The Completely Avoidable Teacher Shortage and What To Do About It

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Hello?

Lo-lo-lo-lo…

Is anybody here?

Ere-ere-ere-ere…

Is anyone else left? Am I the only one still employed here?

Somedays it feels like it.

Somedays teaching in a public school is kind of like trying to run a resort hotel – ALL BY YOURSELF.

 
You’ve got to teach the classes and watch the lunch periods and cover the absences and monitor the halls and buy the pencils and tissues and fill out the lesson plans and conduct the staff meetings and…

Wouldn’t it be better if there were more people here?

I mean seriously. Why do we put the entire responsibility for everything – almost everything – involved in public education and put it all on the shoulders of school teachers?

And since we’re asking questions, why do we ALSO challenge their right to a fair wage, decent healthcare, benefits, reasonable hours, overtime, sick leave, training, collective bargaining… just about ANYTHING to encourage them to stay in the profession and to get the next generation interested in replacing them when they retire?

Why?

Well, that’s part of the design.

You see today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

So if we wanted today’s children to have the same quality of service kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

There’s no way a single teacher can give all those children her undivided attention at all times. There’s no way she can provide them with the kind of individualized instruction we know kids need in order to fulfill their potentials.

So why did we let this happen? Why do we continue to let this happen?

First, you have to understand that there are two very different kinds of public school experience. There is the kind provided by the rich schools where the local tax base has enough money to give kids everything they need including small class sizes and hiring enough teachers to get things done efficiently. And there’s the poor schools where the majority of our kids get educated by the most dedicated put upon teachers who give 110% everyday but somehow can’t manage to keep all those plates spinning in the air at the same time so the media swoops in, wags its finger and proclaims them a “failure.”

Bull.

It’s not teachers who are failing. It’s a system that stacks the deck against them and anxiously anticipates them being unable to meet unfair and impossible expectations.

Why do we let THAT happen?

Mainly because the people with money don’t care about poor and middle class children.

But also because they see the supposed failure of public schools as a business opportunity.

This is a chance to open a new market and scoop up buckets of juicy profit all for themselves and their donors.

It’s called privatized education. You know – charter schools and vouchers schools. Educational institutions not run by the public, not beholden to elected officials, but instead by bureaucrats who have the freedom to act in the shadows, cut student services and pocket the savings.

THAT’S why there’s a teacher shortage.

They want to deprofessionalize the job of teaching.

They don’t want it to be a lifelong career for highly trained, creative and caring individuals.

Why?

Those are people they have to pay a living wage. Those are people who know a thing or two and might complain about how the corporate scheme adversely affects the children in their care.

That’s why!

So these business people would rather teaching become a minimum wage stepping stone for young adults before they move on to something that pays them enough to actually support themselves and their families.

And to do that, the powers that be need to get rid of professional teachers.

People like me – folks with national board certification and a masters degree – they need to go.

THAT’S why class sizes are so large. That’s why so few young people are picking teaching as a major in college.

It’s exactly what the super-rich want.

And it doesn’t have to be some half mad Mr. Burns who makes the decisions. In my own district, the school board just decided to save money by cutting middle school math and language arts teachers – the core educators who teach the most important subjects on the standardized tests they pretend to value so much!

I’m under no illusions that my neighborhood school directors are in bed with the privatization industry. Some are clueless and some know the score. But the decision was prompted mostly by need. We’re losing too many kids to the local charter school despite its terrible academic track record, despite that an army of kids slowly trickle back to us each year after they get the boot from the privatizers, our district coffers are suffering because marketing is winning over common sense.

So number crunching administrators had a choice – straighten their backbones and fight, or suggest cutting flesh and bone to make the budget.

They chose the easier path.

As a result, middle school classes are noticeably larger, teachers have been moved to areas where they aren’t necessarily most prepared to teach and administrators actually have the gall to hold out their clipboards, show us the state test scores and cluck their tongues.

I actually heard an administrator this week claim that my subject, language arts, counts for double points on the state achievement rubric. I responded that this information should be presented to the school board as a reason to hire another language arts teacher, reduce class sizes and increase the chances of boosting test scores!

