Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The $1.84 Billion Deal

It wasn’t always the way it is today. Once there was a time when money was actually available for public education. The following story is real California history about that time.

In 2001 California had a budget surplus of $34 billion. Though a state, California had then the fifth largest economy in the world, even ranking ahead of France. But California public schools did not reflect this wealth. Of the six million K-12 students, nearly 40% lived below the poverty line, and the state ranked 37th in class size and 40th in per-pupil funding, a marked decline in quality from the l960’s, when the state’s schools were considered among the best in the nation. The decline had started under Ronald Reagan, who began a program of cutting both taxes and public service programs. School funding had been one of Reagan’s main targets, and by 2000 our schools were in bad shape, the heritage Reagan left.

But a $34 billion surplus! The California Teachers Association with its 330,000 members felt it was the time for the state to give our schools a funding increase.

In October 2000, as president of the California Teachers Association, I proposed a $2 billion addition to the state education budget. The media picked up the story and it was reported in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and just about every radio and TV station in California. I did many interviews on the subject from San Diego to Redding. Hostility from many of the interviewers actually fired the debate as teacher leaders around the state spoke up for more school money to the public and the local media as well as to teachers.

In his budget California Governor Gray Davis had proposed a $500 million increase in school funding. CTA’s counter proposal of $2 billion set off a prolonged public debate, and negotiations between CTA, the legislature, and the governor began almost immediately. CTA’s governmental relations staff in Sacramento negotiated with legislators for support of the $2 billion proposal. Because the media tracked the issue, the governor began to understand that the public knew the schools were under-funded and agreed with the proposal to give extra money for them.

Unwilling to accept the $2 billion figure, the governor nevertheless raised his offer through the fall and spring from $500 million up to about $700 million. Meanwhile preliminary numbers showed that California tax revenues were going to be substantial, and that good news in January 2001 helped us in CTA to realize that a larger addition for education was really possible. Carolyn Doggett, CTA’s executive director, and a strong and talented CTA staff began to organize a rally at the sate capital for May. The prospect of sufficient funding had roused the educational community, and a rally could bring thousands of teachers to Sacramento.

John Hein, CTA director of governmental relations and one of the best political minds in California, directed the lobbying of the legislature. Two people vital to our effort were Bob Hertzberg, Speaker of the California State Assembly, and John Burton, President Pro Tem of the California State Senate. Hertzberg, a Democrat, was a conservative with a social conscience, so we were confident he would deliver the votes in the Assembly. We were right in our assessment, and in January Hertzberg announced that he favored adding a billion dollars to the guaranteed funding for education. John Burton, with an unmatched concern for his fellow human beings, was very supportive. I personally had great admiration for him then and have more for him today. Burton and Hein did the majority of the Sacramento negotiations, while I as CTA president did the public negotiations with the governor in my speeches and interviews with the media.

As spring progressed, the public negotiations continued. CTA maintained our $2 billion and Governor Davis kept raising his offer. He was reading the polls and though he did not like holding a losing hand, he was not about to make a political blunder, so in late spring his offer reached $1 billion. I kept saying no. Many considered my stand risky, but I wanted that $2 billion for public schools. The state had been shortchanging kids and teachers for years, and now was the time to do something positive for public education.

Few of us realized it at the time, but a perfect storm was forming to aid our battle for increased school funding. The money was there and everyone knew the schools needed it. Teachers knew this was not a CTA publicity campaign but an attainable goal. And the CTA staff was doing an ongoing, efficient job of organizing thousands of teachers to go to Sacramento in visible support of more money for schools.

Once the May 8 rally was announced, the negotiations going on behind closed doors in Sacramento, while the governor and I negotiated in the media, really heated up. This debate was hot material for editorials in California’s newspapers, most of which came out against CTA’s “money grab”. At the same time CTA had started a petition drive to qualify an initiative that would require California to fund its public schools at the national average (California ranked 40th out of the 50 states in per-pupil funding), and CTA would be able to secure enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the California ballot. That prospect was so unpopular with the Democratic legislators that they preferred to give schools a large funding increase rather than have it on the ballot.

Through February and March we continued to negotiate with the governor. Our position was always the same: more money, and the funding must be ongoing with no restrictions on spending. No restrictions meant state or local districts could not designate the money for programs only and exclude teacher salaries.

