What Do You Think?
Norman Scott on M-E-R-I-T-O-C-R-A-C-Y, Diana Ravich and More, in The WAVE, Far Rockaway, New York
A look at the United Federation of Teachers from the inside.
By Norman Scott, The WAVE, June 3, 2005
"Did you see the article about raising salaries of good teachers to $150,000? It sounds like a good idea." My wife and I were driving to a restaurant in Jackson Heights.
She was referring to Matt Miller's recent op-ed piece in the NY Times where he proposed a "grand bargain" that would "raise salaries for teachers in poor schools by 50 percent" if the unions would "abandon their lock-step pay scale so that we could raise the top half of performers (and those in shortage fields like math and science) another 50 percent.... [and] make it much easier to fire the worst teachers, who are blighting the lives of countless kids."
"Ahhh! Another grand merit pay scheme," I said. "And another just-get-rid-of-the bad-teachers solution to the educational problem.
"Well, what's wrong with paying good teachers more?" she said. My wife works in a hospital. Where are the editorials to get rid of the worst doctors, who actually end up killing people?
"Exactly who gets merit pay in the hospital," I asked? "Do doctors who cure more patients get more money?"
"No, obviously not. Merit pay must be based on a bottom line – something that can be measured."
"I bet if a hospital really tried it could come up with a cure rate. I wonder how doctors would react to proposals that based their pay not on the number of patients they saw but on how many recovered from illness?"
"Not very well I imagine," she said.
Merit and differential pay ("combat pay" for working in tough neighborhoods) – the LA Times reports that 64% in California feel that teachers should be paid based on merit rather than seniority – have become the latest educational-cure scheme. I often wonder how merit/differential pay would be applied to firemen and police. Walking a beat in Brownsville is worth more than one on Manhattan's upper east side. More money for more arrests or the number of summonses (think there would be a slight increase in city revenue?) Pay firemen based on the number of people they save or how fast they can climb a ladder.
I switched to a new line of questioning. "What makes a good teacher?"
"You would have to measure how their kids performed," my wife said.
"Performed on what? One test a year? Two? Or even three? What about how they grew intellectually? Or modified their behavior in positive ways?"
"You would have to take those factors into account. Their poverty level. Their home life. Did they do their homework? etc."
"So to make merit pay that goes beyond measurement by a few tests really fair we would have to give each child a 'degree of learning difficulty' number. We would also have to factor in the number of kids in the class. Probably a lot more factors too, like the kind of support given the teacher from administrators (don't assume all teachers are created equal when it comes to getting the assistance of administrators) and the kind of support given schools by the region (don't assume all schools are created equal when it comes to regional support)."
We arrived at the restaurant having had enough food for thought for the evening. But there's a lot more red meat to a discussion of merit pay than meets the eye. (This restaurant serves mostly chicken.) Let's go back to Miller's op-ed piece.
"Researchers agree that one of the best things government can do to help poor children is raise teacher quality. Yet poor schools today attract the bottom third of the college class. Why? Compare a typical urban district with its affluent suburbs nearby. When the suburbs (1) pay more, (2) have better working conditions and (3) serve easier-to-teach kids who bring fewer problems to school, it's no surprise that the best teachers gravitate to the best suburban schools."
I do not accept the thesis that the "best" have gravitated to the suburbs. Miller says it himself –the job is not as difficult in the suburbs. Many have gravitated there not just for the money but because they got frustrated and tired of swimming upstream in the maze of bureaucracy in urban schools (a significant factor ignored by Miller.) Would they have stayed for more money? Maybe. But I would also bet that even if they could earn more in tough-to-teach schools, many would still prefer the easier-to-teach suburbs.
How do suburbs know they are getting the "best?" Miller's definition of the best turns out to be "those who perform," though he never defines exactly what he means by "perform." US DOE Secretary Margaret Spellings' definition is – teachers who make real progress closing the achievement gap in the most challenging classrooms. How do the suburbs know the teachers – the "best" as Miller says – they are hiring have gotten results? Do teachers have to show reading score results to demonstrate they have made "real progress"? Do suburbs hire teachers based on previous performance? Do they pay teachers based on performance? In fact, most suburbs with successful schools use the dreaded pay-by-seniority system.
If money is the bottom line for teachers why aren't more private and parochial school teachers, who often make much less than NYC school teachers, flocking to the public schools? They are stopped by 2 factors: 1) Working conditions in many public schools are not acceptable to them. Parochial school teachers who have made the move will tell you this all the time – conditions are so much tougher in NYC schools. 2) The need to be officially licensed – that is what is often meant by "qualified". But we know the elite private schools have almost no "qualified" teachers by this standard, yet people pay up to $25,000 a year to entrust their kids to these teachers. Both these factors reinforce the fact that money alone will not draw teachers.
