Category Archives: Study

Arne Duncan’s Letter

I am not a fan of Arne Duncan’s or President Obama’s education agenda. I think both of these men are hurting education in this country, and it was evident from the beginning of their terms in office. I posted an article about this when I heard Duncan speak in San Diego at the NEA-RA; his speech was rife with dangerous language and plans to dismantle areas of success.

Now, Duncan has a letter to teachers thanking them during Teacher Appreciation Week; however, what he says and what he has done are two entirely different things. Not only has he helped turn education into a competition guaranteeing that many children lose, he claims to want to work with teachers:

So I want to work with you to change and improve federal law, to invest in teachers and strengthen the teaching profession. Together with you, I want to develop a system of evaluation that draws on meaningful observations and input from your peers, as well as a sophisticated assessment that measures individual student growth, creativity, and critical thinking.

But, he does not work with teachers; he works against teachers often. (Tom at Stories From School alludes to this idea in his post.) Duncan supports merit pay (which is not shown to work), wants to limit the power of unions (despite their track records of supporting teachers and students), and creates systems of competition for education resources and monies (ensuring that some students never get the help they need). This is not working with teachers.

Now, read this opening to an article in the New York Times:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

Here is someone who understands what it will take to attract the best and keep the best in the profession. Here is someone who would work with teachers. Here is someone who could improve the profession.

A Profession Lost at Sea?

Previously I had posted about how education may be suffering from the loss of a generation of teachers. With few people retiring and no positions to hire, education could be losing a myriad of teachers to other professions. After all, if teaching isn’t hiring, someone else may be.

Well, I’ve been accused of hyperbole with my coming thoughts, but I firmly believe that if the country does not turnabout and begin to value teachers more, we’re going to doom the public education system.

Graduates see what is happening in Wisconsin, what has happened in Rhode Island, and the continued attacks on teachers and their benefits. Why would anyone want to enter the teaching profession?

They don’t. At least the best are not. Nicholas Kristof noted a McKinsey & Company study revealing that 47% of America’s K-12 teachers come from the bottom 1/3 of their college classes. The top 1/3 are becoming doctors, bankers, and entering other lucrative professions.

And this should surprise no one. Graduates are seeing that, more and more, the job of a teacher is getting more difficult, the profession is being disrespected, and salaries and benefits are under attack. The best and brightest are going elsewhere.

And where does this leave the profession? Here is one example from Kristof’s article:

In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

He further noted:

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found.

I recently read (and I forget where but will post the link when I find it it) that in Washington State had teacher salaries simply matched the inflation rate for the last 30 years, each teacher would be making on average $12,000 more than they currently do.

If the country is serious about attracting the nation’s best, then salaries and benefits have to part of the whole package. Other countries get it:

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.

If we want to lead the world, we better start valuing education more than the American Idol finalists, Jersey Shore, and pro sports. And, we better start recognizing the debilitating effects of poverty on our students.

Teachers get paid a lot of lip service, but only when this country puts its money where its mouth is will we see a world class system develop.

The State of Education Today

Washington State, like many other states, is hurting financially. No one questions this; however, the recovery methods and suggestions do cause me to pause and worry about the state’s and nation’s education futures.

One column’s composer basically says teachers should be able to overcome all odds to create student success. Granted, the author states that parents are the most difficult group to involve in education, and he also thinks that schools should focus on what they can control (as if that hasn’t been happening for years). However, he concludes with the lazy argument of getting rid of “weak teachers” and “better compensating” the better teachers as if these two ideas are novel and haven’t been a part of the educational landscape.

Ironically, at a time when so many call for this better compensation and merit pay for effective teachers, the state is looking to cut the stipends for National Board certified teachers and freezing pay for all. Once again the highest striving and most vulnerable in the profession are being hurt by the cuts. Those who were promised extra pay for achieving what is perceived to be the most prestigious teaching accomplishment and those who are in the early stages of their careers are losing pay–up to 10-20% depending on years of service and NB certification. Broken promises and hypocrisy are not helping the debate.

The state is still fighting the case it lost when a judge ruled that the state is failing education. Instead of increasing funding or services to education, the state is wasting money fighting the ruling.

Still, legislative leaders and the media are calling for the raising of standards without clearly thinking through what is happening with those standards. The mess of higher standards, testing, and holding kids accountable has created a quagmire of regulations and inanity that threatens the graduation of students caught in the middle.