That went over like a lead balloon.

But it demonstrates why we’ve lost so much ground.

Everyone knows larger class sizes are bad – especially in core subjects, especially for younger students, especially for struggling students. Yet no one wants to do anything to cut class sizes.

If the state and federal government were really committed to increasing test scores, that’s the reform they would mandate when scores drop. Your kids aren’t doing as well in math and reading. Here’s some money to hire more teachers.

But NO.

Instead we’re warned that if we don’t somehow pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, they’ll close our school and give it to a private company to run – as if there were any evidence at all that this would help.

But, the school privatization cheerleader rebuts, why should we reward failing schools with more money?

The same reason you reward a starving stomach with more food. So the hungry person will survive!

Right now you’re doing the same thing with the testing corporations. They make the tests and grade the tests. So if students fail, the testing corporations get more money because then students have to take — MORE TESTS! And they are forced to take testing remediation classes that have to buy testing remediation materials produced by – wait for it – the same companies that make and grade the tests!

It’s a scam, ladies and gentlemen! And anyone who looks can see it.

But when you bring this up to administrators, they usually just nod and say that there’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is keep trying to win the game – a game that’s rigged against us.

That’s exactly the attitude that’s gotten us where we are.

We can’t just keep doing it, keep appeasing the testing and privatization industry and their patsies in the media and government.

We must fight the system, itself, not go along with it.

We need to get on a bus and go to the state capital and Washington, DC, as a staff and protest. We need our school boards to pass resolutions against the unfair system. We need class action lawsuits. We need to tell everyone in the media what we know and repeat it again and again until it becomes a refrain.

And when we get these unfair evaluations of our under-resourced impoverished and multicultural districts, we need to cry foul. “Oh look! Pearson’s tests failed another group of mostly brown and black kids! I wonder what they have against children of color!”

Force them to change. Provide adequate, equitable and sustainable funding so we can hire the number of teachers necessary to actually get the job done. Make the profession attractive to the next generation by increasing teacher pay, autonomy, resources and respect. And stop evaluating educators with unproven, disproven and debunked evaluation schemes like value-added measures and standardized test scores. Judge them on what they do and not a trussed up series of expected outcomes designed by people who either have no idea what they’re talking about or actively work to stack the deck against students and teachers.

But most of all — No more going along.

No more taking the path most traveled.

Because we’ve seen where it leads.

It leads to our destruction.

Teacher Seniority – the Seat Belts of the Education Profession

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You wouldn’t travel a long distance in your car without strapping on a seatbelt.

So why do you think teachers should spend 30 plus years in the classroom without seniority?

Everywhere you look, billionaires are paying millionaires in government to pass laws to cut taxes, slash funding and find cheaper ways to run public schools for pleb kids like yours and mine. And that often means finding ways to weaken protections for teachers, fire those with the most experience and replace them with glorified WalMart greeters.

“Hello. Welcome to SchoolMart. Please plug into your iPad and begin today’s lesson.”

This is class warfare cloaked as a coupon. It’s sabotage described as savings.

And the only way they get away with it is because reasonable people buy the steaming load of manure they’re selling.

MYTH: Seniority with Tenure means a Job for Life

Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of teachers out of work.

Tell that to all the optimistic go getters who prance out of college ready to change the world as teachers and fizzle out during the first five years.

Tell it to the handful of truly terrible teachers who for reasons only they can explain stay in a job they hate through countless interventions and retrainings until the principal has no choice but to give them their walking papers.

Oh, yes. Teachers DO get fired. I’ve seen it with my own eyes numerous times. And in each case, they truly deserved it.

(Any “bad teachers” still on the job mean there’s a worse administrator somewhere neglecting to do his or her duty.)

So what does “Seniority” and “Tenure” even mean for teachers?

Basically, it means two things:

(1) If you want to fire a teacher, you have to prove he or she deserves it. That’s Tenure.

(2) When public school districts downsize, they can’t just lay off people based on their salaries. That’s Seniority.

If you think about it, both of these are good things.

