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Union Blather and Students Matter

National Education Association new “reform” document is free of substance.

Apparently threatened by the education reform movement taking hold across the country, the National Education Association has decided to join the party. In concert with six other organizations – including the American Federation of Teachers – the biggest union in the country has released “Excellent Teachers for Each and Every Child: A Guide for State Policy.”

The guide’s recommendations draw from substantial research evidence on teacher effectiveness and from the practices of high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore. The document includes go-to resources for policymakers and advocates, such as:

  • Recommended action steps to support policymaking and agenda-setting.
  • Model legislation language and examples of successful state policies that improve teacher diversity, set a high entry bar for educators, establish career ladders and professional learning standards for teachers, fund a sustainable teaching force, and support evaluation models that drive meaningful professional growth.
  • Summary recommendations on recruitment, preparation, professional development, evaluation, teaching and learning conditions, funding, and ways to develop coherent and systemic policy.

In reality, this flatulent report drones on for 36 pages and speaks in generalities that sound reasonable, even commendable. We do need good teaching strategies and to hire the best teachers we can find; then we should pay them well and do everything we can to keep them in the profession, right? But….

There is tons wrong with this policy attempt. One of the most glaring misconceptions is the concept of “best practices.” Take their examples: Finland and Singapore. Yes, both are successful, but very different. For example, Singapore, like high achiever South Korea, uses very “high stakes” testing, whereas Finland avoids standardized tests altogether. Classes tend to be quite large in Singapore, but small in Finland. In short, there is no one “best practice.” In this country, some students do better with a “back-to-basics, squared” approach to schooling used in the American Indian Charter Schools in Oakland, while other kids thrive in the more sensitive KIPP schools, yet others do better working from home, “attending” a virtual charter school.

Perhaps the worst part of this document is what it omits: there is one vague allusion to teacher tenure and no mention of seniority or any policy recommendations about how to get bad teachers out of the classroom, though these are major problems that must be dealt with.

Toward that end, the Students Matter (Vergara v. California) case starts in Los Angeles next month. As John Fensterwald explains,

The lawsuit asserts that five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest. The tenure statute forces districts to decide after teachers are on the job only 18 months whether to grant them permanent job status. Once granted tenure, they gain due-process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them even if they’re “grossly ineffective.” And then, when an economic downturn comes – witness the last four years – a Last In/First Out (LIFO) requirement leads to layoffs based strictly on seniority, not competency.

If successful, this lawsuit will remove the tenure, seniority and arcane dismissal statutes from the California education code and render them unconstitutional, thus making it easier to get rid of incompetent and criminal teachers while outlawing seniority as a method of teacher-retention. (It’s worth noting that the Students Matter lawsuit doesn’t ask the court to devise specific policy solutions, leaving those decisions to local districts – as they are in 33 other states.) While this litigation will help all students in the state, inner-city kids would benefit the most. As I wrote in City Journal last year,

Struggling inner-city schools end up suffering the most, as the lawsuit states: “One recent study showed that a school in the highest poverty quartile is 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off than a school in the lowest poverty quartile. As a result of seniority-based layoffs, the highest poverty schools in California are likely to lose 30 percent more teachers than wealthier schools. The disproportionate number of vacancies in those schools are then filled by transferring lower performing teachers, including grossly ineffective teachers, from other schools.”

Though not named in the lawsuit, the teachers unions just couldn’t sit idly by and accept a change in rules that would benefit students at their expense. Two state teachers unions – the California Teachers Association (NEA’s state affiliate) and the California Federation of Teachers – came out with a joint press release announcing that they had filed a motion “to intervene in litigation.” This means that the teachers unions have become involved because they feel that the current defendants – the state and the school districts – are not adequately representing the interests of their members, whose rights they maintain could be adversely affected by the case.

Perhaps the best case for the Students Matter prosecution is made by the victimized children themselves. The nine plaintiffs are public school students from various districts around the state. Here are three of their stories:

  • Daniella, a Mexican-American 12 year-old, is an economically disadvantaged student who lives in east San Jose, a primarily minority and low income community. While attending traditional public schools, she was assigned to multiple grossly ineffective teachers who were unable or unwilling to teach her how to read, write, or perform basic math calculations. As a third grader who still could not read, she “was broken.”
  • Brandon is a 17 year-old African-American student who lives with his parents in Oakland. Although both his mother and father work, they are struggling financially. Brandon is an accomplished football player who hopes to attend college and someday obtain a master’s degree, but he has been hindered by two grossly ineffective teachers who made him feel “destined for failure.” One teacher told him that he “wouldn’t amount to anything” when he was only in the fifth grade. Another, who taught tenth grade geometry, expected his students to learn math on their own and wasted the lion’s share of class time taking attendance. Even though other faculty members at Brandon’s school were acutely aware of that teacher’s ineffectiveness, and even warned Brandon to “be careful” in his class, the school could do nothing about it.
  • Julia is a 13 year-old Hispanic student who lives in Reseda with her mother, father, and younger sister. Julia – who dreams of attending Harvard Law School – has been taught by two grossly ineffective teachers in the traditional district system. Her second grade teacher repeatedly told her that she was “just not good at math,” devastating the child’s confidence, causing her to cling to her parents when they would drop her off at school. She even asked her parents if she could be homeschooled to avoid her teacher’s disparaging words. Julia’s parents contacted the principal, who agreed that the teacher was a problem and advised them “to transfer [Julia] to another classroom.” In sixth grade, Julia was assigned to a second ineffective teacher who would lose her students’ written assignments and even called some of her students “stupid.” As a result, Julia’s test scores plummeted and she again lost confidence in her own abilities.” When Julia was taught by two wonderful teachers, they both received layoff notices. At one point, parents and teachers at the school rallied “to save” one of them, a teacher who was “caring, smart, and motivational,” yet their efforts fell short and the teacher was laid off.

