Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is “Teaching Profession” an Oxymoron

“At a time when disappointing student performance, stark achievement gaps, and an ever-flattening world call for retooling American schools for the 21st century, the most daunting impediments to doing so are the teacher collective bargaining agreements that regulate virtually all aspects of school district operations.” Thus begins an important new report by Frederick M. Hess of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and Martin R. West of the left-leaning The Brookings Institution.

A Better Bargain: Overhauling Teacher Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century lays out one piece of the strategy for fixing our underperforming schools. Living in Palos Verdes, it is tempting to think that the real problems are down the hill in the LAUSD. Up here there is a raging battle over the number of hours kids spend in kindergarten. The present schedule has an overlap of morning and afternoon sessions that allows for significant savings in salaries and classroom space. The Teacher’s Union wants to eliminate the overlap, and the savings, for the sake of the kids. Is it true that kindergarten class size must be reduced or is this yet another case of no-teacher left behind ?

A letter to the editor of the Palos Verdes Peninsula News pleads for the change: “The rigorous, chaotic schedule our kindergartners are subjected to is astounding.” I have to ask, why rigorous? Why chaotic? Kids are subjected to? These are 5 year olds. What are they doing to our kids in kindergarten? It seems that the problems are everywhere.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs lambasted teacher unions last week at an education reform conference. In a discussion of technology in the classroom (what else?), Jobs shocked the audience by saying no amount of technology in the classroom would improve public schools until principals could fire bad teachers.

Jobs compared schools to businesses with principals serving as CEOs.

“What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn't get rid of people that they thought weren't any good?” he asked.

“Not really great ones because if you're really smart you go, ‘I can't win.’”

Mr. Jobs elaborated on the source of the problem.

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” Jobs said. “This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”

Hey, what does Steve Jobs know?

Hess and West note that “teacher collective bargaining agreements are vestiges of the industrial economic model that prevailed in the 1950s, when assembly-line workers and low-level managers were valued less for their knowledge or technical skills than for their longevity.” At a time when effective teachers are demanding to be treated as respected professionals, teacher unions are an anachronism.

Hess and West also spread the blame to the superintendents and school boards who sign off on the union contracts.

A Better Bargain charts a new course, recommending five key changes in collective bargaining agreements:

1. Teacher pay should reflect the scarcity and value of teachers’ skills, the difficulty of their assignments, the extent of their responsibilities, and the caliber of their work. Pay for value.

2. Pension and health benefits should be like the rest of us get (if we're lucky), which will entail shifting to defined-contribution plans better suited to the new economy and a professional workforce.

3. Tenure should be eliminated from K–12 schooling. (See Steve Jobs.)

4. Personnel should be assigned to schools on the basis of educational need rather than seniority.

5. Work rules should be weeded out of contracts, and contracts should explicitly define managerial prerogatives. Principals need to be CEOs.

These necessary changes are only feasible in conjunction with a reform strategy committed to a world-class K-12 education system based on principles of accountability, competition and transparency.

Accountability: Results-based accountability is needed throughout the system, from administrators to teachers. One key step is the construction of reliable statewide databases that track individual students’ academic progress over time so that teacher pay and professional development can be linked to classroom effectiveness.

Choice and Competition: Enhanced school choice and competition are essential to heighten incentives to improve student performance. In particular, state officials should eliminate obstacles to the creation of charter schools that operate free from many statutory and contractual restrictions.

Tough-Minded Governance: District officials must shine light on inefficient contract provisions, push for fundamental changes in contract language, and fully exploit permissive or ambiguous language where it exists. In addition, civic leaders and citizens must support management practices that may create, at least initially, disgruntled unions and increased labor unrest.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York believes “the desire to learn has disappeared down the bottomless well of centralized urban public-school bureaucracies.” Bloomberg proposed greatly increased autonomy for school principals, and he wants teachers to prove they deserve tenure, an idea so obvious that it probably has no chance. The liberal mayor of America’s biggest city is willing to preserve tenure (a bad idea) but has no chance of introducing reasonable accountability.

American K-12 education is a monolithic, over-regulated yet over-protected system with dysfunction in every major subsystem. In my post “NO Child Left Behind” (2/3/07), the capabilities and responsibilities of the students were highlighted. The kids and their parents have primary responsibility for learning, but we spend a substantial portion of our government budgets on teachers who need to hold up their end.

It is about time for the many fine teachers to stand up and demand to be treated like professionals with requisite rewards and accountability. It is past time for the few underperforming teachers to find other employment.

And it is time for the elected school boards and the PTAs to join together and demand accountability, excellence and fiscal responsibility in this most critical profession.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill - think of having 20 4-5 year olds all together in one room and making them do things in an organized manner - i.e. teach them! I don't think YOU could do it - I know I couldn't and that's why I don't teach at that level!