It is not a good work environment for teachers or students when educators can be fired without cause at the whim of incoming administration or radical, newly-elected school board members. Teaching is one of the most political professions we have. Tenure shields educators from the winds of partisanship. It allows them to grade children fairly whose parents have connections on the school board, it allows them to speak honestly and openly about school policy, and it empowers them to act in the best interests of their students – all things that otherwise could jeopardize their jobs.

Likewise, seniority stops the budget butchers from making experience and stability a liability.

It stops number crunchers from saying:

Hey, Mrs. Wilson has been here for 25 years. She’s got a shelf full of teaching awards. Parents and students love her. But she’s at the top of the salary scale so she’s gotta’ go.

I know what you’re going to say: Aren’t there younger teachers who are also outstanding?

Yes. There are.

However, if you put all the best teachers in one group, most of them will be more experienced.

It just makes sense. You get better at something – anything – the more you do it. This could be baking pies, building houses or teaching children how to read and write.

So why don’t we keep the best teachers and get rid of those who aren’t up to their level?

Because determining who’s the best is subjective. And if you let the moneymen decide – POOF! – suddenly the teachers who make the most money will disappear and only the cheapest ones will be left.

Couldn’t you base it on something more universal like student test scores?

Yes, you could, but student test scores are a terrible way to evaluate teachers. If you wanted to get rid of the highest paid employees, all you’d have to do is give them the most struggling students. Suddenly, their students have the worst test scores, and they’re packing up their stuff in little cardboard boxes.

Almost any stat can be gamed.

The only one that is solidly unbiased? Seniority.

You’ve either been here 15 years or you haven’t. There’s not much anyone can do to change that fact.

That’s why it prevents the kind of creative accounting you see from penny pinching number crunchers.

Along with Tenure, Seniority is a safety net. Pure and simple. It helps keep the most qualified teachers in the room with kids. Period.

But look. It’s not perfect.

Neither are seat belts.

If you’re in a car crash on a bridge where it’s necessary to get out of your vehicle quickly before it plunges into the water below, it’s possible your seat belt may make it more difficult to reach safety. This is rather rare, and it doesn’t stop most people from buckling up.

I’ve known excellent teachers who were furloughed while less creative ones were kept on. It does happen.

But if we got rid of seniority, it would happen way more often.

That’s the bottom line.

Instead of finding more leeway to fire more teachers, we should be finding ways to increase school funding – especially at the most under-resourced schools – which, by the way, are the ones where lawmakers most want to eliminate seniority. We should be looking for ways to make downsizing unnecessary. We should be investing in our children and our future.

We’ll never improve the quality of the public school system by firing our way to the bottom. That’s like trying to lose weight by hacking at yourself with a straight razor. It just won’t work.

We need to commit to public schools. We need to commit to public school students. And the best way to do that is to support the teachers who devote their lives showing up every day to help them learn.

Unwilling to Help Schools, PA Legislature Attacks Teachers

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If you live in Pennsylvania, as I do, you must be shaking your head at the shenanigans of our state legislature.

Faced with a school funding crisis of their own making, lawmakers voted this week to make it easier to fire school teachers.

Monday the state Senate passed their version of an anti-seniority bill that was given the thumbs up by the House last summer.

Thankfully, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to veto it.

As usual, lawmakers (or more accurately their surrogates at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who actually wrote the bill) spent more time on branding the legislation than appealing to logic, sense or reason. The bill called HB 805 was given the euphemistic title “The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act.”

Yes, this is exactly how you protect excellent teachers – by making it easier to fire them.

Currently, if teachers are furloughed, those with least seniority go first. Under this new law, teachers would be let go based on their academic rating. Teachers can have one of four ratings: Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement and Failing. Under the new legislation, teachers rated Failing would be furloughed first, followed by those under Needs Improvement, etc. Within those categories decisions would be made based on seniority.

It sounds great – if you know absolutely nothing about Pennsylvania public schools.

First off, in 2015 our rating system found 98.2% of state teachers to be in the highest two rating categories. So at best this bill is next to meaningless.

Second, like virtually all value added rating systems across the country, our rating system is pure bull crap. It’s a complicated measure of meaningless statistics, student test scores and mumbo jumbo that can be twisted one way or another depending on the whims of administrators, dumb luck and the phases of the moon.