The May 8 rally was to be a major show of strength, that month chosen because it was the time the state budget was revised and most budget items finalized. On May 7 as my wife and I drove to Sacramento from Los Angeles, the governor and I talked on the phone three times. The first call was general conversation. On the second call he offered $1.2 billion above the 40% of the state budget guaranteed to education, but he demanded that we not submit our initiative and call off the rally. I told him we could not do that. On the third call, he increased his offer to $1.5 billion if we would rethink the initiative and turn the rally into an anti-voucher event. Again I told him we could not do that.

The May 8 rally was a huge success, an incredible experience where 10,000 teachers and students showed up on the west lawn of the Capitol in the largest rally in Sacramento since the Vietnam War, sending shock waves through the Capital. At the rally Speaker Hertzberg sent me a note asking if I would meet with him and the governor that evening. At 7 pm, John Hein and I met with Governor Davis; Sue Burr, the governor’s education advisor; Lynn Schenk, the governor’s chief of staff; Rick Simpson, Hertzberg’s policy director; and Tim Gage from the Department of Finance in the governor’s office. The governor offered $1.7 billion and again asked that we withdraw our initiative proposal. We asked what guarantees would we have on his proposal, and he said, “our word.” I did not take anyone’s word. I had negotiated for six years with the Los Angeles school district and I learned that if it was not in writing, it was not a deal.

The CTA Board of Directors met that night, only one day before the deadline to submit the qualifying signatures for the initiative. Lynn Schenk called me that evening and asked us to delay submission for 24 hours, and then she asked, “What do you want?” At that point I knew that we were close to the $2 billion deal that we had been fighting for. We told her we would hold the signatures until the next afternoon, but we wanted a written guarantee, not a verbal promise. Later that evening, Senator Burton called and asked if he could meet with me and Hertzberg the next morning. At that meeting, Hertzberg and Burton offered $1.84 billion, making it clear that was as high as they would go. If I agreed, the Department of Finance would write a letter guaranteeing the money would be added to the budget. I agreed. That afternoon Davis, Burton, and Hertzberg held a press conference to announce the deal. (I was not invited to participate in the announcement.)

The $1.84 billion was the largest increase in school funding in California history, a deal that gave school 18 times more money for 2000-2001 than we had received in the 1999-2000 school year. The money was ongoing and unrestricted, which meant extra money for schools in the years to come. That afternoon we pulled our initiative as agreed. This was the first time in my memory that California public schools had received funding that was anywhere near adequate to meet the needs of its millions of students and teachers. We had succeeded: students in classrooms across the state benefited and some teachers even received a 10% pay raise for the first time in their careers.

Wayne Johnson
President of the California Teachers Association

Monday, May 10, 2010

Public Education


In the aftermath of Katrina, the Bush administration gave New Orleans a large federal grant to convert all but four of its public schools to charters. Amid all the confusion and general discombobulation of the disaster, the changeover went unnoticed; even now, when things have settled down, most of the American public is unaware that such a major project was funded. The charter school movement usually obtains the go-ahead in major cities after a board of education has studied the proposal and then controls an experimental number of schools under acute observation. But the changeover in New Orleans underwent no scrutiny from the public or educators. So, how is it going?

We don’t know. And that is the situation, in general, with the charter movement country-wide. Cities are interested, boards of education sanction a few charters among many standard public schools, and the public is intrigued. The media provide the news that certain schools are going charter, that this or that charter company is active in a city, and then give anecdotal information about how things are going in a charter school. Or not. That is, the flow of information is slow and incomplete; neither city-wide nor nation-wide are there any valid statistics to indicate how charters are doing.

The media inform the public that charter schools are different from standard public schools - though they are supported entirely by public (that is, taxpayer) funds. They are not bound by board of education rules in many ways, including how the schools are organized, how faculties are managed, and so on. It is all rather vague, going under the general title of “reform”, but the public receives the general impression that the charters are freed from many of the board of education’s regulations - and that is the basis for the claim that they can do a better job.

