Why Paying Teachers More Matters

Let’s get it out of the way:

Greedy teachers’ unions, teachers only get paid to work 180 days a year, summers “off,” winter “break,” seven hour work days (ha!), “I had this mean/lazy/awful teacher once…”

Those perceptions are so crystallized in the minds of anti-public-education folks that no amount of evidence or reason to the contrary will convince them.

But here’s the simple truth: To attract and retain teachers capable of meeting the exceedingly high public and policy standards placed on public education, we need to pay them better.

It isn’t about throwing money at the problem, which is the common refrain.

I’ll use myself as an example: While I love teaching, believe I am good at it, and believe strongly in the importance of public education, I am also a husband and a parent of three. The latter job, in truth, is the most important to me. As a result, every single year of my career (15 years in, now) I have had to have multiple sources of income in order to meet the basic needs of my family. We don’t live extravagantly: no gaming system or high tech entertainment suite, I’m typing this on a nine-year-old iMac, we don’t take lavish trips, we don’t have fancy cars. I’m not complaining, as we are comfortable… we’re just kinda simple-living people.

But still, to make the student loan payments, mortgage (we bought at half of what we were pre-approved for back in 2004, so we’re pretty conservative in that realm as well), and everyday bills, we are a three-income family. To live simply and comfortably, we have to be a three income family. We have enough savings to last us a month or two in an emergency, but not a dime saved for my sons’ college. Still, though, by comparison to most in this world, I absolutely acknowledge that we are doing fine.

Several times a year, non-education job prospects come my way. Sometimes it is a parent or community member who somehow saw skill in how I operate. Sometimes it is a non-education business or organization. Usually, the pay is better, the hours are better, the work is less…

[Enter the internet trolls: “Then why don’t you quit complaining about low teacher pay and take one of THOSE jobs??!!”]

That is exactly my point.

I am a good teacher. I could leave, probably fairly easily, and find good employment elsewhere. If school funding tanks or pay continues to not keep up with costs of living and I can’t support my family on teaching plus side gigs, you bet I will look for a one-job, one-income, kind of employment. And I think I’d be able to find work because I have a track record of being good at my job, getting results, and impacting students and colleagues through my efforts.

That would mean I would leave the classroom.

There are many other teachers like me, and I’ve already watched several of them peel away. It was painful. Several talked about feeling like a failure for taking a better paying job outside of education, in a couple of cases, literally months after receiving honors and awards as top tier teachers. The best teachers are the ones who are eminently employable outside of education as well. The best teachers are who we stand to lose.

Do we want our kids taught by teachers who teach because they love it and are good at it… or by those who aren’t good enough to successfully compete for other jobs? To keep the former, we need to be sure to pay them well enough to recruit them, retain them, and let them live a work life where they can focus on the work of teaching children well… not finding side jobs to build a life for their own families.

It isn’t about greedy teachers’ unions. It isn’t about throwing money at the problem.

We should not expect a high quality teaching corps if we aren’t willing to pay for it.

 

ACLU vs OSPI

Last week the ACLU sued the OSPI because Washington students with emotional disabilities are suspended or expelled from school at twice the normal rate. The suit alleges that the state should ensure that teachers “de-escalate” situations in which students with emotional disorders are having outbursts.

I have always admired the ACLU. They consistently take contrarian stands in support of the most marginalized people in our society. It’s an important role, now more than ever.

And on this issue they are true to form, advocating for the highest of the high-needs students, the kids with disabilities that prevent them from controlling their behavior well enough to make it through a day in school without having a verbal or physical meltdown or endangering their classmates or teachers. These kids need advocates.

I know because I’ve got one of these kids in my class this year. He has an IEP for academics and behavior. He performs about two grade levels below his peers and spends most of the school day in a series of learning support small-groups.

And as long as no one makes any demands on him, he’s fine.

But it’s hard to go through a school day without anyone putting demands on you. Teachers are supposed to ask students to do such things as read, write, solve math problems, join discussions, walk in the hallway, stop talking, take turns, and so on. And when someone asks this guy to do any of those things, there will be an outburst. There will be yelling, door-slamming, chair-throwing, running off and swearing. And by swearing, I mean serious filth; the kind of talk you’d expect from a hung-over stevedore trying to start a cold, 2-stroke outboard engine.

And then there’s the playground. Most kids are able to handle the give-and-take of the somewhat unstructured playground environment. There’s bound to be some teasing, perhaps some taunting and occasionally it can get a little nasty, which is why we have supervision. Most kids know when to pull back before a situation turns violent, but once in awhile we have kids who don’t, and again that’s why we have supervision.

