Posts

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The lawsuit asserts that five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest.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.

Adults’ Rights Come Before Children’s Health and Welfare in Public Schools

Parents send their children to school assuming that kids are its number one priority. But as recent events have shown, public schools are Ground Zero for a culture that puts children last and doesn’t hold adults accountable.

In Waiting For Superman, Michelle Rhee stated that it took her a while, but she finally realized that public education is really about the adults, not the kids. No truer words have ever been spoken. In too many cases, a small group of inept and corrupt adults – district administrators, school boards and teachers unions – is in charge of what has become an increasingly incompetent public education system. Recently, several scandalous events point to deep-seated problems.

First and foremost, we have the Mark Berndt case in Los Angeles. This man sexually abused children for years at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. For many reasons — including careless dismissal of children’s claims, missing teacher files and operating in a culture of non-accountability — Berndt got away with doing unspeakable things to his students for over 20 years. The system is so perverse that the school district couldn’t get rid of Berndt without going through a lengthy appeals process costing over $300,000. So, when his crimes were exposed, Berndt gamed the system by accepting a $40,000 bribe and retired – but only after racking up another year of credit toward his pension.

And what was the Los Angeles Unified School District’s fix? It decided to ban the blindfolding of children and classroom-made butter. Yes, because Berndt would blindfold his kids and do revolting things to them including feeding them semen-topped cookies, LAUSD responds by slapping a small Band-Aid on a malignant tumor.

The Berndt situation really is just the tip of the iceberg, as case after case of abuse has bubbled to the surface in LA. In California, all school districts have a mandate to report any and all cases of abuse to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which then makes the decision whether or not a teacher’s credential should be pulled. But LAUSD, ignoring the law, never bothered to notify the commission about Berndt or any of the many cases of abusive teachers in Los Angeles classrooms.

Then, across the country in New York, we have the unfirable physical education teacher Valerie Yarn. All Ms. Yarn did was sexually harass her bosses, writing her principal sexually laden emails to the point where the principal had to get a court order banning Yarn from contacting her. After violating the court order, Yarn was imprisoned. Upon her release, however, she was allowed to go back to work at a middle school where she regularly had girls illegally strip to the waist so she could “examine” them. For this she got a one-year suspension, though the district continues to pay her health insurance. It’s anybody’s guess whether she will get her teaching job back and resume her hobby of fondling her female students.

Who is at fault here? To be sure, union lawyers make certain that a bad or criminal teacher can’t be fired, but the local school board in this case makes The Three Stooges look like Navy SEALs. In short, the intersection of Inept Avenue and Evil Street can be the scene of many an atrocity.

Back in California, we have the ongoing saga of parents rising up and trying to take control of a miserable school. As I wrote last week,

Tired of low test scores, (at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, a Mojave Desert town in eastern California) some parents organized and got more than 50 percent of the parents at the school to sign a “Parent Trigger” petition, which would give them the right to choose a different type of school governance.

However, the Wall Street Journal reports that the California Teachers Association, a union that will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo and thus its political power, sent out “representatives” to Adelanto to disseminate “information” to the parents there. (“Union speak” alert: “Representatives” and “information” really mean sending unidentified operatives to petition-signers’ homes and feeding them lies about the petition that they just signed.)

The unionistas’ door-to-door rescission campaign managed to scare enough signers into revoking their signatures, thus nullifying the proposed action. CTA pulled the same stunt in Compton, the first time parents rose up and “pulled the Trigger.” But after a legal challenge, in which the parents were successfully represented pro bono by the firm of Kirkland and Ellis, the Trigger went forward, and produced the opening of a new charter school. Apparently, Kirkland and Ellis are ready for a second go-round and will represent the parents in Adelanto.

According to follow up stories by AP writer Christina Hoag and the Wall Street Journal, it is apparent that the rescissions were falsified and it looks as if the parent takeover will go forward. But no thanks to the California Teachers Association, which was happy to throw the kids under the bus in order to maintain the status quo at a failing school.

