Union Misdeeds, Part I: Teachers Sacrifice Their Own

It appears from two recent stories that some unions should take an oath of "do no harm" to their own members. In Maryland, veteran teachers resorted to extreme measures to earn a 1% pay raise — at the expense of the jobs of their colleagues with little or no seniority. The Education Action Group asserts:

The Harford County (Maryland) school board has agreed to eliminate the jobs of 72 teachers and administrators in order to fund one percent raises for veteran members of the local teachers union.
“Although our teachers undoubtedly deserve a fair pay raise, this proposal also comes with a cost—the loss of both administrative and teaching positions,” County Executive David Craig said in a statement, according to BelAirPatch.com.
One percent is not enough for one union member.
“I appreciate with my whole heart the step that you all have made today, but one percent is $20 that doesn’t fill my gas tank to go to work,” Amy Childs told board members, according to ExploreHarford.com.
Of course, that won’t be an issue for the 72 employees who soon won’t be traveling any farther than their couch each morning.
Even though the wage agreement is a bad deal for the community as a whole, board members likely felt pressured to approve it. Harford teachers have been picketing for the past two weeks, as well as conducting a “work to rule” campaign, in which teachers limit “their duties and activities to only those specifically required as part of their contract,” Examiner.com reports.
Harford teachers refused to “volunteer at lunchtime or, beyond the school day to tutor students or, run extra-curricular clubs and activities. Teachers did not enter school until the start of their contractual time and left immediately after their contracted day was over,” the news site reports.
So the veteran teachers had a tantrum and got their way. Their raise will mean fewer teachers and larger class sizes for students, but hey, what do they matter?
Needless to say, the layoffs will mostly affect younger employees with little seniority. They may be union brothers and sisters when times are good, but when there’s only so many dollars to go around, older teachers are happy to eat their young.
We wonder if the union would have pushed for the raise/layoff deal if the school board had the right to choose which teachers were laid off, regardless of seniority?  Probably not.

A Tie Between Testing and Tenure

Education changes are underway in many places — possibly including New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to use student test scores as one factor in teacher tenure decisions.

The fight with the teachers’ union is expected to be bitter. But Bloomberg makes an excellent point in the closing quote below, as reported by the New York Times:

The city already uses test scores in evaluating the system: to determine teacher and principal bonus pay, to assign the A through F letter grades that schools receive and to decide which schools are shut down for poor performance. The mayor is now putting even more weight behind those scores by using them to decide which teachers should stay and which should go.

The Bloomberg administration contends that it already has the power to use test scores in tenure decisions. But, he said that the Legislature should require all districts in the state to evaluate teachers and principals with “data-driven systems,” one of the factors Education Secretary Arne Duncan will use in deciding which states will receive Race to the Top grants.

The mayor also said the state should allow teacher layoffs based on performance rather than seniority, as they are now.

“The only thing worse than having to lay off teachers would be laying off great teachers instead of failing teachers,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “With a transparent new evaluation system, principals would have the ability to make layoffs based on merit — but only if the State Legislature gives us the authority to do it.”

An Awakening of Education Attitudes

What makes a good survey? Sure, there’s the wording of the questions, the quality of the pool of respondents and a host of other factors. One I like is the longevity of the poll. In this case, it’s 41 years for the PDK (Phi Delta Kappa International)/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

Here are some of the key results:

The findings indicate that Americans continue to support annual testing of students in grades three through eight by a two-to-one margin, and they favor using a single national test rather than letting each state use its own. This opinion is held by Democrats and Republicans equally.

Two out of three Americans support charter schools, although many Americans are confused about whether charter schools are public schools and whether they can charge tuition, teach religion, or select their own students. During the last five years, Americans’ approval of charter schools has increased by 15 percent.

The 2009 poll also reveals that almost three out of four Americans favor merit pay for teachers regardless of political affiliation. Student academic achievement, administrator evaluations, and advanced degrees are the three most favored criteria for awarding merit pay.  

NCLB Fatigue? Americans are also growing weary of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In fact, support for NCLB, which was passed in 2002, continues to decline as almost half of Americans view it unfavorably and only one in four Americans believe that it has helped schools in their communities. 

Split Views on Teacher Tenure. American views are split on teacher tenure depending on how the question is phrased. They disapprove of teachers having a “lifetime contract” but agree that teachers should have a formal legal review before being terminated.

Dropout Rate of Top Importance. Almost nine out of 10 Americans believe that the U.S. high school dropout rate is either the most important or one of the most important problems facing high schools today. Offering more interesting classes was the suggestion offered most when asked what could help reduce the dropout rate. 

PDK says the results are an endorsement of President Obama’s education agenda. I say it’s about time and let’s hope state and federal officials can build on the momentum and create some meaningful change to benefit all students.

The Great Teacher Conundrum

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the troubling difficulty of firing tenured teachers, even when it would seem warranted. For instance, they cite a teacher who allegedly told a student who had attempted suicide that he needed to "carve deeper next time" and "Look, you can’t even kill yourself."

The Los Angeles school board, citing (the teacher) Polanco’s poor judgment, voted to fire him.

But Polanco, who contended that he had been misunderstood, kept his job. A little-known review commission overruled the board, saying that although the teacher had made the statements, he had meant no harm.

It’s remarkably difficult to fire a tenured public school teacher in California, a Times investigation has found. The path can be laborious and labyrinthine, in some cases involving years of investigation, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings.

Not only is the process arduous, but some districts are particularly unsuccessful in navigating its complexities. The Los Angeles Unified School District sees the majority of its appealed dismissals overturned, and its administrators are far less likely even to try firing a tenured teacher than those in other districts.

Obviously, it’s a complicated issue — and I’m the last guy to blast public school teachers on the whole (not only because I had several great ones, but also because my father and step-mother have made careers out of public teaching — and doing it well). But it’s unnerving that, according to an Indianapolis Star story, Indianapolis finds itself disposing of teachers who have actually excelled simply because they haven’t been there long enough.

The district’s youngest and most enthusiastic teachers are on the chopping block, including nine of the 32 recently announced as nominees for IPS teacher of the year. Two of the laid-off teachers were among 10 finalists for the districtwide honor

"IPS claims it wants to become a world-class school system," Rick Henss, a father of two boys attending Sidener Academy, wrote in an e-mail to School Board members. "Nothing makes that claim ring more hollow than watching world-class teachers emptying their desks."

Henss criticized the district’s planned layoff of fifth-grade teacher Lori Feliciano, a finalist for teacher of the year.

"She has made for my son what school was intended to be: a place of higher learning, where learning for the sake of learning is encouraged and enjoyed," Henss said. "There could be no greater travesty or injustice than for a highly qualified, proven, driven, vibrant and talented teacher like Ms. Feliciano to lose her job to satisfy the ridiculous and ineffective practice of seniority."

Make of these situations what you will, but the findings are not encouraging.

Hat tips to Chamber staffer Jonathan Wales and Reason Magazine’s blog.

UPDATE: Mike O’Brien also has a post on this matter over at the WRTV6 Capitol Watchblog. He makes a terrific point:

Imagine a company that makes a decision to cutback by firing their top salesman because he’s been there for five years instead of the company’s worst employee who has been there for thirty years.  That’s education in Indiana.  It’s the biggest business in Indiana and it’s run on a patronage system.