Monday, May 09, 2011

A Brief Note on SB1

The shocking proposed cuts to the education budget, lack of a severance tax, and fights over public education have been widely aired in the traditional and online media. I haven't mentioned it much for a few reasons. Here are some random thoughts on education.

First off, from a very selfish standpoint, my household won't be that affected. Our school district has come to an understanding with the teachers' union, so there will be no strike or hyperbolic public media.

Over the past few years the percentage of educational funding from the state in my school district has been decreasing, and more and more comes from local revenue sources; residents seem willing to spend for education and the schools have kept tax increases low. At this point a cut in state funding is alarming but we'll survive. The school board has said they have enough money to cover the cuts for the next few years. I'm hoping by that time everyone comes to their senses. There isn't a big demand for charter schools in my area; in fact private schools have been closing because of declining enrollment.

While some of the more hyperbolic speakers have backed down, let's be upfront about the fact that teachers have been trounced in the media. The implication has been that they are greedy, lazy, puppets of their union who care nothing about their students. C'mon, let's not sugarcoat it -- that's what teachers have been called lately. There's a lot of talk about weeding out the bad teachers, like their are oodles of them lurking about. As an involved parent I haven't found that at all. Not all teachers are a match for all students. But that doesn't make them bad teachers, just not the best teacher for that particular child. Most of our teachers are doing the best they can for a comparatively low salary.

If we aren't using statewide mandated testing and test scores, what criteria will be used to evaluate teachers? How can you compare districts? Who decides what is creativity and what is unorganized time wasting? A lot of that is in the eye of the beholder and innovative programs often take a few years to get off the ground. If teachers are afraid of losing their jobs or job security with one or two bad years no one is going to take a risk.

I don't understand the concept of charter schools very well. I don't see how you can compare a traditional public school to a charter school unless the charters are assigned students at random from the public schools. As long as a school can select students, even if they are selected by lottery from those who apply (because only the motivated parents will apply), it won't have to deal with the violent, the learning disabled, the students from disorganized non-functioning homes. As long as traditional public schools have to take every student who lives in the area regardless of the student's behavior or family history, there will be problems in public schools.

One factor that comes into play with public education is the critical mass. It's like the herd immunity that comes from a high percentage of vaccinations in a given area. A good school can absorb one or two violent students, provided those students are dealt with. When a critical mass of students start talking about college in elementary school it affects the rest of the students, giving them food for thought. A good school can improve the behavior of borderline students if the majority of the students are well-behaved but if that balance slips the entire school will slide downward. In my school district teachers for one grade can give a summer assignment to their incoming students. A critical mass will do the assignment which lets the class get off to an accelerated pace. The other students are carried along on the wave. A critical mass of involved parents gives a class more options in class events, guest speakers, enhanced activities. One of the unspoken factors in a good school is critical mass.

A student who is exposed to a larger vocabulary as a preschooler, whether hearing conversation among adults and other kids, or by being read to, or watching educational television, will do better in school that a student who hears fewer words and is not exposed to literature. Students whose parents put a premium on education, reward good school performance, and provide a positive homework environment and structure (helping the student break large assignments into steps and providing time management guidelines) are likely to do better in school than students whose parents don't. There is nothing a teacher can do to get rid of that gap.

It is foolish to assume that if experienced teachers are laid off or hounded out the profession, that a large group of better younger teachers who will work for less money is waiting in the wings, especially if teachers are held in low regard. A math or science major, the sort of people you want teaching math and science, just isn't going to go into teaching if it pays geometrically less than other careers open to them, and if it is viewed contemptuously by the general public. Cutting teacher pay and benefits won't help matters.

I'm confused about what happens if teachers lose the ability to collectively bargain. Would each individual teacher negotiate with the principal for their salary every year? Teachers only change jobs at certain times of the year. In a world where each teacher is a free agent there would be a flurry of poaching in the early spring as schools line up their teachers for the next year. Would schools pay their "stars" more to keep them? That would mean a smaller pie for the rest of the teachers. It would drive down the average salary. A school that imposed lower salaries for everyone would lose their best quality teachers to higher paying districts. The thing about union contracts is that people know what they are going to be paid for at least a few years into the future. While most contracts allow for "out of cycle" salary adjustments the vast majority of teachers stay put (unless, like a sizable percentage every year, they leave the profession altogether) because they have a secure job with a known salary a few years out. Tenure provides the security that allows for experimentation and innovation. A multi-year contract that spells out what criteria will be used for evaluation allows teachers to hone their skills. A constantly changing evaluation criteria makes it more difficult for teachers to meet that criteria.

Violent acts in school should not be permitted. First offenders need some punishment and counseling to learn better behaviors. After that any repeated violent acts should lead to a separation from the general population with a return earned with proven change. Most of us don't have to worry about being attacked in the course of our daily job; our children shouldn't either.

To sum it up, I like public schools and most importantly, I like the public schools my children attend. Those schools will survive the current economic situation with limited damage. We can ride it out. That's why I haven't been screaming about the budget or schools. Our teachers know they are valued. Teacher Appreciation Week is a fairly big deal around here with parent fueled events or activities in most if not all schools. We have school nurses and school librarians and libraries, art and music teachers, and guidance counselors; we have parent volunteers. It's easy for parents to interact with teachers and school administrators. Many classrooms have enough textbooks that there is a classroom set that stays at school and a second set that students can bring home and keep at home throughout the year. That means they don't have to haul them back and forth all the time. The population is stable enough that most of the books are returned at the end of the year. When a class reads a book there is usually a classroom set of the book so that all students get a copy to use. In at least one of the secondary schools the music department has a classroom set of guitars. Think about the options that opens up for the teachers. Things will tighten up but we'll be okay.

A lot of other schools won't ride it out, though. A lot of public schools are going to suffer significantly. At least a few grades at those schools will lose ground and either stay behind or have to work hard to play catch up. There will be a lost generation. The high school kids will be at a particular disadvantage as they won't be able to catch up before graduation or dropping out. My school district can hunker down and see what the next election brings. A lot of school districts can't. The divide between school districts will widen. It won't be good for the state's future workforce and it certainly won't be good for the property values or social fabric of the school districts that slide backward.

My school district will be okay. If yours won't you should be screaming about it.

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