Sunday, November 4, 2012

Idaho Education Props 1, 2, 3: A Referendum with National Implications

The following is a letter/editorial I submitted to the Idaho State Journal on Tuesday, October 30, 2012. The ISJ has not published my comments. Here in Idaho teachers are under siege, and while we are a state small in population, politicians and pseudo-education reformers are watching and testing their agendas in Idaho. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a cool $200 thousand (corrected: 10:43 a.m.) dollars to the "Vote Yes on Props 1 2 3" campaign. In presidential politics, pundits often say, "As goes Iowa, so goes the nation." They might soon be saying that about Idaho and education reform. What is happening here has the potential to influence ed reform in each state.

My Letter to the ISJ:

“There he goes again.” Frank VanderSloot’s weekly tirade against teachers in the Idaho State Journal reminds me of Reagan’s mantra. In his latest paid essay, VanderSloot, after comparing teachers to murderers, once again assures us that he has “a great deal of respect for Idaho teachers.” To Mr. VanderSloot, I say this: I don’t sense any respect from you, and I have no respect for you or your positions, none of which are based in educational expertise or knowledge of the research on these issues.

Setting aside Vandersloot’s obvious disdain for educators, VanderSloot simply ignores the research on pay for performance and educational technology. Moreover, he misrepresents the purpose of tenure and its role in guaranteeing teachers due process in the dismissal process.

Regarding technology, Nicholas Carr sounds a warning about society’s use of the Internet in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In part, Carr discusses how using the Internet affects our ability to develop deep thinking skills, the kind that form multiple synaptic connections and embed into our memories knowledge that we access spontaneously later in life. The Internet, with its abundance of hyperlinks and multiple pages users access, interferes with the deep reading process, unlike traditional reading from a book. This constant movement from one hyperlink to the next disrupts learning and the brain’s ability to form connections among its synapses.

The Idaho Legislature, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, Vandrsloot, and Prop 3 supporters either ignore the research or don’t know it.  Carr and other researchers also describe a significant comprehension problem with screen reading. When we read from a screen, the research shows, we read in an “F” pattern. That is, we read the entire first line, but by the time a reader reaches the end of a page, the reader is reading very little of what’s on the screen. This is a topic I address with students in trying to make them aware of the pitfalls of screen reading.

Admittedly, Vandersloot says he doesn’t care whether or not voters support Prop 3; I suspect this is because he doesn’t really want to see money spent updating the antiquated technology in many Idaho schools and not because he has any real concern about student learning. If he and the politicians who passed Prop 3 really cared about student interests more than business interests, they would know more about ed tech and the potential problems associated with sustained screen time.

For example, they would know that many 1-to-1 laptop states and districts have found no discernable improvement in student learning. They would know that many districts have ended the programs because the associated costs of maintaining the hardware, providing tech support, and managing student usage far outweigh the benefits of giving each student a laptop. They would know that many of our schools don’t have the infrastructure necessary for supporting the laptops. My classroom, for example, has one Internet outlet and only a couple of working electrical outlets.

The Kyrene, Arizona school district spent $33 million on technology that didn’t improve test scores. Unlike Luna who dictated to the legislature his wish list, the Kyrene district gave careful consideration to their tech purchase.  Yet test scores remained flat.

Moreover, the latest issue of Education Week includes an article about a $1.5 million study funded by the U.S. Department of Ed in which researchers found that special services students are being funnelled into online classes without considering “how students with disabilities are served in online learning environments.” This concern extends to students in traditional classroom settings, too. In all the rhetoric about the imagined benefits of online classes, neither Luna, the legislature, VanderSloot, nor other endorsers of the proposition cite research to support their faith in these learning environments.

Luna, in contrast, has mandated students take online classes. Offering students options is one thing, but telling a student s/he has no choice but to take two online classes is quite another. I say this as a teacher who embraces technology as a way to support student learning and creativity and who actively seeks ways to incorporate technology into lessons. Unfortunately, neither Luna nor the legislature has supported teachers like me in our uses of technology. Instead, they seek to replace the human connection with a Hal-like computerized substitute.

Similarly, merit pay sounds like a brilliant idea. Who doesn’t want to be compensated fairly and meritoriously? The research about so-called pay-for-performance programs based on standardized testing is definitive. They don’t work. Last year, educational publications brimmed with stories about value-added assessments and the inherent problems with these. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Dian Ravitch details the unfair nature of pay-for-performance programs such as the one in Prop 2. Educational Leadership says this about pay-for-performance: “Test-based pay is more useful politically than it is effective educationally.” Criticism of these plans goes back at least to 1907 when Edmond Holmes compared the learning that resulted from so-called merit pay based on test data to undigested food.

