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The Literacy Crisis

Our illiteracy rate is alarming, but the ed establishment doesn’t seem to be concerned.

The biggest problem in the country today? Some may say that it’s healthcare, while others will insist that it’s the economy. A third group maintains that it’s ISIS. While a good a case can be made for any of the above, I argue that Problem #1 is an education system that is failing so many of its students. According to The Literacy Project, there are currently 45 million Americans who are functionally illiterate, unable to read above a 5th grade level, and half of all adults can’t read a book at an 8th grade level. In California, 25 percent of the state’s 6 million students are unable to perform basic reading skills. Without being able to read on an adult level, Americans will never be able to comprehend our other national problems.

With such poor readers, it’s hardly surprising that 44 percent of students entering Cal State schools need remediation. The situation in Los Angeles is particularly dire. Fifty-three percent of graduating students received at least one D in the A—G required courses. Students traditionally had to get a C or better in all of these core-area classes to graduate. But instead of ramping up the rigor, the school district made D the passing grade a couple of years ago. However, that created a problem: the University of California doesn’t allow students with any D’s in the required classes to enter the system.

With the lower threshold to graduate and the magic of bogus “credit recovery” classes, the Los Angeles Unified School District grad rate zoomed from 54 to 77 percent practically overnight. Referring to the higher grad rates, LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King had the temerity to proclaim that she is proud “of the heroic efforts by our teachers, counselors, parents, administrators and classified staff who rally around our students every day.”

So other than lowering the standards for graduation, what are the educational establishmentarians doing in LA doing to improve things?

As a way to replicate success, Great Public Schools Now (Eli Broad’s philanthropic effort) has awarded $750,000 to Public Service Community School and King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, both located south of downtown L.A. “We believe this strategy of dramatically expanding schools is a smart way of ensuring that all students will have access to the best that schools have to offer,” said Myrna Castrejón, executive director of GPSN.

Sounds good, right? Apparently Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, doesn’t think so. His only on-the-record comment: “This is the same old bait and switch.

At the same time, UTLA is standing firmly behind SB 808, a bill by State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Cerritos) which would limit charter school authorization to school districts only. As things stand now, if a district turns down a charter, the school can appeal to their county board of education and, if necessary, the state board. But if SB 808 becomes law, the local school board – which is frequently in bed with the local teachers union – would become the only charter authorizer. The 160,000 or so kids on charter school wait-lists in the Golden State and their parents are undoubtedly foes of this unnecessarily restrictive bill.

Caputo-Pearl has also been in the news lately for something else. Demanding more rigor for students? No. Coming up with a way to expedite the process of firing incompetent teachers? Hardly. The union leader is calling on LAUSD chief Michelle King to close all the city’s schools on May 1st for a massive protest to join the “broader resistance to the Trump administration’s agenda.” (The good news is that King has decided to ignore Caputo-Pearl’s politicking and keep the schools open.)

On the state level, the California Teachers Association’s way of dealing with the edu-mess is to get behind anti-charter school legislation in Sacramento, despite the fact that of the top 20 schools in LA Unified with the highest UC acceptance rates, more than half were independent charters. (H/T School Data Nerd.) So instead of looking favorably at these public schools of choice, the CTA-backed AB 406 (Kevin McCarty D-Sacramento) would either block or seriously limit the ability of for-profit companies to operate charter schools in California. Should AB 406 fly, it would send many successful charter schools’ operations into disarray.

Merit pay, which has long been discussed as a way to hire and retain great teachers, might help. In fact, “a merit-pay program led to the equivalent of four extra weeks of student learning, according to a new analysis of 44 studies of incentive-pay initiatives in the United States and abroad.” But as believers in the quality-blind, step-and-column method of teacher pay, no CTA-affiliate’s contract will allow for this.

National union leaders have been mum on the literacy issue. But American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten did take some time to weigh in on President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria and trash Neil Gorsuch’s ascendancy to the Supreme Court.

The National Education Association hasn’t addressed the mounting illiteracy rate either, but is prominently promoting the radical gay agenda. The union is in full support of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s annual Day of Silence, which is on April 21st. This year’s theme – no, I am not making this up – is to “make America Gay again.”

