Sweet home test scores…

Oh, this post started off so well so many times in my head, and now that I am faced with big, bad computer screen, the beginning feels dicey.

Should I begin with how I know this person, whom I greatly respect and appreciate being allowed to be part of grand discussions? Should I begin with a short anecdote? Or, perhaps, I’ll begin with an ending:

Strike Over, Chicago Students Go Back to Classes

So, my friend Jason sent me this email recently:

Ok, so here’s my problem.  I generally like teachers.  In general terms I think they are overworked, under-appreciated, and underpaid.  But the more I read about this Chicago strike the harder I find it to come down on the teachers’ side.

First off, there’s pay.  According to the Union, the average teacher salary is $71,000 ($76,000 according to the city… which if these folks can’t even agree on how to calculate an average, maybe we should be spending more time talking about the math curriculum, but I digress.)  I know that 71k a year isn’t exactly get fat rich and retire early money but it’s not pauper money either.  My point here being, I’d love to be able to pay every teacher in America a 6-figure salary but at the same time, I’m surviving in San Francisco on 17k a year, so it’s hard for me be sympathetic to a the notion that only getting 71k is worth striking for.  Of far greater concern is that the contentious item in the salary debate is the amount of the automatic raise the teachers get every year.  As far as I can tell, every teacher in Chicago gets this raise without question.  This bit really rankles me, I have encountered plenty of teachers who have simply checked out and are phoning it in.  The teachers who are working their asses off and doing a good job are getting smaller raises to pay for the ones who have checked out.  I simply can’t imagine that there isn’t a better way to distribute these pay increases.
Another item of contention is the plan to lengthen the school day.  I saw a debate once on the inclusion of Intelligent Design into the science curriculum (which, by the by, I am vehemently against) in which the teachers lamented how little time they had to devote to complex subjects, such as evolution.  This makes perfect sense to me, everything has an opportunity cost and we live in a very complex world.  The teachers who I admire and respect are always trying to cram just a little bit more into their lectures and never seem to have the time to get everything they want in.  I cannot understand how teachers are not jumping for joy at the opportunity to expand their curriculum.  Obviously it means being “at the office” a longer but it seems like the benefits to the good teachers who want more time with the kids would vastly outweigh the costs to the bad teachers who can’t wait for the bell to escape.
The next concern I have is with regards to the “job security” clause.  The Union is demanding the kind of guarantees that no one else in any industry gets.  Of course everyone wants to have job security but I cannot understand why this sort of guarantee is justified, particularly when everyone else in the job market is facing such wicked unemployment.
Lastly, there seem to be a variety of clauses intended to increase accountability.   If these measures are reasonably accurate, it seems like the only people who would be opposed to them would be the bad teachers.  Of course, there’s the argument that the measures aren’t accurate but I don’t hear that argument nearly as often as the claim that “X number of teachers won’t be able to pass the exam.”  It seems to me that that argument is not an argument against having the evaluation.  That means one of two things, the evaluation system is flawed, in which case we should be arguing for a better evaluation rather than no evaluation.  Alternatively, the evaluation is a reasonable approximation of performance and those teachers who can’t pass need to do something about that issue.
The other thing that isn’t an issue directly relating to the strike but making it hard for me to come down on the teachers’ side is the nature of the two campaigns.  From Mayor Emanual and his supporters, I see a number of what appear to be very reasonable, specific proposals backed by concrete numbers.  From the teachers and their supporters I see primarily vague values statements, e.g. “We have to protect education for our kids and our futures.”  (Or something to the effect of “Rahm Emanuel is a jackbooted thug pushing the Evil Corporate Overlords’ Plan to Destroy the World.”)  I think it is clear that most Chicago (or American) schools are not adapting to our information age or adequately preparing a scientifically literate population.  If they’re against Mayor Emanual and for us, where is there alternate proposal?  I’m always hesitant to assign motive but if you wanted to resist change purely because it was easier to just keep doing what you’ve always done, it seems like you’d behave exactly the way the teachers are behaving.  To put it another way, President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “There are many ways to move forward but only one way to stand still.”  No matter how much I want to be on the teachers side, everything I observe seems put Mayor Emanuel on the moving forward side of that quote and the teachers on the standing still side.
So, at the end of the day, I still want to be on the teachers side.  What am I missing?  Where am I wrong?
Jason, Serious Economic Smarty-Pants Esquire
P.S. I’m adopting that as my official job title.  Also, sorry if this is a bit haphazard, I’ve got a lecture in a minute and don’t have time for my usual editing.