This little guy has no filter, no control. The slightest slight by another student is cause for a full-on response, consisting of violence, racial and sexual insults and, of course, swearing.

All of this is despite the fact that he has a full-time, one-on-one aid. She shows up every morning, follows him around all day, helps him with his assignments and does everything possible to de-escalate his outbursts. It’s literally a full-time job and it’s required by his IEP.

Which brings me back to the ACLU lawsuit.

I get it; kids should not be suspended or expelled because of their disability. But as I explained to the parents of this particular student, there comes a time when I have to advocate for the rest of the class. And the rest of the class is terrified of this student. When he enters the room, they all get quiet and try to become as small as possible. His racial insults make them cry. He’s getting big enough that when he hits them it causes serious pain.

Consequently, he has been suspended at least three times this year. We did not do it lightly. We were fully aware of the consequences of our actions. We knew that he suffers a disability that affects his ability to self-govern.

But there are 600 students in our school and 27 students in my class. They need advocacy, too. At some point the right thing to do for the larger population might not be the right action for one particular person. When a student, no matter who it is, crosses the line and does or says something completely beyond the pale, suspension is an action a school must have at its disposal.

I’ll be interested to see how this lawsuit proceeds. If there’s another way to deal with students who display extreme behavioral disorders, I’d love to know about it. But until then, I think we need to continue to use school suspension as a last resort.

Charter Schools

My sister asked me why teachers objected to charter schools. Why shouldn’t the money just follow the kids to whatever school the parents choose?

I said that back in the 1970s, when I first started teaching, my first couple of jobs were in little Christian schools. We got paid about a third of what public school teachers made. Almost no benefits. I remember being handed a ream of paper before school started—that was my supply of copy paper for my class for the year. We had no specialists and no support staff.

At that time the parents sometimes talked about how frustrating it was that they paid taxes for public schools and then paid tuition for private school. Why couldn’t they have their own tax money to pay for their tuition?

My sister said, “Exactly.”

I told her the voucher movement started with already existing private schools. Even with that small beginning, the public schools were highly suspicious. I remember a great story from New York City where the public school union reps confronted the Catholic school nuns, accusing them of wanting to take only the best and the brightest of the students and turning away the trouble makers. The nuns said, “You pick who you send to our schools. We’ll take whoever you send.” That shut up the union, as far as those schools were concerned.

The ironic thing was, most of the private religious schools that I knew about quickly turned away from the voucher movement. They decided that money from the government in any form—even in the form of vouchers—would come with government strings attached. And they wanted to preserve their autonomy.

However, the voucher movement continued. Individuals, institutions, organizations—people created charter schools specifically to take advantage of voucher programs. And some charter schools are businesses, designed to make a profit.

I told my sister, I have a hard time reconciling the idea of taking money from public schools to give to private schools that are for-profit institutions.

She said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. That would be wrong.”

On the other hand, I’d like my coworkers who damn all charters with the same brush to take a look at Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland. Breakthrough Schools are a network of charter schools in Cleveland.

  • They are NONPROFIT.
  • They target some of the city’s neediest areas.
  • And they are remarkably successful.

“Nearly all Breakthrough students are students of color, and eight of 10 are low-income.”

 “Its schools are in the top third of all schools in the city for academic performance.”

And by the way, Breakthrough Charter Schools joined 20 other high scoring charter schools in opposing President Trump’s education budget, even though the new budget proposes $168 million more for charter schools. They united to oppose the cuts to traditional public schools, saying,

“We need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools.”

Budgets are statements of priorities, and this one sends a clear message that public education is not a top priority.”

The group specifically objected to cuts in Pell grants, teacher training, and afterschool programs.

And they reiterated the value of public education as an “essential pillar of our democracy.”

Personally, I can’t reduce the charter school debate to a sound bite. I think for-profit schools should operate with no public money at all. But as far as I am concerned, if Cleveland or Ohio wants to give vouchers to families with children attending Breakthrough Schools, I’d be fine with that. Breakthrough Schools are bringing new people, new energy, and new ideas to a place that desperately needs them—not to make money, but to make a difference.

Rethinking our Assessment System Statewide

On May 24th, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal outlined a series of phases that addressed his long term vision for K-12 education in the State of Washington.  Included in
that vision is a differentiated assessment model that allows students pathways to demonstrate proficiency and mastery.  The plan calls for an immediate suspension of all test based graduation requirements for the Classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019, a policy that some legislators can get behind.  (See the June 4, 2017
Seattle Times Op-Ed piece by Rep. Monica Stonier and Rep. Laurie Dolan)  This agenda item isn’t necessarily as visionary as others but is more triage in nature.  Asking for these assessments to be waived now is a pressing concern for our potential graduates waiting in the wings (including the 7 students at my high school who are hoping that the state legislature acts immediately since graduation is on Friday, June 9th).  However, other components of this assessment system provide more opportunity and greater steering towards a student’s plans for high school and beyond.