The teachers unions’ agenda is mostly political and has little, if anything, to do with making kids literate Americans. It is not part of their mission. Their frequently bought-and-paid-for handmaidens, the local school boards, do little to staunch union power. As such, it would behoove parents – and in fact all citizens – to get more politically involved and demand educational excellence. And the ideal way to do that is to let parents choose the best schools to send their kids to, and have tax dollars follow the child. Without a literate citizenry, the United States, as we have known it, will cease to exist.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Clinton Turns Her Back on School Choice While Trump Embraces It 

As Hillary Clinton cozies up to the teachers unions, Donald Trump seeks to vastly expand school choice opportunities. 

In November, 2015, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in South Carolina in which she abandoned her prior support for charter schools. Using language straight from the teachers union fact-free playbook, she claimed that charters “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”

Fast forward to the National Education Association convention this past July. Mrs. Clinton made the terrible mistake of diverting from the teacher union party line by saying, “when schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working … and share it with schools across America.” This innocuous comment didn’t sit well with some of the unionistas in attendance, who made their displeasure known by booing the presidential candidate. Realizing that she strayed from union orthodoxy, Clinton regrouped by acknowledging that there are people on the outside who are pushing “for-profit charter schools on our kids. We will never stand for that. That is not acceptable.”

Later in her talk, she asserted, “There is no time for finger pointing, or arguing over who cares about kids more. It’s time to set one table and sit around it together – all of us – so we can work together to do what’s best for America’s children.” And that table, Clinton promised, will always have “a seat for educators.”

Two weeks later at the American Federation of Teachers convention, she went further, adding that she opposed “vouchers and for-profit schooling,” and repeated her pledge, “…you will always have a seat at the table.”

A seat for educators? No, not really. What she actually meant was a place for union bosses and their fellow travelers. Good to her word – at least in this case – that’s just what she did.

Last week, Mother Jones revealed just who is seated at Clinton’s table. (H/T Antonucci.) Participants include Lily Eskelsen García and Randi Weingarten, leaders of the two national teachers unions. They are joined by Carmel Martin and Catherine Brown, vice-presidents of the Center for American Progress, a leftist think tank that is financially supported by the teachers unions. Also seated is education reformer Chris Edley, president of the Opportunity Institute, a California-based think tank, whose board is a collection of Clinton cronies. And finally there is Richard Riley, who served as Bill Clinton’s education secretary and was the recipient of NEA’s Friend of Education Award.

Well, certainly no one can accuse Clinton of seeking out diverse viewpoints.

At the same time Clinton was doing the teachers unions’ bidding, Donald Trump did the opposite. In fact, he went all in for school choice. Speaking at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, a charter school in Ohio, he promised, if elected, that he would redirect $20 billion in federal money to school-choice programs. Trump said he would make it a priority to give 11 million children living in poverty a choice of schools, including traditional public, charters, magnets and private schools. He proclaimed that parents should be able to walk their child to a school they choose to be at, adding that each state would develop its own formula for distributing the $20 billion block-grant money, but that the dollars must follow the student. Trump also had disparaging words for Common Core and promoted merit pay as a way to reward the best teachers.

Not surprisingly teacher union leaders were not exactly enthralled by The Donald’s vision and proceeded to blast his ideas, using tired and wrong-headed union anti-choice talking points. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García snapped: “His silver bullet approach does nothing to help the most-vulnerable students and ignores glaring opportunity gaps while taking away money from public schools to fill private-sector coffers. No matter what you call it, vouchers take dollars away from our public schools to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense with little to no regard for our students.”

AFT president, Clinton BFF and reportedly her favorite candidate for Secretary of Education Randi Weingarten added, “Today’s speech on education repeats the same flawed ideology anti-public education zealots have been shilling for years. He shows his usual obeisance to the idea of making public education a market rather than a public trust, to blaming rather than respecting educators, and to ideas that have failed to help children everywhere they’ve been tried but instead, in their wake, have hurt kids by leaving public schools destabilized and their budgets drained.”

While I applaud Mr. Trump’s general vision, the devil will be in the details. Just how his plan will be implemented, including where the $20 billion for his block-grant plan will come from, is not clear. Also, Trump has been known to change his stance on various issues from week to week so we will have to see what transpires in the coming days. And the fact that he chose to give his speech at a failing charter school is typical of the gaffe-prone Republican nominee for president.

