Author Archives: Mark Gardner

SSB 5607: Budgets, Salary, and Bargaining

A notable change in SSB 5607, the Senate’s proposal around education funding, involves how money allocations to districts are determined.

As this summary describes, SSB 5607 swaps the prototypical school funding model (based on staff to student ratios, staff salary allocation levels, plus other allocation costs) for a straight per-pupil funding model. Under SSB 5607, per-student funding from all local, state, and federal sources must meet a minimum of $12,500, with augmentations for certain subgroups such as homeless students and special education students.

That then leaves the determination of teacher salaries to local bargaining: Part V, Section 501 of the bill (page 46 here) grants local districts the authority to determine the certificated salary schedules, and explicitly eliminates the statewide salary allocation model starting in 2018-19. There is also a direct prohibition against local salary schedules providing “salary increases based on a master’s or other advanced degree that is not in the subject area in which the individual teaches.” (Which, quite frankly, is ludicrous, as it appears to justify de-recognition of Masters Degrees in education…unless I am reading it incorrectly, which I hope I am.) Also worthy of noticing is the clear designation in Section 503 that no more than 80% of total district expenditures may go to salary and benefits. The same section also sets the minimum salary for full-time teachers at $45,000, a bump from the current bottom tier ($35,700) but well short of Governor Inslee’s proposed budget, which places base pay at over $54,000 once implemented.

In an apparent effort to recognize differences in cost of living throughout the state, Section 504 also creates provisions for a “housing allowance” to be provided, based on a “regional cost factor,” to certificated employees in districts with the assessed value of real-estate property exceeds the state average.

All of this gets accomplished by rolling back local levy authority to a lid of 10% and creating a state-wide property tax levy of $1.80 per $1000 of assessed value.

On the surface, base teacher pay is increased and a regional cost-of-living is ostensibly addressed positively, and collective bargaining of salary at the local level is maintained. Knowing these policymakers’ past positions on teacher compensation and collective bargaining rights, I can’t help but get the sense that I’m missing something…something big and ugly and destructive.

I am concerned that by providing some small details that seem to be positives, we are being distracted from this proposal’s ultimate failure to address the larger picture. The reshuffling of allocation models (back to per-student, which I think Washington abandoned a few decades ago) doesn’t make clear whether there is a net increase in overall school funding. There’s also that $12,500 per-student number, which makes it seem like an increase from the current per-student funding (which hovers shy of 10K), but includes all revenue sources local, state, and federal. To me, that’s a sneaky way of keeping the state-provided funding low, all the while imposing limits on local authority to raise much needed additional revenue.

I also worry that the gesture of locally bargaining salary schedules obscures the fact that locals will be bargaining over what ends up being a much smaller pot of resources, particularly given that hard cap of 80% mentioned above. Sure, we might get to bargain from a higher base ($45,000), but the result is that keeping class sizes reasonable and maintaining key services to kids will mean that while the bottom has been raised, the top of the schedule will likely have to be lowered. My prediction: the real effect will be lower average teacher salaries, higher average class sizes, and overworked education staff assistants who already face caseloads that are unmanageable. Maintaining local bargaining power is a plus, but it feels like a pacifying gesture toward unions, since bargaining over fewer resources is a huge step backward.

This is all incomprehensibly messy and complicated…not to mention political and emotional. There are a few premises that I can get behind, but what keeps me from being in support of this is that the numbers are simply too low and that from what I can find so far there is zero evidence that this proposal actually improves the overall funding climate for students in the state of Washington. In fact, it potentially serves very well to distract us from that larger climate.

Sadly, I have grown to have little faith that our policymakers actually want to build and preserve a high quality education system in our state. Of course they’ll all say they do: But in action via bills and budgets, it seems pretty clear to me that public education…and the stronger economic and social future it helps to lay a foundation for…is not a true priority. SSB 5607 appears to continue the trend of expecting results the state is unwilling to pay for.


Horse’s Mouth Resources un-mediated by any news-outlet or teacher-blogger interpretation:

  • SSB 5607…in it’s full glory. If you’re like me, these can make for challenging reading, but I believe it is important to look directly at the proposed language if we’re going to also use summaries and opinion pieces to help form our positions… kind of like in my classroom: I tell my students I’m okay with them reading the Sparknotes and online reviews, provided they ALSO read the full original text as well.
  • A non-partisan summary of the bill, with definitions of terms, as well as PRO and CON statements.

