Education Archive

Ferguson Shows That History Class Needs to Question

Posted August 14, 2014 By Dave Thomer

Yesterday I read two articles covering complaints about the revised Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. The National Association of Scholars and the Republican National Committee both attacked the revisions for promoting a negative vision of United States history, such as an emphasis on the racial hierarchy established in colonial times.

Last night and well into this morning, I was constantly refreshing Twitter to see what was happening in Ferguson, MO. If you’re not up to speed on the events, there’s a very good primer on Vox. Since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, residents have been gathering to protest, and the Ferguson and St. Louis County police have been very aggressive in their tactics – using tear gas, arresting reporters, and bringing out a lot of guns and armor.

There are a lot of lessons we need to learn from what’s going on in Ferguson, but one of them is that although we should not do so exclusively, we need to emphasize the negative aspects of America’s history, because they are influencing our present and so many people in positions of power do not see this. I have read the AP framework, and it does not ignore the idea that America’s leaders helped create a government that helped move justice and a government of rights forward. But neither does it ignore that they built that nation on territory occupied by other people, or that there has been an ongoing struggle to extend that nation’s protections and privileges to all its people. We need both sides of the story, and we need to understand that for all the positive legacy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the negative legacy of slavery, racism, inequality, and exclusion also lives on today. Injustice compounds and festers, even after its most obvious signs have been swept away. It creates situations where many people feel ostracized and under threat from the very society that they live in. Then others, who are more comfortable with the status quo, are unable to see where that pain comes from because they believed the problems were all (or mostly) solved in the past and so everyone should just be able to carry on now without having to respond to what went on before.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on the case for reparations earlier this year tried to bring that point home, and a lot of people tried to push it away. Ongoing discussions across social media and activist networks about privilege demonstrate a lack of understanding and empathy. Statistics about the unequal treatment that our criminal justice system gives to Caucasians and minorities pile up until we are numb. And then we see the powder keg explode in a town like Ferguson, where a mostly-white police force is alienated from the largely-black community that it is supposed to serve.

I’ve made no secret of my fondness for John Dewey, and one of his ideas that sticks with me is that education is the process through which society decides what part of itself to pass on to the next generation. Implicit in that is the idea that there are some parts that we do not want to pass on, that the generation to come will build a better society than the one we have today. That means we need to be able to challenge our students’ assumptions and preconceived notions, while we help them develop the skills to critically examine the messages that society sends.

For students who come from a position of privilege (as a lot of AP students are), that is tricky. We will often be challenging things they have learned from their families and their communities. Students may feel like we are trying to make them feel guilty, or accusing them of being biased or cruel themselves because of the biased and cruel actions of others. The idea of a social responsibility may seem at odds with the ethic of individual responsibility that we often want them to assume. This kind of teaching requires us to be challenging and supportive simultaneously, which means we need to create a good rapport and safe environment with our students, and help them establish it with each other.

Students from disempowered groups may not need a history class to help them understand inequality in America, but they need support too. If the classroom can be a supportive and pluralistic environment, then that helps create a model that the students can work to recreate in society. The history of injustice must be married with the stories of resistance to that injustice, and the story of imperfect progress should be brought forward to the present day so that students have a reason to believe not only that present injustice is unacceptable but that something can be done about it. And then we need to help empower students to demand that change. Many of our students are already learning how to harness social media to empower citizens, but that needs to expand to understanding our electoral system, identifying who has political influence, seeing how they use it, and so on.

Together, these students can become the citizenry that demands accountability from their elected officials, that exercises power with empathy and wisdom, and that brings more justice to an ever more perfect union. And as they do, I hope that they will teach us how to do so as well.

(This post was revised several hours after initial posting to add some links and clarifying details.)

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Not About Me

Posted May 1, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I remember being in grad school and frequently being frustrated in classes where the professor didn’t say a lot. This was especially true in political science courses, where I was trying to catch up with a lot of literature on democracy and political institutions that was really interesting, but a bit out of my background. (I took a couple of poli sci classes as an undergrad, but decided not to major in it for a variety of reasons.) I figured that the prof had spent a lot more time studying and thinking about the literature and the subject than I had, or than my classmates had, and in that two or three seminar window, I wanted to use that resource to streamline my own knowledge-building as much as possible. I had done the reading, I had my own thoughts and criticisms, and if someone else had either made them or refuted them, that would be very helpful. I had questions about how the research in the reading had been followed-up upon, and the prof was far more likely to know of the rest of the literature than I was. Now, it’s possible that I was, and am, too likely to defer to experts and credentials. But in my mind, that expert with that credential was the reason I was paying money to take that class and not just getting a reading list on my own and finding a discussion group on the Internet.

I think about this a lot these days because now that I am a teacher, I have to make a conscious effort not to simply be the kind of teacher that I liked most when I was a student. Don’t get me wrong, I take a lot of my inspiration from my own teachers and try to steal as many tricks from the good ones as I can. But not every student is looking for an explainer, or a source of lousy puns, or whatever I was looking for from my teachers. And they deserve the best I can give them, too. They might deserve it, and need it, even more than the students who are more on my wavelength. (And I may be going out onto a very thin branch with this whole “deserving” theme, because I don’t want to suggest that some students are less deserving of a good education, but bear with me for a minute.)

