Teachers

My ?`Great Teacher' Trap? (GTT) post from last week elicited some comments from teachers that I think warrant some more discussion.? The GTT was my take on the Carnegie Corporation's ?talent strategy? initiative and the Education Writers Assocation conference about it.? I have links to some teacher blogs in my post, but here are some comments from teachers that are worth highlighting

John Thompson:

You don't hear much from teachers about policy disputes, but you get an earful on them from union reps. Of course, most teachers don't pay much attention to policy. That's one reason to pay union dues to people who do. How is that surprising? How is that a criticism of union leaders?? I think my union leaders have conceded too much on seniority, and test-driven ?reform.? But I know that they are the experts in the nitty gritty of making deals. I'm paid to teach, and they are paid to keep the wheels from coming off school systems.

This makes sense.? Teachers are supposed to teach. We shouldn't expect them to be policy wonks.

Stephen Lazar:

In terms of teachers' relationships with labor in terms of having our voices heard on policy issues, I imagine this is much more of an issue of journalists going to the union for responses as opposed to teachers. Most teachers I know with more than a few years of experience are well versed in all major policy issues, and would be very happy to

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For better or worse, the current public employee union battles are forcing many educators to confront some deep (shall we say existential?) questions.? As Mike pointed out yesterday, DFERS especially, ?are struggling to figure out what to say about Wisconsin.?

The news out of Providence, where mayor Angel Taveras sent termination notices to all the town's 1,926 teachers, is bound to shake more rafters in the reform arena.? What looked like another union-bashing gambit by another power-adled Tea Party politico turns out to be the act of a Democrat following the law -- a law that, most likely, ?was passed at the behest of teacher unions: teachers have to be notified of possible layoff or termination by March 1.????

According to Abby Goodnough's Times report the mayor's spokeswoman said the decision was the fiscally prudent one.? Layoffs are?more costly than terminations since you have to keep laid off teachers in a substitute pool and maintain other contractually mandated benefits.?? ?

The move seems to have left the local teachers union president, who did return calls from Goodnough, speechless.? But not Randi Weingarten, who told?the reporter?that ?What's going on here? is somebody has an idea about wanting to arbitrarily and capriciously choose who they want teaching in schools next year.?

Fancy that. Someone other than a union boss might hire a teacher....

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While the New York Times headline was impressive ? Leader of Teachers' Union Urges Dismissal Overhaul ? Mike wasn't fooled.? ?In any other field,? Petrilli told the Times, ?this would be considered completely nuts that a manager would not have rights and responsibilities to evaluate their employees and take action.?

A teacher evaluation system?? Sounds good.? Proposed by the American Federation of Teachers?? Beware.

In?fact, the wide gap between the ?overhaul? proposed by Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers on Thursday?and ?completely nuts? suggests the depth of the problem education reformers meet?when trying to face down teachers and their unions.

See Terry's earlier post on ?quality-blind layoffs? ? yes,?quality blind?is actually a?practice upheld by law in 14 states ? and Chris's entry on the pool of ?highly risk-averse workers? attracted to teaching because of low salaries and high benefits. Or review my post from a couple of days ago about Carnegie's new ?talent strategy? initiative and the curriculum skunk at the garden party.??Or, this just in from NPR:? ?The Providence [RI]?school board has sent termination notices to every teacher in the financially troubled city, sparking outrage in the teachers' union.?? Did I mention Wisconsin?

But Weingarten's speech on Thursday ? ?as prepared,? it is here ? should be studied as a touchstone for what is wrong with ?the system?; at least, it is worthy of a study of what it is that we have created with our system...

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Say you're a top-performing senior majoring in chemistry at Lawrence or Ripon. You're thinking about becoming a high school science teacher. Would you prefer a $35,000 salary with two pensions and health care benefits in retirement, or would you rather have a 25% higher salary and benefits similar to those your friends going into the private sector receive? Odds are you'd prefer the latter ? especially if, like most young grads, you realize the vast majority of people do not have a 30 year career in one profession these days. You'd rather have more cash to pay down students loans and make your own decisions about how to plan for retirement.

Yet most teacher compensation systems look like the first option. According to an oped in today's Wall Street Journal by the University of Arkansas' Bob Costrell, for every dollar Milwaukee teachers receive in salary, the public is spending another 74 cents on gold-plated benefits ? almost three times the cost of benefits in the private sector. The cost of those benefits, which are skewed dramatically in the direction of older teachers close to retirement, lowers starting salaries and takes choices away from workers.

This tradeoff between benefits and salary doesn't come up much in our discussions of teacher quality, but it should. Most young workers are not attracted by low starting salaries and the faint promise of retirement benefits long into the future. The growing mobility of workers argues for more flexible compensation systems.

The...

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???It should not be illegal for schools to try and keep great teachers during tough economic times.??? As commonsensical as this sounds, an important new policy brief from The New Teacher Project (TNTP) reports that 14 states actually have laws on the books that force quality-blind layoffs.

Ohio is one of these states and we've seen firsthand how damaging this law is and how damaging it will likely be in coming months as the state grapples with cutting $8 billion from its next biennial budget.

Because state law in Ohio, dating back to 1941, requires that the last teacher in be the first one out, younger and less-expensive teachers must depart during times of layoffs. We wrote about the madness of this law in 2007 when Dayton's ???Teacher of the Year??? was given the award with one hand and his layoff notice with the other. These sorts of quality blind layoffs now face districts across Ohio and other states as they face massive budget deficits.