The bottom line is that the NEA “sound good” reforms will not do anything to improve the lives of these children. Of course we need good teachers, but until we enact strong policies that deal with the ones who don’t deserve to be around kids, we haven’t accomplished much at all.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

The Good, the Ugly and the Uglier

After a loss in Indiana, the teachers unions’ war on education intensifies in Chicago and California.

In 2011, Indiana passed a school choice bill which currently allows 9,300 kids from low and middle income families with household income below 150 percent of school lunch eligibility to receive vouchers equal to between 50 and 90 percent of state per-pupil education funding to use at any of 289 schools – some of which provide religious education – that participate in the Choice Scholarship Program.

Not surprisingly, upon passage of the bill the National Education Association and its state affiliate, the Indiana State Teachers Association, sued to stop it with claims that “letting families use the vouchers at religious schools violated the state constitution’s religion clauses.”

But last week, in a resounding 5-0 decision, the unions’ plea was denied.

‘We find it inconceivable’ the justices wrote that the framers meant to prohibit government spending from which a religious institution could ultimately benefit. Everything from police protection to city sidewalks benefit religious institutions, but ‘the primary beneficiary is the public,’ and any benefits to religious groups are ‘ancillary and indirect,’ said the ruling. ‘The direct beneficiaries under the voucher program are the families of eligible students and not the schools selected by the parents for their children to attend.’

Part of the unions’ case was based on the Catholic-bashing Blaine Amendment. As Mike Antonucci writes:

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that the state’s school voucher program is constitutional. This is good news for supporters of school choice, and bad news for teachers’ unions. But the Indiana ruling is especially interesting since it may sound the death knell for legal challenges to vouchers based on states’ Blaine Amendments.

Indiana is one of 37 states with a constitutional provision prohibiting – in varying degrees – the use of state funds to benefit religious or sectarian institutions. The amendments are named after Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, who as Speaker of the House tried to get a similar provision amended to the U.S. Constitution in 1875. Although the Blaine Amendments were closely associated with anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry in the 19th century, they made a handy argument against school vouchers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The title of Antonucci’s post asks, “Is James G. Blaine Finally Dead?” The answer is very possibly yes, and that would most certainly be a good thing.

Moving on to California, the Vergara v. State of California case was back in the news last week. The suit was filed in May 2012 by Students Matter, a nonprofit founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch. As I wrote in June, the goal of the suit is to get the seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes out of the state education code and leave these policy decisions to local school districts – as is done in 33 other states.

The student plaintiffs attend school in four districts, though the complaint targets only two—Los Angeles Unified and Alum Rock Elementary Unified in San Jose. Other named defendants include California governor Jerry Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the state of California, the state board of education, and the state department of education. Students Matter is determined to ensure ‘that the policies embodied in the California Code of Education place the interests of students first and promote the goal of having an effective teacher in every classroom’

… Currently, California schools don’t take teacher effectiveness into account when making layoff decisions. The newest hires are the first to go, and senior teachers have their pick of schools. Struggling inner-city schools end up suffering the most, as the lawsuit states: “One recent study showed that a school in the highest poverty quartile is 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off than a school in the lowest poverty quartile. As a result of seniority-based layoffs, the highest poverty schools in California are likely to lose 30 percent more teachers than wealthier schools. The disproportionate number of vacancies in those schools are then filled by transferring lower performing teachers, including grossly ineffective teachers, from other schools.

Hardly a radical fix to a serious problem. But of course, never missing a chance to block child-friendly reform, two state teachers unions – the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers – released a joint press release this past week announcing that they had filed a motion “to intervene in litigation.” This means that CTA and CFT would like to be become involved in the case because they feel that the current defendants – the state and the school districts – are not adequately representing the interests of their teachers, whose rights they maintain could be adversely affected by the case.

The unions declare that if the suit is upheld, it will be more difficult “to attract and retain quality teachers in California’s schools.”

That’s a ridiculous assertion.  For one, do “quality” teachers really care about seniority? I suspect that the “quality” teachers-of-the-year who got pink slipped while their less talented colleagues kept their jobs are not all that jazzed by the “last in/first out” clause. The press release then proceeds to spout the usual blather – in which the unions pretend to really, really care about parents and children while at the same time taking a swipe at wealthy people who they insist want to usurp public education for their own personal gain.

“The people who agreed to lend their names to this wrong-headed lawsuit are attempting to crowd out the voices of all other parents in California.  We should be working to bring students, parents and teachers together — not driving them apart. Legislation, informed by the experience and testimony of all members of the education community, is the best process for improving public education,” said CFT President Josh Pechthalt, parent of an eighth-grade student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “The real agenda of this suit is to attack and weaken teachers and their unions in order to privatize public schools and turn them into profit centers for the corporate sponsors behind the lawsuit.”

The backers of this lawsuit include a “who’s who” of the billionaire boys club and their front groups.  Their goals have nothing to do with protecting students, but are really about undermining public schools.

This kind of demagogic rhetoric is old, tired and just plain ugly. Fortunately, not all that many people are buying it these days.