Image source

Bully Culture

Next year I will be returning part time to the classroom after a two-year hiatus as a new-teacher induction mentor (plus other duties as assigned). I will be returning with new strategies and ideas I’ve amassed from being able to observe and coach so many colleagues. More than that, I’ll be returning with a new mission, so to speak.

Many people have claimed that the election of President Donald Trump has given validation and permission for aggressive, disrespectful, and bullying language and behavior. Schools all over the nation have cited an increase in behavior where individuals in positions of real or perceived power have exercised this power to oppress, humiliate, intimidate, or undermine those over whom they felt somehow superior or powerful.

These power dynamics have a history far deeper than the 2016 election cycle. While Trump’s election took many in my own little echo chamber people by surprise, if we deconstruct the segments of the electorate who supported Trump, level headed thinkers of all political persuasions can acknowledge that a fundamental sense of powerlessness drove at least some proportion of the population to see Trump’s bravado as a means for reclaiming power. Powerlessness of one group or another is unfortunately woven into the very fabric of our history, and it just so happens that the current cohort feeling powerless actually turned out to be powerful enough to buoy someone into office who spoke directly to that void.

Through my years as a teacher and coach, in nearly every instance that I’ve responded to bullying language or behavior, as I’ve engaged with the “bully,” I’ve learned about their deep sense of powerlessness in some place of their life. Generalizing from real examples here, but the 9th grade bully always picking on the scrawny kid eventually reveals to me that he is frustrated by his own inability to succeed in school; the 10th grade girl known for vicious online peer-evisceration ends up revealing that she feels she has no sense of personal power because of what her parents say about her and do to her.

This is no profound new idea. It is Interpersonal Dynamics 101 and in each child psychology textbook. Bullying behavior is often an attempt to fill some personal power void.

As I look at how schools have attempted to deal with bullying over the years, much has been focused on the “don’t bully, be kind” approach. That’s great, but it is only part of the answer. I think we need to also talk more openly about power and powerlessness.

That’s the great thing about being a literature teacher: Literature lets us study humanity as a third point, and in doing so we can better understand ourselves and our society. Every work of fiction I’ve ever taught (and in fact even much of the poetry and nonfiction) has clearly visible in it dynamics rooted in a differential of real or perceived power.

I will say that the events of our presidential election have rekindled my sense of urgency in helping students consider deeply the inequality of power that is so entrenched in our society that. My mission is to help adolescents peel away a fundamentally flawed assumption that we often make about ourselves, bias and our society: As Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald describe in the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, we assume that inequality and power differentials are simply an inevitable and unalterable law of nature, and that these differentials exist because of some deep truth about those who occupy different stations of power.

Through my teaching of literature, now more than ever I believe it will be important to examine how power and powerlessness contribute to a story’s central conflict so that perhaps we can better understand how it also exists as the core of nearly all of our society’s central conflicts. I believe it will be more important than ever to help my adolescent students explore where in their own lives and in our broader culture they are bestowed or refused power, even if they don’t necessarily recognize or want to acknowledge it (the very blind spot at the core of the book linked above).

I hope to help my students consider those stations where they have power how they use it, as well as how their sense of powerlessness ripples inward or outward toward other moments of their lives. I do think we’ve always lived in a bully culture. Like any pattern of human interaction, it has ebbed and flowed. We in public education have the opportunity to arm young people with the knowledge and skills to turn the tide.


Image Source: Wikimedia commons

Inslee’s Budget: Making an Investment

I was at a meeting when news started to spread that Governor Jay Inslee had released his budget plan. Of course, the thing that grabbed most people’s attention was the significant bump in pay for teachers. I noted, however, the difficult reality of his budget that our state has not yet come to terms with: In order to achieve the services we expect from public schools, we need to secure new revenue either through additional taxes or closing of loopholes. Inslee’s proposal includes four billion new dollars to be invested in public schools. Simply put, Inslee realizes that fixing our system means we can’t just shuffle line items within the current revenue structure.

In the real world, fixing things pretty much always costs money. Sometimes it even costs money you don’t yet have.

