Month: March 2019

Fake education “reform” disrespects the teacher

You don’t have to be too old – or maybe you do – to remember when a popular shorthand for education consisted of only three Rs – reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic.

Corny? Sure. But the three Rs emphasized that the teacher was the center, the driving force of the classroom, the school and the very educational process itself.

Now, we have a fourth R – reform – which has tried to diminish the role of the teacher in favor of the latest schemes, often ill-informed and not always well-intended, advanced by a series of self-styled education “experts” with voices or political influence loud enough to make themselves heard.

Some of these experts-in-their-own minds haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since their college days, but they claim to know more than teachers about what’s best for school children – and what’s best for the children’s taxpaying parents as well.

There is nothing wrong with reform because true reform is changing something in an effort to improve it or make it better. But the “reformers’ I am talking about have hijacked the use of the word, like they are trying to hijack the public education system.

The charter school alternative, for example, was sold to the Legislature years ago as an innovative idea to give a limited number of schools some flexibility from state regulations to experiment with educational methods that might better help some students learn.

Today’s “reformers” have hijacked the charter movement to milk billions of tax dollars from under-funded neighborhood schools in order to feed the coffers of predatory, corporate-style charter chains with educational records that generally are worse than most traditional public schools. They don’t have to hire certified teachers, and they aren’t bound by state contractual rights for teachers or the salary schedule.

“Reform” also has saddled us with the expensive STAAR albatross, which has robbed teachers of time they could spend on real reading, writing and arithmetic in favor of test prep, test prep and more test prep. It was replaced the three Rs with the four Ts – teaching to the test – has cost Texas taxpayers billions of dollars and has needlessly raised the stress levels of school children.

I suspect it also has destroyed the joy of learning for untold numbers of children, and that is the real tragedy of STARR. My suspicion has been reinforced by writer Mimi Swartz’s recent articles in Texas Monthly, reporting the opinions of real educational experts that many questions on the STAAR reading exams are above grade level.

The STAAR and its predecessors were imposed by elected officials more interested in measuring the so-called “accountability” of teachers and children than they were in fulfilling their own constitutional responsibility to adequately and fairly fund all of Texas’ public schools. It’s time to end STAAR or declare a moratorium. Instead, the Legislature has imposed the A-F grading system on schools and school districts, which will increase the pressure on STAAR scores even more.

Another type of reform, school finance reform, is dominating much of the discussion in this legislative session, and this offers an opportunity to return some of the focus to teachers and the classroom. But real school finance reform begins with a significant increase in state funding for public education and pay raises for all Texas teachers and other school employees.

Those proposals are still being debated, so stay tuned. It is a lot easier to preach “reform” than deliver the real thing.

How absurd is merit pay?

Considering how grossly underpaid Texas teachers are, it is absurd to even be talking about “merit” pay for a handful of them. Some merit advocates, perhaps, simply can’t see the forest for the trees. Others are deliberately promoting a viewpoint that public education should be operated like a business.

They want to reward the teachers who are deemed to have the most success, even if that success is dubiously based on STAAR test scores, which don’t indicate much of anything except an ability to take a test.

Public education isn’t a business. It is a public service to Texas’ 5.4 million school children and their families, and it is a public responsibility of state government. We reward success with a high school diploma, and educators strive to make that diploma as meaningful as possible, a symbol that a student has been successfully prepared for continued success in the real word after graduation.

We know that it doesn’t work out that way for many children, in large part because they come to school with many issues – poverty, lack of proper nutrition, inadequate health care, homelessness – that public schools aren’t equipped to address, especially public schools that have been as under-funded as Texas schools have been in recent years. Yet, the “merit” pay advocates want to address that problem by singling out a small number of Texas’ 350,000 public school teachers for raises if they can improve their students’ STAAR scores or successfully jump through some other data-driven hoops.

Every student deserves an effective, properly certified teacher in an adequately furnished classroom, but thousands of effective, properly certified teachers are leaving Texas classrooms every year because they simply can no longer afford to make the personal and family financial sacrifices the classroom requires. On average, their pay is more than $7,000 less than the national average, and they continue to lose ground. Among those teachers who stick it out, almost 40 percent are forced to take extra jobs during the school year to make ends meet, based on TSTA’s most-recent moonlighting survey.

Let’s look at some hard numbers on teacher attrition, gleaned by Bryan Weatherford, TSTA’s teaching and learning specialist, from Texas Education Agency data.

More than 176,000 Texas teachers left their jobs in the five years between 2012-13 and 2016-17. Only about one-fourth of those were retiring from the profession. The yearly attrition figure ranged from 34,424 in 2012-13 to 36,300 in 2016-17, a loss of about 10 percent of the total teacher workforce each year. Thirty percent of the teachers who began their classroom careers in 2012-13 were gone five years later.

If one-fourth of the 36,300 teachers who left the profession in 2016-17 were retirees, that means 27,000 or so left for other reasons. Some may have left the state or transferred to other districts. But if you don’t think that large numbers of these former teachers left because of poor pay, either directly or indirectly, you are kidding yourself.

Other conditions, such as too much paperwork or having to spend too much time on STAAR prep, may have been factors. But the higher your pay the easier paperwork is to take.

Only three states – Florida, Indiana and Arizona – ranked below Texas on a recent “teaching attractiveness rating” issued by the Learning Policy Institute, and – guess what? – those states pay their teachers even less than Texas.

In Austin earlier this week, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia noted that some people are concerned that we have a “teacher shortage.” But we don’t have a teacher shortage, she pointed out.

Texas has thousands of certified, highly qualified teachers. But many of them are selling real estate, managing offices, experimenting with the dot.com world, anything that offers better compensation than the low classroom salaries they could no longer afford.

Merit pay? Absurd.