Tenure remains one of the few benefits of teaching

Teachers and their unions collectively exhaled last week when a California appeals court overturned the Vergara ruling in 2014 which struck down teacher tenure in the state.

As a teacher who has struggled with the virtue of tenure, this was the right call to make at this time.

I, too, am frustrated that ineffective instructors remain on the job in classrooms, negatively impacting young people’s education.

Barring heinous criminal behavior, you can’t easily fire a teacher. The amount of energy and paperwork required to remove a bad one is monumental.  However, if teachers had no job protection, it would cause harm to the entire profession.

The history of tenure in public schools dates back nearly a century when women could be fired if they got pregnant or married.

Without tenure, a personality clash between a principal and a teacher might mean dismissal.

With pressure from dissatisfied parents and students, a decent teacher might lose her job.

Teaching is not that financially rewarding to justify removing the safety net of tenure.

Teachers remain the lowest paid group of professionals despite half of them holding master’s degrees.  Tenure is a kind of substitute for the lack of financial benefits other professions offer.  That is the main reason it needs to remain in place.

California educators recently received a solicitation from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to score the new Common Core assessments.  Pay?  $20 an hour—only $5 more than the proposed $15 minimum wage.   For ETS to think that such a low sum would entice teachers is quite insulting.

Think of workers who you can hire for $20 an hour.  And if you can think of any, please email me.

Actually, if administrators did their job properly, there would be fewer incompetent instructors. After two years of formal and informal observations, enough evidence exists to determine is a teacher is good enough to stay employed.

If an administrator overlooks deficiencies, then that person now has a job for life, possibly marring children’s learning for years to come.

No, tenure is not the real problem; it’s that the teaching profession looks the other way when it comes to the one thing that truly distinguishes one teacher from another, and that is quality.

If teachers are required to work without job security, then they should be compensated significantly more money.

In most other careers, people risk losing their jobs if they don’t perform well; however, with that risk, comes rewards if they do.   Such an environment does not exist in the teaching field.

The system pays everyone the same, adjustments in salary solely based on units in college and years on the job.

For those educators who provide a minimum effort, teaching is a cushy job.  But for those who work hard and tirelessly push themselves, teaching is quite frustrating.

No matter the “I’m here for the kids” slogan, an excellent teacher feels slighted.  No bonuses, no promotions, no recognition.

Whether or not a teacher designs effective lessons, communicates well with students, properly evaluates student work and returns it in a timely manner, arrives to the workplace on time, has no bearing on the employability of that individual.

So while I am all for making it easier to fire bad teachers, what has to happen at the same time at the other end of the spectrum is that teachers should earn more money for performing at outstanding levels.

Until that day arrives (which I have been waiting for since 1989), teacher tenure must stay.

If teachers are not going to be rewarded monetarily for a job well done, then they should feel secure that their career will not be in jeopardy.


All School Children Need Civics Education for a Strong USA

The other day my son was practicing his guitar playing with a new music book and came upon Samuel Francis Smith’s “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee),” you know the 1832 patriotic song that is not “America the Beautiful” and whose melody is the same as England’s “God Save the Queen”? That song, by the way, served as this country’s de facto national anthem for a century before “The Star Spangled Banner” garnered that title in 1931.

I asked him if he knew the song. He did not.

Along with other school children of his generation and older, the diminished music education in public schools over the past few decades accounts for a loss of a common musical history of this country.

Okay, so kids today are more likely to belt out Frozen’s “Let it Go” than “Home on the Range.” No big deal, right? However, with the loss of arts education there has also occurred a loss of civics education.

Schools years ago used to teach civics, “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works” per the Merriam-Webster website—in other words, what it means to be an American citizen and more important how to participate in the process.

The fact that only one out of every five 18- to 29-year-olds vote makes one ponder if the lack of civics education has anything to do with such a low turnout.

With the decades’ long focus on math and English skills, knowledge in other areas have been neglected. Most children earn high school diplomas without understanding how this country operates or why it matters. This lack of awareness ultimately atrophies into apathy.

We know about the achievement gap, the disparity between skills of whites and nonwhites. Call this one the American gap.

The New York Times reports that “students are woefully deficient in their understanding of how government works” but that “the study of American government and democratic values is making a comeback.” Unfortunately, that was published in 1987.

Recent efforts to resurrect civics courses and/or mandate that students take the U.S. Citizenship test have occurred in North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Tennessee.

But with the Common Core curriculum in full swing, chances are that little will change. This is a mistake especially when considering that the majority of children in America’s public schools are from minority groups, the very groups who need to know civics since their interests would benefit the most from their involvement.

It is not so much the common math and common grammar that binds a people together; rather, it is the common culture.