One of the key takeaways from this plan is the use of assessment data for high school planning.  Superintendent Reykdal proposes that the 8th grade assessment (assuming this will still be mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) be used to determine what courses and in what sequence students need to take.  A 10th grade assessment (the Standards Based Assessment, or SBA, also mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) would further clarify what students need in order to be career and college ready.  That exam, while not necessary as a graduation requirement, would be a baseline for which other decisions would be made. The assessment would help stakeholders update a student’s high school and beyond plan (commonly referred to as a HSBP), either demonstrating that is student is now proficient in the required basic knowledge and skills needed to earn a diploma or highlighting what specific skills students need to further develop in order to achieve proficiency.  The plan suggests that alternatives such as the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate exams, Running Start, College in the High School, and other options be used to demonstrate proficiency.  All students after 10th grade must work towards a pathway that includes immediate entrance into the workforce, technical college, community college, apprenticeships, four year colleges/university, or the military.

This new assessment system may just help us combat the apathy that emerges junior and senior year from students wondering why they are enrolled in certain courses that don’t remotely relate to their post secondary education plans.  Such a plan opens the door to exciting new classes tailored to meet the needs of the 21st century learner on whatever pathway he/she may be on.  High schools will be able to utilize the flexibility and creativity that this system promotes and adjust current course offerings, tapping into the talents and expertise of their staff.  The idea that students can select pathways and prepare for those future careers allows students more buy in on their secondary education, potentially impacting overall attendance, number of failed classes, and eventually graduation rates.  Specific training and coursework geared towards a pathway will indeed result in a better worker or stronger college student thus largely impacting the state’s post secondary education system and the local workforce.  Superintendent Reykdal’s proposal directly impacts students allowing them to tap into their talents and interests at an earlier age so that they may develop as stronger, more effective and more efficient contributors to our communities and overall economy.

Addressing the Teacher Shortage Without Sacrificing Quality

 

There’s a place on the Washington coast called Taholah. I’ve been there a few times on my bicycle, riding up Highway 109 from Ocean Shores. The scenery is staggering. There’s huge trees everywhere, a river on the north end of town and an ocean to the west.

Also staggering is the obvious poverty. There’s run-down homes, stray dogs and abandoned cars. I didn’t see any stores or restaurants.

Taholah looks like a tough place to find work.

It also looks exactly like what you’d expect to see if you went there after reading the data. Per capita income is half that of the rest of the state. Housing values are about a third. About 5% of their 11th graders met standard in math; about a fourth met standard in ELA.

Twenty-three percent of their seniors graduate on time.

The other thing you should know about Taholah is that their population is 80% Native American. It’s the headquarters for the Quinault Reservation.

One more thing. According to the Seattle Times, 22.5% of their teachers are “Emergency Teachers,” teachers who are not certified and may or may not have a college degree. School districts are only allowed to hire emergency teachers when they’re unable to find anyone qualified to teach. According to my math, that means four of the seventeen teachers in Taholah are emergency status.

My district, on the other hand, attracts dozens of qualified applicants for every open position. Two summers ago I spent most of a sunny weekend wading through application packets, meeting with the rest of the hiring committee, and interviewing the five finalists before hiring the competent teacher who works next door.

That’s the thing about this teacher shortage. It’s like a large, complicated lake in the process of drying up. The shallow inlets are the first to empty out, while the deep water in the middle is safe for a long time. Taholah, with its poverty and lack of amenities will suffer the teacher shortage a lot sooner and a lot more severely than Edmonds, where I work.

So what do we do about it? One answer is to loosen the requirements to teach in Washington, a place well-known for having tough hurdles for prospective teachers, particularly those coming from out-of-state.

But is that really what we want? Do we really want to make it easier for people to teach in this state? Those requirements, after all, weren’t written out of spite; they were written to ensure that the kids in Taholah, as well as Edmonds, have a competent, qualified teacher in front of them.

We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a teacher shortage that hits small, rural – and frequently poor – communities much harder than it will ever hit more affluent communities. How do we make it attractive to teach in Taholah without sacrificing teacher quality?

I wish I knew.

Anyone Can Teach… Except Teachers

The popular narrative is that unionized teachers are destroying public education because of our supposed low standards for performance, laziness, and constant cries for more pay and less work.