A New York Supreme Court judge just ruled this week that the Empire state’s similar teacher rating system is “arbitrary” and “capricious.” But in Pennsylvania our legislators want to make it the axe that slices away teachers from the profession.

Third, the bill isn’t really about seniority at all. It’s about making it easier to fire teachers no matter how good they are at their jobs. Currently, state school districts are not allowed to furlough teachers based on lack of funds. This new legislation aims to remove that impediment.

It makes sense in a way. Pennsylvania lawmakers refuse to properly fund public schools so they have to make it easier to downsize. You’re welcome, taxpayers!

If this bill becomes law, school directors could fire whomever administrators want for whatever reason.

Admin: Mr. Smith, you’re fired.

Smith: Why?

Admin: Um. Financial reasons.

Smith: But I’m rated as Distinguished.

Admin: Not after we adjust the formula, mess with your class rosters and all around juke the stats to show you’re Failing.

Seniority is not perfect, but it avoids all these high jinks. It leaves no questions, nothing that can be easily altered. Either you have seniority or not. And if administrators have been doing their jobs by making sure good teachers stay and bad teachers are trained or let go, seniority correlates with good teaching. If you’ve been in the classroom for a long while, you’re probably a pretty descent teacher. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

The public has to realize something about teaching at a public school. It is a deeply political job. You are subject to the whims of school directors, administrators, parents or anyone in the community with an axe to grind. You simply can’t do the job without some protections. How else can you fairly grade the school director’s child? How else can you exercise academic freedom to do what you think best if every decision is subject to committee?

This doesn’t mean teachers can’t be fired. They are fired every day. But administrators have to be able to make a valid case. They have to gather evidence to prove you deserve to be fired first.

It is highly ironic that Pennsylvania lawmakers are pursuing this legislation when they have done everything in their power to protect their own jobs first.

You want to talk seniority? Look to the legislature.

Incumbents are almost always re-elected. Why? Not because they do such a great job. They’ve made sure to gerrymander the state. Republicans reside in overwhelmingly Republican districts, Democrats in overwhelmingly Democratic ones.

This is no accident. A few years back, legislators redrew district borders to make sure they’d keep their jobs no matter how crappy they were at governance. It is deeply unfair and undemocratic. The majority of voters do not get a say. Instead, we cater to special interests and protect terrible legislators so they can pass crap like this bill without fear of repercussions during election season.

Do you think lawmakers would have refused to pass a state budget this year until 9 months after the deadline if they thought voters could actually hold them accountable? No way!

Do you think they’d withhold fair funding to the majority of public schools in the state if they thought the majority of voters had a say whether these knuckleheads stayed in power? Absolutely not!

And worst of all, even with Gov. Wolf’s promised veto, the crisis is far from over. When next year’s budget comes up for a vote in June and the Governor again asks for equitable funding for schools, legislators are bound to use HB 805 as a bargaining chip.

“You want some money for our kids’ schools? Then you’d better make it easier to fire teachers,” they’ll say.

Protect excellent teachers? Ha! They’re protecting terrible legislators.

We’ll never have good governance in this state again unless we find a way to redraw our gerrymandered districts. We need a voter referendum, a nonpartisan committee or – here’s a long shot – we need for extremist residents of these gerrymandered districts to revolt against the politicians hiding behind them.

Until then, we will be forever cursed with terrible lawmakers, execrable laws, under-resourced schools and a crumbling state.


Click HERE to find out how your representatives voted on HB 805.

Pennsylvania GOP Lawmakers Demand Seniority For Themselves But Deny It For Teachers

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Seniority.

Somehow it’s great for legislators, but really bad for people like public school teachers.

At least that was the decision made by Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House Tuesday. They voted along party lines to allow schools to furlough educators without considering seniority.

But the House’s own leadership structure is largely based on seniority!

Hypocrisy much?

Most legislative bodies in the United States from the federal government on down to the state level give extra power to lawmakers based on how long they’ve been there.

Everything from preferential treatment for committee assignments to better office space and even seating closer to the front of the assembly is often based on seniority. Leadership positions are usually voted on, but both Republicans and Democrats traditionally give these positions to the most senior members.