Maybe they can. But shouldn’t the public know more of the specifics? Privatization clearly means a transfer of power from the public to a non-public institution, but the public’s children will be in attendance, and the public therefore must have full answers to these questions:

 To what extent can a charter school choose its own curriculum?
 How will the student body be chosen?
 Will the students chosen represent the community?
 Aside from basic state credentials, what kind of teachers will the charter school seek?
 Without either a union or a board of education to prescribe and protect their professional qualifications, rights, and duties, how will charter teachers be protected from unfair working condition?
 If a beginning teacher is deemed unsatisfactory at a charter school, will s/he be able to overcome the stigma of a bad rating and find a job in a public school?
 Are the charter schools non-profit or for-profit?
 What kind of salary does a CEO (aka principal) of a charter school make?
 What are the pay scales for the teachers?
 How is the money paid to charter schools accounted for to the public?

There are at present no clear, complete answers to any of these questions. Since two precious commodities - our children and our taxes - are directly impacted by the prospects of privatization of the public schools, it is obviously necessary to have answers before we enlarge the scope of charter schools. Everyone know that public schools are facing serious problems: there isn’t enough money and the kids don’t seem to be learning as much or behaving as well as we want. Charter schools present themselves as the solution, but are they? So far, we do not have a real evaluation of the charter movement as a whole.

New Orleans presents a possible answer: in a few years we should have valuable data to determine how effective charter schools are at addressing and solving the problems of public education, especially since New Orleans presents a composite of the problems of every urban school district in the United States. If charter schools work in New Orleans, won’t they work anywhere?

But first we must have answers to the questions. Now we must move with caution until we know how charters work in New Orleans, where they are city-wide instead of in a scattering of schools. If privatization works in New Orleans, then we can greet them as the schools of the future. And if not, then back to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, until we know instead of speculate, America must not be driven to kill public schools. They are the backbone of our democracy and can not be lightly abandoned.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Obama's Education Man

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, had a remarkable and wonderful education. It began in the laboratory school run by the University of Chicago, where Duncan’s father was a professor. Television was not allowed in the home. Every evening Professor Duncan read the classics aloud to the family; Arne’s athletic mother was deeply involved. When he was ready for higher education, he went to Harvard. It is doubtful that anyone could have a better preparation for being a professor, a lawyer, or a philosopher.
Instead, he played basketball professionally in Australia. But through his basketball and Lab School connections he became the director of Ariel Education Initiative, a privately funded educational enterprise. Then he was hired by the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and two years later Mayor Richard Daley appointed Duncan to be the head of Chicago schools. To sum up: he lived as a child on Chicago’s South Side in an intellectual island of integration amid the black population of the area; his schools were all private and elite; his experience with public schools classrooms was non-existent.
His educational philosophy apparently can also be expressed briefly: He buys into the charter school movement, believes in merit pay for teachers, and is not a friend to teacher unions. That puts him squarely into the current trend among administrators in big city schools, and means that teachers nation-wide need to pay close attention. Duncan has money to spend and a bully pulpit from which to wield influence.
It is generally recognized that charter schools have not yet been proven superior to ordinary public schools; the statistics are inconsistent and do not justify a wholesale changeover from public to charter/private. Regardless, the political right endorses charters. John Kline of Minnesota, ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, believes Duncan’s plans for American schools is “a Republican agenda,” and Newt Gingrich approves Duncan’s appointment.
Keep in mind that charter schools are little more than unregulated private schools paid for with tax dollars. They are consistently non-union if not outright anti-union, thereby placing themselves in the general move popular among educational theorists to crush teacher unions. Diane Ravitch of New York University, and Kenneth Saltman, professor of education at DePaul University, found Duncan’s policies out of line; she calls them teacher bashing “baloney”, and he refers to Duncan as Daley’s hatchet man.
But regardless of whether Duncan is admired or excoriated, there is one fact that demands attention: he has not taught a class of public school kids for so much as one day. What does he know of the experiences of public school teachers? How can he determine what public schools need and what their goals should be, when he knows nothing about them from first hand experience? Whom should we trust with the maintenance of public schools, with any needed changes or reform? Teachers’ organizations whose policies have been developed over years of actual experience teaching children, or a “leader” who never worked one day in public schools and has never been personally responsible for the education of a single classroom of real children?
Every teacher knows that all the grand theories and catchy methods learned in college education classes must be modified in order to fit the actuality of 35 kids in a classroom. When those kids come from poverty and broken homes and families not speaking English and neighborhoods beset by gangs, the textbooks on education become merely distant, airy goals. Good teaching comes from hands-on experience with kids in a classroom. Ask any beginning teacher; ask any veteran teacher.
Here’s a modest proposal: if Arne Duncan has the welfare of public education at heart, let him take a one year leave of absence from his position in the elegant offices of Washington DC and hire on - anonymously - as a teacher in an inner city middle school in any large city; Washington itself will do, but Chicago might be better. Let’s see if he still thinks it’s poor teaching that makes low achievement scores on student tests; let’s see if he still thinks it is good educational policy to predicate teacher salary on student test performance. In fact, let’s see if he wants anything to do with the whole giant “reform” agenda of those who now choose to privatize schools and bust teacher unions. He may decide that playing basketball is a lot more manageable.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In December of 2009 the National Center for Child Poverty reported that fourteen million children in America lived in poverty. Fourteen million constitute nineteen percent of all American children. What constitutes poverty? The U.S. government defines poverty as a family of four living on $22,050.00 or less per year. Low income is defined as $44,000.00 for a family of four, 41% of American children live in low income families. 83% of children, whose parents have less than a high school education, live in poverty.