States across the country, including Washington, buckled down on teacher performance by reforming the teacher evaluation system to be more rigorous and standards-based. New academic standards were adopted and new tests were designed to measure just how bad we teachers are at teaching, in many cases with the stated purpose of those tests to be to identify and remove bad teachers.

We’re so bad at teaching despite our degrees and training in this complex work, in fact, that the current fashion in education policy is that anyone…ANYONE has to be better at teaching than teachers are.

As you might have seen, states like Arizona are launching policy referred to as the “warm body” approach for teacher recruitment: The main qualification for earning a teaching credential being that you are a carbon-based life form capable of sustaining metabolism.

Even here in Washington, “alternative routes to certification” are gaining traction as more and more classrooms are being staffed by teachers with an emergency credential because of the dearth of capable applicants.

Let’s break this down: Because so few people are choosing to become teachers on purpose, we’re satisfied with taking whomever we can get…and we think this is a solution to our problem?

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the unionized teachers demanding better policy and pay who are the problem here. I wonder what will it take for our policymakers…or as importantly, us as a society…to recognize that effective teaching involves a set of complex skills and behaviors which, even in the best of conditions, involves countless variables that must all be managed and responded to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is not something random folks off the street can do well, particularly if those random folks can get paid better to do other, perhaps easier, work. Clearly, we’re not dealing with “the best of conditions” in our schools, so putting a warm body in front of kids is not going to be the solution to our problem, no matter what evaluation system we use or what rigorous standards we demand be taught.

The solutions are the same solutions they have always been: It isn’t about stricter evaluations, higher standards, or better tests. We have to invest money, and more than we think, in order to turn this ship around. We can’t spend a dime and expect a dollar’s return…and then complain because we actually got what we paid for and not more.

If we aren’t willing to make schools as workplaces into the kinds of places where the very best and brightest are not only drawn but want to stay, then we don’t actually care about improving educational outcomes for kids. The latter will never happen without the former.


Image Source

Summative Rating: UNSAT

After one year of unsatisfactory ratings on his or her job performance, a teacher may be placed on a directed plan of improvement. If that plan is not satisfied, that teacher may be terminated and replaced with someone else who can do the job.

This is what the legislature codified into law with our new teacher evaluation model, and I’m all for it.

And the premise ought to apply to the legislature as well.

The Supreme Court put them on a plan of improvement long ago. They have failed to meet the terms of that plan.

They were granted an extended special session, during which time non-policymakers spent more time in Olympia talking ed policy than the elected officials did. Still, no performance.

In the evaluation framework that judges my work as a teacher, action…nearly any kind of action…is enough to get me rated “Basic.” To be rated “Unsatisfactory,” my performance must demonstrate “no action when action is called for.”

There is no better phrase to describe our legislature right now than that.

I’m with the Seattle Times Editorial Board. No more special sessions. No more probationary periods to turn it around. Let the Supreme Court make the decisions if the Legislature won’t.

Let’s Talk About Tax

I just spent the day at Occupy Olympia. I carpooled down with three other teachers from North Kitsap, and we joined a group of teachers from around the state.

Before I left home, I read articles about Washington’s regressive tax system from newspapers in Seattle and Everett and Spokane. The key point they all make is that the top one percent of Washington wage earners pay only 2.4% of their income in taxes. In stark contrast, the poorest residents of the state pay 16.8%.

Honestly, there is a discrepancy between wealthy and poor across the nation, and it’s time to shine a spotlight on that fact nationwide. Meanwhile, though, the discrepancy in Washington is the worst. Washington has the most regressive tax system in the entire United States. (Not only is it a regressive tax system, it is also an oppressive tax system, especially to society’s most vulnerable.)

According to the Washington Department of Revenue website, Washington makes more than half its income from sales tax of one kind or another, which makes the state income especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. If the economy is tight, people don’t buy as much.

Face it, our sales taxes are high. Our gas taxes are high. Our B&O taxes are high.

No wonder whenever anyone raises the idea of any new tax—income tax, anyone?—people in Washington freak out. They panic.

I totally understand. If I had to continue paying the taxes I have to pay now AND I had to pay income taxes on top of that, my husband and I couldn’t afford to live in our three bedroom two bath house with our one car and a motorcycle and no pets. (Who can afford a dog anymore???)

It’s time to get creative.

So in Olympia I looked for people to talk to. I talked to the aide for one of my representatives. I spoke with representatives from other districts.

I said we needed more revenue in order to fully fund schools. But we couldn’t just add a new tax. In our state, that’s a non-starter.

What we need is a complete tax overhaul from the ground up.

We need the legislature to come to the taxpayers and say, “Look, you will have lower sales taxes. Lower gas taxes. Lower B&O taxes. Lower taxes in general.

