The State of The (Teachers) Union

2011 SOTU address (photo NY Times)

Was the President sending a strong message to teacher unions last night? Sure looks that way in the light of day.

What most of us saw and heard was high praise for education. He put it #2, behind ‘innovation’ on his list. Five of his 23 guests were students, and a 6th—Jill Biden—is a community college teacher. That’s all good. Mr. Obama praised “Race to the Top” and called for rewriting No Child Left Behind, and that’s all good too.

He went out of his way to praise teachers and remind us all that parents must do their job—turn off the TV, and engage with their children. That provided a welcome relief from all the teacher- bashing going on now.

And—icing on the cake–he made an eloquent plea to young people: become teachers!

Friends of public education had to be smiling and may still be today. The National School Boards Association and others have issued press releases full of praise, for example.

You may remember that he singled out one public school for high praise.

Here’s what he said:

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said ‘Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.’ [The reference is to principal Kristin Waters.]

I confess that the significance of the President’s choice went right over my head, but Andy Rotherham didn’t miss it. He provided context on the NY Times blog. Here’s what Andy wrote:

The president singled-out a Denver school that was turned around only after its teachers took on their own union to get out from under the standard collective bargaining agreement. Needless to say that’s a strategy the two national teachers’ unions don’t want to see replicated around the country. I wrote about that episode on The Times’s Op-Ed page a few years ago. Michael Bennet, now a senator from Colorado, was the superintendent in Denver at the time and the move was controversial then and the idea remains contentious today. Of all the schools the president could have chosen to highlight, it’s a fascinating choice.

Andy’s op-ed (March 10, 2008) provides more background:

When teachers at two Denver public schools demanded more control over their work days, they ran into opposition from a seemingly odd place: their union. The teachers wanted to be able to make decisions about how time was used, hiring and even pay. But this ran afoul of the teachers’ contract. After a fight, last month the union backed down — but not before the episode put a spotlight on the biggest challenge and opportunity facing teachers’ unions today.

This morning’s Denver Post explained further:

The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status — an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union rules. The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years.
In its transformation, Bruce Randolph changed from being a straight middle school into a school serving grades 6-12. Its first class graduated last spring into the open arms of a tearful Waters.

Bruce Randolph had been on the list of schools to be closed. Today it’s not the slam-dunk success that the President implied. It’s still on the ‘watch list’ and ranks 66th out of about 150 schools in Denver, but it clearly has improved dramatically.

But the story is not how much the school has improved; it’s how. Union rules were in the way, and so teachers took on their union. With the support of the superintendent, they forced union leadership to back off.

It seems pretty clear that last night the President was firing another shot across the union bow, much as he did last year when he sided with a Rhode Island school board that fired its high school teachers when they wouldn’t go along with a reasonable ‘restructuring’ plan.

“Stop with the trade union stuff,” the President was saying. “Start putting the interests of students first.”

Unions don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, given the outpouring of anti-union and anti-teacher rhetoric and actions in New Jersey, Alabama, Wyoming and just about any state you can name. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two unions, seems to get it, but she has to persuade her mostly urban locals to move. The far larger National Education Association hasn’t shown any signs that I have seen that it recognizes that the ground has shifted, dramatically and probably permanently.

[Click here for the full text of President Obama’s address]

Teacher Bashing

Teacher bashing is all the rage these days, unfortunately.

Teachers are leaving the profession, and I am hearing from teachers I trust that the exodus would be greater if the economy were better. While I think that aspects of the profession ought to be criticized, particularly the ‘trade union’ mentality of some—but not all—union leaders, the bashing is way out of line.

I write about this in my forthcoming book, The Influence of Teachers, but here today I am simply presenting the words from one veteran teacher, a woman I know to be dedicated to her students and the profession.

Please read and reflect.