A higher percentage of minority children live in poverty and low income families than do white children. 60% of African-American children, 60% of Latino children, 57% of American Indian children live in low income families. Eleven million white children live in low income families.

The N.C.F.C.P. concluded, “Low income families impede a child’s cognitive development and their ability to learn”. Children of low income families “Often have behavioral, social, and emotional problems”.

This leads one to speculate why President Obama wants to evaluate teachers on the basis of standardized test scores. We know that low income and poverty level children are concentrated in “poverty schools” all over the United States. Evaluating teachers in these poverty schools on the basis of standardizes test scores is absurd!

The following is an article that Harriet Perl and I wrote on the subject of test scores and poverty in November 2002.

Standardized testing has spun out of control. Large numbers of children are not prepared to take these tests due to their poverty stricken backgrounds and limited English language skills.

“Poor children are much more likely (than middle class children) to suffer developmental delay or damage”, says Ruby Payne in her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Policy Analysis for California Education agrees. In 1999 it reported, “Poor children are two or three years behind their more affluent peers on several measures long before their first year of school”. In 2000, poverty was defined by Julian Palmer at Columbia University as a family of four earning $17,524.00 a year, ($22,050.00 in 2009).

According to 1998 figures from Columbia, the United States leads the industrialized world in child poverty. Twenty-five percent of children under 18 and 33% of Latino children live in poverty, and EdSource reports that 42% of California’s 6.4 million students are Latino. “Well-off white kids continue to outperform their disadvantaged or minority peers, often by a sizable margin”, says a January 2002 article in U.S. News and World Report.

California’s Star program test scores reveal this sad reality and little else. Scores reflect almost perfectly the socioeconomic status of the children who are tested. Despite this knowledge, teachers are being pushed to their limit to raise test scores. It has become the political and administrative mantra in California: Teachers, raise those test scores!
We are given no assistance to help the 40 to 45 percent of our children whose families are low income or are living below the poverty line. In California last year, we tested 4.5 million kids in grades 2 through 11. Their test results were published in every newspaper in the state. The state then used the Academic Performance Index (API) to rank every school from the bottom 10 percent to the top 10 percent. Guess who was at the top and who was at the bottom.
Two years ago, CTA had the API scores analyzed. We were shocked to find that in the bottom 10 percent of the API schools, 86% of the students were poor while in the top 10% of schools only 7% came from impoverished backgrounds. In the bottom 10% of schools, 46% of the students were English language learners whereas in the top 10%, only 2.6% had to over come language difficulties.
In April 2001, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that 60% of American’s fourth-graders from poverty families read “below basic” on its fourth grade reading test. Simply put, they can’t read. Again, there’s no special help for an identified group of children who aren’t making it despite the best efforts of their under funded schools and over worked teachers.
Now let’s take a look at the reality of testing and what it is doing to our schools.
The SAT-9 test, the major component of the STAR test, is a norm-referenced test. That means no matter how the 4.5 million kids score, there will be a top 50% and the bottom 50%. Half the kids and half the teachers lose no matter what! Absurdly, this test is not aligned with some of the more than 400 academic standards. Experts on testing tell me that setting 30 academic standards would be good, but 400 is a joke. One referred to them as California’s “wish list” of academic standards.

