Posts tagged ‘seniority’

January 11, 2013

The Not So Merry Month of May

Larry Sand President California Teachers Empowerment Network

Larry Sand President California Teachers Empowerment Network

In California schools, the fifth month (formerly known as May) is now Labor History Month.

As Kevin Drayton pointed out in Union Watch last week, the entire month of May is now officially deemed Labor History Month in California. Courtesy of AB 2269, the state education code has been amended to read,

The month of May is hereby deemed to be Labor History Month throughout the public schools, and school districts are encouraged to commemorate this month with appropriate educational exercises that make pupils aware of the role the labor movement has played in shaping California and the United States.

Once upon a time, the private employee unions may have done some good things for their workers – they typically get credit for the 40 hour/ 5 day work week. But as John Stossel says,

Workers’ lives improved in America because of free enterprise, not because of union rules. Union contracts helped workers for a while, but then they hurt even union workers because the rigid rules prevent flexibility in response to new market conditions. They slow growth. And growth increasing productivity, which leads to higher wages and new opportunities is what is best for workers.

Whatever the truth is about the old days, let’s fast forward to the present and find out what the teachers unions – which own and operate the California legislature that gave birth to this law – have accomplished and what they have in mind to teach our kids. It probably won’t come as a shock that students will be getting a bowdlerized and glorified version of the union movement.

There are resources galore available for teachers to help them indoctrinate their students. Here are but a few:

That the teachers unions are playing an important role in this brainwashing is particularly ironic given the damage they have done as part of the blob that runs education in the Golden State. They may be able to brag that they have gotten higher salaries and more perks for teachers, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they will not be posting labor history lessons with the following information:

Though they claim to be everyman, national teacher union bosses are really part of the reviled one percent. In 2011, the two national teacher union presidents made a bundle in total compensation:

  • Dennis Van Roekel, NEA: $460,060
  • Randi Weingarten, AFT: $493,859

The other union officers aren’t exactly scraping by either. Salaries for the elite at the National Education Association:

  • John Stocks, Executive Director: $379,260
  • Becky Pringle, Secretary-Treasurer: $332,539
  • Lily Eskelsen, Vice President: $332,390

Will the teachers unions tell the kids that in California, they have done everything within their abusive power to maintain the failing status quo by trying and mostly succeeding to kill every effort at education reform that would have benefited students?

Will they tell the kids that they regularly buy and sell school board members? And that if a prospective member doesn’t toe the party line, the union will support his/her opponent with vast sums of cash?

Will they tell the kids that they consider the California State Assembly “their house?” Most legislators there fall into line like obedient ducks as witnessed by the shameful death of SB 1530, which would have simplified the process to get rid of pedophile teachers.

Will they tell the kids that they insist on maintaining a seniority system whereby teachers-of-the-year are routinely laid off before a mediocre or worse teacher just because the former was hired the day after the latter?

Will they tell the kids that they fight to keep a tenure system in place whereby the most mediocre teacher essentially has a job for life after just two years in a classroom?

Will they tell the kids that they do their best to try to kill (mostly non-unionized) charter school growth every chance they get?

Will they tell the kids that in 2000, they spent millions to defeat Prop. 38 – a voucher bill that would have enabled some poor kids to escape their failing schools?

Will they tell the kids that this past fall, they lobbied for and succeeded in passing Prop. 30 – a ballot initiative that raised taxes on most Californians without getting any reform for their money? (Hence, the status quo is maintained with more than one in four students never graduating high school – and a majority of those who do graduate and go on to college are not prepared for it and need remediation.)

Will they tell the kids anything about the National Right to Work Foundation, an organization that fights for a worker’s right not to join a union?

The answer to every one of these questions is, of course, “No.” As such, I would encourage all parents to find out just what their school plans for Labor History Month. If it is planning lessons espousing only the unionista party line, I suggest keeping your kids home when these activities are planned and using that time to tell them the truth about what the teachers unions really stand for, and what their “accomplishments” over the past decades have wrought.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

October 18, 2012

Small Class-Size Balloon Punctured Again

Larry Sand President California Teachers Empowerment Network

It’s time to “just say no” to the small class-size pushers and eliminate seniority as a staffing mechanism

Small class size means less work for teachers. Parents seem to think that their child will be better educated in a room with fewer classmates. Unions love fewer kids in a class because it equates to a larger workforce, which means more money and power for them. Only problem is that small class size does not lead to greater student achievement. It just means more hiring, then laying off the same teachers and punishing taxpayers who needlessly pay for a bloatedworkforce.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published “The Imaginary Teacher Shortage,” an op-ed byprofessor of education reform at the University of Arkansas Jay Greene, in which he exposes the small-is-better canard.

