Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Darkness is Rising in Wisconsin

It's not often I will publicly say someone or something is evil. I don't even like to use the word because it often portrays the person or idea as hopelessly wrong.

But that's just what the MPS layoffs are.

And this morning's Journal reveals a lot of villains in Wisconsin.

MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton yesterday announced 519 MPS layoffs in ADDITION to not filling 514 other jobs. That means over 1,000 jobs in MPS are going to be cut because of the current budget crisis.

This includes 554 teachers. 

For context, according to MPS, there are 10,396 full-time equivalent positions in MPS, including 5,576 teachers. That is over 10 percent of the entire teaching staff of MPS. Class sizes, which directly affect the quality of education, will continue to rise. Any class size over 25, in my long-time experience as a teacher, reduces the time I get to spend with individual students to help them.

It's terrible. It's evil. It's wrong.

This affects an entire generation of kids.

And there are plenty of culprits to go around, plenty of people who should take direct responsibility for the evil that has occurred in this city.

1. MPS. Thornton has asked the teacher's union MTEA for significant salary package concessions. Yet Thornton and his administration have not offered to do the same. What an incredible gesture it would be if Thornton would tell the teachers, "Hey we all need to share the sacrifice. I'm going to give up the same as I'm asking you to give up."
    But I haven't heard that from him yet.
    (On a separate but related note, one also has to wonder why there are nearly 5,000 non-teacher employees in MPS.)

2. The MTEA. The teacher's union, once again, is refusing to any change in the contract. MPS has asked the teachers to pay 5.8 percent of their pay toward pensions to save about 200 jobs. The MTEA has said no, once again protecting its veteran teachers at the expense of younger energetic teachers.
   And yes, it is that simple. We obviously live in a time of brutal economic reality. We need to accept that reality.

3. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the state Legislature for passing a state budget that cuts over $800 million from education. Clearly, Walker and the Legislature's priorities are business over education of our future.

4. The citizens of Wisconsin. We should all be alarmed enough at the long-term ramifications of this kind of budget cutting to be roused to action in some kind of education revolution. We have to be able to say that it's okay to pay a little more in taxes to directly fund education in this state.

5. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Today's layoff story was on B1. Even on the website, it is buried. This should have been a screaming front page headline, and an above-the-fold story with multiple sidebars about what this means for the children of Milwaukee.

In all the argument about budgets, the adults continue to neglect the effect of their actions on children.

Yes, the sky is beginning to fall. Yes, this is dramatic. When a school district cuts 10 percent of its entire teaching staff, it's a disaster.

Yes, MPS teachers will continue to cope as best they can. But we're asking them to do an impossible task.

The Mohawk Indians, who I used to report on when I was a full-time journalist, tried to steep all their decisions in the long-term. How will this decision affect us in seven generations?

If we do not fix the slide we are on in this state, we will be seeing the effects of these decisions much sooner.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reality Check for Education Funding

This is another column where the "Seriously" title is appropriate.

I cannot fathom, comprehend, understand any part of a government that is willing to cut education spending.

Much less cut education spending in one state by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Wisconsin Legislature committees are working on Gov. Walker's proposed budget now. He initially wanted $900 million in education cuts.

That is as short-sighted and wrong a decision as one can possibly make if you have ANY sense of the future.

That kind of cut puts large districts, especially Milwaukee Public Schools, in serious trouble.

And with districts already having to cut budgets to the bone over the past four years, cuts now mean larger class sizes and fewer services to kids. Larger class sizes means classes of over 30 kids.

That's no way to educate students. Thirty kids in a classroom has been a realistic magic number. I've had classes of 25 and classes of 29, and the difference is remarkable. It's as if there is a critical mass of bodies in a room that results in more disruptions and less learning.

I can only believe in some kind of institutional racism or class war when a government choose to cut spending to education. The districts that hurt the most serve the most needy students. In Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and other large districts in the state, many, if not most, of the students are black.

How can anyone expect kids in poverty to make something of themselves if they don't receive a quality education? The only answer I can come up with is they don't. Those in power want those in poverty to remain in poverty and uneducated.

That's about as pessimistic and conspiratorial as I will get. But it's the only conclusion I can draw.

The situation in MPS is dire. If the brave teachers who remain there have classes of 35 to 40 students, many of whom are special needs, there's little chance of any quality education happening, no matter how good those teachers are.