In fact, the uniform salary scale based on experience and education grew out of a system that loosely defined merit in such a way that men earned more than women and white teachers earned more than minorities. Yet supporting Prop 2 threatens to return us to such systems. Already we have heard stories about ways Idaho districts define merit that have little to do with student achievement in any way. Literature supporting Prop 2 acknowledges the ambiguous and inconsistent standards by which districts will assess merit: “Each school district develops its own plan with local student achievement measures that align with the district’s strategic goals” (“An Explanation of Propositions 1, 2 & 3”). I’m quoting here from pro prop literature delivered to my home. If the goal is to evaluate the merit of teachers, why are there no uniform standards for assessment? Answer: Pay-for-Performance doesn’t work. Rather than encouraging collaboration among teachers, as the aforementioned literature claims,  it’s more likely that competition, an unwillingness to share resources, and laying blame, primarily to English and math teachers, will ensue as the system evolves and the inherent problems become more apparent. Simply, we are not all in the same place in our careers, and collaboration that grows organically as teachers voluntarily work with one another will always work better than top-down mandates to collaborate and share resources.

I am a firm believer in the value of expertise and teachers proving their subject-area knowledge and ability to teach. I worked hard to earn National Board Certification, for which I owe the Albertson’s Foundation a debt of gratitude for supporting me financially and with mentoring through the process. Two years ago I recertified; I did this with my own money, as Idaho offers no support for National Board Certification, only lip service. I paid the $1,150.00 recertification fee and receive no monetary remuneration from the state or my district for having earned NBPTS certification. In fact, only a handful of Idaho NBPTS certified teachers have completed the recertification portfolio; most let their certification expire, including a colleague of mine.

Luna, however, says he supports National Board certification. Why, then, has Idaho’s number of National Board certified teachers dropped from more than 300 to under 150? Simply, it’s too expensive for poorly paid teachers to bear the cost alone. At one time, Idaho gave NBPTS teachers a yearly stipend for the first five years of certification. Now there is no incentive to earn what arguably is the most rigorous credential awarded teachers. The initial certification process costs over $2,500.00, and that’s for the portfolio and testing only. The emotional stress, time commitment, and other associated costs make it a questionable investment for all but a few.

In my thirty-two year career I’ve known many hard-working and dedicated teachers. They deserve due process. VanderSloot and his ilk would probably be surprised to learn that many administrators, all of whom were once teachers, also support due process guaranteed through tenure. Prior to Prop 1 passing, administrators had three years to dismiss poor teachers without cause. Yet few exercised that option.

After the probationary period, the tenure years, administrators still have a process for dismissing poor teachers. Accomplished teachers support ridding our ranks of teachers who don’t meet standards of excellence, but administrators at both the building and central office hold the power to dismiss, not teachers. We do, however, support due process. Ironically, the passage of Prop 1 means students have a right to due process now denied to teachers. I wander, will those who support Prop 1 also advocate for the abolition of students’ right to a hearing before expulsion or suspension?

Prior to tenure laws, teachers worked at-will. Pregnant women were routinely dismissed; others lost their jobs because of their political or religious affiliation. This is the reality VanderSloot and Luna envision for Idaho teachers. Teachers who feel their employment is tenuous or temporal are far less effective in the classroom and far more likely to seek employment in states that offer due process protections.

VanderSloot thinks teachers’ unions dictate to their members; however, the NEA functions on principles of representational governance. When I was in the eighth grade, I learned about Samuel Gompers and the origins of the labor movement. I remember feeling a sense of pride in my country and its history of workers’ rights.

As an undergrad at Southwest Baptist University, my professors preached the merits of membership in professional organizations, and the union topped their list. VanderSloot insults the intelligence of all union members when he characterizes us as “misinformed.” I read extensively about the issues affecting my profession and freely voice both my approval and disapproval with my professional organizations, including the IEA, unlike VanderSloot who simply parrots what Luna says and thinks.

Each time a teacher reads a criticism of unions, s/he is reading a denigrating remark about himself/herself. Teachers populate unions. It’s no surprise that the school board association supports Prop 1; after all, it allows them to ignore teachers’ concerns. While there are boards that will respect teachers enough to negotiate in good faith, many will, and have, impose on teachers a benevolent dictatorship, a take-it-or-leave-it business model. That’s why they claim the negotiation process is running smoothly under Prop 1. Once the deadline passes, the lines of communication close.

It’s noteworthy that those who support Prop 1 claim it’s good for teachers but only those in power over teachers and politicians offer statements of support for it. Also, claiming that unions undermine Idaho’s right to work status is rather disingenuous since that very law significantly weakened the union to the extent that the argument is rendered moot.

Frank VanderSloot would have Idaho’s electorate think supporting Props 1, 2, and 3 is “leveling the playing field” when the reality is voting “yes” will do the opposite. No teacher has the funds to pay for full-page advertisements calling for a boycott of Melaleuca, yet VanderSloot casts himself as the victim. Unbelievable.

On one point I do agree with Mr. VanderSloot. His weekly essays are “personal message[s]” and not professional ones. In Idaho, only educators have been shut out of the process by which the state regulates our profession; all other state employees have a voice in the laws and procedures that control them. On November 6, please tell Frank VanderSloot that expertise matters, that teachers deserve the same respect afforded other professionals, and that regardless of his personal feelings and missives, next to their parents and families, teachers value students educational success more than he does. Please vote “no” on Props 1, 2, and 3.