Miller talks only about redressing the pay issue while ignoring the other two factors he mentions – working conditions and hard-to-teach kids. What about reducing class size, a key working condition (suburban class sizes are usually 20-25% lower than the city) or addressing the problems harder-to-teach kids bring to school? His solution is to throw money at teachers with the expectation that it will attract high quality "super" teachers who l will get "results" even if they have 40 in a class or are teaching kids with enormous problems.
Miller goes on, "The top performing half of teachers (and the shortage specialties) would average $90,000. The best teachers would earn up to $150,000.... This isn't to diminish the many great teachers who work their hearts out for poor kids in trying conditions. But it's these teachers who've told me with passion how mediocre many of their colleagues are. We're essentially relying on missionaries to staff schools in poor neighborhoods."
Phew! There's a lot of meat to chew on in this statement. When you discuss paying teachers in shortage areas more money, generally this means math. Now why people who teach trigonometry are considered more valuable than people who teach American history is beyond me. (Why does everyone other than math majors have to take trigonometry at all?) Consider the state of general knowledge (or ignorance) in this country regarding American political institutions and the oft-repeated statement that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Is it more important to have an educated citizenry or to know higher-level math? Yet math is given much higher priority – school success is measured by it – than social studies. Why aren't schools measured by the ability of their kids to use a map to find their way home, a much more important practical skill that is barely taught anymore? Miller wants to pay math teachers more than social studies teachers because of supply and demand. I wonder exactly how much more money it will take to get top-notch math people to leave other jobs and go teach in East New York?
Let's talk about how great teachers tell Miller with such passion just "how mediocre many of their colleagues are." How does Miller know they are great? Did he see them teach? When I used to talk about education to non-educators they used to say, "you must be a great teacher" because I talked with passion and interest and genuine feelings for the kids. But I knew the truth – there were days and parts of days and even years when I was great (not all that often), average-to-good, or even mediocre.
How do these "passionate" teachers know so many of their colleagues are mediocre? When do they get to see them teach? Many teachers judge others based on what is heard in the halls or comments made in the teacher rooms. Or the opinions of administrators. There's no question there are some teachers who are consistently mediocre, though that has a lot to do with attitude towards the kids. I have worked with teachers with terrible attitudes who did a very solid job of teaching and teachers who had wonderful feelings towards the kids who couldn't teach their way out of a paper bag. I wonder if parents could chose, would they pick a mean teacher who could teach or a nice teacher who couldn't?
I also saw teachers who were exceptional early in their careers but the flame grew so dim by the end of their careers, they were burned out hulks. A teaching career is a marathon (an increasingly longer marathon that many teachers will never complete due to Tier 4 pensions), not a sprint and I would ask Miller to talk to these "passionate" teachers in 20 years, if he can find them.
I had made all these arguments to my wife by the time we reached the restaurant and had a lot more to say but we were sitting down to eat with a bunch of friends. "Did I convince you?" I said. "Maybe," she said. "Can we please just eat now?"
Diane Ravitch and John Dewey Award – Not A Match
By Norman Scott
Let's call it the Pataki/Silver UFT Political Expediency Award.
With the UFT announcement that NYU professor and renowned education writer Diane Ravitch was going to receive the John Dewey Award we did some investigating because of Ravitch's reputation as a trasher of the American education system and the education establishment. The UFT is certainly considered part of that scene and has also gone on record of saying the things the Ravitches of this world are saying about American education distort all the good things we do. The irony here is that Ravitch has laid a number of ills assailing the American educational system at the feet of John Dewey's progressive ideas of education. I sent out a request for information and received some interesting responses. Gerald W. Bracey of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University and a leader of the fight against high stakes testing stated: "The idea that Diane Ravitch is to get a John Dewey award is appalling and unbelievable. In her various books and other writings, Ravitch has trashed Dewey as the father of failed reforms, the reason that American schools are so awful (she says). This is especially true in the book, Left Back. She hates Dewey." George Schmidt from Chicago writes, "If Ravitch is an heir to Dewey, the Pope deserves the Margaret Sanger award." Duane Campbell from California State U says, "Rather than invest money in reform, most states have followed the lead of the Business Roundtable, Ravitch, and conservative foundations and the Clinton and Bush administrations and increased emphasis on testing to improve scores.
This is the heart of school reform advocated by Ravitch, passed by the Bush regime..." Another correspondent writes, "You might wish to point out that it's clear that the award committee hasn't read Ravitch...the UFT/AFT have lost their collective minds. It's like David Duke getting a social justice award, presented by the Southern Poverty Law Center." Dr. Joanne Yatvin from the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University writes, "She is certainly not a friend to teachers and this is not an honor she deserved. Dewey will roll over in his grave. Shame on you. [Ravitch] is a commercial professional who would not know a good classroom if she fell into it. What were you thinking???"