Finally, we have the stunning case of 13 year-old Jada Williams in New York. Honoring Black History Month, Jada wrote an essay about Frederick Douglass and his refusal to be passive in the face of cruel and inhuman slave conditions. Jada compared Douglass’ situation to today’s inner cities where she feels that many teachers have given up teaching African-American children. Whether or not one agrees with her premise, it was an eloquent essay from an 8th grader. So what did her teachers do?

According to Mary Theroux at the Independent Institute:

One would think that Jada Williams would be every teacher’s dream. Given a book above her comprehension, she takes the initiative to use a dictionary to work her way through it, grasps the most salient point of the narrative, and produces an essay applying its lessons to today.

Jada has instead been hounded by her teachers and administrators out of the Rochester Public School system. Her teacher gave copies of Jada’s essay to the school’s other teachers and the principal. Jada, once a solid A and B student, started receiving failing grades, and her parents were called with reports about Jada’s “anger.” Teachers refused to show Jada’s parents the tests and assignments she had supposedly done so badly on, and branded her a “problem” student. Successfully driven from that school, the family quickly found Jada shut out of any other than the district’s “warehouse” school for what used be known as “incorrigibles.”

Jada’s mother is now homeschooling her and trying to figure out what to do about her daughter’s education in the future. Fortunately, Glenn Beck got hold of the story and now the entire country knows just a little more of what passes for public education in Rochester. The speech that Jada read is available here on YouTube. (H/T Carrie Remis, director of the Parent Power Project in Rochester.)

While the above cases of child abuse are particularly egregious, they are unfortunately not isolated incidents. Due to school boards that have forgotten their mission, bought-and-paid-for legislators, bureaucrats who have become much too comfy in their jobs and teachers unions which never gave a damn about students in the first place, the school children of America are being used as pawns by the entire education establishment. Parents must become aware of this pathetic situation and take action.

Homeschool your kids, if at all possible. If not, visit their school regularly and meet every adult who comes into contact with them. Run for school board. If you can’t manage that, go to as many school board meetings as you can and let these elected officials know that you are watching their every move. Insist on seeing evidence of the effectiveness of your child’s teacher. Find other concerned parents, march on your state’s capitol and demand an end to all laws – seniority and tenure, for example – that favor adults’ needs over children’s. And while you are dealing with legislators, urge them to pass laws that will give parents a choice as to where to send their children to school. Involve yourself with organizations that have parents and children as their number one priority. Two of the more prominent national organizations are StudentsFirst and American Federation for Children. In California, Parent Revolution is an organization that works with parents at underperforming schools.

Parents, no one loves and cares for your children like you do. It is imperative that you realize that leaving your kids with absolute strangers for six to eight hours a day can be very risky business. Blind trust in public schools is a recipe for disaster. Proceed with great caution.

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 Route to Teacher Union Extinction: Is the Other Shoe Dropping?

In addition to online learning, Democrat’s abandonment of their traditional union allies could put an end to the educational status quo and decimate the teachers unions.

In my October 18th post, I wrote about Terry Moe’s book Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. I specifically addressed that part of the book in which he builds a scenario for the eventual undoing of the teachers unions. One of the two ways he claims this will happen is via technology, in the form of online learning. The other route to marginalization is the realization by Democrats that education is really a civil rights issue and that they are morally bound to get on board with reform and choice. By adopting this position, they will be abandoning their longtime political allies – the teachers unions.

As with the rapid ascent of online learning, Moe’s second nail in the unions’ coffin is picking up speed. In a recent Huffington Post entry, Joy Resmovits addresses the “new education lobby.”

“It’s ambitious, expansive and, in some cases, modeling itself after sprawling single-issue lobbying organizations like the National Rifle Association and AARP. The groups, which have in large part been created by hedge fund managers and lapsed government officials, count political operatives inside state legislatures and even the Democratic National Committee among their ranks. And they’re using the power of their fundraisers’ purses and sophisticated messaging outfits to push their agendas in local and school-board elections across the country.”