The thing is, I kind of hit a certain genetic/environment jackpot, in that the things I was good at and interested in as a kid are the things that society was going to force me to do anyway. And the things that I was less skilled at and less interested in were things that society let me pursue or abandon as I saw fit. I like reading, I like memorizing stuff, I like writing, and so on. So the fact that I had to do this for seven hours a day didn’t bug me too much, and overall society has rewarded me for this. If, on the other hand, I had been forced to spend seven hours a day exercising and learning how to play various sports, I might have been a little crankier and inclined to slack off. When I literally batted .000 during a season playing baseball for the local Y, I just stopped playing, spent more time reading, and that was that. Students who don’t like school or have less developed “school skills” don’t have the option of leaving the history team to spend more time on their basketball homework. It’s important for me to keep a strong sense of empathy, look for ways to make the history team work a little better, and be the teacher that they need, not the teacher that my current vision of my 14-yer-old self wanted.

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Educon Presentation: Supporting Democracy Beyond Content

Posted January 26, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I will be leading a conversation about how our schools can support democracy at EduCon in about an hour. I may edit this post with some reflections after the fact, but for now I want to make sure there’s an easily accessible link to the Google documents we’ll be using.

Here’s the slide set.

Here’s a document for sharing visions and definitions of democracy.

Here’s a document for sharing ideas about the skills citizens need in a democracy.

Here’s a document for planning some changes we can make to our schools and communities to help people build those skills.

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First Thoughts on Implementing Genius Hour

Posted January 3, 2014 By Dave Thomer

I’ve wanted to emphasize project-based learning in my teaching since before I knew that project-based learning was the term for what I wanted to emphasize. One challenge I have faced is that while my school has been supportive of the use of projects, they have not been a central focus of the administration’s pedagogical philosophy. Combined with the need to cover a certain amount of content to keep up with district’s planning timeline, I haven’t felt like I was tapping project-based learning’s potential to help students build their inquiry skills. This year, with the support of my principal, I’ve started to incorporate an idea I discovered through the educators’ community on Twitter: Genius Hour.

Genius Hour is based on the idea of 20% Time that has become fairly well known in the business world thanks to its use at tech companies such as Google. The idea is that employees are allowed to spend a certain amount of their time on the job using the company’s resources to work on projects that they developed and believe might benefit the company. Google products like Gmail were initially developed as independent 20% Time projects. Educators looked at the idea and figured that if getting to work on projects of their own design was good for employees, why wouldn’t it be good for students? So the idea is to spend one class period a week in which the students do exactly that.

I began keeping an eye on the weekly Genius Hour chats on Twitter, and looked at the Genius Hour wikispace set up by some of the participants. In November, at the start of the second marking period, I introduced the assignment to my students. To provide structure, I had the students complete a proposal that would tie their project area to one of four themes that we have been exploring this year: 1) military power; 2) economic power; 3) political power; or 4) cultural power. This gave students a lot of room, as the proposals I received indicated. One student wanted to explore the history of the Internet, another wanted to write raps about Barack Obama’s career, and another wanted to create a comic book about the Revolutionary War. Over the last couple of months, some of these projects have really developed into a deep exploration of a subject.

The biggest challenge that my students and I have encountered in implementing Genius Hour is that when you are not used to the independence and depth of inquiry that come with project-based learning, it’s easy to feel lost. I had prepared a couple of reference sheets that I thought would be helpful. The first week I asked students to come up with a week-by-week plan that would serve as a set of benchmarks along with the proposal. But a lot of students were not used to taking a big question and breaking it down into smaller questions, so they had trouble taking the big task of an independent project and breaking it down into smaller tasks that were more specific than “I will get information about my topic.”

So I need to raise my game in terms of helping the students form their initial questions and then proceed from there. I may even have a fairly structured week of lessons that leads up the start of the independent time. I’m going to go back to the Teaching for Understanding framework that I worked with when I was getting my certification, because I believe it will help both the students and me to work backwards from our goals to plotting the clearest path to those goals. I was also happy to see this graphic on Twitter:

The second reference sheet I created was to help students keep track of sources. With so many different sources of information accessible through search engines and other references, students often need help developing and navigating a network of trustworthy sources. What I think I will do next semester is combine these reference sheets and add some other resources to create an ongoing journal, and then have the journal turned in as part of the final project.

Overall, I’m pleased with our first attempt at Genius Hour, and looking forward to improving the process for students in the months to come.

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For Philly Education, A Senior(ity) Moment?