A couple of years ago on a Sunday afternoon in March, I was sitting in my living room, grading student essays. Suddenly, a sound like a fighter jet landing in my front yard started to shake my house, and then BOOM. This:

A freak spring windstorm leveled a swath of trees and structures in our neighborhood, and took an otherwise healthy (according to the arborist) 50-ft blue spruce and crashed it diagonally across the whole structure of our home. We have homeowners insurance, but between the deductible and some of what insurance didn’t cover, we didn’t have the money to fix it completely. Significant structural damage, eventual water damage from a poor patch job from the lowest-cost emergency board-up contractor, plus our roofing options being limited to the two plastic tarps I already owned and the one that the fire department donated to us to attempt to minimize water damage all made it clear that this fix was going to require something else than just making do with what we had.

Thankfully, we were able to access additional revenue, so to speak. Friends and family chipped in. I took on (yet another) side job to bring in a little cash. We sold some stuff from the garage. In the end, our house was back to normal almost a year later thanks to these additional resources (and a kind hearted roofer and generous arborist who charged us far less than they should have for work insurance couldn’t cover). The reality is that we were doing fine financially before and certainly accept criticism that we “should have” had more cash socked away for this particular breed of rainy day. The reality was that in the face of a clearly broken structure, “doing the best with what we had” wasn’t going to cut it. We will forever appreciate the people who were willing to give services, muscle, or money to help us fix our home.

I for one greatly appreciate Inslee for aiming so high and being realistic about what it will take to make progress toward strengthening public schools. New tests won’t do it. New requirements won’t do it. Furthering our love affair with accountability won’t do it. Simply demanding teachers to “do better with what they have” is not going to do it either. Fixes, in the real world, often require an investment beyond what we think we can absorb, and sometimes that investment requires more resources being added to the system.

And as for that meeting where word of the Governor’s budget was making the rounds? The reaction of teachers was positive and it had far less to do with more pay than it did with what our Governor’s budget was communicating: He was saying, pure and simple, I am willing to invest in you. 

That’s a good feeling.

Why Unions Matter

If you happen to be a member of your local education association, chances are you’ve received some emails this year asking you to rescind your membership.

Like too many issues (such as presidential elections), we humans have the tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than fact. Many people are on edge, and you don’t have to look far online to find people with strong anti-union sentiments. However, I rarely am able to uncover facts or actual events that serve well to make unions, teachers’ unions in particular, worthy of such tremendous hatred.

Sure, there are the cases where a union enforced a poorly worded contract and a crappy teacher got to keep their job. It happens. There are plenty of actions that unions have taken that I personally don’t agree with, and thus I am working “from the inside” to change as an active union member.

If we want to know why unions matter to teachers and to public education, Wisconsin has engaged in a deeply unfortunate experiment we can all learn from. The gist: The state government of Wisconsin passed what it called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill” that included as one of its “repairs” the destruction of labor unions’ rights to collectively bargain. Here’s the whole article, but details worthy of noting:

  • Total teacher compensation has dropped 8% since the Bill.
  • There is no way for teachers to negotiate for pay increases or for better benefits; meanwhile costs of benefits have increased.
  • Certificated teachers are leaving in droves; the article includes examples of positions left unfilled or filled by unqualified, non-certificated staff. (I’m not clear how this could be filed under “In the best interests of students.”)

Unfortunately, the public face of the union has done us any favors: To people not familiar, picturing a union means picturing a bunch of people not working, but rather pacing, chanting, holding signs…acts that I understand in terms of labor relations but which I also believe are the worst possible public relations moments our organizations can ask for. This unfortunately masks the real work that unions do: advocating for the working and learning conditions of staff and students in all of our schools.

This year, my district recruited a handful of teachers from “right to work” states where the powers of unions are restricted. They tell me again and again how different everything is here in Washington: they as teachers feel valued, their students are safe, there is consistency and stability in policy. These create the conditions that enable students to succeed. It is easy to focus only on compensation as the primary focus of an education association, but the reality is far more complex: Yes, unions negotiate pay and benefits, which are about recruiting and retaining top quality educators. Unions also negotiate class sizes, special education caseloads, access to curriculum and resources, and programs from STEM to the arts to counseling to intervention. Unions are a powerful voice for teachers and the strongest voice for students.

When our legislature comes together in the new year, we need to be careful to watch for threats to public education from all angles (like this one), not the least of which being threats to educators’ powers to organize and advocate. We need to learn from Wisconsin.

