Should we really be experimenting with education?

Experiments are like a quaterback throwing a pass, two bad things can happen. Do we really want to experiment with our children’s future at stake. -cpg

From Education Week
By Sean Cavanaugh

Despite bleak fiscal conditions that could thwart some of their priorities, governors and state lawmakers—bolstered in some cases by new Republican majorities—are expected to press forward this year with ambitious education proposals that could include changing teacher job protections and expanding school choice.

Newly elected and returning officeholders go to work this month as states struggle to climb out of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, with many warning that K-12 education—historically insulated from the budget ax—is likely to face severe cuts.

While state tax revenues have improved somewhat recently, 15 states already have reported new budget shortfalls since the fiscal 2011 year began last summer, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And states are likely face continuing budget gaps over the next two years as well, according to the Denver-based research and policy organization.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, a newly inaugurated Democrat, already has warned school officials to expect deep reductions as his state tries to close a $28 billion, two-year deficit, out of a total yearly state budget of about $92.5 billion.

“This is really a huge challenge, unprecedented in my lifetime,” Mr. Brown said at a forum last month on education funding at the University of California, Los Angeles. The governor, 72, is returning to the office he last held in 1983. “You’re looking at a lot of things that a lot of people care very deeply about, and very much depend on,” he added, “and those are the things that are going to be cut back, because we have no other choice.”

California is hardly alone. So far in fiscal 2011, 13 states have made midyear budget cuts to K-12 schools, according to a recent survey by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers.

At the same time, legislative sessions are convening during a period of rapid change in education policy at the state level, pushed along by forces that defy easy political categorization.

Last year, legislatures in several states, including Colorado and Louisiana, approved potentially sweeping changes to teacher evaluation and other school policy areas with at least some degree of bipartisan support. And this year, Republicans and Democrats in several states have spoken in favor of making other potentially broad changes to teacher evaluation and tenure.

“We see people who really want to shake up the system,” said Julie Bell, the NCSL’s education program director, describing the mood in statehouses. “There’s an impatience with the way things are.”

The attitude among lawmakers in both major parties seems to be “we need better results,” she said. “Let’s experiment.”

Election Aftershocks
The new sessions will play out in the wake of elections characterized by powerful anti-incumbent sentiment, which brought major turnover to governors’ offices and state legislatures—and historic gains for the Republican Party.

Before the fall elections, Democrats controlled a majority of governorships, 27, while the GOP was in charge of 23. On Nov. 2, voters upended that partisan split by electing Republican candidates to 29 governorships, leaving Democrats with 20, and choosing one Independent, former Republican Lincoln D. Chafee, in Rhode Island.

State legislative control also swung decisively to the Republicans. Heading into the elections, Democrats held majorities in 60 state legislative chambers and Republicans controlled 36, with two chambers evenly split. Now, the GOP controls 57 chambers, leaving just 39 to Democrats, with two split lawmaking bodies and a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature in Nebraska. Republicans now control both chambers in 25 states, 11 more than they had before the 2010 election, according to the NCSL, and they hold more state legislative seats nationwide than at any time since the late 1920s.

In some states, the emergence of new or stronger Republican majorities could embolden leaders to push for far-reaching policies in areas such as school choice and teacher evaluation.

In Florida, incoming Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, takes office with the GOP having built upon its majorities in both legislative chambers in November’s elections. Florida has long been a laboratory for voucher programs, and Mr. Scott’s transition team has called for a major expansion of public funding for private school choice, through an approach described as “education savings accounts.” Those accounts would provide taxpayer funding of up to 85 percent of traditional per-student aid to families to pay for private school tuition, as well as for private tutoring and virtual education services, among other options.

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Visit this blog.Mr. Scott has also voiced support for reviving a version of a bill passed last year that would have phased out teacher tenure for new hires and implemented merit pay, which was vetoed by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. That measure, Senate Bill 6, drew opposition from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, as well as school district officials and others who argued that it was rushed through the legislature with little input from the public.

The state’s speaker of the House, Republican Dean Cannon, would like to see a bill that addresses many of the goals of SB 6 but is also vetted by legislative committees, said his spokeswoman, Katie Betta. The speaker’s goal is to “move forward on how we want to reward our best teachers,” Ms. Betta said last month.

The FEA, which has 140,000 members, is wary of lawmakers’ claims that they will take a more inclusive approach to drafting another version of the bill. The FEA is an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

“Right now, everyone is playing nice,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow. “Everybody’s saying they want to gather input. …We expect to see the ‘Son of Senate Bill 6,’ or ‘Senate Bill 6.1,’ but we don’t know what form it will take.”