For decades we have tried to boost academic outcomes by hiring more teachers, and we have essentially nothing to show for it. In 1970, public schools employed 2.06 million teachers, or one for every 22.3 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics. In 2012, we have 3.27 million teachers, one for every 15.2 students.

Greene also addresses the fact that as hiring increases, there is less likelihood of a student getting a good teacher. And  having a good teacher is the most important factor in student achievement.

Parents like the idea of smaller class sizes in the same way that people like the idea of having a personal chef. Parents imagine that their kids will have one of the Iron Chefs. But when you have to hire almost 3.3 million chefs, you’re liable to end up with something closer to the fry-guy from the local burger joint.

Just three months ago, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom Andrew Coulson wrote a similar op-ed in the same newspaper. The subhead in “America Has Too Many Teachers” sets the tone:

Public-school employees have doubled in 40 years while student enrollment has increased by only 8.5%—and academic results have stagnated

In the body of the piece, he gives us some numbers to chew on. Whereas Greene talks specifically about teachers, Coulson refers to the entire “public school workforce.”

Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers’ aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. (Emphasis added.) If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.

I contributed my own two cents on the subject in City Journal in July of 2011.

In 1998, Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek released the results of his impressive review of class-size studies. Examining 277 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all—and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way ‘to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.’

So basically, almost three-quarters of all the studies showed no benefit to small class size, and of the rest, almost the same number revealed negative effects as positive ones.

While it is a personal hardship for a teacher to be laid off, no one should be surprised when it happens. When economic times are good, it’s easy to buy into more hiring. But good economic times don’t last forever and when suddenly we can’t afford all the teachers we have hired and some need to be let go, it is brazen of the self-righteous, small class-size true believers to mislead the public with their hand-wringing and political posturing.

And we can’t say we weren’t warned that there were going to be problems. Back in April of 2004, teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci wrote,

Enrollment Figures Spell Big Trouble for Education Labor.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) regularly reviews enrollment figures, comparing past years with expectations for the future. Its most recent report shows clearly that the fat years of teacher employment are over, and the lean years may last much longer than anyone has previously predicted.

NCES compared the period 1988-2001 with its projections for 2001-2013. The differences are stark. While public school enrollment increased 19 percent between 1988 and 2001, it is expected to grow only 4 percent between 2001 and 2013. During the period 1988-2001, the number of public school teachers grew by an astonishing 29 percent. The forecast for 2001-2013 is growth of only 5 percent – or less than 0.4 percent annually.

Then in June 2004, referring to Rankings and Estimates, a National Education Association report, Antonucci wrote,

In 2003-04, American public elementary schools taught 1,649,027 more pupils than they did in 1993-94. But there were 247,620 more elementary school classroom teachers in 2003-04 than there were in 1993-94. Simply put, for every 20 additional students enrolled in America’s K-8 schools in the last 10 years, we hired three additional elementary school classroom teachers.

So clearly, having fewer teachers is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is tragic when we lose the good ones. Throughout much of the country, the decisions as to which teachers get laid off are determined by archaic seniority policies. Teachers-of-the-year are laid off before their mediocre or incompetent counterparts simply because the latter may have been hired a few days before the former. This is no way to run an education system. The sooner we get away from the smaller-is-better myth and turn our attention to scrapping the industrial style “last in, first out” method, the better.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

May 22, 2012

Earthquake Could Alter Education Landscape in California

Latest temblor to hit the Golden State is a lawsuit that could result in a major tectonic shift in education.

Larry Sand President California Teachers Empowerment Network

In September of 1975, due to New York City’s dire fiscal situation, I was laid off from my teaching position at P.S. 125 in Harlem. I lost my job not because I was a bad teacher, but because I was hired a few months after the teacher in the room next to mine…who was a lousy teacher.  Using seniority, or last in/first out (LIFO), as a way to determine who keeps their job is wrong. It stank 37 years ago in New York and it’s no better in California in 2012.