Then there is Chicago, where its school district is dealing with a $1 billion deficit. For a variety of reasons the city’s school population has been dwindling since the 1960s and there is a move afoot to close 54 sparsely populated campuses. According to RiShawn Biddle,

Chicago’s enrollment of 404,584 children is a third smaller than the number of kids served by the district during the 1960s. Three hundred thirty of the district’s 616 schools — more than half of the district’s portfolio — operate below capacity, with 137 of them half-empty. At some schools,  includes Drake Elementary School in the city’s Bronzeville section, and an elementary school named for hometown hero Emmett Till (whose murder in Mississippi by two men offended by his violation of Jim Crow segregation spurred the modern civil rights movement), just two out of every five seats are filled during the school year.

And, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) fact sheet tells us:

Population declines over the last decade in both the African American community and in school-aged children are driving the majority of underutilization in our District’s schools. Today, our schools have space for 511,000 children, but only 403,000 are enrolled.

So it certainly seems sensible to shut down some underutilized schools and consolidate their enrollments, right?

Not if you are a union boss. What you do then is come out with a statement, avowing that your main priorities are kids, parents and their neighborhoods, and bolster your case by spouting a bunch of good-sounding half-truths in an attempt to make yourself sound believable. And no one does this kind of chicanery better than American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.

The AFT stands with teachers, parents, students and other Chicagoans fighting to guarantee every child in Chicago the high-quality neighborhood public school he or she deserves. Chicago’s reckless mass school closure agenda will destabilize neighborhoods, threaten our children’s safety, fail to improve learning or save money, and create a domino effect of destabilization in schools across the city. It is part of a disturbing trend in cities across the country by the powers that be to ignore what parents, students and teachers demand and what our children need in favor of failed policies.

As the CPS fact sheet details, every one of Weingarten’s points is bogus, but then again truth and accuracy emanating from a union leader’s mouth is rare indeed.

When unionistas and their fellow travelers don’t get their way, they typically take to the streets and the Windy City was no exception. The Chicago Teachers Union, led by its thoroughly obnoxious and confrontational leader, Karen Lewis, organized a rally last Wednesday in downtown Chicago. As EAGnews.org writer Brittany Clingen reports,

The event brought out all the usual suspects – the Occupy Chicago contingent, fellow union members from SEIU, members of CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) and Action Now, and a general assortment of anti-capitalism protesters who relish any excuse to march around with angry signs held high.

According to CTU President Karen Lewis, the school closings are racially motivated. In her speech delivered to the crowd of approximately 700 gathered in Daley Plaza, she said, “They are closing down schools that have names of African American icons, but they’ll open up schools to put a living billionaire’s name in the front.”

Lewis failed to mention that CPS is approaching an astronomical $1 billion budget deficit. And the schools that are slated to close are either underperforming, underutilized (a school that has far fewer students than its capacity allows) or both. The students whose schools are scheduled to close will either be placed in charter schools or their closest neighborhood schools.

No one present at the rally was able to offer a better alternative to closing the schools, with some even implying that there is some sort of conspiracy going on within CPS.

Ah, nothing quite like race baiting, conspiracy theories and class warfare to get the socialists’ juices flowing. It doesn’t get any better than that, and in front of a willing media, no less!

The political angle was not lost on journalist Michael Volpe, who pointed out,

While the school closures in Chicago may seem to involve only local issues, the protest offered a clear glimpse into one of the most powerful segments of the Left. …(T)eachers unions routinely act in concert with open socialists — because their agendas and leadership merge to an alarming degree. While both claim to represent the interests of “the children” and the downtrodden, their real interest is exploiting the vulnerable to advance the principles of socialism.

Does it get any uglier than that?

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

The Not So Merry Month of May

In California schools, the fifth month (formerly known as May) is now Labor History Month.

As Kevin Dayton pointed out in Union Watch last week, the entire month of May is now officially deemed Labor History Month in California. Courtesy of AB 2269, the state education code has been amended to read,

The month of May is hereby deemed to be Labor History Month throughout the public schools, and school districts are encouraged to commemorate this month with appropriate educational exercises that make pupils aware of the role the labor movement has played in shaping California and the United States.

Once upon a time, the private employee unions may have done some good things for their workers – they typically get credit for the 40 hour/ 5 day work week. But as John Stossel says,

Workers’ lives improved in America because of free enterprise, not because of union rules. Union contracts helped workers for a while, but then they hurt even union workers because the rigid rules prevent flexibility in response to new market conditions. They slow growth. And growth increasing productivity, which leads to higher wages and new opportunities is what is best for workers.

Whatever the truth is about the old days, let’s fast forward to the present and find out what the teachers unions – which own and operate the California legislature that gave birth to this law – have accomplished and what they have in mind to teach our kids. It probably won’t come as a shock that students will be getting a bowdlerized and glorified version of the union movement.

There are resources galore available for teachers to help them indoctrinate their students. Here are but a few:

  • California Federation of Teachers – many “children’s stories,” including one which features a mean farmer and the hens who organize against him.
  • California Teachers Association – which can be readily summed up, “Workers are poor; CEOs are rich.” In other words, class warfare 101.
  • University of California Miguel Contreras Labor Program – lots of fun stuff for the little ones, including material by noted Socialist Barbara Ehrenreich and songs by long time Communist Pete Seeger.