NBCT Policy Summit: Building a Professional Continuum

If you walk into a doctor’s office and learn that your physician is board certified, this designation communicates something to you…even if at first blush you aren’t sure what it means. In the field of medicine, board certification is voluntary, is assessed against established industry standards (based on specialty as well), and is an widely accepted indicator of professional capacity. From the American Board of Medical Specialties website:

When you choose a doctor who is Board Certified by one of the ABMS Member Boards, you can be confident he or she meets nationally recognized standards for education, knowledge, experience and skills to provide high quality care in a specific medical specialty. Board Certification goes above and beyond basic medical licensure.

Sounds much like National Board Certification for educators.

There is ample research indicating that teachers who have achieved National Board Certification produce enhanced student learning equivalent to between one and two additional months of instruction, particularly with students who are typically underserved.

Education funding in Washington is certainly in dire need of improvement, and one aspect of this involves compensating teachers in a way which (1) draws high quality candidates into the profession and (2) recognizes and values the research-supported professional growth that NBPTS certification represents.

As a result, dozens of National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) convened in SeaTac this last Saturday at the 2016 NBCT Policy Summit. These educators were called together by WEA, CSTP and OSPI in order to do what Washington Ed legend Jeannie Harmon says is the best way to change education for the better: Get our best and brightest educators together, tell them the problem to be solved, then get out of their way.

Currently, teacher salaries are funded separately from the incentive program aimed at fostering NBPTS certified teachers: Our base salary allocation model (SAM) includes increases in compensation aligned with advanced degrees and acquisition of clock hours for learning, and but does not include NBPTS certification…which of the three (degrees, seat time, or NBPTS certification) is the one with the greatest body of research supporting an increased impact on student learning. The current incentives include a yearly bonus for being an NBCT, plus an additional bonus if you are an NBCT working in a “challenging school,” both of which are funded outside our SAM. The result? The funding is tenuous, and the incentive toward and recognition of NBPTS certification is likewise ever on the chopping block.

The recommendations will be presented in full soon (as of this writing it’s been barely 24 hours since the end of the summit), but on the policy issue related to NBPTS certification, the recommendation was loud, clear, and simple: Just as a Masters degree and a Doctorate represent lanes of professional growth on our salary schedule, so should National Board Certification. Parallel to this recommendation were a variety of policy recommendations around revenue generation for the state (in order to fully fund education and meet the legal requirements of the McCleary ruling). There was also significant talk about developing and compensating new and varied career paths for teachers who don’t aspire toward being a program director or principal, particularly since there is recent evidence of the positive impact of teacher leadership.

Hidden within all this is a quiet evolution of what the professional continuum for teachers might look like. In medicine the pursuit of board certification, while still voluntary, is much more integrated into the vision of how a professional physician learns, performs, and refines their craft over their career. National Board Certification is heavily studied and has proven to be a form of professional advancement that has a positive impact on students. It only makes sense that this step be codified into our compensation schedule alongside the other (still voluntary) professional steps such as advanced degrees.

Data without Numbers

During the last teacher evaluation workshop I led for principals and teacher leaders, I closed with this quasi thought-experiment for them to ruminate on for the couple of weeks until our next meeting:

What if a law were passed that kept the TPEP student growth requirement but prohibited the use of any form of number or percentage as a means of showing of student growth: How might a teacher be able to demonstrate the impact of practice under such a law?

My intentions are simple: How else besides charts and percentages might we talk about student growth? As an English teacher, finding and using meaningful quantitative data was something I always wrestled with. I did eventually find a way to reduce my students to a number in a way that I felt was valid and productive. (Further elaboration here as well.)

However, as I coach both teachers and administrators in our continued intentional implementation of our evaluation system, it is clear for both groups that the pressure to generate numbers has remained great…and in many cases, has felt hollow if not contrived.

In our operationalized definition of data, we’ve come to rely upon information that is easy to communicate sometimes at the expense of information that means a dang thing at all. A graph, a chart of figures, or a line of numbers is pretty easy to pull together if we’re held more accountable for producing numbers than we are for thinking about what the numbers might communicate.