Thirty-three other states leave these kinds of staffing decisions to local education agencies, but in California, LIFO is written into the state education code. However, this and more may be about to change. If successful, a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles by Students Matter would shake up the way California conducts much of its educational business. John Fensterwald writes,

Students Matter is the creation of David Welch, co-founder of Infinera, a manufacturer of optical telecommunications systems in Sunnyvale. The new nonprofit filed its lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday on behalf of eight students who attend four school districts. A spokesperson for the organization told the Los Angeles Times that Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and a few other individuals are underwriting the lawsuit. They have hired two top-gun attorneys to lead the case: Ted Boutrous, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Ted Olsen, former solicitor general for President George W. Bush.

The lawsuit asserts that five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest. The tenure statute forces districts to decide after teachers are on the job only 18 months whether to grant them permanent job status. Once granted tenure, they gain due-process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them even if they’re “grossly ineffective.” And then, when an economic downturn comes – witness the last four years – a Last In/First Out (LIFO) requirement leads to layoffs based strictly on seniority, not competency.

Organizations that have signed up for the suit as advisors are major players in the educational reform world. They include:

Of course California shouldn’t need a lawsuit to end such an onerous system. But the sad fact is that it does for the simple reason that too many people in power have become way too comfy and have too much invested in the abysmal status quo. The teachers unions’ raison d’être will suffer if teachers started being treated as professionals and not interchangeable widgets. School boards will have to stop being doormats for their local teachers unions, take more initiative and come up with evaluation systems for teachers that have teeth. And school administrators will have to conduct teacher evaluations that ensure the best ones keep their jobs and the bottom performers are shown the door. Principals need to know that if they don’t accurately assess teachers, they could be out of a job. In short, there will be real accountability for all the players.

So far, very little has come out of the teachers’ and principals’ unions about the Students Matter lawsuit and the California School Board Association has also been mum. At this point, the only recorded comment on the lawsuit has come from the California Teachers Association president who in typical union fashion tried to redirect the conversation and duck any responsibility for the educational mess we find ourselves in. Dean Vogel said,

…the debate about teacher tenure and dismissal is being driven by the state’s economic crisis, which has drained education funding and resulted in waves of layoffs.

No Mr. Vogel, the debate has been brought to a head by the economic crisis, but is driven by people who actually care about how children are educated and miseducated in California.

In addition to LIFO, the suit attacks tenure which can be attained in California after just two years, essentially guaranteeing a 23 year-old teacher a job for life. Over ninety-eight percent of teachers in California get tenure, and once it’s granted, getting rid of a teacher is just about impossible. Fensterwald again,

The protection of ineffective teachers “creates arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality among students,” especially low-income children in low-performing schools, where less experienced teachers are hired and inept veteran teachers are shunted off, under a familiar “dance of the lemons” since they can’t be fired. Because education is a “fundamental interest” under the state Constitution, the five statutes that “dictate this unequal, arbitrary result violate the equal protection provisions of the California Constitution” and should be overturned. 

According to Troy Senik in the Los Angeles Times,

… teachers in California — even terrible ones — are virtually never fired. A tiny 0.03% of California teachers are dismissed after three or more years on the job. In the last decade, the L.A. Unified School District, home to 33,000 teachers, has fired only four. Even when teachers are fired, it’s seldom because of their classroom performance: A 2009 expose by this newspaper found that only 20% of successful dismissals in the state had anything to do with teaching ability. Most involved teachers behaving either obscenely or criminally.

The lawsuit includes a chart which shows the ridiculous lengths that a school district must go through to get rid of an underperformer or a teacher involved in criminality once they have attained tenure.

Interestingly, another lawsuit, filed last year, has a court date in a few weeks. If successful, this litigation, which concerns itself with the state’s 40 year-old Stull Act, would be something of a companion to the Students Matter case. While the Los Angeles Unified School District is targeted in the Stull suit, if it flies, there would be statewide ramifications. As I wrote in January,

For nearly 40 years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has broken the law—and nobody seemed to notice. Now a group of parents and students are taking the district to court. On November 1, a half-dozen anonymous families working with EdVoice, a reform advocacy group in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the LAUSD, district superintendent John Deasy, and United Teachers Los Angeles. The lawsuit in essence accuses the district and the union of a gross dereliction of duty. According to the parents’ complaint, the district and the union have violated the children’s “fundamental right to basic educational equality and opportunity” by failing to comply with a section of the California Education Code known as the Stull Act. Under the 1971 law, a school district must include student achievement as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Los Angeles Unified has never done so: the teachers union wouldn’t allow it.