We should be pouring more money and more resources into districts, including districts in rural areas, with high populations of kids in poverty. Not less.

Here are two solutions:
1. Raise sales tax for education. Sales taxes are reasonably progressive because poor people buy less and rich people buy more so the percentage of income is relatively balanced. And to Republicans who seem like they can only say "Cut budgets and don't raise taxes," it's okay to raise taxes to directly fund education. It's okay to invest in our children and future.
   Unless, of course, my conspiracy theory is correct!
2. If you're going to trim school budgets, cutting teachers is not going to work. Get creative with funding:
- Provide bag lunches for kids with a sandwich and an apple.
- Require a sliding scale pay to play program for all sports programs. I know that's the sacred elephant in the room (to mix metaphors), but sports programs require huge amounts of district money when our purpose in education is student learning!
3. Either expand or eliminate funding boundaries. It's fundamentally unfair for suburban districts to be able to spend more per pupil than urban districts. And it's unfair and regressive to require MPS to draw from a smaller taxable pool than suburban districts.
   Creating Milwaukee County school districts, for example, would eliminate many spending inequalities.

Gov. Walker seems intent on cutting education funding. How that will help him create the 200,000 jobs he promised is beyond me.

By raising taxes and redoubling our state's commitment to education, we could create many new jobs that would directly help student learning. We'd have to do things differently, to be sure.

Spoken like a true liberal, my conservative friends will say: Tax some more and spend some more!

And they'd be right. I see education, though, as a greater good for our society, one that will ultimately produce more jobs, more educated people, and a better society.

Unless, of course, that pesky conspiracy theory is right.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Time to Piss Off My Friends and Colleagues

I admit it: I didn't go to Madison to protest Gov. Walker's end-around on collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin.

If there had been protests against the $900 million in education cuts he proposed in his budget, I would have been there.

I've been a teacher for 17 years, and I've been a member of the union the entire time. Not that I had a choice, of course. Once you're a teacher, you're a part of the union and have to pay dues.

And I know teacher unions have done positive things in our country. And I appreciate the benefits and salary I have now that teacher unions negotiated.

Teacher unions, though, also have, among other items:
1. Kept and protected bad teachers in their jobs. I had to work on a team with a teacher who hated middle schools kids, yelled continuously at them, and taught nothing. I often talked with her about the kids, trying to make something positive. But when it came time to renew her contract, the union fought the principal to keep her.
2. Does little or nothing to train and support struggling teachers.
3. Protects veteran and sometimes poor teachers with the first hired, first fired policy. A teacher I know well has been let go from her job once, and has received a lay off notice after six years in her new district. This is a teacher around whom school culture and curriculum is built. She is a dynamo of teaching knowledge and skill. Her kids love and respect her and, best of all, they learn. I would gladly trade jobs to be able to work with her again.
4. Protects veteran teachers in contract negotiations. Teacher unions in both Milwaukee and Kenosha, two large urban districts, have been asked to reopen their contracts to protect the jobs of hundreds of teachers who otherwise will be laid off. Both said they will not reopen negotiations.

So I'm not a fan of teacher unions at all. Our job is to teach kids. That's why we're here. Obviously, more teachers in the classrooms means better education for the kids.

In each district I've taught in, I've worked - and continue to work - with some excellent teachers, men and women who understand how kids learn and shape their teaching so that kids learn rich material and gain understandings about how their place in this world.

And while Walker's move to bust the union was draconian and back door politics at its worst, there is opportunity to reshape how we educate our children. (If, of course, the bill is approved by the courts.)

School districts could work with teachers to craft and create a series of steps that will make schools more effective. For example, we can create a fair evaluation system that is based on mutual goals, not on meaningless test scores. I would love to have an evaluation system that would allow my principal and I to sit down and create a set of goals together. Something like:
- special education students will improve their reading comprehension by 15 percent this year; or
- By the end of the year, 80 percent of my students will score proficient or above on district writing assessments.
- By the end of the year, 80 percent of the students in my class will be able to proficiently argue a solution for a real-world problem with a multi-media presentation.

The possibilities are endless, and each goal would address the Common Core Standards adopted by Wisconsin and other states.

And best of all, I could sit down with my principal, knowing full well that I have enough skill and experience to achieve those goals, and say "I want a six percent raise if I achieve all of them."