Class size is important! Consider this : 35 7th graders in ONE 50 minute class is about normal. I used to have 42 kids at one time at this level. That give a teacher about a minute and a few seconds per student to work with each one. If you take off 5 minutes to take roll, get kids settled that is 45 minutes of instruction time. Then, take off 5 minutes to pass in papers/do administrative stuff, discipline kids, etc and get kids settled for the next thing to be done. That is 40 minutes per class. If kindergardens had 18 kids max and that level were continued to 6th grade, then increase class size to 22 for grades 7-9 then to 28 for the upper grades, that would help teachers help the kids!

I think you and all the others who don't teach and who complain about the schools should go teach for a week! Want to come to my class at El Camino and do such? I CHALLENGE YOU to do so! Any Monday from 9:15-11:30 or 12:30-2:20. Come ON and teach them to read!! You may choose the chapter and vocabulary you want them to know and help them get through their novel. THEN....we shall see what you have to say about class size!


11:10 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

You and I are both products of schools where 30 in kindergarten was the norm. Were we deprived? We have hundreds of tots attend the PVLD story times every week and I have yet to hear a complaint about inattention. This complaint is a red herring designed to make life easier for the kindergarten teachers. The higher level classes only need discipline to be successful. I'm sure that I never was in a class less than 30 right through high school but discipline and teacher time were never problems.

As for college, I taught 20 years in college and rarely had a class less than 30. I wonder what is happening at El Camino. Are you really teaching them to read? What a crying shame.

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Williams said...

As critical as I am of education, and as different politically as I am with most teachers, I believe PVUSD has excellent teachers. I substitute teach for this and other school districts and just can't find fault with the teachers here. That's not to say there aren't issues in the school district, but the teachers are excellent.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

I agree with you. I know many PV teachers and believe them to be uniformly good. However I have talked with parents who say there are a few clunkers. How could there not be, even here in Lake Wobegon?

My major point is that the labor contract is cluttered with provisions (tenure, work rules, ..) that are counterproductive and others (totally paid health plans) that are unaffordable.

At the least this is a conversation worth having.

Thanks for your comments.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

02 21 07

What if you have a class full of knuckleheaded kids with conduct disorder who have single moms working all the time as their 'parents'? How can you enforce accountability of the teacher when he or she has to deal with asshats all day?

As Helen aptly pointed out, classroom management is a serious problem and since teachers no longer have the ability to use the paddle or instill the fear of GOD in a child, well this is where we are!

I think the educational system in our country needs to be radically altered. Running a school like a company should happen to the extent that a school runs efficiently. However, there are some problems with applying an entirely corporate model to education. If something isn't working in the corporate world, you can get rid of it or fire a non functional employee.

You have gotten on incompetent teachers and the unions that protect them. Now what about the children who screw up royally all the time? Can we apply corporate strategies and kick them out of school for good?

I am wondering how the suggestions you outlined will assist the teachers who teach in schools where kids are really screwed up!

Good Example: My Middle School in Oakland, CA (before we moved to Modesto) Elmhurst MIddle School on 98th Avenue. ICK! We could NOT even have lockers there due to contraband violence. The teachers there were really overrun by illbehaved (honest to God) bastard children.

How would this system of accountability affect those teacher's jobs?

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s not the “…many fine…” teachers who are the problem. It’s the masses of mediocre who are.


9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill - the tots of today were NOT raised like we were - they have watched TV since they were babies and their brains are wired totally differently than ours. Bear, Silver and another researcher all have done research of the effects of TV on kids. Children today learn differently also! To compare is like comparing apples and oranges. And PVLD kids are from homes where their parents actually "READ to them! I have students who have NEVER read a novel! When they are required to do so they choose the thinnest book they can find.
I have taught for 30 years also and have seen the changes in the last 10! I am strict in terms of attendance and homework and when kids face that they either drop out or zone out. Teachers are blamed for what parents should be doing - teaching their kids at home but most of the parents I have are ILLEGALS!!! They neither speak nor read English nor do their offspring.


9:38 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Thanks for your real world thoughts. From the ivory tower of Palos Verdes it is tempting to deconstruct the problem and deal with the parts that matter here. Student behavior is not a big issue and parent involvement is assumed. Teacher accountability is a reasonably ordered measure.

Those who teach in the inner cities are doing God's work. We the public need to support them and that begins with establishing discipline. I wrote in my "No Child Left Behind" post that school boards, PTAs, ... "must stand up and demand discipline even if it means fighting lawsuits, the government and the ACLU." It will take guts.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bill:

Having worked in a High School for about 7 years, I can tell you it was very frustrating. There were some teachers and Educational Advisors who should have been out of there, but were protected by the unions. It was a game of politics in many cases and people who botched their jobs got moved up the ladder rather than let go (since it was to hard to fire anybody) and made salaries way above what they were qualified for. I don't know what it is going to take to get rid of unions as so many are protected by them, but definitely schools need a major overhaul and drastic changes should take place.