 Jason is a friend whom I’ve genuinely enjoyed getting to know through social Azeroth connections. I have a handful of those whom I now consider actual friends. This is not uncommon, nor unusual. Consider it like a weekly bridge or book club–some of your friends bring along others they know, and your circle of friends grows. (True, you may want to throw your glass of Chardonnay in the face of the woman who takes a bold stance on why Twilight is greater fiction than Harry Potter, but I digress…) I know of many couples who have even met, and married, from their social gaming, but that is a post for another day. This is about having new arenas for the grand conversations, the debates, the “Smarty-pants” talk that I do not get to enjoy with my colleagues.
Wait, what?!
What did I just say? I don’t get to enjoy these types of conversations wit my colleagues? No, as a matter of fact I don’t. In our meetings, though we have established ‘norms,’ the norms get tossed aside by those who do not follow ‘norms’ as a general personality rule. We don’t get to collaborate or discuss because the focus are data, data, data, including this morning’s 7:35AM meeting, on the same day as Open House, so I will be part of my job literally for over 12 hours with a 25 minute lunch break. Yes, there is a break between the end of school and tonight, but I will be spending that trying to get my room ready. Why isn’t it ready? Because I went to Texas to see my mom who had just had surgery, and I love my mom, and my dad, and would see them anyway, and I had to move classrooms, and I have to drive sons to activities before and after my contract day, and my classroom still needs organizing, and and and ….I asked to come in on weekends but alas, I can’t. None of us can. I know our new principal has solid reasons, but my three hour window before Open House will be spent preparing my room so I can give parents a good impression. (The NBCT sticker on my classroom door window should signal to them I am bonafide!)
Wow, were you as tired reading that as I was writing it?
So, back to Jason’s question. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Wait. No. Wrong question.
The Chicago thing. I still haven’t had time to really read anything about it. Sure, I listened to the NPR story yesterday after work while I was frantically driving to the bank and grocery store to pick up dinner. This is after another long day because we had a union meeting in the morning (we had another 7:35 am meeting on Tuesday morning, too). Our building representative touched on the Chicago story briefly saying it was about “test scores.”
I am sure it was more than that–BUT — if that is all it was about, that’s all it needs to be about.
I asked my students last year if they thought it would be fair if I got paid based on how well they did on the MSP (Measurement of Student Progress). They immediately, and resoundly, said “NO!” These astute seventh grade kiddoes knew immediatley how much their ultimate performance was not in my control: many of them are truant, many come from families whose first language is not English, many of them have not enjoyed early childhood experiences, such as reading a story every night, or going to the library, or talking about their day with an (intrusive) parent (from the perspective of an adolescent anyway). My esteemed ELL teacher/colleague was near shaking when she reminded us about the twenty African refugees who literally had to take the MSP the week they arrived in the country. So–her salary should be based on their performance?
I promise I will do everything I can to get your child to read because it’s the right thing to do.
Wait, that’s not enough? What about those teachers who don’t make that promise? How can we weed them out?
First, I am not sure. I’m not even sure what is a “bad” teacher, except for the obvious egregious lack of moral character. Second, I do know that using an arbitrary test that may have deep flaws as the guillotine blade is not the answer. Last year, our district purchased a testing service that was so faulty, so flawed, so full of typos and confusion, that I am deeply horrified to imagine if this assessment was used as a means to judge my teaching credentials. And, I have suspicions that it was, considering the morass of red ink on my students’ data. And yet– my students went up to 57% passing. I believe it should be more, and no, I don’t want to be paid more for it.
If districts need data for teachers’ worth, perhaps the classroom work in itself can be used? Those best practices can somehow be managed and reviewed? Oh wait, they are in bi-annual reviews.
Now – let’s talk money.
I know there are teachers who make twice what I do. All I have ever wished for, and this is morbid, scary, and sad, is a salary that if something happens to my husband, I could still make a yearly salary so I can pay for our mortgage, a car for me and my sons, and college. But that is not my current reality, so yes, I am kind of freaked out. Romney would say I’m acting all entitlted and stuff, I know. I  am crazy like that, wanting to educate my children and have a roof over our heads.
I wish my master’s student loans weren’t hanging over my head. I wish I didn’t owe more for those loans than the sum total of all cars I have ever owned. I wish there was a savings account and a retirement fund and a hefty college savings for my sons. And I also wish all of my students could read at grade level and beyond. I am so overwhelmed by the next five minutes, I can’t carve out time to think about the big picture.
So do I stand with or against the teachers in Chicago?
I wish it wasn’t the question.