Traditionally, education reform and school choice have been conservative/libertarian causes. Starting with vouchers, a creation of libertarian Milton Friedman in the 1950s, the ideas for education reform, with few exceptions, have come from right leaning think tanks like Pacific Research Institute, Hoover Institution, Goldwater Institute, Reason Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, etc. The policy ideas put forth by these and other similar organizations have formed the basis for many of the education reforms that are in place today.

What is perhaps most interesting about this “new education lobby” that Resmovits writes about is that many of them are Democrats. Yes, Democrats are essentially picking up the ideas put forth by the right and taking them to statehouses all over the country. And the teachers unions are definitely not enthralled with this new development.

Democrats for Education Reform, founded in 2007, has become a potent lobbying force in just a few years. They have set up shop in ten states and their reform efforts are essentially indistinguishable from those on the right. Consequently, they have not escaped the wrath of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. The union claims that DFER:
• doesn’t sound like Democrats.
• hates teachers.
• knows nothing about education.
• is made up of hedge fund managers (Whitney Tilson, John Petry, et al) and billionaires (Eli Broad, who funds DFER’s sister organization Education Reform Now.)
• is comprised of narcissists.

(Note to reform-minded Democrats – welcome to the world that those on the right have lived in for many years!)

Another example of the Democrat-as-reformer-lobbyist phenomenon is Michelle Rhee, who is a self-described “lifelong, card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.” After a short, successful and highly publicized reign as Chancellor of D.C. public schools, she left her position after the American Federation of Teachers donated over $1 million to unseat Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, in 2010. Shortly after Fenty’s loss, Rhee founded Students First, an advocacy organization whose goal is to raise $1 billion in ten years. The AFT’s response to Ms. Rhee’s efforts was to put up a smear website called RheeFirst.

Whereas DFER is out to reform the Democratic Party, Rhee will work with anyone or any organization that shares her reform vision.

There are many other Democrats working hard for reform and incurring the wrath of the unions. Kevin Chavous, cofounder of DFER and Chairman of the Board of Black Alliance for Educational Options, Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting For Superman and Ben Austin, who fathered the first Parent Trigger law, are just a few examples of Democrat’s joining the education reform movement.

Even with this new bipartisan reform effort, the teachers unions are not about to fold their tents and give up any time soon. It’s going to be a long bloody war with some battles being won (Wisconsin) and some lost (Ohio.) In fact, just last week, Dropout Nation’s Rishawn Biddle wrote about the recent release of the National Education Association’s 2010-2011 LM-2 filing, a required Department of Labor annual report. revealing recent political expenditures.

“The numbers are spectacular. The nation’s largest teachers’ union spent $133 million in 2010-2011 on lobbying and contributions to groups whose agendas (in theory) dovetail with its own. This included $255,000 to the Economic Policy Institute, the progressive think tank cofounded by Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, whose education reports generally take a pro-NEA slant….”

“Among the big recipients of the NEA’s largesse this year were ProgressNow’s affiliates in Michigan and Colorado, each receiving, respectively, $10,000 and $125,000, for education policy advocacy and legislative advocacy activities. ProgressNow, by the way, was one of the key players in ousting school reform-minded Michigan legislator Paul Scott from his statehouse seat earlier this month and has decried Gov. Rick Snyder’s efforts to allow for the expansion of charter schools and school choice….”

“The usual suspects are also on the list: Communities for Quality Education, which has long been subsidized by the NEA, collected $1 million in 2010-2011. Anti-testing group FairTest picked up $35,000 this time around. So are some leading education traditionalists: Parents Across America co-founder) Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters picked up $25,000 from the union last fiscal year, while Western Michigan’s Gary Miron (whose rather flawed study on KIPP’s charter schools earlier this year was the subject of Dropout Nation‘s analysis) picked up $5,000. Meanwhile the NEA directly poured $43,000 into the Save Our Schools rally held this past July; this doesn’t include dollars poured in by state and local affiliates.”

With the ability to throw this kind of money around, NEA’s effect on maintaining the status quo with its attendant failing educational policies cannot be exaggerated. So those of us involved in reform will have to be satisfied as long as the ball is being advanced, even if it’s slower than we would like. As writer Louis L’Amour once said, “Victory is won not in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later, win a little more.”

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.