‘Flexibility and Authority’
In Indiana, where the GOP previously controlled one chamber but now controls both, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said publicly that he would like lawmakers to approve a private-school-voucher system. Along with the state’s elected Republican superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett, the governor also has backed an agenda that includes performance pay for teachers and principals, charter school expansion, and allowing students who graduate early from high school to receive a college scholarship equal to the amount the state would have spent on them during their senior year.

“We have to have the courage to provide flexibility and authority to local officials to operate in a highly accountable system,” Mr. Bennett, who also supports vouchers, said in an interview. “We have to approach this in a comprehensive nature. I’ve never been one to say it’s about school choice first, or it’s about teacher quality first.”

In other states, elected officials from both parties have shown an interest in tackling thorny issues.

In New Jersey, where Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat, held a hearing last month on making changes to the state’s system for granting tenure for teachers, a major focus of many elected officials and school reform advocates across the country recently. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has feuded with the New Jersey Education Association, has also called for changing tenure provisions, saying the current system protects ineffective teachers and fails to reward talented ones.

“If we all come together and coalesce, … we can make dramatic, positive change,” Ms. Ruiz said at the hearing. While she spoke of “supporting and respecting teachers across the board,” she added: “Something must change. Our students can’t wait any longer.”

The NJEA has said the state should consider some changes to tenure rules, which would make the dismissal of ineffective teachers less costly and less time consuming. But it also has said the process must ensure that teachers are not pushed out unfairly, or without just cause.

In Illinois, lawmakers are also considering potentially big changes that would make it easier to fire ineffective teachers, fill new positions based on performance rather than seniority, and make it more difficult for teachers to strike. A pair of special, bipartisan committees that were created by Speaker of the House Michael Madigan and Senate President John J. Cullerton, both Democrats, are studying those issues.

Last year, Illinois lawmakers approved a measure that ties teacher and principal evaluation more closely to student performance, a move that some lawmakers believed would help the state’s chances for winning some of the $4 billion in state grants under the federal Race to the Top competition. Illinois was not named a winner, but it was one of at least 34 states to approve new education laws or policies as a result of the Race to the Top, according to the Obama administration, which initiated the competition.

Following up on that legislative effort by giving school districts more authority to hire and fire teachers based on performance is “the next logical step,” said state Rep. Roger L. Eddy, a Republican, who co-chairs one of the special committees.

Balancing Interests
Mr. Eddy, who is also the superintendent of Hutsonville Community Unit School District 1 in eastern Illinois, said he wants the legislature to approve legislation that is fair to teachers, and he predicted that any proposals that emerge from his committee’s work will go through several iterations, when it comes to provisions dealing with strikes and other issues. While Mr. Eddy said there have been relatively few teacher strikes in Illinois, he also believes the threat of a walkout gives unions undue leeway in contract negotiations.

“We have to look at how we can improve the balance,” he said. “I don’t believe we have balance now.”

The Illinois Education Association has voiced concerns about such a proposal, telling its members in a statement on its website that they should “insist that the voices of Illinois teachers be heard in this process,” and fight plans that would “diminish the collective bargaining rights of education employees.”

Many new elected officials have pledged to reduce the costs of state pension plans, including those that cover teachers. A 2010 Pew Center on the States report estimated that states face $1 trillion in unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities, and a recent study by researchers at the University of Rochester and Northwestern University, which used a different methodology, puts states’ unfunded pension tabs at $3 trillion.

During last year’s legislative sessions, 18 states either cut pension benefits or increased employee contributions in an effort to reduce liabilities, and in 2009, 11 made similar changes.

One such state was New Jersey, where lawmakers approved a proposal, signed by Mr. Christie, that increased required contributions and cut some benefits, including those of teachers, and was designed to reduce the state’s pension and health-care costs. The governor has called for lawmakers to take further steps this session to reduce state retirement expenses. New Jersey’s unfunded pension liability for its teachers’ retirement system stands at $24.5 billion; it is $54 billion for all state and local workers, combined, according to recent estimates.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, however, has said Mr. Christie should commit to having the state pay more than $500 million to help cover the state’s current retirement obligations, before the state makes more cuts.

Sen. Sweeney “is committed to working on further pension reforms, as that is what is needed to ensure workers who have been promised a pension get one,” said his spokesman, Derek Roseman, in a statement. But first, he added, the governor needs to “commit to paying the state’s long-overdue pension bill.”

The Death of Teaching as a Career

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.