Posted August 31, 2013 By Dave Thomer

I am writing this piece on the day that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract with the School District of Philadelphia expires. Since the last time I wrote about the terms of the contract, PFT president Jerry Jordan has held a press conference stating that the union (of which I am a member) was unwilling to accept wage cuts but would be willing to change the terms under which the district provides health insurance to its employees. I will probably talk about those specifics in a later post, but I think the more pressing issue can be found in Mayor Nutter’s response to Jordan. He said that he was disappointed that the union was not saying anything about staffing flexibility and other work rules. In concert with the School Reform Commission’s actions to suspend parts of the Public School Code that affect seniority rules, it is clear that this is a major focus of the negotiation/standoff. So I’d like to discuss that in a little more detail.

But before we do that, I want to put the most important part of this discussion right up front. I believe that it is important to ensure that experienced aides, counselors, secretaries, and teachers remain in the district. I know that there are lots of anecdotes about people who have been on the job too long, who seem to have lost their enthusiasm or not kept up with technology and other changes. Those are valid concerns and they are part of the reason why there is a process for continuing to evaluate people. But overall, research supports the idea that experienced teachers and school staff help students. It takes time to build relationships with students. It takes time to find your voice in the classroom. It takes time to develop lessons, see where they work, and reiterate to fix where they don’t. If teaching becomes a high-turnover profession where teachers move on to other fields after two to five years, our children will be faced with a system that is constantly restarting from scratch. The seniority rules I’m talking about here are designed, in part, to avoid that situation.

When we talk about seniority rules and PFT members, it’s important to remember that not only are there different types of seniority, but there are different ways that seniority is used. There is usually a two-step process involved in getting an assignment in the School District of Philadelphia. The first step is to be hired by the district. This can be done by the central administration. Once this happens, you are “in the system,” and eligible to be assigned to a specific school. But at this point you do not have an assignment yet. This seniority, which reflects how long you have been employed by the district, is called “system seniority.”

Once you get assigned to a particular school, you begin accruing seniority in that school. This type of seniority is referred to as “building seniority.” There are actually technicalities that can result in you carrying your building seniority from one assignment to another, but I’m going to put them to the side.

For example, I was hired by the district in March of 2009 for a start date of September 1. But at that time I did not have a specific assignment. I was allowed to interview with individual principals through the site-selection process (more on that later) and, if none of those principals hired me, I would pick from available vacancies closer to the school year. I spent three days at one high school before classes started, and then got hired by the principal at Parkway Center City on the Friday before classes started. So my system seniority and my building seniority are mostly, but not entirely, in sync. If I chose to leave Parkway Center City to teach at another school, my building seniority would reset to zero while my system seniority continued to accrue.

So how are these types of seniority used in staffing? Let’s start with system seniority. When the district decides that it has to cut its overall staff levels, as it did in 2011 and again this year, it puts all the employees in different categories (social studies teachers, math teachers, counselors, etc.) into lists based on their system seniority. So there might be a list of social studies teachers, and I would be ranked below a teacher hired in 2006 but above a teacher hired in 2011. Let’s say there are 500 social studies teachers and the district decides they only need 450 because of schools closing. The 50 teachers at the bottom of the list – the 50 with the least seniority – would be laid off. Then, as time passed, as social studies vacancies opened up in the district, the district would start calling those 50 people back to fill them. The laid-off teacher with the most system seniority would be called back first, then the laid-off teacher with the next most system seniority, and so on. Until they get called back, these laid off teachers have no salary and get no benefits. They are unemployed.

Now let’s talk about building seniority. Let’s say that a particular school has to lose a teacher because the enrollment is down. So instead of five social studies teachers, the school will only have four. The teacher who has been at that school for the shortest time will lose his or her position at the school, but will still be employed. So that teacher will still get a salary and benefits. He or she will need a new assignment. This teacher is considered a “forced transfer” and goes through the same process as a new hire – able to participate in the site selection process, or choosing from the available vacancies. For the teachers who decide to choose from the list of available vacancies, the order in which they choose is based on system seniority. So a force-transferred teacher who has been in the district for five years chooses before one who has been in the district for four.

It’s the use of system seniority to pick assignments that gets a lot of attention when politicians and administrators start talking about flexibility. Why should Teacher A get a certain slot just because he’s been working in the district for six years, instead of Teacher B who’s only been here for four? Over time that system has been altered, with the introduction of the site-selection process. If a position is to be filled through the site-selection process, a school’s principal and a committee of teachers interviews candidates that have already been cleared by the district and chooses one for the job. Some schools fill all of their positions this way; others fill a certain percentage. This is the system that was in place when I was hired, and it makes sense to me for filling vacancies. More veteran teachers might disagree with me, but overall the union has worked to implement this system.

