Thursday, December 5, 2013

Telling Legislators and Trustees a Teacher's Truths

This past Monday I attended my district's school board meeting, which was a special session with our local legislators prior to the upcoming session of the Idaho legislature.

The meeting consisted of central office administration articulating concerns and challenges facing our district. I found the information quite enlightening. However, rather than recounting local issues, my focus here is sharing comments I had the opportunity to make during the 2.5 hour meeting. I attended as a representative of my local branch of the Idaho Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association.

I spoke up three times during the meeting, which is three more times than I have spoken at a board meeting during my 33 years teaching. Simply, I had a new experience, and I found myself unable and unwilling to be quiet.

On Pay-for-Performance:

For the past two years, Idaho has had a pay-for-performance system that by the admission of our superintendent "awarded large sums of money to some teachers and left other equally hard working and dedicated teachers with nothing." As Superintendent Vagner noted, the system is unfair, and my district is working hard to make what the legislature, via State Superintendent Tom Luna, has wrought fair and equitable. I commend the district for learning a hard lesson and appreciate its efforts to change and learn.

As the discussion continued, I, too, offered a perspective on P-4-P when someone commented about the "need to study the program before making a decision":

So-called merit pay doesn't work. The research consistently shows this, and Diane Ravitch clearly lays out the case that merit pay doesn't work since teachers are not the sole entity determining a child's performance on high stakes tests.

On CCSS:

At one point discussion centered on the implementation of the CCSS. In Idaho, as in other places, there is a growing backlash against the CCSS implementation, which in Idaho takes the form of the Idaho Core Standards (ICS). This is Idaho's interpretation/rewrite of the CCSS. When legislators asked about the reasons for the backlash and after one shared that some are pushing to let parents create their children's curriculum, I offered insight into the reasons for the push-back:

During my recent trip to Boston for the NCTE Annual Convention, I attended two session in which presenters articulated the case against the CCSS. First, teachers did not write the CCSS. The primary architect of the CCSS is David Coleman, and he's not an educator. Teachers don't like being told how and what to teach by someone who is not an educator. 

When those outside of education are the ones to dictate subject and methods, that de-professionalizes my profession. The message is that teachers shouldn't be listened to but that those outside education are the experts. 

Additionally, many teachers don't like high stakes tests. We've already heard several of our administrators talk about the lost instructional time as our students will be taking eight hours of tests, and it will be virtually impossible to schedule labs for student research or any other instruction. 

The CCSS is all about supporting high-stakes testing, and these tests costs in many ways. Thus, the CCSS is a means to an end, and the end is the test.

My comments were met with considerable resistance, most notably among other teachers. One said, "The NEA supports the CCSS." Another said, "The CCSS is not about tests." To that I responded:

It most certainly is about the test. The whole point of the CCSS is to administer a high-stakes test at the end of the year.

I was reminded by another person that No Child Left Behind had tests, too. And to that I remarked that it's true but we now have even more tests and longer ones, too.

Our director of curriculum countered with this: "I've been working with teachers on implementation of CCSS the past two years, and they're very enthusiastic about it."

Of course, he's right. Many teachers are excited about CCSS. That doesn't surprise me. Many teachers like the CCSS. There is much about the standards that I like, but they aren't perfect by any means. Those who know the history of the standards movement and who understand the multi-faceted nature of the process rightly evaluate the standards and articulate their concerns. We should all be wary of those who choose to turn our profession over to outside business interests. We should all question the agendas of those, including our colleagues, whose involvement in CCSS implementation net them monetary gain, which is the case among those in my district who have worked on "unpacking" the standards during the summer.*

On Teacher Retention:

 During the presentation the district trustees and legislators heard a report about the difficulty of finding qualified teachers in math and special services. Additionally, they heard the grim statistics about teacher retention. Nearly 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years. When the question about what the legislature can do to address the growing attrition problem, I offered some insight:

Stop listening to those in the education reform movement. Organizations such as Teach for America have deprofessionalized teaching by turning it into the equivalent of a temp job. For example, Michelle Rhee was a TFA teacher who had five weeks of training during the summer before being placed in a Baltimore classroom. She taught three years. Then she was hired as chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system. When she lost that job, she started Students First and now is a self-proclaimed "expert" who gets a lot of attention despite her limited teaching experience. 

When you go to Boise, think twice about supporting alternative certification routes. These undermine the efforts of the state's teacher education programs by placing people with little to no teaching experience in the classroom where they experiment on students. Programs such as ABCT deprofessionalize teaching by sending the message that it's a job that requires very little training and expertise. 

I appreciate that many of my comments were supported by my district's administration and that the administration commented about the problems students returning from their foray into online learning programs face. The district reported that these students typically return to school having earned only one or two credits the previous year and must then be placed in the alternative high school. Most won't graduate on time. Of course, their educational loss is the online business's monetary gain. Yet the state continues to divert much-needed public educational funds from public schools into private enterprises.

I have no delusions when it comes to whether or not my words resonated with the politicians, either in the state house or in the board room. Why would a politician listen to a teacher? They didn't ask for my opinion. I foisted it upon them. I guess at heart I'm still a bit of an idealist in my hope that one day those with power will listen to the real experts. But I won't hold my breath while awaiting that day.

*I was one of those people during the summer of 2012, and I'm currently employed as part of  the NEA BL Master Teacher Project, for which I'm contracted to write units and lesson plans that are all CCSS aligned.