior) and for legitimate summer school programs (where kids can either maintain skills or acquire new ones), are so much more important. If we are bound and determined to pass students through, let’s at least make sure they get the skills they need, and for more than a few kids, that requires extra time. Though we have to make summer school fun, let’s trick them into learning by giving them a P.E. and art class at the same time we give them academic classes.

Then, of course, we need early literacy programs – but we need to make sure they don’t lose their gains in middle school, which is what typically happens. Why do they lose the skills then? Well, it’s probably because about then, many students are having their love of school stripped from them as more and more assignments and classes are pushed on them. These are kids, for goodness’ sake, and they shouldn’t have hours of homework every night. If we want them to do well in school, then it wouldn’t hurt if we made them like school, too. One way to make sure that happens is by providing them with classes they like.

We also have to take care of their needs when they are not at school. Academic coaches are such a fad right now, and where some are great, we have more pressing needs. Hey, I have an idea – let’s let each department pick their best teacher and give them an extra planning period so they can help plan and develop lessons to help the other teachers. Then, let’s take the money we saved and hire some social workers and counselors to provide wrap-around services and get to the meat of the problems that our most struggling students are having. So often, kids not trying at school or acting up at school has nothing to do with school. We’re never going to solve their school issues if we if we continue to ignore their other problems.

How do the powers-that-be (the policy makers and politicians) not get it,? Well, maybe it’s because they aren’t in the classroom and society has gotten to the point where everybody but teachers gets a pass for the problems we have in education.

I spent ten years in college. I picked my degrees based on the math (well, make that the lack of math) that I would have to take. My mother would lament that I would have to make it on my looks because making it with my brains was out of the question. And nobody – nobody – mistakes me for the smartest guy in the room; however, when I hear these so-called education experts talk about what education needs, I can’t help but think I just might be.