1:07 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Hi Helen,
Again, I was talking about PV kindergarteners. If a teacher here plus a parent helper cannot handle 25 of the darlins, I want to know why. If the claim is the kids need to learn too much in the time allowed, I want to know why. As you said, parents here do the home work, so kindergarten needs to be focussed on socialization and reading, with a minimum of pressure. The overlap period is devoted to large group activities like gym. What's wrong with that?

Off the hill the problems you mention are real and increasing as you move toward LA. I agree that poor parenting is the problem. But I'm unwilling to penalize the whole for the sake of those who are undisciplined and uninterested. It is about time we face up to this social problem instead of trying to paper it over with money. The current policy is not working and needs to be dumped.

You mention those who drop out or zone out in the face of minimum requirements. By the time they get to your level those kids are almost beyond salvation. I want the Principals at the lower levels to have the authority to penalize parents, seriously discipline the kids and expel when necessary those who zone out or cause trouble. Soft education is no education.

Illegals are a special problem that should be treated separately in an alternative, slower moving program. It is a long conversation that we need to have.

Thanks for continuing the discussion.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

YOU MAKE ME LAUGH!! Most principals wouldn't do this as the administration would not support them! The principals are basically figure heads because the school districts are afraid to have them do anything!! If a kid is really bad then they might throw him or her out for a few days or transfer them, but then they are sued by parents and thus they tend to keep bad kids in school.

At a junior high, where I was observing, a 7th grade boy had the Asst principal, three security guards in a classroom and the teacher all in a tizzy as he kept acting out. He was removed forcibly and his mother sued! Guess who won even though the kid disrupted the class???


1:13 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Happy to have made you laugh! I realize that what you say is true. I say it must change and only the voters can make that happen. We need to organize, elect school boards that think like we do, run the PTAs, donate money,.... otherwise all is lost.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

02 25 07

Hello Bill:
Thanks for the response! Yeah, now how can supporting the inner city teachers via good thoughts translate into an effective, reasonable and FAIR policy to assist them?

AND I totally agree with other commenters here; sometimes asshat teachers DO need to get the boot but Unions protect their incompetence! ICKY! The only purpose of a Union should be to insure that workers are treated fairly by the company and aren't abused.

I have worked in places before where unions could have been helpful to that end. However the risk management assessor took on many responsibilities that a union would and did not advocate for the employees.

I DON'T really think that unions should have much to say about worker compensation because when you sign on for a job, you are contractually agreeing to accept a certain wage.

In any event, I think that effective school policy is variant across socioeconomic sectors and geographic regions. What works for inner city kids and motivates them isn't the same thing that helps a well off suburban kid.

Once policy makers become aware of this, we will be better off!

Regarding the instrcution of illegals, I have my share. But going to the home of the child to speak to their parents and interact with the family as a tutor is a helluva lot different than instructing those students in a classroom. Kudos to you Helen!

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NO Bill - we need to hit parents over the head and make them take the responsibility for their children seriously! To give you an example, the little girl next door cannot read and is about three years behind. Her parents are uneducated and cannot help her. Rather than admit to the school and demand that the school put the girl in special ed classes, they just say, OH WELL, and let her go on failing! They themselves will not take the time to learn! The mother watches soap operas at least two hours a day and the girl knows every character in them and their stories as she watches with the mom rather than practice or learn! Now multiply that by thousands of parents who don't speak English, don't care about education or who are too busy themselves to help their kids. Look at the kids at the continuation school here in PV - many of them have parents who dont' care, who don't give a damn as they are too busy driving their BMW's and doing drugs or drinking!

You will not change things until we get rid of TV, make parents take on the responsibility that they should be assuming and start to support the schools and teachers as they should be supported - instead of complaining, go volunteer in the school! That would make a HUGE difference. I have a student who could use your help - he has failed the English class I am teaching twice already and will not pass given what he has done so far in the last two weeks! I have already had about 50% of the students registered drop out of my class as I am demanding that they do their homework! Now give me suggestions on how to improve that score???


9:29 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

I think we are violently agreeing. I'd dearly love to be able to "hit parents over the head and make them take the responsibility for their children seriously!" I'm with you 100%. Notice the response from Mahndisa who teaches inner city kids and also agrees with you. While we all agree, the question is, how do we actually make the changes that are needed? That is what I intend to explore in my blog writing and I welcome any out-of-the-box suggestions because the box is filled up with money and ain't worth a damn.
Keep the faith.
Thank you again. Figuring out how "supporting the inner city teachers via good thoughts translates into an effective, reasonable and FAIR policy to assist them" is my objective. It must be hard or they'd have figured it out already -- or maybe it's simple but politically hard.

9:49 PM  
Blogger CSSage said...

I think you should read this one.


3:49 PM  

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