One of the main charges of public schools used to be teaching children from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds the history of the United States as a way to bind their values, assisting them in assimilation.

With one-third of students in the L.A. Unified School District labeled as English Language Learners, meaning their parents are not from this country, isn’t it critical that these children learn about the land in which they live and will eventually prosper? The nation needs their full participation and not just them earning money and being consumers.

Knowing how government operates, knowing how individuals make up the government and do affect change are not insignificant factoids reserved for an obscure elective class.

Mandating civics courses in public schools would help unite a growing disjointed population. Just as students need to take health classes for their own personal well-being, they should take civics as part of their duty as citizens. We all benefit from an informed citizenry.

This week Gov. Brown signed a mandatory vaccination law because “immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.” Making students learn about their country as part of their education will protect the community as well.

Good Teachers Still Deserve Six Figure Salaries

Back in 1998 when I was embarking on my 10th year as a teacher, I had an op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times about paying good teachers six figure salaries.

In the 16 years since then, little has changed.

The argument for more money is based on respect, not greed. In society, how much a person earns is directly related to how that person is perceived.   Teachers have little leverage in their profession and that is due to their pay. Higher teacher salaries would translate into increased clout.

As President Obama referenced in his 2011 State of the Union address, in South Korea teachers are known as “nation builders.”   A significant reason they have this perception is that their salaries are equivalent to other professions in that country; not so in America.

Here a teacher’s salary is not only less than comparative careers, but is ranked third out of four pay divisions at a school: administrator, counselor, teacher, clerk in high to low order.

In Glendale Unified School District, the fourth largest district in Los Angeles County,, the starting salary of a teacher is $46,868, of a counselor is $49,391, and an administrator is $63,622, while the highest salary for each category is $90,802, $106,862, and $142,337, respectively.

The salary of a first-year administrator is equivalent to that of a 12-year veteran classroom teacher.   Twelve years is about one-third of a person’s working life. No wonder many administrators exit teaching after a short stint in the classroom.

Over the course of their careers, a teacher can’t quite double her salary, a counselor can double her salary plus $8,000, and an administrator can more than double her salary plus $15,000.

At the bottom of the pay scale, the salary of two administrators doesn’t quite equal the salary of three teachers.   However, at the top of the pay scale, two administrators’ salaries surpass that of three teachers.   In other words, with more experience, the separation between administrators and teachers lengthens, implying that the value of an experienced administrator is worth more than the value of an experienced teacher.

It is interesting to note that the turnover rate among administrators is higher than that of teachers even though they are paid more.

And, don’t forget, counselors and administrators have secretaries to assist them. Not teachers.

The main argument opposed to higher pay for teachers is that there is no money for it.

Yet, there is money for so many other things whose impact on student learning is questionable including extensive diagnostic testing. One cannot minimize the impact that a qualified teacher has on a young person’s life.

And the competency of that instructor rests on a wing and a prayer.

Without financial incentives, principals can’t motivate their teachers to work harder because they can’t offer a bonus or a promotion.   Principals can’t threaten teachers if they don’t perform at a certain level of competence since teacher tenure locks in instructors for life.

Paying teachers solely based on experience and education breeds a lack of quality control.   With no reward for more effective work, the only variable separating a good teacher from a poor one is that teacher’s personal work ethic, a trait not taught in credential courses or staff development, meaning that too much of quality teaching hinges on pure luck.

I am not proposing that the salaries of my colleagues in the counseling and administration departments decrease.   However, as long as teachers rank third out of four pay classifications, the power they wield will remain minimal, and the prestige of the teaching profession will continue to languish.

No matter how often people articulate the importance of teachers, the proof is in the pay scale.

Nation builders?   Not in America.

Without parent involvement, NYC Mayor de Blasio’s $150 community school plan is bound to fail

Lost in the middle of the midterm election coverage this week was a major press conference on Monday by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing a $150 million infusion into the Big Apple’s 94 worst performing schools, creating community schools.

What is a community school?   Officially named “The School Renewal Program,”

the Mayor calls it his “whole child, whole school, whole community” concept. By “whole child” he means that schools will not just meet students’ academic needs but “all of their needs.”

In addition to providing children with books, desks, and supplies, they will also be given free food, including a pantry, free medical care for both physical and mental needs, weekly check-ups by dentists including cleanings, and free eyeglasses. One school already has a washer and dryer for families to use.

Frankly, it is surprising the bill for this “whole” thing is only $150 million.

This is a significant proposal.   Not in terms of money, but in terms of influence.

If the nation’s largest public school system is headed in this direction, how many more districts will follow suit?

The only thing that these schools will not be doing is clothe and house the students.   Hey, why not just build dormitories on school campuses?   Having students live directly on school property would cut down the tardies. Sure, the living quarters may take away playground space, but kids these days have little time to be kids; they need to be inside, on computers, learning the Common Core standards.