All the while the state and nation call on educators to raise those standards, expect more of our teachers, and pay them less. “Highly qualified” has been a major focus of the so-called reform and ensuring that a minimum standard is in place…until a private industry wants the standards lowered to allow their people in, despite having no shortage of available and qualified teachers. And then, to make matters even worse, the feds agree that trainees should be deemed “highly qualified” even with no experience. The question seems obvious: why not let people into classrooms who have taken a 5-6 week training course instead of people with education degrees, a 3-6 month internship, and (normally) multiple endorsements or degrees (I wrote on this topic here.)? Besides being an issue of sensibility and professionalism, it’s a civil rights issue!

Oh, but let’s not forget the “blame everything on the unions” crowd. Their flags fly just as high. Even though the article means well, look at this title: “How a teachers’ union actually helped kids (not just adults).” Or, how about this one? A writer calls on the public with his editorial to “Professionalize the teaching profession” by treating teachers as professions and “not union workers.” How did professional and union worker become mutually exclusive? In fact, in Washington State, about the only group truly advocating for living wages and research-based education initiatives is the union. This second article writer, of course, blamed less effective teachers being in the work force on the unions–a group with no power to terminate its own members (and why would it?)–instead of placing the blame where it should lie, on those with this power, the administrators.

In an era of blaming the teacher, cutting teacher salaries and incentives, raising standards, increasing testing, devaluing the profession, and demonizing the unions, what do we do? How do we effect change? How do we protect our profession and our kids?

I know Brian from Stories from School is advocating talking to legislators. I know many of my colleagues are writing and visiting legislative offices.

I’m thinking of advocating a new tactic: accepting a couple furlough days. I know, I know. It costs the teachers money. That’s true. But it costs everyone money: teachers, support staff, administrators, the district, and–most importantly–the parents. If we continue to absorb the effects of these cuts quietly, no one will care or listen.

But, by sending Timmy and his pals home for a few extra days and by forcing parents to deal with the problem, we might just see some change. Make the public deal with this mess too. Let the public outcry arise not just from the educators but those at home. They outnumber us any way. Plus, I have seen very little to alter the glacial rate of change more than angry parents.

Here’s another idea: instead of considering strikes, consider getting everyone to work their hours and go home. Show people what their money gets them.  No more extra tutoring sessions, no more recommendation letters, no more enrichment sessions, no more grading and planning at home, no more meeting parents outside the work day, no more calls home at night, no more independent research, and so on. Until the public feels the effects, the public will not advocate for us during these times of unjust cuts.

The Ultimate Disrespect

Teach For America is attempting to gain a foothold in Washington State and primarily by gaining positions in Seattle. However, TfA is unnecessary in Seattle.

(Even one of TfA’s own has spoken out against TfA entering Seattle’s schools.)

First, there is no shortage of teachers in Seattle. Seattle Public Schools had over 800 applications for the few open positions in the schools. Teachers have been given pink slips and many, many teachers are waiting for their first jobs as things stand right now.

Also, TfA teachers have less experience than teachers who graduated with teaching degrees. While teachers who have earned their full certification degrees have been trained for a year or more, TfA teachers have completed a 5 week course.

I can’t think of a major professional field that actively recruits lower-skilled, less-trained, and minimally experienced employees over higher-skilled, better-trained, and more experienced employees.

The Seattle School Board and the Seattle Superintendent have revealed their disdain for the profession with their allowance of TfA in the district.

In addition, TfA teachers only continue teaching after 2-3 years at a rate of about 33%. This means fewer of these teachers remain in the profession than those who complete full certifications. And we all know that consistency and experienced teachers are better for schools and children–especially in neighborhoods of poverty–than high turnover which TfA creates. Besides, teachers of poverty need people from their own cultures and backgrounds to serve as models, and TfA teachers are very often students from upper and upper-middle class homes.

Hiring a TfA teacher requires that an experienced teacher mentor the new recruit. This, of course, creates more work for an existing teacher and costs a district money and time. Granted, the state may save some money on hiring an inexperienced employee who is lower on the salary scale, but it will incur organizational, training, experience, and student achievement costs.

Bringing TfA recruits into our schools is insulting and one more way to discredit the hard work being done by our current professionals. Plus, it’s one more way to allow privatization into our public system (since the backers of TfA are often those backing privatization).

Please talk some sense into the Seattle School Board and the Seattle Superintendent!

P.S. Lynne Varner, the author of the first linked article, has advocated time and again for experienced teachers in the classroom over inexperienced ones as well as getting minorities into teaching, and in this article she reverses field. She is not an advocate of public education, and she loves any attempt to unionbust.