That the teachers unions are playing an important role in this brainwashing is particularly ironic given the damage they have done as part of the blob that runs education in the Golden State. They may be able to brag that they have gotten higher salaries and more perks for teachers, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they will not be posting labor history lessons with the following information:

Though they claim to be everyman, national teacher union bosses are really part of the reviled one percent. In 2011, the two national teacher union presidents made a bundle in total compensation:

  • Dennis Van Roekel, NEA: $460,060
  • Randi Weingarten, AFT: $493,859

The other union officers aren’t exactly scraping by either. Salaries for the elite at the National Education Association:

  • John Stocks, Executive Director: $379,260
  • Becky Pringle, Secretary-Treasurer: $332,539
  • Lily Eskelsen, Vice President: $332,390

Will the teachers unions tell the kids that in California, they have done everything within their abusive power to maintain the failing status quo by trying and mostly succeeding to kill every effort at education reform that would have benefited students?

Will they tell the kids that they regularly buy and sell school board members? And that if a prospective member doesn’t toe the party line, the union will support his/her opponent with vast sums of cash?

Will they tell the kids that they consider the California State Assembly “their house?” Most legislators there fall into line like obedient ducks as witnessed by the shameful death of SB 1530, which would have simplified the process to get rid of pedophile teachers.

Will they tell the kids that they insist on maintaining a seniority system whereby teachers-of-the-year are routinely laid off before a mediocre or worse teacher just because the former was hired the day after the latter?

Will they tell the kids that they fight to keep a tenure system in place whereby the most mediocre teacher essentially has a job for life after just two years in a classroom?

Will they tell the kids that they do their best to try to kill (mostly non-unionized) charter school growth every chance they get?

Will they tell the kids that in 2000, they spent millions to defeat Prop. 38 – a voucher bill that would have enabled some poor kids to escape their failing schools?

Will they tell the kids that this past fall, they lobbied for and succeeded in passing Prop. 30 – a ballot initiative that raised taxes on most Californians without getting any reform for their money? (Hence, the status quo is maintained with more than one in four students never graduating high school – and a majority of those who do graduate and go on to college are not prepared for it and need remediation.)

Will they tell the kids anything about the National Right to Work Foundation, an organization that fights for a worker’s right not to join a union?

The answer to every one of these questions is, of course, “No.” As such, I would encourage all parents to find out just what their school plans for Labor History Month. If it is planning lessons espousing only the unionista party line, I suggest keeping your kids home when these activities are planned and using that time to tell them the truth about what the teachers unions really stand for, and what their “accomplishments” over the past decades have wrought.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Small Class-Size Balloon Punctured Again

It’s time to “just say no” to the small class-size pushers and eliminate seniority as a staffing mechanism.

Small class size means less work for teachers. Parents seem to think that their child will be better educated in a room with fewer classmates. Unions love fewer kids in a class because it equates to a larger workforce, which means more money and power for them. Only problem is that small class size does not lead to greater student achievement. It just means more hiring, then laying off the same teachers and punishing taxpayers who needlessly pay for a bloated workforce.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published “The Imaginary Teacher Shortage,” an op-ed by professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas Jay Greene, in which he exposes the small-is-better canard.

For decades we have tried to boost academic outcomes by hiring more teachers, and we have essentially nothing to show for it. In 1970, public schools employed 2.06 million teachers, or one for every 22.3 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics. In 2012, we have 3.27 million teachers, one for every 15.2 students.

Greene also addresses the fact that as hiring increases, there is less likelihood of a student getting a good teacher. And a having a good teacher is the most important factor in student achievement.

Parents like the idea of smaller class sizes in the same way that people like the idea of having a personal chef. Parents imagine that their kids will have one of the Iron Chefs. But when you have to hire almost 3.3 million chefs, you’re liable to end up with something closer to the fry-guy from the local burger joint.

Just three months ago, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom Andrew Coulson wrote a similar op-ed in the same newspaper. The subhead in “America Has Too Many Teachers” sets the tone:

Public-school employees have doubled in 40 years while student enrollment has increased by only 8.5%—and academic results have stagnated.

In the body of the piece, he gives us some numbers to chew on. Whereas Greene talks specifically about teachers, Coulson refers to the entire “public school workforce.”

Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers’ aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. (Emphasis added.) If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.

I contributed my own two cents on the subject in City Journal in July of 2011.

In 1998, Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek released the results of his impressive review of class-size studies. Examining 277 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all—and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way ‘to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.’

So basically, almost three-quarters of all the studies showed no benefit to small class size, and of the rest, almost the same number revealed negative effects as positive ones.

While it is a personal hardship for a teacher to be laid off, no one should be surprised when it happens. When economic times are good, it’s easy to buy into more hiring. But good economic times don’t last forever and when suddenly we can’t afford all the teachers we have hired and some need to be let go, it is brazen of the self-righteous, small class-size true believers to mislead the public with their hand-wringing and political posturing.

And we can’t say we weren’t warned that there were going to be problems. Back in April of 2004, teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci wrote,

Enrollment Figures Spell Big Trouble for Education Labor.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) regularly reviews enrollment figures, comparing past years with expectations for the future. Its most recent report shows clearly that the fat years of teacher employment are over, and the lean years may last much longer than anyone has previously predicted.

NCES compared the period 1988-2001 with its projections for 2001-2013. The differences are stark. While public school enrollment increased 19 percent between 1988 and 2001, it is expected to grow only 4 percent between 2001 and 2013. During the period 1988-2001, the number of public school teachers grew by an astonishing 29 percent. The forecast for 2001-2013 is growth of only 5 percent – or less than 0.4 percent annually.

