Teachers

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...

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...

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...

The Education Gadfly

D.C.'s classy new teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT, is just gaining traction (even as the new Mayor is hinting that he wants it redone). But the data generated through its process are already finding other uses. The evaluation tool, which grades teachers based on classroom observations and value-added measurements, has thus far been used to fire instructors ranked ineffective (seventy got the boot under Michelle Rhee's reign) as well as to reward those in the upper echelons (Rhee also doled out performance-based bonuses to 600 teachers). But District education officials are beginning to think bigger. Most encouragingly, they're noodling ways to use IMPACT data to assess teacher-preparation programs, tracking both stellar and shoddy teachers back to the source. Never mind about the NCTQ/U.S. News and World Report assessment of education schools; D.C. is generating a homegrown ranking system all of its own.

A version of this post originally appeared in this week's Education Gadfly. To sign up for the Gadfly, click here.

It's been over two years since I stood in front of a class of high schoolers, explaining the formula for the area of a triangle and what pacifism looks like in practice (I taught at a pull-out special-education school, and my courseload was more varied than that of my students). It almost feels like another lifetime. But lately, as reports come in of teacher-union supporters threatening individuals and vandalizing their property, or engaging in angry, mob-like protests over states' proposed education bills, memories of my tenure at my small urban high school in Boston come flooding back.

I get that teachers are angry at the potential of losing tenure, losing benefits, losing pensions. And that they feel threatened when, after ten, fifteen, or even twenty years in the classroom, someone is just now thinking about coming along to tell them how good they are at their jobs. (As a novice teacher, I simultaneously yearned for and desperately feared that feedback?the feedback that would both make me a better teacher and remind me that, despite my efforts, the long hours, and the stress, I could be doing better.)

But then I remember how much angrier I got when I had to cover another teacher's Friday class every other week when she systematically called in ?sick.? And how annoyed I was when a veteran teacher retired mid way through October, forcing the district to assign a long-term sub for her Algebra classes for the next eight months). And...

Okay, everyone hold hands.? Now, repeat after me:

We Will? Love -? Each Other -- And ?Educate ? All ?Kids!? ?

Or, try this: ?

You two shake hands, and don't let me catch you fighting again!?

That's a quick glimpse of schools, now and then ? and school governance, now and then.? Then, it was desks lined up (I?once visited a 19th century?Brooklyn ?school -- still in use -- where you could see the plugged holes from the days when desks were nailed to the floor); now, it's classrooms with pillows and rugs and a jumble of round tables. ??Then, it was ?top down? management, with principals ruling with rulers; now, principals spend much of their day parsing language of Codes of Conduct and labor contracts and writing up referrals and evaluations that can withstand a constititutional challenge.?

These caricatures of American public education governance are fleshed out admirably in Sam Dillon's NYT report this morning on a unique Denver conclave to bring education labor and management leaders together.? It?is being?convened by America's?Principal, Arne Duncan, who continues to work the education reform room with a stick in one hand and carrot in the other.? (I've heard he's teaming up with Doug Lemov on a new book:? Rule like a Champion!? 49 Techniques to Put Educators on the Path to Excellence. Just kidding.)

Let's hope that the two-day confab in the mile-high city is aided by the thin...

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that some teachers--facing layoffs, pay freezes, and the rest--would strike out in violence. But it's inexcusable all the same. See today's story from Idaho:

The night after Idaho's school chief publicly detailed changes to his plan to overhaul the state's K-12 education system, vandals spray-painted his truck and slashed two of its tires as it was parked outside his home.

He was heckled a few hours later at a coffee shop, and he says he filed a police report after an angry teacher showed up at his 71-year-old mother's home over the weekend.

Debate over Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's plans to restructure how Idaho's scarce education dollars are spent have dominated the legislative session this year, and emotions have been running high at legislative hearings and in public.

In the latest incident, Luna said he woke up before dawn Tuesday and found his name painted on the truck with a slash through the letters.

"I'm not pointing any fingers at any individuals or groups, but there's no doubt in my mind" the vandalism involved the reforms, he told The Associated Press. Nampa police are investigating and have not yet determined a motive or identified any suspects, Deputy Chief Craig Kingsbury said.

I worked with Tom at the U.S. Department of Education; he's a sweet man pushing a very mainstream reform agenda. If this can happen in Idaho, what can we look forward to in strong union...

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