So the PFT has already shown some flexibility on how vacancies at specific schools are filled. Why do people like Mayor Nutter keep talking about flexibility? Why did Superintendent Hite ask the SRC to suspend part of the school code? Because they’re gong after the way that seniority is used to determine who gets laid off and who gets called back when the district makes overall cuts. They want to be able to keep a teacher who has only been in the district for three years and lay off one who has been there for ten. They want to be able to call back a counselor who has only been in the district for five years instead of one who has been there for twenty.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, as a union member, I support the idea that if I invest a certain amount of time in a job, it’s good that I earn some job security as a result. I think that this has benefits for me as a teacher and for the students I work with. Eliminating seniority protections with regard to layoffs allows administrators to make an end run around the due process required to terminate an employee. I believe that many principals would not do this, but it only takes one two bad actors to abuse the system. And even administrators in good faith can let their own beliefs and personal relationships color a process, which is why contractual due process is so important. If I believe that a student has earned a failing grade in one of my classes, I have to follow a process to document and justify that belief. I believe that similar caution is warranted when someone’s job is at stake.

Beyond the actions of individual administrators, by suspending seniority rules the district is creating a situation in which it can replace more experienced, more expensive employees with less experienced, cheaper ones. That might help the bottom line for a while, but it is not going to help schools in poorer areas that already struggle to provide students with experiences, qualified teachers. We are already seeing some charter schools and organizations such as Teach for America adopt the idea that teaching is not a profession that someone makes a career from, but a stepping stone to some future endeavor. The link goes to a recent New York Times article on the topic that ends with a quote from a 24-year-old teacher who says,

I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.

I want to move on to something bigger and better too. I want my skill as a teacher to get bigger. I want my classroom to be a better place for my students to learn and grow. I believe that the seniority rules help make that possible, and that’s why I’m willing to fight to protect them.

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Should Teacher Salaries Stay in Step?

Posted August 24, 2013 By Dave Thomer

As we hurtle toward the end of the summer amid a continued standoff between the Philadelphia School District’s administration (along with Governor Corbett, the Pennsylvania legislature, and to a lesser extent Mayor Nutter) and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (of which I am a member), I’d like to to try to discuss some of the work rules and contract provisions that are causing so much friction. In these blog posts I am speaking solely for myself. So even if I say a certain provision is absolutely essential, or something I’d be willing to negotiate about, I have no real authority to implement my opinion. But this is the thought process that every member of the union, and indeed every resident of the city, is going to have to go through to some extent or another, so I figure it is worth it to put it out here for others to read and discuss.

One proposal by the district, which is supported by certain conservative reform groups, is to eliminate “step raises,” the pay scale in which teachers receive an increase in salary every year from the second to the eleventh year that they work for the district. The argument that these advocates make is that the district should have the power to reward the teachers who do well and not be forced to reward those who are not doing so well. “Pay teachers for how well they do,” the argument goes, “not how long they have worked.”

There are actually at least two separate issues here. One is the “merit pay” question of whether teacher salaries should be tied to some kind of performance metric. The second is how to establish a base teacher pay scale. On the merit pay issue, there are several obstacles that need to be overcome before such a system would make sense. One, frankly, is the issue of trust between the teachers who are being evaluated and the administrators who are doing the evaluation. If there is a chance that the administrators might play favorites, that is going to be a problem. If a teacher is worried about voicing a disagreement with a principal because it could affect an evaluation that can affect his or her paycheck, that poses a problem. You might be able to create a system of due process in which the evaluations could be appealed, or validated by an external source, or something similar. But then you have to ask yourself, is the time and money devoted to that process worth it? Will whatever performance gains you expect to come from this merit system be the best use of the resources you devote to implementing it?

Another issue is how exactly you will establish performance. Usually standardized tests such as Pennsylvania’s Keystone exams are a large part of the equation. Quite frankly I think this is a terrible idea. We already have too many incentives in the system pushing to increase test scores even though there are many reasons to believe that standardized tests are a poor way to evaluate what a student really understands. Standardized tests don’t really assess deeper critical thinking skills. Standardized tests often tend to rely on background knowledge that is possessed by members of some demographic groups but not others, making the tests discriminatory. Standardized tests feed into the test prep industry, so that families who can pay for test prep can boost their children’s scores but not necessarily boost what they understand.

And so much of what teachers do does not show up directly on a standardized test. I am a social studies teacher, so right now there is no standardized test in my subject in Pennsylvania. So when it comes to my school’s test results, I am expected to contribute to our students’ results in reading and literacy based exams, which right now is the English 2 Keystone. (We’ll talk about the fact that Pennsylvania apparently wants to create standardized-test-based accountability but hasn’t funded the creation of any of the tests beyond 9th grader math and 10th grade English and science another time.) Now, I happen to place a lot of emphasis on vocabulary, critical reading, and writing skills as they are essential for understanding history. But how can anyone tell how much of an impact I have had on my students’ reading and writing ability in comparison with their English teacher? Up until last year, I taught World History to every single Parkway Center City 9th grader. Last year I taught 2/3 of the 9th graders. This year it might turn out to be somewhere closer to half. So at best, you might be able to compare the way that my World History 9th graders do on the English 2 Keystone in 10th grade to the way that the other World History teacher’s students do on the same test. And that’s how you’re supposed to tell which one of us is doing a good job?