Then in June 2004, referring to Rankings and Estimates, a National Education Association report, Antonucci wrote,

In 2003-04, American public elementary schools taught 1,649,027 more pupils than they did in 1993-94. But there were 247,620 more elementary school classroom teachers in 2003-04 than there were in 1993-94. Simply put, for every 20 additional students enrolled in America’s K-8 schools in the last 10 years, we hired three additional elementary school classroom teachers.

So clearly, having fewer teachers is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is tragic when we lose the good ones. Throughout much of the country, the decisions as to which teachers get laid off are determined by archaic seniority policies. Teachers-of-the-year are laid off before their mediocre or incompetent counterparts simply because the latter may have been hired a few days before the former. This is no way to run an education system. The sooner we get away from the smaller-is-better myth and turn our attention to scrapping the industrial style “last in, first out” method, the better.

About the author: 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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Earthquake Could Alter Education Landscape in California

Latest temblor to hit the Golden State is a lawsuit that could result in a major tectonic shift in education.

In September of 1975, due to New York City’s dire fiscal situation, I was laid off from my teaching position at P.S. 125 in Harlem. I lost my job not because I was a bad teacher, but because I was hired a few months after the teacher in the room next to mine…who was a lousy teacher. Using seniority, or last in/first out (LIFO), as a way to determine who keeps their job is wrong. It stank 37 years ago in New York and it’s no better in California in 2012.

Thirty-three other states leave these kinds of staffing decisions to local education agencies, but in California, LIFO is written into the state education code. However, this and more may be about to change. If successful, a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles by Students Matter would shake up the way California conducts much of its educational business. John Fensterwald writes,

Students Matter is the creation of David Welch, co-founder of Infinera, a manufacturer of optical telecommunications systems in Sunnyvale. The new nonprofit filed its lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday on behalf of eight students who attend four school districts. A spokesperson for the organization told the Los Angeles Times that Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and a few other individuals are underwriting the lawsuit. They have hired two top-gun attorneys to lead the case: Ted Boutrous, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Ted Olsen, former solicitor general for President George W. Bush.

The lawsuit asserts that five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest. The tenure statute forces districts to decide after teachers are on the job only 18 months whether to grant them permanent job status. Once granted tenure, they gain due-process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them even if they’re “grossly ineffective.” And then, when an economic downturn comes – witness the last four years – a Last In/First Out (LIFO) requirement leads to layoffs based strictly on seniority, not competency.

Organizations that have signed up for the suit as advisors are major players in the educational reform world. They include:

Democrats for Education Reform
Education Trust-West
New Schools Venture Fund
Parent Revolution
Students First
Students for Education Reform

Of course California shouldn’t need a lawsuit to end such an onerous system. But the sad fact is that it does for the simple reason that too many people in power have become way too comfy and have too much invested in the abysmal status quo. The teachers unions’ raison d’être will suffer if teachers started being treated as professionals and not interchangeable widgets. School boards will have to stop being doormats for their local teachers unions, take more initiative and come up with evaluation systems for teachers that have teeth. And school administrators will have to conduct teacher evaluations that ensure the best ones keep their jobs and the bottom performers are shown the door. Principals need to know that if they don’t accurately assess teachers, they could be out of a job. In short, there will be real accountability for all the players.

So far, very little has come out of the teachers’ and principals’ unions about the Students Matter lawsuit and the California School Board Association has also been mum. At this point, the only recorded comment on the lawsuit has come from the California Teachers Association president who in typical union fashion tried to redirect the conversation and duck any responsibility for the educational mess we find ourselves in. Dean Vogel said,

…the debate about teacher tenure and dismissal is being driven by the state’s economic crisis, which has drained education funding and resulted in waves of layoffs.

No Mr. Vogel, the debate has been brought to a head by the economic crisis, but is driven by people who actually care about how children are educated and miseducated in California.

In addition to LIFO, the suit attacks tenure which can be attained in California after just two years, essentially guaranteeing a 23 year-old teacher a job for life. Over ninety-eight percent of teachers in California get tenure, and once it’s granted, getting rid of a teacher is just about impossible. Fensterwald again,

The protection of ineffective teachers “creates arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality among students,” especially low-income children in low-performing schools, where less experienced teachers are hired and inept veteran teachers are shunted off, under a familiar “dance of the lemons” since they can’t be fired. Because education is a “fundamental interest” under the state Constitution, the five statutes that “dictate this unequal, arbitrary result violate the equal protection provisions of the California Constitution” and should be overturned.

According to Troy Senik in the Los Angeles Times,

… teachers in California — even terrible ones — are virtually never fired. A tiny 0.03% of California teachers are dismissed after three or more years on the job. In the last decade, the L.A. Unified School District, home to 33,000 teachers, has fired only four. Even when teachers are fired, it’s seldom because of their classroom performance: A 2009 expose by this newspaper found that only 20% of successful dismissals in the state had anything to do with teaching ability. Most involved teachers behaving either obscenely or criminally.

The lawsuit includes a chart which shows the ridiculous lengths that a school district must go through to get rid of an underperformer or a teacher involved in criminality once they have attained tenure.

Interestingly, another lawsuit, filed last year, has a court date in a few weeks. If successful, this litigation, which concerns itself with the state’s 40 year-old Stull Act, would be something of a companion to the Students Matter case. While the Los Angeles Unified School District is targeted in the Stull suit, if it flies, there would be statewide ramifications. As I wrote in January,

For nearly 40 years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has broken the law—and nobody seemed to notice. Now a group of parents and students are taking the district to court. On November 1, a half-dozen anonymous families working with EdVoice, a reform advocacy group in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the LAUSD, district superintendent John Deasy, and United Teachers Los Angeles. The lawsuit in essence accuses the district and the union of a gross dereliction of duty. According to the parents’ complaint, the district and the union have violated the children’s “fundamental right to basic educational equality and opportunity” by failing to comply with a section of the California Education Code known as the Stull Act. Under the 1971 law, a school district must include student achievement as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Los Angeles Unified has never done so: the teachers union wouldn’t allow it.