“At the same time we are going to implement an income tax for the most wealthy in the state.

“We are going to make taxes more equitable.

“And we will fully fund high-quality education throughout the state.”

One representative cheered. Another waved me off with “we can’t talk about that!”

One person asked how I would ever get the legislature to agree. I said it might take putting them all in seclusion—locking the doors and taking away their electronic devices until they had reached an agreement. Preferably unanimity. I said they could model the process on the US Constitutional Convention of 1787.

I also suggested watching the movie Separate But Equal to see how a sharply divided Supreme Court gradually moved to a unanimous decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.

So what happens if the legislature does it? What if they actually come up with a restructured tax plan that not only fully funds education but is equitable too?

I said obviously they would need to sell it to the public. We should go out in teams, legislators and teachers side by side, to educate and explain to the rest of the voters why this new plan makes sense.

My New Superheroes

 

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the first Washington Teacher’s Advisory Council (WATAC) Conference.  80 award winning teachers, principals, and classified staff attended the event.  Featured speakers included Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal and a panel comprised of Camille Jones, Teacher of the Year, Melanie Green, Classified Employee of the Year, Mia Williams, Principal of the Year, Noel Frame, Legislator from the 36th District, and Deb Merle, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Governor.  It was an incredible opportunity to listen to a committed and passionate group of educational stakeholders who hold an encouraging vision for the future of our students.

But my biggest takeaway didn’t come from a specific message or a session.  Instead, my inspiration came from the 80 superheroes in the room. These outstanding educators gave up their weekend, set aside their papers, lesson planning, and data tracking to improve their advocacy skills.  Fellow CSTP blogger, Mark Gardner, and I led a session on how to increase your voice at the local level.  In our session we worked one on one with teachers to define, develop and practice their pitch to decision makers.  For example, one teacher felt a new intervention program targeting students with high rates of absenteeism was necessary at her school.  She worked on her pitch, mapped out her strategy, practiced her elevator speech, and worked on determining the concerns/needs of decision makers.  In another session, educators learned how to get involved in the work of the State Board of Education.  Still another session taught educators how to connect with their local legislators.  Watching these award winning teachers and classified staff working on these skills caused me such pride in my profession.  Knowing that colleagues from across our state wanted to elevate their voice in helping shape local, district, and statewide policy means that our children have champions in every corner of the Evergreen State.

All week, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been shouting out on social media my student teachers, colleagues, and friends who work in education.  As I reflect on the week and the educators that have shaped my career, it’s equally important to recognize those whose work is often unseen and yet so often felt.  These superheroes advance our work in a way that creates more support and capacity for the profession.  Frankly, our schools need allies who will lift up our cause to legislators who make the decisions that directly impact our kids.  So, here’s my shout out to those teachers for taking the time to become active participants in local and state policymaking.  The rest of us are incredibly grateful.   #ThankATeacher

How to Appreciate a Teacher

For some reason, we had Teachers’ Appreciation Day last week instead of this week. More proof, apparently, that Lynnwood, Washington is ahead of the curve. It was a low-key affair, with a free lunch provided by the Parent Club and a few gifts from some of my students.

But for me, the appreciation came a week earlier. That’s when we had our district-wide STEM Expo. A STEM Expo is essentially a science fair open to fourth through twelfth graders, and it’s completely voluntary on the part of teachers and students. I decided to have my students participate, mostly because I like teaching science, technology, engineering and math.

We did a project involving angles. The students built stomp rockets and found out which angle was best in terms of sending a rocket the greatest distance. (45 degrees won in a decisive victory over 30 degrees and 60 degrees, in case you’re interested.)

The kids had fun building and flying their rockets. They also enjoyed creating their display boards, especially the group that smuggled glitter into my classroom and didn’t quite get all of it onto their project. Grr. They learned a lot about angles, predictions, writing, teamwork, and how scientists control variables during experiments.

And then came the STEM Expo. For context, you need to know that my school serves a fairly high-needs population. Our parents work hard, many in the service industries, and many in multiple jobs. They’re busy. We usually get about 30-40% turnout for evening events, including Curriculum Night. Curriculum Night, the night when you first meet the person with whom your child will spend 35 hours per week for the next ten months.

For STEM Expo, I had 24 of my 26 students show up. It was unprecedented. I put in a lot of extra effort for STEM Expo and almost every family responded by taking their kid to an evening event to share and celebrate their learning.

They didn’t do it for me, of course; they did it for their child. Nonetheless, they were supporting what I do for their kids in the classroom, so I took it personally.

I felt appreciated.