A Contract Negotiation Too Far?

Since the Vergara case, we have heard a great deal in the media (and in social media) about teacher contracts and collective bargaining. This has been particularly true in places like Chicago, still reflecting on the 2012 teachers strike and what that means for upcoming context negotiations.

According to ye old dictionaries, collective bargaining is “a process of negotiations between employers and a group of employees aimed at reaching agreements to regulate working conditions.” That’s the meaning most of us expect.

That means discussion on salaries and benefits. Contributions to Healy insurance and to pensions. The number of days one works. And even how one is evaluated on the job in the years governed by that collective bargaining agreement.

On his This Week in Education blog, Alexander Russo this AM highlights an article from In These Times that looks at what Karen Lewis’ successor at Chicago Teachers Union is focusing on, particularly as the lead in for the latest round of contract negotiations.

The profile of CTU’s Jesse Sharkey focuses on many of the issues we should expect, such as proper staffing levels and financial supports for programs such as special education. But then it takes an interesting turn. It nots a third priority:

a real commitment by city government to help alleviate the strangling poverty facing wide swaths of the city—concentrated in the largely African-American South and West Sides—by instituting more progressive taxation of the wealthy to fund public education, a policy long championed by Karen Lewis.

While one can understand that cities like Chicago need to look at new ways to bring additional dollars to he public schools, how is “progressive taxation” for the city a topic of collective bargaining?

And if it is a negotiating point, does it mean it continues up the chain? Is it then a point for the state union to address with the governor and legislature? Should Randi Weingarten and the AFT be pushing for higher tax rates in DC to see federal income tax gains trickle down to the schools?

Once again, it seems Chicago may be the testing ground for his theory. If successful, it could open the door to everything but the kitchen sink being negotiated. In 2012, there was strong public support for CTU during the strike. But does negotiating a topic like his lose that good will, and be seen as little more than a power grab or a point of leverage.

Time will tell. Time will tell.

The State of Indian Schools

Back when my mother made the decision to enter the teaching profession, she did her student teaching at an Indian school in New Mexico. At St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe County, my mother gained the clinical experience that helped her develop into the exemplary high school English teacher so many of her students know her for.

Why the trip down memory lane? Over the weekend, the Associated Press’ Kimberly Hefling wrote an interesting piece on the current state of the modern-day Indian school.

In the piece, she describes one school in Arizona as such: “The school, which serves 81 students, consists of a cluster of rundown classroom buildings containing asbestos, radon, mice, mold and flimsy outside door locks. The newest building, a large, white monolithic dome that is nearly 20 years old, houses the gym.”

When we talk public education and school needs here in the United States, we often focus on inner-city schools and the challenges they face. It is rare that Indian schools (or rural schools in general) are a central part of the discussion. If you haven’t read Hefling’s article, please do. It is worth the read and paints a too real picture of the work ahead of us.

Do We Need a “New Approach to Accountability?”

In public education, the term “accountability” often brings out the best and the worst in folks. Some see it as a necessary measure to understanding if teachers are teaching, students are learning, and districts are doing what districts need to do. Others see it as a “mandate” that measures the wrong things and places one-time student performance over the learning process as a whole.

Yesterday, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of Great City Schools issued their statement on testing, offering another voice opposed to “high-stakes testing” and calling for assessments that are meaningful and less stress inducing. President Barack Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan quickly backed the CCSSO/CGCS opinion (though I still maintain it is the path that Duncan has been largely advocating for nearly six years now).

Today, we have some new thinking that gets factored into the equation. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) released Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger, the manifesto outlines for changes that need to be addressed in the accountability debate, while offering some fresh thinking on accountability 2.0 (or is it 8.0?).

What changes are needed? Put simply:

  • More sophisticated assessments that get at a deeper understanding of content, critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and the like;
  • More equitable and adequate resources with regard to teaching, materials, and technology;
  • Greater capacity among schools and educators to reach more challenging content; and
  • A more effective model for change and improvement that moves schools from the current industrial model to “innovative learning systems for the future.”

To get us there, the authors point to a new accountability model that focuses on four key components: 1) meaningful learning; 2) professional accountability; 3) resource accountability; and 4) continuous improvement.