Even if there were a standardized test in World History, I do not believe that my students’ performance on that test would be sufficient to judge whether or not I am doing a good job as a teacher. I have been the adviser for Parkway Center City’s student government for the least four years. I have helped students organize fundraising drives, develop proposals for school improvement, and create programs to increase school spirit and student engagement. If you ask me to prove that I am a good teacher, I am going to point to those things along with my students’ academic performance. But you rarely hear about such things from the merit pay boosters.

OK, so let’s put aside the merit pay question. What’s the justification for the step raises? Here’s what I think is the proper way to look at it. Teaching is a field that, like many, requires experience to do well. I had been a college teacher for ten years before I started as a high school teacher. I studied education theory in order to get my Ph.D. and then studied more in order to get my M.Ed. and get certified. But there is a lot about the job that you can only really understand by doing the job. That means that, in essence, the school district has to pay me while I get my on the job training. I think it makes sense to pay me less than the experienced teachers in the same school who have already learned those lessons and, in fact, are helping to pass them along to me. That’s the principle behind step raises – not that every teacher gets automatic raises just for staying on the job, but that teachers gradually reach the full salary for their position through years of experience.

It’s important to note here that the step raises do not last throughout a teacher’s career – a teacher with fifteen years of experience makes the same salary as a teacher with twenty-five years. Once you reach what’s considered the full salary for a qualified teacher, you’re no longer getting paid for those incremental gains. Your salary only goes up based on the negotiations between the union and the district. So, just to repeat, many teachers are not getting paid more “just for sticking around another year.” To eliminate step raises, you have to justify that a rookie teacher should be paid the same as someone with a decade of experience. And then you have to figure out where to set that initial salary. A starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes $45,360. A teacher starting his or her eleventh year in the district makes $67,705. If you bring the initial salary up to the experienced teacher’s base, now you’re spending a lot more money. If you bring the experienced teacher down to the starting teacher’s base, you will create a huge gap between what an experienced teacher can earn in Philadelphia versus another district. So how would you retain experienced teachers? In many cases, you wouldn’t.

Finally, you may think that it’s unfair to assume that any teacher who stays in the district for ten years has improved and is a good teacher. Well, there’s an answer to that: get rid of bad teachers before they reach that point, and raise the bar for what makes a good teacher based on the teacher’s experience. There is a procedure spelled out in the Pennsylvania Public School Code for removing a teacher because of incompetence and a host of other reasons. There is a due process system spelled out in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract through which a principal can establish said incompetence, and through which a teacher can try to defend himself or herself. So if a teacher is genuinely doing a bad job, and a principal thinks that there is probably a better person available for the job, then that principal can gather the evidence, complete the evaluations, and go through the proper channels to remove that teacher.

Now, maybe there are some changes that should be made to that process. Maybe principals currently don’t have the time or resources to properly document what “everybody knows.” Maybe there are some other flaws that I do not see because fortunately I have never gone through the disciplinary process. But that’s not an argument to scrap the system and come up with some other system that punishes all of the effective teachers. That’s an argument to build up the trust and cooperation between all the players in the district so that these systems can be improved through a process of good faith negotiation. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we have now.

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When I discussed the Philadelphia School Reform Commission’s actions last week, I mentioned that I felt like the superintendent had staged an exercise in kabuki theater. By creating deadlines, threatening to close schools, and setting dollar figures for what the schools required, he created both a sense of crisis and an impression that he could resolve the crisis if certain steps were taken. I believe that this helped him create an atmosphere of support for the radical steps that he took last Thursday.

Not only have subsequent events reinforced that suspicion, they lead me to believe that the radical steps, and not a safe and orderly opening for schools, were really the main goal all along. First, the big Friday deadline wasn’t really an urgent deadline. Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke both said that the city would find some way to get $50 million to the district, but they could not agree on how. They just said that they would work it out eventually. So after all of the dueling press conferences, nothing had actually changed. Superintendent Hite said that was good enough, they didn’t need the money by Friday. Why bother giving an ultimatum if all that it took to solve the problem was a vague IOU? Because it created a week of media stories about how the schools might not open at all. That makes many parents and members of the community feel desperate, so they’re willing to support drastic actions. Look at Ronnie Polaneczky’s column from the weekend, that argued that the school code suspension was “good for kids” this year, but that it should be reexamined when the crisis is over.

Second, the $50 million figure was essentially random and bore no relation to what would be required to open schools with the staffing required. Even as the district now says that everything is set for all Philadelphia schools to open on time, many of those schools are getting staff and materials back on a piecemeal basis. Many schools are not getting any counselors back at all. Most schools are not getting the number of aides that they had last year back. Some schools are using temporary employees instead of experienced full-time secretaries to handle registration and other responsibilities. As a teacher and a parent, I have to laugh so that I don’t cry at the thought of sending my daughter to school in that situation. I work with some incredible student leaders who are going to be getting ready to apply for college, but because my school has fewer than 600 students I don’t know if there will be a counselor to give them any guidance. How is that giving the students the education that they deserve? If the ultimatum had really been about making sure that the schools had what they needed to open safely, the demand should have been for a much higher number and it should have been made much sooner.