And these same folks have the audacity to look down their noses at public school teachers for valuing the same thing!?

As Philadelphia Representative James Roebuck, ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said, “If it’s wrong for teachers, why is it right for us?”

If passed by the state Senate and signed by the Governor, the law would allow public schools to lay off teachers based on the state’s new and highly controversial teacher evaluation system.

Teachers with a “failing” ranking would go first, then those with a “needs Improvement,” label.

This system is largely untested and relies heavily on student standardized test scores. There is no evidence it fairly evaluates teachers, and lawsuits certainly would be in the wings if furloughs were made based on such a flimsy excuse.

Value-Added Measures such as these have routinely been criticized by statisticians as “junk science.”

It’s kind of like giving legal favor to the management practices of Darth Vader. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” when one of his minions displeased him, he choked them to death with the Force.

No second chances. No retraining. No due process. One misplaced foot and you’re gone.

Pennsylvania’s proposed method isn’t quite so harsh, but it’s essentially the same. You’re fired because of this flimsy teaching evaluation that has no validity and can really say whatever management wants it to say.

Technically, things like salary are not allowed to be considered, but given the unscientific and unproven nature of this evaluation system, management could massage evaluations to say anything. Administrators didn’t mean to fire the teachers with the highest salaries but those voodoo teaching evaluations said they were “failing.” What are you gonna’ do? OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

While seniority is not a perfect means of selecting who gets laid off, at least it’s impartial. Moreover, teachers who have lasted in the classroom longest almost always are highly skilled. You don’t last in the classroom if you can’t hack it.

Being a public school teacher is a highly political job. Your boss is the school board and members are elected by the community. While many school directors have the best interests of their districts at heart, favoritism, nepotism and political agendas are not unknown. Teachers need protections from the ill-winds of politics so they can be treated fairly and best serve their students. Otherwise, it would be impossible – for instance – to fairly grade a school director’s child in your class without fear of reprisal.

As it stands, state school code specifically mandates layoffs to be made in reverse seniority order, also known as “first in, last out.” Pennsylvania is one of six states that calls for this to be the sole factor in school layoff decisions.

It’s unclear how the legislature could pass a law that contradicts the school code without specifically voting to alter the code which governs the Commonwealth’s public schools.

Moreover, it may be illegal on several additional counts. Public school districts have work contracts with their teachers unions. The state can’t jump in and void those contracts between two independent parties when both agreed to the terms of those contracts. Not unless there was some legal precedent or unconstitutionality or violation of human rights or SOMETHING!

Get our your pocketbooks, Pennsylvanians. If this law is somehow enacted, you’re going to be paying for years of court challenges.

And speaking of flushing money down the toilet, the law also allows school districts to furlough employees for financial reasons. At present, layoffs are allowed only when enrollment drops or by cutting programs wholesale.

This is especially troubling given the legislature’s failure the past four years to fairly fund its public schools. Ninety percent of school districts have had to cut staff in recent years, either through attrition or furlough, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

So this law makes it easier to rob poorer schools of funding. If it were enacted, districts could fire teachers and reduce programs to pinch pennies. Now they are constrained to keep the highest possible level of quality for students regardless of funding shortfalls. This puts them at odds with the legislature and forces them to demand fair funding for their districts. Under this new law, school boards could more easily ensure that some students get a higher quality education than others in the same district!

Oh! We increased class size for the struggling students (most of whom are poor and minorities) but decreased it for the advanced classes (most of whom are rich and white).

Finally, we get to the issue of viability. Will the state Senate pass this bill?

Maybe.

The House passed it without a single Democrat voting in favor. The Senate is likewise controlled by the GOP. However, Gov. Tom Wolf is a Democrat and has said he’s against it. Seniority issues, he said, should be negotiated through the local collective bargaining process.

So once again we have partisan politics reigning over our public schools – Republicans actively trying to sabotage our public schools and fire their way to the top! Democrats vainly trying to hold the line.

Couldn’t we all just agree to value our public schools and public school teachers?

Or at very least couldn’t we all agree to give others the same benefits we demand for ourselves?

You know. Things like seniority!