And what of those dreaded assessments that seem to block any meaningful discussion on true accountability? The good folks at SCOPE call for a model that looks to both standardized tests and performance-based assessments and portfolios. Standardized tests would inform the performance-based assessments, and results from the latter would be used to improve and enrich the former (while also informing teaching as a whole).

It’s hard to argue with what Darling-Hammond et al put forward, for it is really common sense. We need better assessments, tests that inform instruction and focus on student learning. We need to do a better job of delivering resources to all classrooms, particularly those that would be labeled historically disadvantaged. We need to push the envelope with regard to teaching more challenging content (which I would argue is why CCSS is an important floor to start with).

And we definitely need to move beyond the misguided notion that a single test, taken on a single day defines the success of a school, a teacher, or a kid.

But how does such a frame fit with the anti-testing zealots (or advocates, depending on your view) out there? Can we accept there is a meaningful role for standardized tests in the learning process? Can we use such tests, along with performance-based assessments, without cries of drilling, killing, and death by bubble sheet?

Even more importantly, can we all agree there are significant achievement, learning, and opportunity gaps in our public education tapestry and that we need a strong accountability model to bridge those gaps? Can we agree all is not roses, lollipops, and rainbows in our schools, and we have a need to improve and thus need to chart the best course to get there?

The ideas moved forward by SCOPE help us see where we need to go. The notion of moving from our current industrial model to a more innovative, future-focused one is particularly valuable. But the devil is always in the details. Can we use these sorts of ideas to move the discussion forward? Or are we destined for another round of “testing bad, accountability badder?” I hope for the former, but fear the latter.

Local Districts, Standardized Testing

Last evening, the White House released a statement from President Obama on efforts from CCSSO and CGCS to cut back on unnecessary testing and the dreaded test-prep focus so many fear is taking over our classrooms.

Where I’m scratching my head is trying to see what the “news” is. The full statement is below. The so-called directive to EdSec Arne Duncan seems to be an effort that the EdSec has focused on for years now. That parents have more info on student learning. That classroom time is used well. That assessments play a part, but not the whole part, of teacher eval.

Perhaps Eduflack is missing something. Maybe this action is worthy of presidential proclamation. But from the cheap seats, this reads far more like “stay the course” than “let’s break new ground.”

Here’s the full statement. You tell me ….

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them. In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning. I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever. We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before. I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

No Homework!

I’ll admit it. My children attend a high-performing school district. We chose our neighborhood because of the strength of its local elementary school and the overall performance of the school district as a whole.

The experience, to date, has been quite interesting. At a recent parent/teacher night at the school, parents were jockeying for the right to talk to the special education teachers, believing there might be another educator or another source of learning for their children. It was of no concern to them that their children would never be classified as “special ed.” It appeared to be a resource available to the school, and they were going to take full advantage of it. These aren’t just involved parents, they are involved parents on steroids with the helicopters waiting in the parking lot.

So it was refreshing to get a note home from the superintendent declaring, “No Homework Nights.” For my kiddos, it is a evening almost as worthy as celebration as Christmas. It means more time playing outside. Some screen time on the iPad on a school night. A night the homework folder stays closed. And for the edu-wife, it is a day absent of the typical fights and struggles to get all the homework done, and done at the level of effort expected from the district.

The note itself, though, is worth sharing. So I do so below:

This year, XXX will be initiating four No Homework Nights.  While there is tremendous value in engaging in meaningful homework assignments that reinforce concepts and skills taught during the school day, there are times when we need to collectively have a break from the responsibilities of homework and enjoy time with family and friends.
The first No Homework Night will be held on October 22, 2014 . For planning purposes, this means that students would not have homework on this night, and no assignments, homework, reports, or tests scheduled for Friday, October 24, 2014. [October 23, 2014, is a professional development day for teachers and staff; there is no school for students.]
We believe No Homework Nights will have positive benefits for all of us. No Homework Nights give students a night off from preparing homework and projects and studying for tests. It also gives students an opportunity to spend time relaxing with family, enjoying outside activities, and attending XXX sporting events.
Moving ahead, here are the other dates for No Homework Nights in XXX: December 16, 2014; February 10, 2015; and May 8, 2015. Please mark your calendar for these dates!

While I’m thrilled that the school district recognizes the value of free time for our kids, should I be a little disturbed that we have only four No Homework Nights all school year? Particularly when there is weekend homework already assigned? Time will tell. All I know is that next Wednesday, it will be party time in the Eduflack house.