Kevin Chavous, a lifelong Democrat and education reformer, now finds himself in an odd position. After learning of Trump’s plan, he said, “While I do not support Donald Trump, his speech on school choice demonstrates that he is giving serious thought to education issues and I strongly challenge Hillary Clinton to do the same…I urge Hillary Clinton to show more openness and creativity when it comes to embracing school reform, choice and charter schools. So far Mrs. Clinton has largely been a representative of the interests of teachers’ unions and the status quo, which is in opposition to parents and students and will serve to be on the wrong side of history.”

Chavous is absolutely correct, but Hillary won’t change. She has jumped into bed with the teachers unions, which now own her. As such, if elected, she will indeed find herself on the wrong side of history – the children, whom she claims so fervently to care about, and their parents be damned.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Unprofessional Conduct Penalty

Comedy Central spoof doesn’t go deep in teacher-athlete comparison.

The teachers “don’t get no respect” catchphrase has been with us for some time now. Various lamenters have opined that teachers should have the status and income of rock stars or professional athletes. To that end, Comedy Central duo Key and Peele have rolled out “Teaching Center” – a spoof of ESPN’s long-running “Sports Center.” In the parody, teachers are substituted for athletes and the comedy team belts out the “top stories from the exciting world of teaching.”

In its first week on YouTube, the video has gone viral, racking up almost 4.5 million views. Social media has been all atwitter about it and the establishment edu-press has been fawning. But anyone who gives the issue of teacher status and pay any thought will readily see a bunch of penalty flags. (I will use football and California in my analysis, though other sports and states could easily be substituted.)

Football has a merit system – and commensurate pay for performance

The requirements necessary to play football on the professional level are staggering and accordingly, the great players make a lot more than the average ones. Seattle Seahawk star quarterback Russell Wilson just signed a contract that awards him $87.6 million over the next 4 years. Do you think that Seahawk owner Paul Allen should have to pay a mediocre right tackle even more money just because the latter has been on the team a year longer? But when you have a teacher union-insisted step-and-column pay regimen, that’s what is mandated. Los Angeles’ Jaime Escalante, arguably the greatest teacher of all time, was never richly compensated because of his amazing success; he just got a few extra bucks for just showing up each fall.

Also, pro athletes can earn salary bonuses by having certain provisions written into their contracts. And the whole team can earn a bonus if it makes it into the playoffs, and even more if it can get to the Super Bowl. Teachers unions in California frown on any kind of pay for performance. The unions much prefer rewarding teachers for extra classes they take, no matter how useless they are. An NFL quarterback negotiating his contract would be laughed out of the room if he said, “I know I didn’t have a good year last year, but I took a ‘Sweating to the Oldies’ fitness class in the off-season, so I deserve a raise.”

There is no tenure in football

National Football Leaguers must produce to keep working. A running back who fumbles every other time he touches the ball will be seeking work elsewhere in short order. A field goal kicker who can’t kick the ball through the uprights will soon be released. But in California, due to union-mandated tenure laws, a teacher essentially has a job for life after two short years in the classroom. He can fail to advance his students for decades and lose all interest in improving, yet still remain on the job collecting a paycheck and racking up pension benefits.

The NFL has no seniority rule

If at some point Russell Wilson doesn’t perform at a high level, he will be benched or let go. He will never be able to claim his starting provision over a more talented QB who joined the team after he did.

Football is data driven

The number of touchdown passes thrown, running yards gained and blocked punts are indicators of a player’s success. In the teaching field however, data is frowned upon by the unions, especially when it involves using student performance on standardized tests to judge a teacher’s effectiveness. The official whine about the “test and punish” bogeyman is a mainstay in the teacher union playbook.

Football is all about quality

Every fan wants to see the very best players a team can field. But in teaching, this is anything but the case. A 2012 report by TNTP, an organization that deals with educational inequality, explains that because of union policies, public schools systematically neglect their best teachers, “losing tens of thousands every year even as they keep many of their lowest-performing teachers indefinitely – with disastrous consequences for students, schools, and the teaching profession.”

Now it is true that the most gifted teachers will never make the astronomical salaries that star athletes like Russell Wilson make. But as James Shuls, education policy fellow at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri, writes, “…the best ones – the ones that significantly improve student achievement and make a lasting impact on students – could easily garner six figure salaries.” And they should.

But until we penalize the teachers unions, they will continue to get away with unnecessary roughness against high performing teachers. Teaching will remain an industrial-style job and unfortunately will never become the quality-driven profession it should be.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.