Thus, if the Stull lawsuit is successful, each school district in the state will be required to come up with its own method of evaluating teachers, but they all must use evidence of student learning via a standardized test as a component. If the Students Matter case then succeeds, there will already be evaluation systems in place to supplant LIFO. Incidentally, none of this is exactly revolutionary. At this time, 23 states currently use student performance on standardized tests as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

While the Students Matter case would go a long way toward getting California up to speed, even more would need to be done to restore the Golden State’s once great public education system. But as RiShawn Biddle says, there can be no denying that this lawsuit “is another important step in developing new strategies for advancing systemic reform.” This suit will bring up issues that the entrenched special interests don’t want to discuss. But their tired old spin will give way to the shakes as the earth begins to realign itself and the educational landscape changes.

About the author: 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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

The Second American Revolution

If education reformers stick to principle and don’t back down, all other obstacles to victory can be overcome.

Recently, Andrew Rotherham wrote a short piece in The Atlantic in which he describes “The 3 Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform”. The first obstacle he mentions is that currently “We buy reform.”

Or at least we try to. Some politicians really think that throwing money at the problem will help and the less principled ones do it because they are trying to pay back certain political allies. The result is that untold billions are taken from taxpayers to support giant bureaucracies on the federal and state levels and to prop up programs that do little or nothing to help the students who desperately need it. Rotherham writes,

The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy — the 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office — and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions at any level of education policymaking.

This bears repeating – there are 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality! Improving teacher quality is important, of course, but ultimately it’s just one small piece of the education reform picture. While one can find some good in the Bush era No Child Left Behind and Obama-Duncan’s Race to the Top, in the grand scheme of things both programs end up creating as many problems as they solve, and do so at an unbearable financial cost.

Rotherham’s second obstacle is “Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.” I disagree with Rotherham here. We have adequate ways to measure performance. They are not perfect, but what we have is good enough to work with in the meantime while we continually strive for improvements. As I wrote in January,

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

While using value added is important, this measure is not the only way to evaluate teachers. Observations by principals and outside evaluators are important components as is feedback from parents and students. These hybrid evaluation plans are being used now in New York and elsewhere. In Harrison, CO, School Superintendent Mike Miles has used a combination of standardized tests and classroom observation to come up with a tiered system of teacher effectiveness. (Miles, who has been called “an icon in educator effectiveness,” is apparently on his way to Dallas to head up its school system.)

Rotherham correctly bemoans “last in, first out,” the horrific seniority system that too many school districts still use. Seventeen states, including California, do not leave staffing decisions of this nature to individual school districts – they are state mandates. Seniority, a teachers union favorite, is like our tailbones, a vestigial remnant from another era. In this rigid system, no weight is given to an employee’s effectiveness, just to length of time on the job. So on a regular basis we have “Teachers of the Year” being laid off, while far less effective colleagues get to keep their jobs. The union claims this is a fair way to make staffing decisions.

Fair? Hardly. It’s highly unprincipled – horrible for children, grossly unfair to good teachers and taxpayers and must be done away with in toto.

In fact, the National Teacher of the Year award has just been given to a teacher in California. On its website, NEA proudly proclaimed her “an NEA member.” The irony is that this terrific teacher could have been laid off, with no exception made for her teaching ability, if she had been hired a few years later. So you might say that she is still on the job in spite of the teachers unions and their insistence on a seniority-based system.

Rotherham’s third obstacle is, “Education policy is by its nature political, conservative, and change-averse.”

All too often educrats, school board members and the teachers unions selfishly fight to maintain the status quo – and the kids be damned. Unless the current state of affairs is rigorously and unapologetically challenged by reformers, our country will suffer irreparable damage.

Rotherham could have added a fourth and overarching obstacle – that there is squishiness in parts of the reform movement. For example, “partnering” with the industrial style and self-absorbed teachers unions and searching for “best practices” are diversionary and ultimately pointless exercises, yet there are some who embrace them in the name of reform. In an exceptional essay, RiShawn Biddle makes a case for “The Importance of Being Divisive in Education.” He notes that many significant historical figures like Winston Churchill and Thomas Paine were considered divisive because of their standing on principle and their unwillingness to compromise. He claims that for education to undergo a necessary transformation, we need to have more divisiveness, not less. Teachers unions and other members of the educational establishment have derisively referred to Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee as divisive. But as Biddle says,

… school reformers should accept — and fully embrace — being divisive. Because it is the only way we can transform American public education.

The situation is somewhat akin to the founding of our country. I suppose that King George looked upon George Washington as divisive, as well as the aforementioned Paine, and Madison, and Jefferson. Biddle goes on to state,

Being divisive about challenging a failed, amoral system that condemns 1.2 million children a year to poverty and prison is at the heart of the school reform movement. And this is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with actively opposing a traditional system of compensation that has fostered teacher quality policies that subject our poorest children to the worst American public education offers. And, more importantly, there is nothing terrible about pushing to end policies that do little more than harm the futures of children who deserve better.