A cradle to career approach is a disturbing trend where the government takes care of children from the time that they are born through their entire K-16 schooling and beyond. Schools will evolve into social service hubs, their original role as learning centers receding.

The view that schools should do more than just teach kids is nothing new. As an extension to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), President Obama signed the Community Eligibility Provision in 2010 allowing school districts to provide free or reduced-fee lunches to all students.   This program feeds 31 million school children each day costing $11.6 billion.   The cost has almost doubled since 2000 when it was at $6.1 billion.

This year Chicago Public Schools, the third largest in the nation, is expected to serve 72 million breakfast and lunch meals.

Statewide, 58% of school children participate in NSLP, 66.2% in Los Angeles County.

Public schools rarely seem to have sufficient funds as it is.   If monies that should go into higher teacher salaries, improved school facilities, and up to date computer technology get diverted into paying doctors, dentists, washers, and dryers, the future of America’s public schools may be bleaker than it already is.

Politicians excel at concocting education initiatives for failing schools without addressing the root of the problem:   at-home parenting.

Mayor de Blasio plans on holding the principals and teachers accountable, but no where in his speech did he speak of the accountability of the parents.   You know, parents who are supposed to rear their children, feed and house them, and, yes, push them to do well in school.

Parent involvement is not just attending PTA meetings; it is talking to their children, checking their homework, partnering with the teacher.

Without parent involvement, no amount of money or ideas to fix struggling schools will ever work.

The old saying about give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime needs to apply here.

Teachers Need to be involved in Decision-Making

In the game of education, there are many players: students, parents, teachers, administrators, district officials, state and federal politicians.   Too often, the group that has the most contact with the students, the teachers, is not part of policy decision-making.

For example, sometime beginning in the late spring, the Glendale Unified School District went ahead with a major endeavor, signing a five-year contract worth $3.4 million with Massachusetts-based Curriculum Associates to use their i-Ready diagnostic testing program, evaluating each kindergartner through 12 grader three times a year.

What was quite startling about all this was how few of the major stakeholders were in the loop, including some administrators.

Glendale Teachers Association President Phyllis Miller said that GTA was not part of any discussions about this program as well.

Just as the Common Core standards seemingly came out of nowhere, so too has i-Ready that no one knows with certainty will benefit students.

The difference between the rollout of Common Core and i-Ready was that GUSD carefully involved teachers in introducing the new standards over a three-year period; the systematic testing came like a “Bam!” a la celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.   In the past, the district has piloted new programs before committing to them.   Not this time.

Product Marketing Director for Curriculum Associates Susan Arcuri claims that there have been positive results in Glendale.   It’s a mystery how she came to that conclusion considering testing has just begun.

Miller said that many teachers who have used i-Ready say that the test itself is taking much longer than what was expected.

Where I work, the reading test is currently being administered, taking two class periods to complete. If that holds true for the math test, that would translate to a loss of 12 hours of direct instruction in arguably the most important subject classes.

And don’t forget the time it takes school administrators to organize the computer labs and monitor the testing, time better spent elsewhere.

It’s understandable the district wants to do something to help students perform well on the new Common Core based assessments.   The idea of providing teachers with individualized data to help shape future lesson planning sounds ideal.   The problem is that it is not practical.

Any teacher watching an i-Ready presentation espousing its benefits could inform upper management of this.   How are teachers going to find the time needed to analyze the data and then to modify lessons to meet the needs of each student? If a teacher were at the decision-making table, these legitimately difficult questions would have arisen.

One would have to make quite a convincing argument that spreadsheets of colored graphs is preferable to lessons taught by a qualified teacher.

Often overlooked is the analysis already occurring in the classroom on a daily basis facilitated by the expert in that field, the teacher.   Teachers don’t need third party testing results to understand that a student has difficulty understanding a Shakespearean passage.   They discover it through their lessons and assessments.

I have had the privilege of having thousands of students spend time in my classroom. I’d like to make an impact.   But the effect I could have on a child gets further diminished with each hour of standardized testing.

Teachers are very possessive of the time they have with their students so there needs to be a strong reason to justify taking that time away.

What’s Better for Students: Dynamic Teachers or Diagnostic Testing?

This summer has not been kind to California educators with increased deductions from their paychecks to pay for the pension fund, and tenure and job protection ruled illegal by a Superior Court judge.

So it was refreshing to hear good things said about teachers at last week’s district kickoff meeting from keynote speaker Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year who still teaches 7th grade English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School.

Ms. Mieliwocki spoke about her experiences traveling around the world as the U.S. teacher ambassador. Since so much attention in recent years has centered on how students from other nations score higher on tests than American children, she wanted to find what magic was being performed in other countries’ classrooms.