Thus, if the Stull lawsuit is successful, each school district in the state will be required to come up with its own method of evaluating teachers, but they all must use evidence of student learning via a standardized test as a component. If the Students Matter case then succeeds, there will already be evaluation systems in place to supplant LIFO. Incidentally, none of this is exactly revolutionary. At this time, 23 states currently use student performance on standardized tests as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

While the Students Matter case would go a long way toward getting California up to speed, even more would need to be done to restore the Golden State’s once great public education system. But as RiShawn Biddle says, there can be no denying that this lawsuit “is another important step in developing new strategies for advancing systemic reform.” This suit will bring up issues that the entrenched special interests don’t want to discuss. But their tired old spin will give way to the shakes as the earth begins to realign itself and the educational landscape changes.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

May 3, 2012

The Second American Revolution

If education reformers stick to principle and don’t back down, all other obstacles to victory can be overcome.

Larry Sand President California Teachers Empowerment Network

Recently, Andrew Rotherham wrote a short piece in The Atlantic in which he describes “The 3 Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform.” The first obstacle he mentions is that currently “We buy reform.”

Or at least we try to. Some politicians really think that throwing money at the problem will help and the less principled ones do it because they are trying to pay back certain political allies. The result is that untold billions are taken from taxpayers to support giant bureaucracies on the federal and state levels and to prop up programs that do little or nothing to help the students who desperately need it. Rotherham writes,

The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy — the 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office — and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions at any level of education policymaking.

This bears repeating – there are 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality! Improving teacher quality is important, of course, but ultimately it’s just one small piece of the education reform picture. While one can find some good in the Bush era No Child Left Behind and Obama-Duncan’s Race to the Top, in the grand scheme of things both programs end up creating as many problems as they solve, and do so at an unbearable financial cost.

Rotherham’s second obstacle is “Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.” I disagree with Rotherham here. We have adequate ways to measure performance. They are not perfect, but what we have is good enough to work with in the meantime while we continually strive for improvements. As I wrote in January,

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

While using value added is important, this measure is not the only way to evaluate teachers. Observations by principals and outside evaluators are important components as is feedback from parents and students. These hybrid evaluation plans are being used now in New York and elsewhere. In Harrison, CO, School Superintendent Mike Miles has used a combination of standardized tests and classroom observation to come up with a tiered system of teacher effectiveness. (Miles, who has been called “an icon in educator effectiveness,” is apparently on his way to Dallas to head up its school system.)

Rotherham correctly bemoans “last in, first out,” the horrific seniority system that too many school districts still use. Seventeen states, including California, do not leave staffing decisions of this nature to individual school districts – they are state mandates. Seniority, a teachers union favorite, is like our tailbones, a vestigial remnant from another era. In this rigid system, no weight is given to an employee’s effectiveness, just to length of time on the job. So on a regular basis we have “Teachers of the Year” being laid off, while far less effective colleagues get to keep their jobs. The union claims this is a fair way to make staffing decisions.

Fair? Hardly. It’s highly unprincipled – horrible for children, grossly unfair to good teachers and taxpayers and must be done away with in toto.

In fact, the National Teacher of the Year award has just been given to a teacher in California. On its website, NEA proudly proclaimed her “an NEA member.” The irony is that this terrific teacher could have been laid off, with no exception made for her teaching ability, if she had been hired a few years later. So you might say that she is still on the job in spite of the teachers unions and their insistence on a seniority-based system.

Rotherham’s third obstacle is, “Education policy is by its nature political, conservative, and change-averse.”

All too often educrats, school board members and the teachers unions selfishly fight to maintain the status quo – and the kids be damned. Unless the current state of affairs is rigorously and unapologetically challenged by reformers, our country will suffer irreparable damage.