Let me pause my list to emphasize that point. As things stand right now, Philadelphia public schools will not have an adequate number of counselors, secretaries, and school aides to provide the education our students need. For all of the ultimatums, we are still behind the eight ball.

Which leads to the third bit of support for the idea that last week’s deadline was never really about guaranteeing that our schools would be ready for opening in September. The ultimatum was delivered to the city government, which has already passed bills that would have provided the funding that the district requested from them, and not the state. Not only has the state not provided the funding that the district requested from them, they wouldn’t even pass the bills that would have let the city implement its plan to raise its share. The city has stepped up with tax increases for the last two years to provide the district with more funds, while the state has not. So why was Superintendent Hite asking Mayor Nutter to deliver a vague IOU that wouldn’t solve the problem anyway, instead of Governor Corbett? Why isn’t the superintendent trying to direct more Philadelphia parents’ attention to the responsibility that the state government bears for funding education? We do know that the governor has been urged to use this situation as a way to score political points by going after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, of which I am a member. And the suspension of the school code targets measures that directly affect the job status and compensation of PFT members. It does not take me very much effort to connect the dots of the two agendas.

So that’s why I’m not sold on the idea that last Friday was actually a meaningful deadline in any way, but instead a manufactured crisis whose timing came remarkably close to the SRC vote to suspend the school code. And if you’ll indulge me, let’s take a second to consider that suspension. One of the major selling points of this suspension is that it would give the district flexibility to put staff where they were needed. Let me repeat that if the district had the funds to avoid the layoffs or recall everyone who was laid off, positions would already be filled by people who were familiar with the jobs and the schools. It’s only this half-measures move to put counselors only in larger schools that creates the need for flexibility in the first place.

A possible exception might be the cases where a school was closed, and so some counselors, teachers and aides would be forced to transfer to other schools. This is why Polaneczsky is willing to support the SRC action, for example. Now, I admit I am not familiar with the rules for site-selection and right-to-follow as they apply to counselors. But if it had not been for the staff cuts, then presumably all of those employees would still be employed by the district. If the existing placement rules would have made it difficult for those employees to go where their students were going, it may have been possible to negotiate something with the union to allow for that. But that move was never tried and the crisis atmosphere gave the superintendent an opening to go after the rules that govern not just the particular schools employees would be assigned, but whether a laid off employee gets his or her job back in the first place.

Why does this matter? Because it means that our students are being used as bargaining chips. To an extent that is inevitable and all sides can justify to themselves that they’re doing it for the students’ best interest. But this goes beyond the normal jockeying of a contract negotiation. It’s poisoning an already strained group of relationships and killing the trust required to address the challenges of urban public education. If the game is going to be rigged this severely, then the only smart move is not to play along.

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Altering the Deal: Thoughts on Aug. 15 SRC Meeting

Posted August 15, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Yesterday on Twitter the word starting getting around that Philadelphia superintendent William Hite had asked the School Reform Commission to suspend certain elements of the Pennsylvania School Code. Many of these suspended elements cover staffing-related areas that are covered by the district’s contract with unions such as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, of which I am a member. Among the rules that Hite wanted to suspend are a requirement that teachers be recalled from layoffs by order of seniority and a provision that employees receive a pay raise every year for the first 11 years or so that they are employed by the district. Hite says that following these rules will make it harder for the district to open all of Philadelphia’s schools on time on September 9.

I am opposed to these changes, for a variety of reasons, some of which are obviously self-interested. I was briefly laid off, and while my layoff was rescinded this time I am clearly in a position where the layoff rules can affect me directly. With four years of experience, I would normally have step raises coming for the next seven years. So I am not a neutral observer in this. I think you can make a good case for using seniority in layoffs, in order to create a fair system that isn’t vulnerable to subjective biases. I think it makes sense to pay an inexperienced teacher less than an experiences teacher because this is a job where experience counts. But other people disagree, and in a normal situation these disagreements would be resolved at the negotiating table.

But that’s not what happened here. The news of Hite’s request hit the media 24 hours before the SRC met today to vote on that request. The text of the proposed changes was not easily available. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of negotiations between the district and PFT and the ongoing funding crisis. So, along with many other PFT members, I went to the school district headquarters this afternoon to see the meeting.

Some members were outside the building picketing when I arrived. Inside, the first floor lobby was turned into an overflow room, with rows of folding chairs and a screen on which the meeting was projected. The chairs were all occupied and there was a large crowd standing when I got into the room while Hite was making his opening remarks. I didn’t get a chance to see how full the conference room was – there were definitely some spectators, but there must have been room for more because many of the people standing outside were chanting, “It’s our meeting, let us in!” Eventually I think some of these people got into the room. Based on the audio, the audience in the room did not have many fans of the proposal.