Ironically, Ms. Mieliwocki discovered that it was the American teachers who “were the envy of every teacher I met.”   The foreign instructors queried her about the methods of her homeland colleagues.

She went on to tell stories about the importance of teachers accepting students for who they are.  

One young girl in her class always wore the same cowboy boots with flowers on them every day to school.   Some students wondered why she didn’t have another pair of shoes to wear.   It turned out that her father had passed away and the boots were the last item they had bought together. When she wore the boots, she felt close to her dad.

Once her powerful message had been delivered, and teachers were inspired, on came the next speaker, a representative from a testing company called i-Ready.   Too bad the district didn’t seem ready to properly unroll this new program of testing all K-12 students three times a year beginning in a couple of weeks.

When Rebecca spoke, she had the full attention of the teacher throng. When the spokesperson for the new i-Ready testing program presented, a sea of LED lanterns erupted as teachers got out their phones, quickly feeling disconnected including one male teacher sitting in front of me shopping for a thong.

I had to go to i-Ready’s website to get basic information of what was behind the new diagnostic testing: “i-Ready provides data-driven insights and support for successful implementation of the new standards.”  

On top of new Common Core standards that teachers are still adjusting to, now we have this intrusive testing schedule that will devour at least 2 hours for each test.

It’s sad, really, that the district folks don’t get it.   Teachers don’t need more information on kids because we are not provided the necessary time to analyze the data we already have. Students march in and out of classrooms day after day.   Except for an hour long meeting here and there, teachers have no regularly scheduled full work days to examine data with their colleagues.

The kickoff meeting was a clash of two conflicting approaches to education: the inspiration of a dynamic teacher versus the top-down implementation of mandatory testing. The latter presentation quashed the excitement of the one that preceded it.

If only the district brass had the foresight to end the all-staff meeting immediately following Ms. Mieliwocki’s speech, releasing them to use the rest of the day to set up their classrooms for the students.

It reminds one of Charles Dickens’ powerful opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

As Ms. Mieliwocki said, people “have to be brave to take on the work of an educator.”

Common Core Requires Patience

Years of neglect of not teaching music and other arts may have a deleterious effect on student success if a sample Common Core assessment is any indication.

Part of a sample 11th grade test developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium whose charge it is to design tests that will reflect mastery of the new Common Core standards ask students to write about the role of government-funded public art.  

First, students have to read four sources on the topic.   Then, they have to write out answers to questions about the readings (no multiple choices here).   Finally, students must write an argumentative letter.

The level of vocabulary and geography needed in order to understand the reading selections on the test include words that the majority of my honors English students did not know: city council, Florence, argumentative, iconic, Vatican City, masterpieces, national identity. Even understanding the idea of “public art” proved troublesome.

Most would agree that these words and phrases are important to know and that high school students should know them.   In case they don’t, then answering questions about the reading selections and writing about them would present a challenge.

Jacqueline King, spokesperson for Smarter Balanced, said that teachers would be given a 15-30 minute classroom activity the day before the assessment which would include definitions of specialized vocabulary (e.g., muralist).   However, students would be expected to know academic words such as “argumentative.” The teacher, unable to preview the assessment beforehand, would not be able to pull out words that her particular student population may have difficulty understanding.

Of course, if schools provided regular field trips to art museums or students studied art in general, they would have the prerequisite knowledge that this sample test demands.

In addition to awareness about art, the other aspect to this practice assessment is that it is asking students to read multiple sources in order to derive information for writing a research paper.

Over 20 years ago, GUSD had a requirement that all high school sophomores write a research paper.   The assumption was that reading and writing happen in the English classes, not necessarily in any other courses.

Now, with the Common Core standards and the new type of standardized testing, students will fail miserably unless they receive frequent instruction in careful reading and writing across the board, not just one hour a day in their English class.

Therefore, it is imperative that teachers of non-English courses have students practice these skills as well.

Next year, the new testing will be administered to grades 3 through 8 and 11.   This means that those 11th graders will have had one year of Common Core standards-based instruction so no one should be surprised if the results aren’t very good.

When next year’s third graders take the test as 11th graders in 2023, they will have had eight additional years of such instruction.   Meaning, that their test results would best reveal what impact the Common Core movement has had on education.   If the scores of this “first class” improve from year to year, then it would validate Common Core.

It is a noble endeavor to wish children excel at a high level.   It is ignoble to expect high results overnight.  

As educators continue learning more about Common Core, patience is needed before conclusions are drawn about its legitimacy.

Here’s hoping the bureaucrats will allow a sufficiently long learning curve before declaring the failure of yet another education trend.