I teach in a public high school whose students reflect the full socio-economic range of our county.  But rich or poor and regardless of the educational backgrounds of their parents, many of my students seem to need me to parent them as well as teach them. 
On any given day, in order to teach I must also address the results of this kind of parenting:

–The gay teen whose mother tells him she wishes he had never been born and refuses to come get him when he cuts himself in the school bathroom;

–The-15-year-old whose smell makes us wretch because his clothes aren’t washed and he doesn’t bathe regularly;

–The 15-year-old girl who is shoved through a pane glass window by her mother’s boyfriend when she asks him not to smoke around his new infant daughter (her half sister);

–The affluent boy whose parents’ acrimonious divorce (his father’s 3rd) forces him to quit the tennis team this spring because the shared custody arrangement (alternating homes nightly) leaves no way for him to get home from school after practices and games;

–The mother who corners me in the parking lot at Safeway to challenge a grade on her son’s paper, saying it’s because he rushed that he didn’t clean up the evidence of plagiarism in his essay, and I have to re-grade the paper because his IEP entitles him to extended time (the plagiarism itself didn’t trouble her);

–The 14-year-old boy who cannot stay awake in class because he is out until after midnight most school nights; his mother says, “he doesn’t listen to me,” and add that, in her opinion, he’s “too old to have a bedtime;”

–The mother who tells me to stop calling her about her child’s behavior and says, “When she’s at school she’s your problem.  Stop expecting me to do your job.”

–The phone that does not ring when report cards and interims go home showing failing grades.

–The father who berates me for chastising his daughter (who has 3 Es and 2 Ds) when I find her hanging out with her friends in the hallway rather than participating in an optional after-school Exam Review session which the teacher is running voluntarily and on his own time.

  I am not alone. Many teachers feel like punching bags and crash test dummies.

Now, dear reader, ask yourself: would you trade places with that teacher? Could you last in the job as long as she had and still be as effective and caring as she is? Does she have a right to be upset?

For reasons I don’t understand, many powerful people are defining public education’s problem as “Bad Teachers.” That’s simplistic and dangerous.

Your thoughts on what we can do to make things better?

Can We Build A Grad Nation?

We have 15 million high school students, but about 1 million drop out every year. That’s nearly 7%! This means that approximately 1 out of every 4 9th graders won’t graduate high school.

America's Promise, Building a Grad NationToday’s report from America’s Promise, “Building a Grad Nation,” indicates that some progress has been made, but not enough. The report, made possible by Target, calls for a domestic Marshall Plan to address the problem.

I had strong reactions to five points in the report. And if you are too busy to read them all, please skip to #5.

#1: Credit card companies can track us anywhere, anytime, but schools don’t have a clue about where their students end up, because states and schools don’t count graduates and dropouts the same way. We do have a common measure—but, the report notes, “The federal government will require the states to use this calculation for the 2010-2011 school year and be held accountable for their progress based on this calculation for the 2011-2012 school year.”

In other words, wait till next year!

Anybody else wondering why this is taking so long? Continue reading

Thanksgiving Tricks & Treats: Klein, Tenure, NAEP and more

Somehow this Thanksgiving seems more like Halloween, full of tricks and treats.

#1. The big treat was, of course, Tom Friedman’s column in the New York Times, telling the world that, if he were starting out in journalism today, he would be an education reporter. He’s right. It’s a happening beat.

Joel Klein, Bill Gates, Randi Weingarten, Cathie Black#2. This next one is either a trick or a treat, depending on where you are sitting: Bill Gates continues to speak out, leading some to label him ‘the shadow Secretary of Education. This time he chose the annual meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Louisville to call for huge changes in how teachers are paid. He said that the ‘bonus’ for having a Master’s degree was a waste of money (lots of money too, an estimated $8.6 billion in extra pay), because there’s little evidence that extra degrees add to positive student outcomes.  There’s a mighty wind blowing on the issue of teacher pay. Continue reading

Four Days IN Education Nation

I’ve spent the past four days immersed in public education. First in Texas, where I spoke with and listened to superintendents and school board members; then at Education Nation, a day-and-a-half event put on by NBC and sponsored by the University of Phoenix and some major foundations, and finally at the annual dinner where the McGraw Prize in Education is awarded.Education Nation by John Merrow

Remember that classic western, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”? Just like the movie’s title, I’m starting with the good. That would be the McGraw Prize, an annual black tie event I hadn’t attended for five or six years. Last night three educators who are making a huge difference were honored, men who are challenging the status quo by demonstrating better ways to educate Americans of all ages. They spend their time lighting candles, not cursing the darkness. You can read more about Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High, Bob Mendenhall of Western Governors University, and Chris Cerf of Between the Lions here (and I hope you will).
Continue reading

A New Song for Michelle Rhee?

A few years ago, people were singing “Michelle, My belle, these are words that go together well.”

Today people are singing a different tune, “Should she stay, or should she go?”

