Friday, March 25, 2011

Malloy Gives Up On Fixing The School Funding Method

Governor Malloy's budget director gave up trying to get a "money follows the child" law passed this year. They will study it, despite admitting that the current school funding formula is broken and has been broken for years.

How broken is it? Well, when my son was in the 8th grade, he attended a magnet school in Hartford. One of his assignments in one of his classes was to actually read the funding formula law. Then students were to create their own funding formulas.

The one thing I remember both of us thinking at the end of the assignment was that the existing formula was so unbelievably complicated that it could not be explained to anyone.

My son is now in college and nothing has improved. The funding formula is opaque at best, and intentionally confusing at worst. There is nothing fair nor transparent about it.  Now that everyone admits that the funding formula is broken and unfair, and has been for a long time, how long before it is fixed?

Religion and the Public Schools

The UConn School of Law is hosting an interesting and timely debate between two heavy weights on both sides of the religion in schools issue. The event is free, but advance registration is required.

The Event is the Milton Sorokin Symposium on "The Relationship Between Religion and the Public Schools."
The debaters will be Anthony Romero, the Executive Director of the national ACLU, and Kevin J. "Seamus" Hasson, Founder and President of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Moderating the debate is Rick Kay, Professor, UConn School of Law.

After a quick read of both debater's bios what struck me is that both Romero and Hasson claim to support "religious freedom." On the surface, they would appear to be largely in agreement about the importance of the free exercise of religion. Romero's website has this to say:

"Children's religious education should be directed primarily by parents, families, and religious communities — not the public schools. The ACLU defends students' free speech rights in the public schools and defends students' rights to pray in the schools. Additionally, whenever a teacher allows children to choose their own topics for an assignment (such as which book to read or which topic to study for a presentation), students may choose religious themes — and the ACLU has protected their right to do so." ACLU statement.

I had more trouble finding a clear statement of The Becket Fund's principles regarding religious freedom in the school, but they are probably best known for their litigation to keep the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance recited by school children. From the website on the symposium, Hasson is described this way:

"Hasson is founder and president of the Becket Fund, which describes itself as "a bipartisan, public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions." The fund, as described at its web site, "believes that government may not discriminate against religion by specially excluding schools or students from government funding, or any other government benefit, simply because they are religious." Hasson is author of The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teacher Evaluations and LIFO

The Education Committee is considering a bill that has the potential to take a step in the right direction: senate bill 1160. Last week, the committee heard testimony on this bill, all of which can be found here:

Public Testimony

The bill would empower the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC) to create a model teacher evaluation system.That sounds like a good thing, except that the legislation almost ensures that the system that is eventually created will not be fair, nor will it be created by people with student's best interests in mind.

The people assigned to the PEAC are all school board, administrator, or union reps. Nobody on the Council is there to represent parents or students. And these days, I find if hard to believe that union reps actually represent teacher views anymore. I could be wrong on that.

In addition, the law requires the PEAC to look at everything except how well the teacher does in actually teaching students.

Friday, March 4, 2011

LIFO -- Connecticut considers a change

It is impossible to watch, read, or browse the news without noticing that teacher tenure is the latest hot button issue in the ed reform world. Once again, politics on this particular issue have changed, quite radically in fact, in just the past month. Democratic Governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy said in his budget address that he wanted  “to give local school districts the flexibility they need to retain new, talented teachers."

For those who missed the code in that statement, Gov Malloy was attacking one of the standard provisions of most contracts between teacher unions and school districts -- the "Last In, First Out" or LIFO rule. The last to be hired, is the first to be fired.

A google news search gets hits in the thousands. Why has LIFO suddenly become the issue in ed reform? In my opinion, it is the scapegoat that lets everyone off the hook of real reform. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, and for what it is worth, LIFO rules are hard to justify.  One of the few that made an attempt to do just that was Maurice Berube in a letter to the editor at the NY Times. And even his defense is pretty weak -- protect teachers from outside pressure? And then he goes on with this:

"Moreover, critics of teachers’ unions do not take into account the fact that teaching is labor-intensive and teachers often burn out."

Um, geez Maurice, you don't think that teacher burnout is taken into account by the critics of LIFO? That is absurd.  Teacher burnout is exactly the point. Some teachers do burn out and they probably should not remain in the classroom. Why are you protecting burned out teachers? How does that help kids?

Moving beyond this tepid defense of LIFO rules, what about teacher pressure? Do LIFO rules insulate teachers from pressure? A union president in NY seems to think so according to this statement in the Times Union.

"In education and other fields, unions have stated that a retreat from seniority protections would leave workers at peril of subjective evaluations, and worse. "We will not allow a bill that exposes our members to harassment, favoritism and intimidation to divert us from our commitment to defend collective bargaining and the right to organize," Iannuzzi said."
But not so fast. Has this LIFO rule actually protected teachers from harassment, favoritism, intimidation, or other inappropriate pressures? My informal and unscientific answer is no.
Teachers are besieged by outside pressure, by the very harassment the unions claim to protect them from. They have lost control of the content they teach and the methods by which they teach it. The number one complaint I hear from teachers is that they can't teach what they have been trained to teach nor what they know they should be teaching. How are teachers protected from outside pressure if a principal has firm instructions to her staff as to what must happen in a classroom on the days the superintendent is observing?

In other words, when the big guy is in the building, there will be no spelling tests, no kids sitting doing work, no paper and pencil stuff. Kids must be running around the room and using the SMART board. Throw your lesson plan out the window and get the kids up. Make it look like they are active and engaged.

This probably isn't what most people would consider "protecting teachers from outside pressure."

So why not end LIFO rules? The only real reason I can come up with is that exactly the opposite of the current situation will occur. Rather than fire all the newest teachers during layoffs, all the senior teachers will be fired instead. Such a result would be troubling. I've yet to find any teacher that didn't improve after 1 or 2 years on the job. Maybe its an indictment of our teacher training system that so many enter the classroom in their first year and find themselves shellshocked by how difficult the job is. I'm willing to put up with a brand new teacher, because you know they will get better. But no one believes a teacher is at their most effective in that first year or two on the job.

Simply tossing out LIFO rules is not likely to improve teacher quality. It may actually get worse. But at least it will get cheaper.

My biggest concern about the entire LIFO debate is that there is almost no discussion on how to fairly evaluate teachers. How will we retain the most talented teachers, in the absence of LIFO, if we can't even identify who they are? There won't be any more effort to keep the talented effective teachers without LIFO as there was with LIFO. But budgets will be balanced by firing the most senior teachers, the teachers with the least ability to get re-hired somewhere else regardless of their talents and abilities.

LIFO rules need to go, but we've got to have a system in place before LIFO is ended that gives us some degree of confidence that the talented teachers can be identified and retained. The teacher is the most important element in a child's success in school. Until we get serious about teacher evaluations, quick fixes that are popular with politicians and that play well in the press, will divert attention to the more difficult and more important problems of education reform.