With testing-gone-mad mania being behind the insanity going on in our schools and the resultant pressures (and blame) being put on teachers, giving this award to Ravitch seems to make people scratch their heads. When ICE high school UFT Executive Board rep Jeff Kaufman raised the points above, UFT Elementary school VP Michelle Boden put it all in a neat package: "The John Dewey award has nothing to do with John Dewey. It doesn't matter if Diane Ravitch disagrees with him. It only matters that she's the last national education figure out there who supports the UFT." Randi Weingarten and others said that Ravitch was getting the Award because she showed courage and John Dewey, even though Ravitch may totally disagree with his philosophy, also showed courage to stand up for what he believed. We suggest they just rename the award after two recent winners – the Pataki/Shelly Silver Political Expediency Award.
In the weird UFT world of policy-driven-by-public relations, the fact that Ravitch has become a critic of the BloomKlein reforms becomes the primary motivational factor – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The UFT, besieged by an all-out assault on the contact, will make alliances with anyone. Who gets the award next – Sol Stern – a major critic of BloomKlein educational policies like the Workshop model – who has made a career of claiming the power of the UFT is the reason for many of the problems in NYC schools?
There's Hope Yet
I had a recent conversation with a teacher in Region 5. She raved about her principal. After many years of suffering under an oppressive school leader, the staff feels liberated working for a genuine human being. The thing that has impressed my friend the most? The willingness of the principal to pitch in and teach when needed. Principals with no reluctance to teach – even tough. no-nonsense types as opposed to those who just criticize – come in for high praise by teachers.
De-Evolution: The Counterattack
For most of my career I taught next door to a guy, a religious fundamentalist who used to spend his lunch hours reading the bible, who did not believe in evolution (I would bet that most teachers in my particular school agreed with him.) We used to argue about it all the time. At one point we gave each other books to read that would help "convince" the other of their position. I gave him a book by Richard Leakey, which showed the various stages of the evolution of Homo sapiens. This was in the late 70's and even though there were many gaps in the fossil links (since then a few have been filled in) I felt the book was convincing enough to at least make him think about his position on evolution. But when faith is involved, no amount of what looks like logic can break through because when faith is the driving force, it all seems perfectly logical. We were both 6th grade teachers and teaching evolution was part of the curriculum. I loved presenting the material but I never figured out what he did with that topic, if he even touched on it at all. But if he did, I'm sure he put his spin on it. That is why the debate over evolution, creationism and intelligent design is so fascinating.
I forget which book he gave me but after struggling through three chapters of a scientist "proving" that evolution was a false theory I just couldn't go on and ended up reneging on my part of the deal. No matter how you cut it, the "proof" against evolution is based on faith. After all, de-evolutionists say, how could such a perfect thing as a cell come into being without a creative force? I don't consider this argument proof. A perfect cell is the end result of billions of failed imperfect cells. De-evolutionists never seem to give "credit" to any force for these failures.
The newest wrinkle is the "intelligent design" argument, which never uses the terms "creationist" or refers to deities in any way. What exactly are they talking about when they talk about "intelligent design" – little green men from Alpha Centuri? The "life on earth was seeded by intelligent visitors from outer space" argument is taken seriously in some scientific quarters. If the LGMfromAC landed on earth tomorrow, that still wouldn't convince the intelligent design people who would just say that some intelligent force must have created the little green men. Like I said, it's all about faith.
What happened to C-30 process at MS 198?
Teachers at MS 198 report that a C-30 was held at the end of March 2004 to choose a permanent principal. One other applicant beside the principal, Angela Logan, showed up to be interviewed. No decision was made at that time, because there was not a minimum amount of candidates to choose from. Eugene Mazzola, the school leadership liaison for Region 5 was questioned about Angela Logan's very recent appointment to principal of JHS 198. He said the "C-30 was held last year, and that you have to "ask (Michele) Lloyd-Bey about this". Marilyn Cooper, the District Rep for the UFT was also questioned, and replied that she "will be looking into this situation." A week has gone by, and no one has heard from her. Not surprising given the long-term "relationship" of the UFT and the old district 25 and the current Region 5. (Sal Cappella, where are you – teachers in District 27 turn their lonely eyes to thee?)
Word from The Rock:
A teacher at Far Rockaway HS wrote on Apr. 4 – "Today our 100 minutes of professional development was interrupted when the staff was gathered in the auditorium for the Region 5 LIS, Phyllis Marino, to tell us the school had officially been put on the reorganization track under a "Fast Track" title – though no one truly knows what this means.
As usual the rhetoric was that the Region and everyone really cares for us at Far Rockaway HS but now it is the "big, bad state" that has come in to ruin and reorganize and mess this whole mess up even worse.
MORE appalling was the union meeting after this brief interruption".... more next time.