Search DC's Musings

Monday, July 27, 2009

Teachers, Pols Block Funding For Schools

In the most recent iteration of our state budget crisis the California Teacher's Association took out ads on television lambasting the Governor, and lightly so their friends in the Legislature, for balancing the budget by pulling funds from education. With the typical tear-jerking tone, the CTA leveraged children's education to try to prevent any budget hits to the education community.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, writers Jason Song and Jason Felch, describe how President Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have both recently criticized California specifically for a state law that prohibits using student test scores to evaluate teacher effectiveness. It seems that the Department of Education has $4.3 billion set aside for the "Race To The Top" program. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the "stimulus package"), the funds will be doled out to school districts that meet certain criteria. Among them: "Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices"

This is government speak for using student test scores to show the ability and effectiveness of teachers and principals. Sounds simple right? If a teacher routinely has the lowest scores of his peers he is probably not very effective, conversely if a teacher routinely has higher test scores than her peers she probably is very effective. In California's school culture today these teachers are equal, unless the ineffective teacher has more years under his belt then he has higher pay under his seniority. Protected by his union and either the state wide association with either the California Teachers Association or the California Federation of Teachers, the ineffective teacher is untouchable. As previously outlined in a LA Times article I wrote about in May (here), Song wrote about how it is impossible to fire teachers for a multitude of behavioral issues, including inappropriate contact or sexual molestation. Now with this article Song and Felch show that teachers in California are also protected against dismissal because there it is against state law to use testing data to measure their ability to teach.

A spat is developing between California lawmakers, and union leaders, and the Obama Administration over the language of a "2006 law that prohibits the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers on a state level..." The Governor, several Democrats and the heads of the CTA and CFT argue that the law does not disallow individual school districts to use test scores in teacher evaluations; the Obama Administration is saying the state needs to change the law period. At stake, California's share of $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" funding, plus additional funding down the road as Duncan implements Obama's education mission of raising teacher effectiveness and accountability.

"This competition will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group," Obama said. "Instead, it will be based on the simple principle: whether a state is ready to do what works." The President is making it pretty clear his Administration is not particularly interested in splitting hairs over California's law. You want the funds, repeal the ban on correlating test scores to teacher effectiveness.

In a state that ranks 41st in collecting and using data to evaluate teachers, that ranks at or near the bottom in student achievement in reading, writing and math skills, that has a Department of Education, a State Board of Education, a Secretary of Education and a Superintendent of Public Instruction, it seems the education establishment has spent more time growing bureaucracy and less time educating. The education budget in California has exploded in the past decade, and the results have not been seen in our classrooms. While more and more money has been put into the education system, less and less has been put into the classroom and where it would be most effective. The CTA and CFT cry and complain and threaten every year during the budget cycle, and every year their efforts produce more protection for bad teachers, more waste as teachers are removed from the classrooms but still paid while under investigation or going through the series of procedures necessary to remove them, all costing districts across the state millions and millions of dollars that could be used to pay good teachers, effective teachers.

The Democrats are in a pickle of the Obama Administration's concerted effort to bring teacher accountability to the fore in education. Crafting policies that would reward teachers who are shown to be doing their jobs of teaching reading, writing and math skills, Obama is at odds with the teachers' unions across the country. This also puts him at odds with the Democrats in Sacramento, virtually everyone of which has received significant financial support in winning their primaries and general elections. What to do? Reform the education system in our state that is broken and not educating our children? Or continue to do the bidding of the CTA and CFT so they can maintain their grip and control over the education system in the state and in the districts.

In Long Beach we have seen the effect of a teacher's union that was out of control in its quest for power. Currently we have what amounts to a vacant seat on the school board because the hand picked and elected puppet of the teacher's union has been absent from his duties ever since the Executive Director of the union with whom he has a relationship for over a decade, was fired from his position. Fired for mismanagement and fiscally crashing the union. Unfortunately what has happened in Long Beach is still happening in Sacramento affecting the entire state, and in other districts up and down the state.

While I am no fan of Barack Obama's and his policies nor his spending, if he is able to wrest control of our children's education away from the unions and put it back into the control of the local school boards I support and applaud this policy. Our local districts have seen their power slowly erode and move to the state capitol. With little control over funding, little control over which programs are needed in our community, little control over the policies for hiring and firing teachers, out district is held hostage by the State Department of Education, therefore hostage to the Legislature, therefore due to the Democratic majority hostage to the CTA and CFT.

Opponents argue that test scores are skewed because some schools have more children from immigrant families that do not speak English, skewed because some schools have more children from single parent families, skewed because some schools have more children in poverty stricken areas. That is true and the comparative use of test scores within a school, within a district and within a geographic area flatten out many of those factors. But skewing scores are teachers who are more interested in developing social skills than math skills, principals who put the emphasis on instilling getting along and values than instilling proper verb tenses and pronunciation skills. Educated kids get along a lot better than uneducated kids, tests show just how much education a child has received and retained.

Two plus two is four. Always. A sentence requires a noun and a verb. Always (It is always required for those ready to lambaste me). The basic rules of math and language, in our case English, are color blind, socio-economically ignorant and universal from San Diego to Shasta. If a teacher consistently shows that his students do not know that two plus two is four then he is not an effective teacher, and he needs to be removed from his classroom. Unfortunately under state law in California and because of the control of his local and state union, he will continue to have 20-35 kids in his classroom next year that cannot add, and the year after that, and the year after that....

If you care about our children's education you must become active in opposing the lack of control you have in your local district. You must tell your elected representatives in Sacramento, especially if they receive donations from teachers' unions, to break the cycle of allowing the unions to dictate our local and state education policies. You must insist that California amend it laws and work with the U.S. Department of Education to secure funding for rewarding effective teachers under "Race to the Top."

Facing perpetual budget crisises because of increasingly constrating policies and procedures, the Obama Administration is offering a multi-billion dollar incentive for California lawmakers to break their dependence and servitude to the teachers' unions and reform our schools. Put accountability back in the classroom, and responsibility back to local districts. Once they get those reforms in place we can all attack the number one problem: lousy parents that cost other children quality education time and millions of dollars.



John Greet said...

Very well said, all around, Dennis! We seem to have posted new columns on the same topic on the very same day without realizing it (though I actually submitted mine for publication about a week ago). I wish I had known about yours as I would have gladly referred to and linked it within my own, so complementary they appear to be! I do intend to mention your column in the response section of mine. Hopefully some will visit yours as a result learn still more from your information than I was able to offer them.

Again, nicely done sir!

Dennis C Smith said...

Thanks John. Read your column (for those wondering it is at earlier and I have to admit to being a cheerleader for LBUSD administration as a whole. The District has seen a loss of over $90 million the past several years from Sacramento and is facing another $100 million loss in the next several years. The district has no control over its revenue and much of it is tied to program requirements from Sacto whether the district wants/needs the programs or not. Much of what fuels my fire against Sacramento's education policies are the mandates that are blanket for the state without regard to individual districts and their needs; they waste money, time and energy that could be directed to better instruction or more programs.

John Greet said...

Points well taken, Dennis. And to the degree that Sacramento deals unfairly with local education agencies (School Districts) it should be held accountable. Unfortunately we hold our elected State government no more accountable than we do our federal or local government these days. Hence the current fiscal mess at all levels of government...a government that is supposed to reflect the active and attentive will of the People but, instead, is more reflective of the People's neglect and disinterest.