Monthly Archives: July 2009

Teachers and the Economy

I play basketball during lunch time with a group of doctors, lawyers, and other people who can take long lunches, and I’m the only teacher in the group (during the summer and breaks I can play at least). While shooting around and warming up, somehow the conversation turned to the economy and one guy said that he’s surprised that teachers object so much to taking a bit of a hit “like everyone else.”

I wanted to ask him how much of a raise did teachers get during the economic boom of the 90s? And, why teachers have lost 35% of their buying power in the last 25-30 years? I then told him that teachers didn’t create this crisis, and we are constantly told we shouldn’t get paid as much as other professions for a host of reasons including that it’s “our calling.” And now, when those in power have screwed things up for the nation, we are asked to do even more with even less at the same time as when we’re told that we’re not doing enough?

Anyway, I did ask him how much he has cut his salary to help the economy (he’s a lawyer), and he said he hadn’t lowered his hourly rate. Everyone laughed a bit at him, and then we started to play some games.

Still, I couldn’t say how I felt any better than the NEA’s Teacher of the Year, Anthony Mullen, when he said the following (read the entire speech here):

We have become easy targets for some misguided government officials, economists, and media talking heads who believe it is time for us to give back and to share the pain.

Well, teachers and education support professionals have burdened the pain of being underpaid and overworked for too long. And since we have been given very little, we have nothing to give back.  Teachers did not leave their classrooms and abandon children when the best deal in town was to work in the financial services sector. We did not join the legions of people that became wealthy by sitting in front of a computer and selling stocks and managing hedge funds. We did not envy friends and neighbors who prospered during the 1980s and 1990s and bought McMansions and took trips to Bali. No, we stayed with our students because we believe that education and our nation’s children are too valuable to be abandoned for a new sports car.  So we accepted our meager raises.  We worked harder to narrow the achievement gap and did more with less to help our nation prosper. And now, some of the very same people who once asked me how I could live on a teacher’s salary, are now asking me what I can do to help the economy.

And I tell these people two things:  One, teachers did not crash the economy. Greed and corruption by people entrusted with our country’s financial health collapsed the economy.

P.S. I blocked that lawyer’s shot four times, which made me feel a lot better.

The New Four-Letter Word

While at the NEA-RA the word “Charter” (as in charter schools) seemingly became the new word of profanity. The simple mentioning of or allusion to the word charter elicited quite the response from both sides of the debate.

Numerous business items mentioned charter schools, and the assembly floor would erupt each time into debate, especially the delegation from California. After Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s speech, which promoted charter schools directly and indirectly, charter schools remained in the assembly’s thoughts.

The Californians definitely had little positive to say about charter schools; however, the Wisconsin delegation felt that they used and created charter schools with success. One Wisconsin delegate even spoke directly to the California representatives saying that not all charter schools were bad things, that charters could be part of a solution to troubled schools. However, the vast majority of the entire assembly seemed to believe still that charters should not be mentioned much less promoted.

Personally, I know of only one person who works in a charter school, and he likes it so far (but I think he mainly likes the extra pay). Still, I have not seen much research to influence that charters should be created in my area. My state has voted down charters three times–a point of pride for many teachers in my state–and I don’t see the state approving them any time soon.

My biggest concern is if Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama withhold federal monies to states that don’t reform their way, which may include charter schools. I’ve heard nothing yet to suggest the monies would be withheld, though I haven’t really heard of more than one type of school reform advocated by Sec. Duncan either.

Richardson and the NEA

Governor Bill Richardson spoke to the NEA-RA this week as well as Arne Duncan. I don’t really have much to say about Richardson’s speech except that I still like him even though he sounded kinda whiney. He was gracious in accepting the invitation to speak, but one can only joke so many times about not getting the NEA’s endorsement. He said it at least three times, and the last time he genuinely sounded a bit hurt. He said all of the right things but never gave a clear address about how he would solve education’s ills.

I’m just starting to believe that no one has an answer to the education issues facing the United States, and I think Bill Richardson needs some reassurance.

Arne Duncan and the NEA

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the NEA-RA, and he reiterated his stance about education: charter schools and better teachers are needed.

While he framed and phrased his beliefs in language stating that the NEA needs to take over the evaluation process and that collaboration makes better schools (both of which I believe to an extent), he also stated that the charter school movement will be a saving grace for education. He essentially said that schools need competition–for resources, for teachers, and for administrators–to close the achievement gap. Of course, he failed to mention (as one teacher from Chicago did) that the 2/3 of the charter schools he created eliminated teachers of unions and basically eliminated any collective bargaining. He also implied that schools which do not reform his way will receive less federal funding.

Duncan also stated that students need the best teachers, and the worst need to go. I believe this as well; however, his solution to the problem is not only partially a new evaluation process, but also partially merit pay. He continually stated that the process for awarding merit pay is a difficult and complex one, but he never really said what he would do to determine any teacher effectiveness and how teachers receive extra pay. He mentioned test scores numerous times without ever revealing, even when questioned directly, to what extent these scores would determine merit pay.

Duncan was polite, direct, and conversational, but I never felt that his solution was much more than the same business model that others have championed in the last 8 years. When schools compete, some lose. This means kids lose. Teachers will go where the jobs are, but I truly believe a competitive model will increasingly create schools of haves and have-nots. Not everyone can be above average; it’s statistically impossible.

I appreciate Duncan’s presence at the NEA-RA, but I feel no better about his agenda after hearing him speak. Besides this, I really don’t believe teachers are the heart of the problem (or their unions for that matter). Too often the problems of education are over-simplified, and the complexity of student achievement is ignored.

Interesting note: Though there is obviously no direct link between these three facts, it is intriguing: since 1970 union membership has declined from about 40% of the American work force to about 11%; during this time frame, families have lost their overall spending power (teachers, for example, have lost their buying power by over 35% when factoring inflation and pay raises); and, high school graduation rates have declined in the same period of almost 40 years.

2nd interesting note: I continually hear about highly qualified teachers but rarely hear about highly qualified administrators. I don’t believe administrators are the whole of education’s ills, but I do believe they contribute to it at least as much as teachers.

NEA-RA Update

Basically all that has happened is a single state caucus and a speech by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, which I will comment on later. I need to review my notes and organize my thoughts, but right now I’m bushed and am going to sleep. 🙂