Particularly when we consider the statewide requirement that teacher evaluations include an examination of student growth data, the stakes feel oppressively high and the worry about producing inadequate or “bad” data is palpable in many conversations I have with teachers. I do want to point this out, though: The wording of the student growth rubrics (SG3.2 and SG6.2) which apply to every single classroom teacher in the state of Washington. Both those rubrics state this:

PROFICIENT: Multiple sources of growth or achievement data from at least two points in time show clear evidence of growth for most students. (Source)

Sure, there are some vague words in there: “multiple,” “clear,” and “most.” What isn’t there is pretty obvious to me: A requirement that growth be represented through a number.

When I think about my career, the most clear and convincing artifacts of my impact on student growth came during my candidacy for and renewal of my National Board Certificate. In both of these cases, the way I demonstrated growth was by contextualizing patterns of student work within my own deliberate practice, and then reflecting on the exact changes in student performance (not necessarily changes in score) that proved I had indeed contributed to student growth. This evidence included student work samples but was convincing because of the analytical narrative and reflection on practice that accompanied it all.

While I am a strong proponent for National Boards as a voluntary professional growth experience, I am not advocating for a National Board-like model for yearly teacher evaluations. I do believe however that the kind of longitudinal narrative analysis of student work I did during my candidacy and renewal was at least as convincing as any table of numbers I might have been able to produce for the same sets of kids.

Numbers have an important place, and as I said, the right numbers can paint a meaningful picture of growth. However, numbers should not be the only conceivable (or permissible) vehicle for communicating student growth in our evaluation. We need to be sure to make room for the premise that sometimes the best way to illustrate student growth might actually be to tell our story.

Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction

During an teacher leadership workshop I was leading a few years ago, a veteran teacher said this to me:

“It feels like every time I go to present a new idea to my principal, she shoots it down just because it’s coming from me. It’s like she says ‘no’ just because I’m the one with the idea. I keep thinking that if she heard it from anyone other than me, she’d give a different answer.”

My response: “You’re probably right.”

That doesn’t make it fair or valid, but the reality of human interactions is that there are times where who is doing the talking matters. As I got to know this particular teacher and his situation, it was pretty clear that he and his principal had a history of conflicts…most of them petty…which colored their relationship. Wrong as it might be, the principal was saying “no” because of the messenger and his track record, not the message itself.

Being skeptical or “resistant” to new ideas or to changes in practice is not a bad thing. We should allow ourselves time and space to think, process, and make decisions about the new. However, we also ought to be mindful of what exactly it is we are resisting.

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Part II On Change: Us vs. Them

Binaries are comfortable for people: good or bad, right or wrong, us or them.

To collect and classify what we know into an either or an or makes us feel to be on more stable ground: if we can classify it, it won’t surprise us. By ascribing the big label (us or them, for example) we can line up assumptions about who and what falls into that category, and assumptions in our world today are given as much power as facts, if not more.

It is the us versus them binary that I hear about the most in my past work as a union representative and now as our EA president. And, because of my role within our district (I mentor new teachers and I also design and lead professional learning for both teachers and administrators) I am in the strange situation of seeing the line between us and them become very blurry. On both “sides,” I work with caring, professional, student-centered educators who are struggling to do the right thing. Likewise, on both “sides” I can cite examples of weak integrity, manipulation, and poor conduct. Neither “side” can be classified by a convenient set of universals.

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The Tyranny of the TTWWADI and Why Change Is So Hard

I’m in a new role this year, having been elected last spring to serve as the president of our education association. We’re also heading into a full contract bargain this coming spring.

As I’ve been learning about contract negotiations (and the posturing, games, and politics involved), I keep asking myself a very simple question: Why does it have to be this way? Why the “us” vs. “them”? Why the feeling like it’s all about sliding back-and-forth a series of numbers face down on scraps of paper? Why the constant “poker game” metaphors about holding cards close, reading your opponent, bluffing and calling bluffs?

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Teaching “Banned Books”

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org

This week is the annual Banned Books Week, where educators draw attention to the dangers of outright banning books in public schools and libraries. The list of “frequently banned and challenged books” tends to circulate, commonly eliciting a chorus of “Really, somebody has a problem with Judy Blume?”

While I believe than any book a public library can get its hands on ought to have space on a shelf somewhere in public access, I don’t think that elementary schools ought to be teaching Fifty Shades Darker even if it is written with the vocabulary and syntax of a fourth grader (so I hear…)

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