The New Teacher Project reports that such archaic laws threaten 79,000 more teachers across the country who ???would lose their jobs if budget cuts forces districts nationwide to reduce salary expenditures by 5 percent through seniority-based layoffs rather than seniority-neutral layoffs.??? This means several thousand fewer teachers in Ohio being dismissed if there was a focus on teacher effectiveness rather than solely on seniority.

Senate Bill 5, currently being debated noisily across Ohio would require teacher layoffs...

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As Alexander Russo rightly noted yesterday, many reformers (especially those of the Democratic persuasion) are struggling to figure out what to say about Wisconsin. Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform offered a thoughtful, if agonized, take on the issue, but ultimately lands at a bizarre place (click on the same link and scroll down):

The fact that so many people are watching what looks an awful lot like an attempt to stomp unions out of existence threatens to hurt what has been a rather impressive era for education reform that has played out from coast to coast in the last few years. And it isn't just Wisconsin and Indiana. The fight is playing out in places like Ohio as well, and while we're normally an optimistic bunch here at DFER, we are profoundly worried that this kind of overreach will set education reform back years.

Andy Rotherham joins the chorus, responding to Checker's Gadfly editorial that urged reform-minded Dems to stand with the Governor Walkers of the world.

It seems to me Finn would have a much stronger case if he could (a) show where some moderate Dem has reversed course on a position in the wake of Wisconsin or (b) acknowledged that, in fact, so far the only people who have really changed course are Republican governors in states like Indiana or Florida. To say that moderate reform Dems who were against abolishing collective bargaining before the Wisconsin episode are still against abolishing

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The Midwest is in turmoil over proposed changes to state laws that deal with collective-bargaining rights and pensions for public-sector employees, including teachers and other school personnel (as well as police officers, state employees, and more). Madison looks like Cairo, Indianapolis like Tunis, and Columbus like Bahrain, with thousands demonstrating, chanting slogans, and pressing their issues. (Fortunately, nobody has opened fire or dropped ???small bombs??? as in Tripoli.) Economics are driving this angst: How should these states deal with their wretched fiscal conditions and how should the pain be distributed?

To address these problems, Republican lawmakers and governors have proposed major changes to collective-bargaining laws and pension systems. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would continue to afford teachers the right to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. But the bill would also make profound alterations to the status quo, including: requiring all public-school employees to contribute at least 20 percent of the premiums for their health-insurance plan; removing from collective bargaining???and entrusting to management???such issues as class size and personnel placement; prohibiting continuing contracts and effectively abolishing tenure; removing seniority as the sole determinant for layoffs and requiring that teacher performance be the primary factor; and abolishing automatic step increases in salary.

Not surprisingly, these changes are being fiercely resisted by the Buckeye State's teachers, their unions, and their political allies. Battle lines are forming, and we at Fordham???as veteran advocates for ???smart cuts??? and ???stretching the school dollar??????have been drawn...

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As union protests in Madison, Columbus, and elsewhere loop continuously on cable TV, it cannot be easy to be an education-reform-minded Democrat. They're honorable folks; their commitment to bold education reform seems genuine; and they've generally been willing to push for a host of promising changes in policy and practice that rub teacher unions the wrong way. (Well, not vouchers!) They've been reasonably candid in fingering those same unions as obstacles to programs and initiatives that put kids' interests first.

At the same time, most of them have labored?especially the elected officials and wannabes?not to burn all their union bridges. Some of the most prominent of them (starting with Messrs. Obama and Duncan) have even created opportunities to ?reach out? to union leaders with encouraging words if not actual hugs. And the many billions shoveled from Washington into public-education coffers these last two years?billions devoted almost entirely to preserving teacher jobs?have gone a long way to salve whatever wounds were caused by support for charter schools, achievement-linked teacher evaluations, etc. The basic stance of reform-minded Democrats vis-?-vis the unions seems to be ?tough love??and it's no stretch to observe that the signs of love have exceeded (certainly in cash value) the tough bits.

Now it's getting harder for them. The 2010 elections combined with staggering federal and state deficits to spell a ?new normal? for reform-minded Democrats. The ?tough love? strategy is vastly harder to pull off?especially the love part?and they've now got to choose...

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The theme of the recent Education Writers Association (EWA) event at the Carnegie Corporation (which I mentioned in my post on Saturday) was ?the promise and pitfalls of improving the teaching profession.?? The event coincides with Carnegie's new initiative, called ?the Talent Strategy,? which is, as Carnegie's Michele Cahill and Talia Milgrom-Elcott put it,? about ?making sure that every student has a great teacher.??

Who would object?

In fact, as the two Carnegie researchers noted in?a Boston Globe essay about the initiative, if there is a consensus on anything in education these days it is the importance of teachers to the educational enterprise. ?So,? they ask,?why haven't we done it yet??? Meaning, why haven't we fixed the system that is producing so many mediocre teachers?

Cahill and Milgrom-Elcott, who have impressive credentials, including stints with the Bloomberg education reform administration (Cahill masterminded the city's small schools program), argue?that the reason we still have so many mediocre teachers in too many of our classrooms is not money.??They artfully stay away from the role of the unions, which some would argue is the elephant in the teacher quality room, and rightly focus their attentions ? i.e. the talent strategy ? on substance: ramping up the quality of teacher training, giving prospective teachers more ?hands-on experience,? and holding schools of education ?accountable for proving that the students their graduates teach are actually learning.?? Another big part of the strategy is getting school systems to tighten up their applicant...

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