Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Response to Andrew Rotherham

I am all for civil discourse, which is why I was happy to see an article on the Wisconsin issue written in an intelligible and polite way. Here is the original article, which might come in handy as I respond to it: Beyond Unions: 5 New Rules for All Teachers.

I was a teacher union member for 9 years (I'm approaching my tenth anniversary as a public school teacher). I quit my union about 2 months ago over incompetence. But I'm still a big supporter of unions and specifically collective bargaining.

All those disclosures taken care of, here's what I think Rotherham either gets wrong or leaves out. His first point, on evaluation, appears logical. Evaluation of a teacher's performance should be based on how it can materially benefit the students. All fine and dandy. What Rotherham leaves out, however, is that many times, Principal/Teacher relations are less than collegial. I've been lucky that I've never had an issue with a principal. I have heard many horror stories, though, of principals who "have it in" for teachers in general or specific teachers. Limiting evaluations is one way of restricting a principal's power to make a teacher's life a living hell. That said, an evaluation process that nurtures collegiality sounds like a great idea. I still caution those who turn to fresh MBAs looking for input on how to evaluate teachers more like private sector employees -- they simply are not analogous.

On his "Last In, First Out" section, Rotherham is largely indefensible. Let's face it: teachers get paid crap and get treated like crap. We have one thing going for us and that is job security. Once we've "paid our dues" we can relax a bit and feel comfortable knowing that we'll have a job next year. That does NOT mean that we relax in our performance. I'd be interested in seeing any credible study that finds correlation between job security (what some call "tenure" but is non-existent in other districts) and job performance. What Rotherham leaves out of his whole article, and which I'll get to below, could go a long way towards supporting his position -- but he leaves it out.

Rotherham takes on the issue of transfers and "bumping" of less experienced teachers by more experienced ones. Keep in mind, teachers are forced into a situation of serving "two masters" so to speak: they are employees of a district while they work at a school. If you ask a teacher where their loyalties lie, they will tell you it's with the school. I believe it's very important to protect a teacher's position at a school. So in this sense, I agree with Rotherham. Teachers should be given the time to develop a relationship a specific school, not as a cog in a district-wide machine. It can't be denied, however, that demographic shifts across a district may make it necessary to change the amount of teachers at each school. It makes sense that if school X needs to cut 3 teachers and school Y needs to add 3, that those with the most time spent developing relationships at school X be allowed to stay.

"Tenure and Due Process" rules approaches the point that I said Rotherham left out, but doesn't make it explicit. The due process example he gives is definitely an exception. I doubt anyone would argue that a teacher who deserves to lose their job should be allowed to keep it due to a beaureaucratic snafu. Tenure on the other hand, is an important concept as I have already mentioned above.

When it comes to salary schedules, Rotherham seems to be ignorant of the fact that many school districts DO pay harder to find teachers more money. Either that or he chose to ignore it. Either way, it proves his argument to be specious. My first year teaching I got an unexpected check. When I asked what it was for, I was told that music was a "critical shortage area." I didn't complain. The next year, music wasn't critical shortage anymore. That certainly didn't affect whether I taught or not. While addressing teacher's pay schedules, Rotherham attacks pay based on seniority and advanced degrees while espousing pay based on
differentiation based on how challenging teaching assignments are, hard-to-fill subjects like math, science, special education or foreign languages, and how effective teachers are in the classroom
The first point I have already addressed and the second was touched on under evaluation. It deserves a bit more space, however.

The idea of "merit based pay" for teachers has been gathering steam. And, no doubt, teachers unions will need to concede something on this topic. Here is my take on it. Let's not call it "merit based pay" when the data used for determining a teacher's merit comes from the students, not the teacher. That would be "merit based pay by proxy." And therein lies the problem: how do you equitably and accurately measure a teacher's merit? I have yet to find a method that meets those two criteria. Yet I do not think we should postpone merit based pay simply because there isn't a perfect method of implementation. So let's take on the task, through collective bargaining, of introducing merit based pay. What is NOT a good idea, however, is the law that was vetoed once and is being debated a second time in Florida (this time with an butthole of a governor) which would make FIFTY PERCENT of a teacher's salary based on their merit. This is simply unethical. We cannot demonize teachers to the point of expecting them to have no idea what next year's salary will be. It's hard enough to buy a house on a teacher's salary. How are teachers going to apply for a car loan, let alone a mortgage!, when they have to answer "How much do you make a year?" with "Well . . . it could be $45,000 . . . . or $22,500" (by the way, I've been teaching for 10 years and have a masters degree, but I don't make 45k yet).

And now for the big point that Rotherham left out!

Teachers should be easier to fire. Many of the issues he brings up could be allayed, if not solved, by making it easier to fire teachers. I don't disagree with this idea at all. But I think it needs to be reconciled with the idea of job security. If a teacher has been working for 3-5 years and has never had an issue on their evaluations, I think that teacher should feel secure in their job. If this is what is called "tenure," I'm all for it. But inside of those 3-5 years of "paying dues," if a teacher is deficient, and the district has offered support, and the teacher is STILL deficient . . . then by all means show them the door.

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