Rotherham could have added a fourth and overarching obstacle – that there is squishiness in parts of the reform movement. For example, “partnering” with the industrial style and self-absorbed teachers unions and searching for “best practices” are diversionary and ultimately pointless exercises, yet there are some who embrace them in the name of reform. In an exceptional essay, RiShawn Biddle makes a case for “The Importance of Being Divisive in Education.” He notes that many significant historical figures like Winston Churchill and Thomas Paine were considered divisive because of their standing on principle and their unwillingness to compromise. He claims that for education to undergo a necessary transformation, we need to have more divisiveness, not less. Teachers unions and other members of the educational establishment have derisively referred to Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee as divisive. But as Biddle says,

… school reformers should accept — and fully embrace — being divisive. Because it is the only way we can transform American public education.

The situation is somewhat akin to the founding of our country. I suppose that King George looked upon George Washington as divisive, as well as the aforementioned Paine, and Madison, and Jefferson. Biddle goes on to state,

Being divisive about challenging a failed, amoral system that condemns 1.2 million children a year to poverty and prison is at the heart of the school reform movement. And this is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with actively opposing a traditional system of compensation that has fostered teacher quality policies that subject our poorest children to the worst American public education offers. And, more importantly, there is nothing terrible about pushing to end policies that do little more than harm the futures of children who deserve better.

In short, education reformers are at war with those who, for their own selfish reasons, are fighting to maintain a failed system. Because a revolution in education must occur if we are to regain our status as a great nation, playing nice with the enemy will not get the job done. In a time of warfare, divisiveness is a virtue. Without it, and a principled spine of steel, the war will be lost and our country along with it.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

March 20, 2012

Good Teachers: Beware The Ides of March

Julius Caesar came to a bad end on March 15th, the same date many good teachers were warned that they may be unemployed in June.

Larry Sand President California Teachers Empowerment Network

Nearly 20,000 Teacher Pink Slips Statewide Show Drastic Need for More Education Funding” screamed the headline on the California Teachers Association website.

First, let’s straighten out the union spin. Typically when a person receives a “pink slip,” it means that they are fired. What some teachers actually received is a Reduction in Force (RIF) notice, which according to state law, must be sent to teachers by March 15th if there is the slightest chance that they will be laid off in June. School districts really don’t know in March what their budget will be for the next school year so they plan for the worst case scenario. It’s unheard of for all teachers who get the notices to actually be laid off, but some will, and they must be notified if there is any chance they will lose their jobs.

As a young teacher in New York City in 1975, I lost my 6th grade teaching because the city was in the midst of a fiscal swoon. A few thousand of us were laid off because we were the newest hires, not because we were the worst teachers. The union contract did not make any provision for getting rid of the poorest performers, just the newly employed. Fast forward 37 years and we are still doing the same stupid thing.

In California, the state education code stipulates that seniority must be the determinant as to who gets the ax when times are tough. Last in, first out (LIFO) is the law of the land in California and is a terrible way to make staffing decisions. Teachers should be assessed on their merits, and if layoffs must happen, the poorest performers should go, just as in every other field.

How many bad teachers are there? (Please spare me the “teacher bashing” epithet; there are stinkers in every field – doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. The difference is that if the latter continuously fail their clients, they will be forced out of their profession. But not teachers.) Former GE CEO Jack Welch said that the bottom 10 percent of any field should be replaced. I will use a more conservative number – let’s say that 5 percent of teachers are poor performers.

In California, there are about 300,000 teachers. If 5 percent of them aren’t fit to teach, that means we have 15,000 who should seek work elsewhere. If each of these teachers has 20 kids in a class, it means they are ruining the educational experience of 300,000 children a year. If a young student has two dogs in a row, in all likelihood they will never catch up, thus inflicting permanent damage. And a middle or high school teacher in the bottom 5 percent can do even more harm, as he or she may have 150 students per year.

Another thing to consider when laying off teachers is that by not limiting your choice to newest hires, not as many would have to be let go. That’s because the newest hires are always the lowest paid, thanks to the antiquated step and column pay scale that school districts use. This set-up rewards teachers for the number of years on the job, irrespective of their effectiveness.

The consequence of ridding schools of their lowest performing teachers can be transformative. According to Hoover Institution scholar Eric Hanushek, if we just got rid of the bottom performing 5 to 7 percent of teachers – a common practice in the private sector — our education system could rival that of Finland’s world class system

Of course, common sense changes will be difficult to bring about in California due to the enormous power of CTA. Teachers unions care not a whit about teacher quality. They just want as many breathing, dues paying bodies in the classroom as possible.

Julius Caesar had good reason to fear March 15th. It is a crying shame that so many excellent teachers should have that same fear.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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