In short, education reformers are at war with those who, for their own selfish reasons, are fighting to maintain a failed system. Because a revolution in education must occur if we are to regain our status as a great nation, playing nice with the enemy will not get the job done. In a time of warfare, divisiveness is a virtue. Without it, and a principled spine of steel, the war will be lost and our country along with it.

About the author: 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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Good Teachers: Beware The Ides of March

Julius Caesar came to a bad end on March 15th, the same date many good teachers were warned that they may be unemployed in June.

Nearly 20,000 Teacher Pink Slips Statewide Show Drastic Need for More Education Funding” screamed the headline on the California Teachers Association website.

First, let’s straighten out the union spin. Typically when a person receives a “pink slip,” it means that they are fired. What some teachers actually received is a Reduction in Force (RIF) notice, which according to state law, must be sent to teachers by March 15th if there is the slightest chance that they will be laid off in June. School districts really don’t know in March what their budget will be for the next school year so they plan for the worst case scenario. It’s unheard of for all teachers who get the notices to actually be laid off, but some will, and they must be notified if there is any chance they will lose their jobs.

As a young teacher in New York City in 1975, I lost my 6th grade teaching position because the city was in the midst of a fiscal swoon. A few thousand of us were laid off because we were the newest hires, not because we were the worst teachers. The union contract did not make any provision for getting rid of the poorest performers, just the newly employed. Fast forward 37 years and we are still doing the same stupid thing.

In California, the state education code stipulates that seniority must be the determinant as to who gets the ax when times are tough. Last in, first out (LIFO) is the law of the land in California and is a terrible way to make staffing decisions. Teachers should be assessed on their merits, and if layoffs must happen, the poorest performers should go, just as in every other field.

How many bad teachers are there? (Please spare me the “teacher bashing” epithet; there are stinkers in every field – doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. The difference is that if the latter continuously fail their clients, they will be forced out of their profession. But not teachers.) Former GE CEO Jack Welch said that the bottom 10 percent of any field should be replaced. I will use a more conservative number – let’s say that 5 percent of teachers are poor performers.

In California, there are about 300,000 teachers. If 5 percent of them aren’t fit to teach, that means we have 15,000 who should seek work elsewhere. If each of these teachers has 20 kids in a class, it means they are ruining the educational experience of 300,000 children a year. If a young student has two dogs in a row, in all likelihood they will never catch up, thus inflicting permanent damage. And a middle or high school teacher in the bottom 5 percent can do even more harm, as he or she may have 150 students per year.

Another thing to consider when laying off teachers is that by not limiting your choice to newest hires, not as many would have to be let go. That’s because the newest hires are always the lowest paid, thanks to the antiquated step and column pay scale that school districts use. This set-up rewards teachers for the number of years on the job, irrespective of their effectiveness.

The consequence of ridding schools of their lowest performing teachers can be transformative. According to Hoover Institution scholar Eric Hanushek, if we just got rid of the bottom performing 5 to 7 percent of teachers – a common practice in the private sector — our education system could rival that of Finland’s world class system.

Of course, common sense changes will be difficult to bring about in California due to the enormous power of CTA. Teachers unions care not a whit about teacher quality. They just want as many breathing, dues paying bodies in the classroom as possible.

Julius Caesar had good reason to fear March 15th. It is a crying shame that so many excellent teachers should have that same fear.

About the author: 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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Bad Signs at the SOS March

“Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

“You can’t light a fire in an empty bucket” – Larry Sand

The Save Our Schools March, Rally and Pity Party went off as planned in D.C. this past weekend, although on a smaller scale than the organizers had anticipated. They thought they could attract 5-10,000 people, but according to Education Week, only 3,000 showed up. Of those 3,000, it is unknown how many were teachers.

Many of the protesters carried signs which pretty much captured their reason for supporting the event. Essentially, the messages can be broken down into two basic areas. The first were in the political-economical realm:
• Charter schools stole your kids lunch money
• students before bankers
• fund education, not occupation
• stop private interest from destroying public schools
• our children deserve the same education as Sacha and Malia
• Socialism is the alternative

The second type of signs was directed at the protesters’ near phobia of standardized testing:
• Who profits from testing?
• Education is more than test prep
• kids need teachers not tests
• testing is not teaching, end high stake tests
• my students are people not numbers
• children are more than walking, talking test scores
• data is a four letter word
• we want education not test preperation (sic) (This photo speaks volumes!)

That the march was supported by several socialist organizations, including Students for a Democratic Society, Freedom Socialist Party, Radical Women and 56 labor unions, would certainly explain the leftward slant of messages in the signs. But it is the anti-testing animus that is at the crux of the marchers’ anger. The first quote in the subhead is from Yeats, and is featured on the SOS website and on several of the marchers’ signs. It tries to make the point that schooling should be about igniting children’s imagination, not teaching them facts. But if children don’t know any facts – about literature, history, science, etc. — all the imagination in the world won’t take them anywhere.

Despite the protesters’ allegations, no education reformers are advocating that a single test determine the effectiveness of a given teacher. But standardized tests do give some indication of what a student has learned and concomitantly what a teacher has taught them. Hence there are accountability systems popping up around the country which do use testing as one of the indicators of an effective teacher. Perhaps the best known is IMPACT, which is currently in use in Washington D.C.

The fact that the teachers unions and their disciples are dead set against using any testing as even a part of an evaluation points to the fact the unions are opposed to any serious form of teacher evaluation. Because once such a system is in place, some teachers will be found to be better than others, which could lead to ditching an arbitrary seniority system should layoffs be a necessity. It could also lead to a system of performance pay whereby good teachers make more than their less effective counterparts. As soon as the all-teachers-are-the-same myth is dispelled, unionism in its current form is in deep trouble.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, issued a press release stating, “This coalition is the same coalition of the past 35 years. It advocates for the status quo and reform to them is about money, control, and no high stakes tests or accountability.”