Now that Adrian Fenty has lost his bid for a second term, the education world is buzzing about the fate of Michelle Rhee, his outspoken schools chancellor.  Ms. Rhee has become a national figure, much beloved by many outside the district.  At home, however, she is a lightning rod and a polarizing personality.  In her 3+ years she has closed nearly two-dozen schools, fired more than 15% of her central office staff, and let over 100 teachers go for inadequate performance.

Michelle Rhee and Adrian FentyWhile many say that Ms. Rhee has made long overdue changes in a dysfunctional system, others—including both the local and national teachers unions—have campaigned to get rid of her and, by extension, some of the changes she has made.  By some reports, the unions spent over $100,000 to defeat Mr. Fenty and, by extension, Ms. Rhee and her policies.

What about Michelle Rhee herself?  Would she want to stay on and report to Fenty’s probable successor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray? Continue reading

Measuring soft skills

(This post was co-authored with Arnold Packer.)

Reliability and Validity are the Alpha and Omega of testing. A test that is reliable can be counted on each time it’s given, while a valid test measures what it is supposed to. Tests that meet these two criteria are the gold standard of assessment..

Soft SkillsFor example, making someone swim 100 yards to test whether or not he can swim would be a valid and reliable test. If you sink, you flunk, and that’s true each time the test is given and is independent of who is doing the testing.

However, when teachers are trying to assess ‘soft’ skills, the waters get murky. How can we measure the ability to work with others, process information from disparate sources, communicate persuasively, or work reliably?

Continue reading

Will national standards ever arrive?

As I write this, close to half of the states have signed on to the draft of national standards, officially called the common core. Observers are predicting that well over half will be on board by summer’s end.

National StandardsThere’s a long way to go before we have genuine national standards in core subjects, and there’s no guarantee that they will be challenging enough, given the inevitable pressures to water them down.

And if we do develop worthwhile standards, some form of national testing is likely to follow.

The President of the United States is already on board for that. He said, “I believe we need some national standard education achievement tests—to be used only optionally when states and/or local school systems want them.”

Whoops, that wasn’t Obama; that was Jimmy Carter in 1977.

By the way, the public is on board. 77% of the public favors using national testing programs to measure the academic achievement of students.

Whoops, that was the Gallup Poll back in 1989. Continue reading

Changes in Detroit, DC and Beyond

These are amazing times in public education. For openers, there’s the huge competition for $4.35 billion in federal money. Of the 41 competitors in the Race to the Top, only two were chosen in the first round. The message seems clear: go home and clean up your act.

Michelle RheeNow, I don’t know how many of you out there looked at any of the original proposals. I read into four of them and can tell you that the writers (using that term loosely) have invented a wonderful substitute for Ambien, a perfect cure for insomnia. I think the average proposal came in at somewhere between 800-900 pages—of turgid prose. Had I been sentenced to read all of that stuff, I think I would have thrown up my hands, torn out my hair, screamed, and then given the money to the states with the shortest proposals.

I hope this time the Duncan team will tell the competitors in the second round: “30 pages max! If you can’t say it in 30 pages or less, don’t bother. Put all the rest in appendices, thank you.” (I recall the wisdom of “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter,” attributed to Mark Twain and others.)

A second remarkable event is the new contract between the Washington Teachers Union and Michelle Rhee. It took 2+ years, but it may have been worth the wait. Continue reading

Waiting for Something

“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” the young school superintendent declared. “Do you want to see that?”

In the world of film documentary, the word ‘see’ means ‘video tape,’ and Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was actually inviting us to run our cameras as she fired one of her employees.

Michelle RheeMy colleagues Jane Renaud and Cat McGrath accepted the invitation on the spot. As Jane recalls, “She told us to come back at a specific time, and so we got a sandwich, returned to her office, set up the equipment, and shot the meeting.”

Jane and Cat had spent the morning with Chancellor Rhee, filming her meetings with parents, and with community groups and principals. Rhee was a dynamo, moving easily from meeting to meeting, and from scene to scene, and always seemingly unaware of the presence of our cameras, including the scene where she fires a school principal.

Our film of that event was broadcast nationally on PBS NewsHour and helped to illuminate the persona of Michelle Rhee as a fearless and determined reformer who puts the interests of children first.

Now an Academy Award-winning filmmaker has inserted the footage into his new feature film, without our permission.
For me it is more than just another spat between filmmakers. It is a matter of principle and respect. Continue reading