Several parents, teachers, and activists spoke at the meeting, almost unanimous in their opposition to the suspension. A couple of speakers did want to change the seniority rules with regard to hiring, but they wanted this to be done as part of the negotiating process. One speaker did support the suspension, saying that in these extraordinary circumstances the district needed to do whatever it could possibly do to have schools ready. In the end, the SRC unanimously voted to grant Hite’s request. Only one member of the commission made any kind of statement, and I admit that I could not understand how she was justifying her vote or if she was even trying to do so.

So after about 90 minutes, the building emptied. Some PFT members congregated in front of the building, but many others left. I left as well; my wife and daughter had come to the meeting with me, and my daughter – about to start the sixth grade in the Philadelphia public schools – was stressed out by the situation. I don’t think continued standing and chanting outside of the building would have done much anyway. People who support the union are going to support the union; people who don’t aren’t going to change their minds.

The next steps, I would assume, will be taken in the courtroom. If the district’s moves hold up in court, the ball will be back in the PFT’s court at the end of the month, when we will have to decide how to deal with our expiring contract. I can say that at the moment, I feel like a strike needs to be on the table. If Hite and the district were negotiating in good faith, I wouldn’t say that. But I can’t help but feel that there was a certain amount of kabuki theater involved.

Hite has said he has the power to decide not to open the schools if they do not have what they need. So why didn’t he use that power in May when he proposed the doomsday budget? We would be having a different conversation if he had said, “We simply can not run the schools under these conditions,” rather than acting like he would open schools even with all of the layoffs.

Hite has said that the $50 million in funding that he needs to be assured of by tomorrow are only enough to recall some of the laid off staff, which is one reason why he needs to suspend parts of the school code. So why didn’t he set his drop-dead figure at the amount that would allow him to bring back enough people under the terms of the existing contract? Why is he setting his minimum point at a level that is still going to be a terrible situation for many schools?

We are no doubt going to hear about how Philadelphia schools and staff are going to have to do more with less. Well, we’ve already been having to do that in comparison to many suburban districts. I’ve contributed to fundraisers to stage drama productions, buy new computers, keep sports teams running, and more. I’ve volunteered my time to help keep extracurricular activities going because there was no money available to pay me for it. Many of my colleagues have stepped up in similar ways. But we’re now facing the start of a school year where we need to work with a district administration that has refused to negotiate with us as partners and which has made it clear that they do not feel required to live up to deals and responsibilities that they have agreed to in the past. How is that supposed to produce the kind of morale that is required to work together and overcome challenges?

As a teacher, as a parent, and as a citizen, I can not support this. If we can’t resolve these issues at the negotiating table, we may have to do so on the picket line. If we can’t resolve them there, then we need to address them at the voting booth in 2014 and defeat the people in government who have pursued this agenda.

If we can’t do that, then this city and state will be sending a clear message to anyone who cares about justice in education: Go away, you’re not our priority.

And I think I’ll have to start taking that advice.

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School for Society 7: Keep It Local

Posted July 7, 2013 By Dave Thomer

Item 7: Reformers must operate at the local level.

At first glace this might seem like another obvious item. A particular school is almost by definition local, certainly in comparison with a national movement. But it is worth thinking about exactly how a reform movement school would connect to its local community.

One possible answer is the use of local information as a focus for subject matter. Math classes could analyze things like population trends or budget numbers, with teachers helping guide students through the mathematical skills necessary to understand the data. Social studies classes could focus on the historical development of elements of the local culture, and connect them to national or global events and trends. (I live in Philadelphia, and I still have no idea how the heck the Mummers got started.) They could also focus on the process through which city officials are elected and pass laws. (Why did we need two different courts in the city, anyway?) Science classes could try to explain health and environmental trends. Why has it seemed like we have had more extreme weather events in this area over the last few years? English classes could discuss work by local artists or analyze speeches made by local figures. In this way, the school would not just be local because of its location. It would be local because of the work that it does.

Another possible answer comes in the connections that the school’s students and staff form with their local community. If there are strong community groups in the area, perhaps the organizers could come to the school and do workshops for the students and staff on local issues. The students could be organized to gather information and help prepare research and other materials that the community organizations could use to advance discussion of the issues. Or the staff could take on the role of community organizers themselves and use the school as a hub for getting local residents more informed about the way that local concerns connect to affairs in the city, the state, the nation, and the world. Staff could hold workshops after class hours are over for local residents, making the school a center of education for more than just the young people who fill the halls during “normal” hours.

This is an ambitious set of projects, reminiscent of the settlement house projects of the early 20th century. Ideally the reform movement school would be planned with this purpose in mind. Teacher might be hired with the expectation that they teach fewer classes than a traditional workload, but take on added responsibilities in the community. Aides, librarians, and other staff might be hired to staff late afternoon and evening hours when the school resources would be open to the public. Students might have a block of time allocated for independent research as opposed to a designated class.

I am deliberately being pie-in-the-sky here, because a school like this would demand significant resources. Right now Philadelphia is talking about cutting all of its aides and counselors, so for me to talk about adding lots more staff to handle an increased workload beyond traditional classroom instruction may sound ridiculous. But it’s important to put the vision out there in its pure form, so people don’t take for granted that we have made deliberate choices to make our schools the way that they are. We could make different choices and make them different places.