In a similar vein, Association of American Educators Executive Director Gary Beckner said, “Teachers absolutely need to be part of the conversation as we reform a system that works for students, communities and teachers. Sadly one needn’t dig deep to realize that this rally is not about what’s best for schools and teachers, but the same old union fight to preserve the status quo…. Teachers – don’t take the bait.”

Education reform writer RiShawn Biddle put it this way, “When you look closely, the Save Our Schools rally is really the March to Save Teachers’ Unions. This is because four decades of dissatisfaction with American education — along with the high cost of lackluster schools — is finally coming home to roost.”

Fortunately, the forces of progress and reform are beginning to shake up the system and loosen the grip that the unions have had on it. As such, the unions and their acolytes are desperately clinging to antiquated policies that are failing our children and seriously threatening our country’s future. But it’s no secret any more that the Same Old Stuff is working about as well as trying to light a fire in an empty bucket.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Tempest in a Seniority Teapot?

Does a recent court ruling in Los Angeles really signal the beginning of the end of an unjust teacher seniority system? Or does the decision amount to nothing more than a zero-sum game, favoring some at the expense of others?

A recent “landmark decision” in Los Angeles is said to have made inroads into the way staffing decisions are made in the city’s massive school district. In fact, some say the decision will have national ramifications. But are these claims valid?

When teachers lose their jobs due to layoffs, the state education code says that they must be done by seniority. Hence the last hired is the first fired. Typically, the lowest performing schools are the most impacted because they invariably have a much greater percentage of new hires.

This situation came to a head in 2009 when three Los Angeles Unified School District middle schools were particularly hard hit. “The three middle schools at issue, Samuel Gompers Middle School (‘Gompers’), John H. Liechty Middle School (‘Liechty’), and Edwin Markham Middle School (‘Markham’), are each ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in California in terms of academic performance. During a 2009 reduction in force (‘RIF’), LAUSD sent RIF notices to 60% of the teachers at Liechty, 48% of the teachers at Gompers, and 46% of the teachers at Markham. These figures are in contrast with the fact that LAUSD only sent notices to 17.9% of all of its teachers. The RIFs resulted in a large number of teacher vacancies at all three schools.”

When vacancies like these happen en masse, a school becomes destabilized because a revolving door of substitutes is called to fill the vacated classrooms. Finding this situation intolerable, the American Civil Liberties Union spun into action and filed a class action lawsuit.

Just last month, citing a part of the education code that says that a district may deviate from seniority (f)or purposes of maintaining or achieving compliance with constitutional requirements related to equal protection of the laws, Superior Judge William Highberger ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

The settlement “reached between the plaintiffs and LAUSD and the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, protects students in up to 45 Targeted Schools in the unfortunate event of budget-based teacher layoffs and provides support and resources aimed at stabilizing and improving these schools, including retention incentives for teachers and principals. The Targeted Schools will be determined annually and will include 25 under-performing and difficult-to-staff schools that have suffered from staff retention issues yet are starting to make positive strides. In addition, up to 20 schools will be selected based on the likelihood that the school will be negatively and disproportionately affected by teacher turnover. To ensure that any impact from preserving teacher positions at the Targeted Schools is fairly distributed, the settlement provides that no school at or above the district-wide average of layoffs will be negatively affected.”

Many, like incoming LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, were thrilled, crowing that the decision was “historic.” Others claimed that it was the beginning of the end of seniority as a method of making staffing decisions.

Predictably, the teachers unions were outraged. “This settlement will do nothing to address the inequities suffered by our most at-risk students,” said United Teachers of Los Angeles Elementary Vice President Julie Washington. “It is a travesty that this settlement, by avoiding real solutions and exacerbating the problem, actually undermines the civil and constitutional rights of our students.”

New State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who was the California Teachers Association’s choice for that position, toed the union line stating, “The ruling could hurt students by requiring them to be taught by inexperienced teachers rather than finding ways to bring in more experienced and arguably more effective teachers.”

But let’s take a step back and look at what really happened. Despite the winners’ elation, seniority has not been dismantled at all. This archaic way of deciding who stays and who goes is still very much with us. While the ruling does protect students at the lowest 45 performing schools, students at the rest of the 750 LAUSD campuses will still lose some excellent teachers only because they were the last hired.

Hence, the onerous seniority rules are still in force in about 95% of the district’s schools.

The winners: the children at the bottom performing schools who will not lose any teachers due to the seniority system.

The losers: the children at all the other district schools who will absorb the brunt of the decision.

Hardly a landmark decision in my book. But if it’s ultimately shown to be the first small but necessary step in the complete dismantling of a system that discriminates against good teachers and ultimately children, then I will happily reconsider my position.

Last week, I was invited to go on a national television program and explain my views on the ruling. The producer’s plan was to have a second party who would malign the judge’s decision and defend the union position which supports district-wide seniority. Interestingly, the segment was canceled because despite great efforts, no willing party could be found to take the union side. Apparently, many calls and emails to UTLA and CTA were not returned.

I can only assume that the unions know that promoting an unfair and child-unfriendly position would further erode their already dwindling public respect.

The other losers in this case: the teachers unions, who are starting to see their vise-like grip on public education very slowly beginning to slip away.