Districts and teachers could identify (teachers might even self-identify) those who are challenged in working with kids, adapting curriculum, helping kids learn meaningful material, and actually help them! We could create teams of teachers to help each other become better!

This could be powerful especially if there is a financial incentive to improve. Most people, if they know there is a significant financial incentive, are going to work a lot harder to achieve the task!

Imagine: District and school administrations working with teachers to create powerful learning environments, working together to help kids learn more effectively!

I'm fortunate to work in a district now that is small enough for the superintendent to be on a first-name basis with most of the teachers in the district. And our district has apparently always had a cordial relationship between the district and the teachers' union.

But I've also worked in a large urban district where the relationship was bitter.  That union usually hunkered down to protect itself and its members at the cost to the kids. That's not okay in my book.

I'm not sure I'm able to imagine what life without a union might look like, or if that's even a possibility. Teacher unions may be an anachronism in today's society. Or perhaps they're needed more because teachers need a strong united voice.

What would be my ideal is that we'd keep a flexible union that worked with districts to promote positive learning for all children. That's the only goal. Once we accept that as our goal, then we can talk.

Maybe that means longer school days, maybe that means more school days, maybe that means a different funding system, a different curriculum.

The bottom line is that any teachers' union works to promote kid learning, not protecting teachers.

Apparently, there's some card at my school I'm supposed to fill out to join the union. This has been such a challenging year trying to find things that work with my students in addition to finishing my special education licensing that I really have no idea what it's all about.

And the union leader in my school is a friend I trust - at least I hope she's still a friend after reading this! I want to buy her a beer and talk politics and unions and kids. She's one of those teachers who gets kids and creates awesome learning opportunities for her students.

She also believes strongly in the teachers' union for all its flaws. I look forward to hearing her thoughts about why I should re-join our union.

Regardless of Walker's misguided approach to "solving education's problems," we have a serious opportunity to re-shape how our unions and teachers organize for student learning!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Let the Kids Loose and See What Happens

I really don't much like the last days of school.

For some ridiculous reason, our grades close Monday so Tuesday through Thursday is wasted time that teachers usually use to show movies, have parties where kids eat chips and drink sugar soda and get fired up.

I hate being a babysitter.

Today, though, was different. Our kids raised $10,000 - you read that right - for Acres of Hope, a Muskego farm where people - particularly veterans - with brain injuries go for therapy with animals.

The students chose the "rewards" for raising certain amounts of money. For $7,000, the male teachers dyed their hair pink - and it's real dye that required bleaching, then dye - and the female teachers got their noses pierced.

And for $10,000 - which we haven't even come close to in nine years of doing this - the kids wanted Mr. Marzion and I to do a "wedding ceremony." Yes, they wanted us to be married.

Never mind that John is already happily married with three children, and I, while single, most definitely prefer women.

That's what the kids wanted. And for $10,000, I'll be glad to accomodate them.

So today, in our babysitting time, my room was designated the "wedding planning" room.  And I was very nervous - not for what they might come up, but for the whole babysitting thing.

Boy, was I wrong. There were maybe 20 kids in my room, 13 girls, 7 boys (who were "looking out for the groom"). Those kids seriously got to work.

Carley took over and wrote everything on the board. Kids split themselves into committees and small groups with specific tasks. I vetoed make-up and lip gloss! And we gradually moved them to a "Friendship Ceremony" rather than a marriage, which was going to be weird anyway. We had a chance to talk about the perceptions if we "married" and they agreed the friendship thing was a far better option.

Kayla, the other Carley, and someone else wrote/adapted some very cool vows, Molly and others wrote invitations and announcements.

It was a pure example of what happens when kids start a task in which they're interested and vested. They had a task they cared about and spent two solid hours working on it.

That's what middle school education should be. That's what authentic learning could look like. Imagine if we researched the debate over same-sex marriages,  the history of marriage, the purpose of marriage in society, the role of ritual and ceremony in our culture and in other cultures.

Such a curriculum would be incredibly rich and force kids to think on their own, to consider different opinions. That may, however, be too much for some parents to think that their children aren't ready to think on their own.

There's few standards that we can't incorporate into tasks and projects like this. The task was silly. Imagine if these kids worked on real-life tasks with real-life results.