Thursday, February 24, 2011

Something Else I Don't Get ...

In an earlier post I shared my confusion about who gets to speak for public education. I am confused again.

Maybe I am missing something but aside from ideology, what is really behind the work in several states to end collective bargaining rights for teachers’ unions?

I’ve been a school principal for 19 years, two of which I spent away from my beloved secondary school in Ohio to start an independent school in Los Angeles. The school in Ohio has a negotiated agreement and a teachers’ union; the one in LA did not. I prefer the union and the contract.

Before I tell you why, let’s be clear about the bigger picture that is going on right now. While teacher unions seem to be taking the blame for whatever is wrong with public schools (and it is not as much as you think but we will leave that for now), there isn’t much evidence that this is the case. In fact, it seems that students in states with unions do better on tests and graduation rates than states without. (The best and most balanced summary of the evidence I have found is here.)

Additionally, while teachers (and all public employees for that matter) seem to be taking it on the chin as states cut their budgets, it is certainly unclear as to whether they are to blame for the current recession. If you want to punish someone for the current economic crisis we would do better to tax bankers, mortgage lenders, credit default swappers. Or better yet, as Ezra Klein in the Washington Post points out, blame the politicians themselves who cut taxes for the rich and other connected friends—tax cuts that did little to create jobs and directly led to the current meltdown.

Clearly, the budget problems could be solved without the union/teacher-bashing--if the politicians wanted that to happen. In my state of Ohio the $8 billion dollar budget hole could be plugged up to the tune of $7 billion just by reducing tax expenditures that cover tax breaks for everything from utilities installing already required environmental equipment to brewers paying their taxes two weeks early (the piece by economist Mark Cassell pointing this out was published in the Columbus Dispatch, offices across the street from the legislature—I wonder if any of them read it).

But on the micro level, as a school administrator I prefer working with, rather than against, the local union for several reasons.

First, coming together to talk about contracts helps us all see where we can work together for our kids. It is tough for a teacher, whose pay depends upon the benevolence of a school head, to speak up when something needs to be done about a lack of resources, too many kids in the class, or coordinating planning times.

Second, I have yet to see any fairer way to determine salary and working conditions than through a negotiated agreement. Without a negotiated agreement I have seen first hand how favored teachers get easier loads and higher pay, while the ones willing to raise questions never seem to reap the fruits of their labor.

Third, contracts set expectations -- clear expectations -- for teachers, too.

Fourth, contracts make clear the process of teacher evaluation. I hear a lot these days about “poor” teachers in schools and how hard it is to get rid of them. Well, I have let several teachers go (I am not proud of that—it just means I could not figure out how to help them improve) and know it can be done. And remember, every teacher in every school has been assessed by a principal or supervisor, and has been recommended for a contract renewal. If you want to find the source of bad teachers in schools, I suggest you start with administrators who are not doing their jobs.

Finally, as a school principal, my job is to work with teachers on improving instruction, not debating how much they get paid or how many hours or days they work. That agreement is between the board and the teachers; my work is about teaching and learning.

I know there are contracts that some administrators loathe…but here’s the deal; two parties agreed to those. That is why they call it negotiation. Are there some things in our contract I don’t like? There might be. But the contract carries the signatures of our publicly elected board of education. If people do not like it, they should elect someone else.

And if statehouse politicians do not like unions, they should just say so. They shouldn’t use the current budget crisis they created as a smoke screen for an agenda they could not force through otherwise.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

More of the Same

A while ago I wrote that I was disappointed that no one in Washington was interested in the wisdom to be found in our successful public schools. I put it this way, “But would somebody please explain to me how the success of my staff, and the staffs of many schools just like ours, is no longer of value to a nation that seems to still want a good public education system?”

Today it feels like déjà vu all over again.

I received, from the esteemed U. S. House of Representatives, news that the first hearing to deal with education policy has been scheduled! In the new era of small government, of listening to the people, of getting Washington out of the way of real reform, I was hoping the hearings this time around would be different. No more would policy wonks who have never dared put a foot in a classroom be ushering in school reforms that were unproven at best, damaging at worst.

No, now we would hear from, as Carl Sandburg said, ‘the people, yes, the people.’

Imagine a room full of teachers who were making a difference in the lives of children—teachers who actually taught a child to read, who helped a student discover the love of science, or who knew how to manage a classroom of 28 adolescents when they first dissected a worm—talking to our esteemed members of Congress on what they needed to keep up the good work! Stunning!

The preliminary word was that this hearing, scheduled for later this week, would consider how “many states and local school districts have adopted innovative solutions to improve academic performance, enhance accountability, and involve parents in their child’s education. Federal policy should not undermine important efforts underway at the local level to advance student achievement.

Members of the committee will hear testimony that describes the challenges and opportunities that states and local school districts face in preparing students for success, and examine the current federal role in the nation’s education system.”

Hot damn!

But then I went to the witness list. Four witnesses, with a combined classroom experience of (at least to what they will admit on their official biographies) nine years. Apparently most of that was nearly a quarter of a century ago.

No worries. Maybe they know something about public education and how to make it better.

Well, only if you think the best way to go is to end public education, give parents vouchers, and hope everything turns out all right. The members of Congress will hear from the leader of an Arizona school choice organization whose web site streams cute videos of kids but runs banners about how to gut public schools. And then there is the fellow from the Cato Institute who would be happy if every public school in the country closed tomorrow.

What a shame, and what another lost opportunity. Once again the voices of those closest to kids, of those willing to forgo the law school option at the end of the two year TFA foreign service stint, of those who, like my wife, are spending another night planning for instruction using materials they bought with their own money, will not be heard.

Imagine if we did this to doctors, the military, or business leaders. If we simply held hearings in DC where the most adamant critics of their work were given free rein to call for the socialization of medicine, the elimination of the Department of Defense, or the firing of the most senior CEOs. Too hard to think about? Well, it’s what is happening to our teachers as their voices are silenced and their experience devalued.

Tomorrow, bright and early, I will head to school. I’ll be in the company of expert craft persons who have devoted their lives to teaching kids in one of the poorest areas of our state. They are teachers who make a difference in those students’ lives every day -- from preparing them for college and teaching them how to write for publication to preparing them to be a citizen in our democracy.

Lucky me. And too bad for an America that will continue to be subject to policies from Washington that are more about ideology than ideas.