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Laid Off and Almost Back Again, But What Next?

Posted June 23, 2013 By Dave Thomer

On Friday, June 7, the School District of Philadelphia mailed layoff notices to 3,783 employees. That afternoon, one of my colleagues used our school email list to suggest that teachers offer to freeze wages next year in order to provide money to save some of these jobs. I replied to the list that I did not think that was a good idea. My primary logic was that there would be nothing to stop the district from coming to us again next year and making the same threat, but I did not want to get into a detailed discussion on a school district email list. I figured I would take the weekend, write up my thoughts on the blog, and then share them with my colleagues.

On Saturday, June 8, this became a moot point when I went to my mailbox and found out that I was one of the 3.783.

I am fortunate in that my layoff has since been rescinded, although the story’s not over yet. And I don’t want to overdramatize my situation. Thousands of employees, students, and families are going to be affected by the resolution of this funding crisis, and in the big picture that is far more significant than one person’s on-again off-again job status. But that big picture is made up of all of the individual stories, which the website Faces of the Layoffs is doing such an effective job of showing. So I figure it is worth it to share my story and think about where we go next.

I will say I am proud of myself that I did not change my mind about the idea of a wage-freeze petition. I did not want my colleagues, who already make so many sacrifices in the course of doing their jobs, to have to bear the responsibility for saving my job. They are professionals, who do an essential job and deserve to be compensated accordingly. My colleagues are not the state legislators who cut hundreds of millions of dollars from education funding over the last two years. My colleagues are not the city officials who have proven unable to collect delinquent property taxes that should have been supporting the district. My colleagues are not the school board members who failed to exercise oversight and awarded lavish contracts to district administrators. So why should they be the people responsible for cleaning up the mess made by those decisions?

That does not mean I do not think teachers should be willing to make a sacrifice to improve conditions. I just have a different idea of what that sacrifice should be. Before, during, and after my layoff, I believed that if the city and state government did not fix the situation, then the teachers of the district should go on strike when the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract expires this summer. Without secretaries, counselors, and support staff, our schools simply can not provide our students with the environment and the resources that they need. The district and the PFT have recognized this in the past by, for example, requiring a certain number of counselors in the buildings.

If the district can not or will not provide this basic minimum level of support, then I think that teachers should refuse to cooperate. We should not help the district try to limp along. We should not validate the idea that we can somehow do “more with less,” as though we had been withholding something that we can now pull out of reserve. We should stand up for and with our students, and demand that they have the opportunity to get the education that they deserve.

I hope it doesn’t actually come to that. I hope that we are in the process of seeing the budget theater play out over the next week or two, and that many of these layoffs and cuts will be reversed before we get too far into July. But even if they are, damage has been done, and that damage needs to be repaired.

From the moment I got my layoff letter, some of my energy had to be diverted into thinking about my immediate future. My family relies on my job for our health insurance, so even if I had money saved up for the summer, I would need to figure out how to replace that insurance. (It’s one thing to go without health insurance when you’re a single 22-year-old doctoral student. At 37 with a wife and daughter, it’s not an option.) I had to start looking at other jobs and other districts, even thinking about moving. Meanwhile, students would talk to me about next year, and I had to be as noncommittal as I could, because I did not want to make a fuss if I could get back, but I did not want to lie either.

I had to spend time working through the paperwork to make sure the district knew about my second certification in English. I had made the mistake of thinking that when the state approved my certification, it would also be reflected in the district’s records. Fortunately, with a lot of help from people in the district office, I got that paperwork sorted out, but that took time. Once the paperwork was processed and my second certification was on record, my layoff was rescinded. My overwhelming feeling was relief, but I also tried to feel empathy for the people who are still waiting to hear that news. I hope that there is not a teacher somewhere in the district who got a layoff letter this week to take my place on the list, and if there is I hope that person finds a path to security quickly. And as all of this was going on, I had to read newspaper editorials and cartoons arguing that the teachers had to find a way to solve this mess, which seemed so backward I wanted to scream. I still gave my best every day, but teaching is a job that requires concentration and energy. Anything that pulls you in a different direction makes the job harder.

And I am one of the lucky ones. I still have a job, although as I write this it is unclear whether or not I will be able to return to Parkway Center City, where I have taught for four years. At my daughter’s school, at least one English teacher has had to give up his position, at least temporarily, in spite of all that he does in and out of the classroom. My daughter’s music teacher, who has conducted the school choir for years, chose to retire in the hope of saving someone else’s job. And while that is noble and laudable, how many future students have now lost the opportunity to benefit from his years of experience? How many other teachers have decided to leave a district that seems not to value them? How many of us will come back in September and spend the year waiting for the shoe to drop once again? How many young adults will spend the summer checking out real estate listings in suburban districts because they can not take the uncertainty?

This can not go on, and yet, unless we the citizens reflect and chance, it will go on. And then where will we end up?

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