The test is not aligned to what we do in the classroom. That’s bad enough, but then we make 25% of the kids take a test in a language they don’t understand, English, and people are appalled that these kids score poorly. We make another 10% of students—those with learning disabilities—take the test with no accommodations. That’s 35% of the kids taking the test who are virtually assured they will not do well. Guess who is going to be in the bottom 50% of test scores.
A series of news articles by Sarah Tully Tapia, Keith Sharon and Ronald Campbell in the Orange County Register, citing research by Richard Hill, David Rogosa and others, reported that API scores have a 20 point margin of error. Despite this, schools have been put of the list of underperforming schools on the basis of one point. You certainly wouldn’t trust an opinion poll with a margin of error of 20 points. Why would you drive an entire educational system on the basis of a test with such a huge margin of error?
The reporters also wrote “Students, who traditionally score lower, African American and special education students are excluded (from the API results at their school) at a higher rate than white and Asian students”. James Fleming, superintendent of Capistrano Unified School district, excluded 1259 of the districts 3,201 special education students from his district’s API scores.
One year a school in San Bernardino county raised its test scores by 102 points and won bonus awards. The next year its scores dropped by 105 points. This is not uncommon.
As the Public Policy Institute of California revealed in 2000, “Much of the variation in (STAR) test scores among urban, suburban, and rural schools that appear in raw data can be accounted for by the variation in students’ socioeconomic status and school resources”. One of the major problems in California and the U.S. is that the perception of the public schools is based on these tests. A strong case can be made that these STAR Test results are totally invalid, yet they are driving public education in California. Despite the fact that 50% of all students will always score in the bottom half of test takers, teachers are then threatened with repercussions if they don’t raise the test scores when it is virtually impossible to do so. In the testing system, the rule is if someone goes up, someone must go down. We already know who will be at the bottom.
We must stop holding teachers accountable for these bogus test results. We must stop demanding that teachers raise scores on these unreliable tests. We must stop rating teachers on the students test scores when we know in advance what the test scores will be no matter who the teachers are!”

Thursday, December 24, 2009



Ramon Cortines the current Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified school district is now demanding a 2% pay cut this year and a 10% cut next year. Most of the cuts will come from the classroom and the teacher side of the budget. It is easier to replace a teacher position that has been cut than to put back administrative positions that have been eliminated.

The following is an article that Harriet Perl and I wrote in March of 1990. Unbelievably the situation in the Los Angeles Unified School District is worse today than it was then! Class size has been increased and there are more administrators, many more administrators!


Despite a great deal of talk about reform, education remains a bulwark of autocratic stagnation, with kids and teachers still last in line for the money, still getting what is left over after the bureaucracy takes the lions share of the budget. A few weeks ago I received a copy of the “88-89” LAUSD budget audit. As I read the document, I began to realize the upside down budget priority system of the LAUSD. It is a priority system that feeds the bureaucrats and the bureaucracy and starves the educational needs of school children. What is happening in Los Angeles with our school districts budget is happening in many other districts in this state. In fact some smaller districts have even more waste than L.A., Pomona, Long Beach, Azusa, and Beverly Hills just to name a few. These districts have a higher administrator-teacher ratio than the 1 to 11.6 in Los Angeles. The incredibly small percentage of the budget that is actually spent on the students’ education is the truly appalling aspect of the L.A. District’s budget. There is no question that the main function of a school is to educate kids. So, if the 60% of the kids that stay in school and graduate can’t read and write beyond the eighth grade level and can’t compute a two-step math problem, then all the money that taxpayers spend on the schools is wasted. The schools are unquestionably not fulfilling their function. Why?  

For years now as test scores dropped, it was we teachers that were blamed. We were the obvious ‘fall guy” for the failure of public education. No one pushed that idea more than administrators. If the heat was on us, then it wouldn’t be where it should be, on them. Administrators had a double problem: make the educational system look better to the taxpayers and maintain their own cushy positions. Telling the public that teachers were at fault solved their problems perfectly. In the 70’s and 80’s the legislature decided to pass “reform” legislation to evaluate teachers every other year, the Stull Bill. The legislature also passed the CBEST, a test all prospective teachers had to pass. The result of these “get the teacher” reforms was that nothing changed. Test scores continued to go down, obviously proving that teachers are not the problem. In fact, teachers are the strength of the system. Teachers hold the systems together and make them work as well as they do. A study of the districts budgets in the 1980’s tells a terrible story of mismanagement and waste. (The last nineteen years have seen no change). Any business will tell you that management should never receive more than 15% of the budget. LAUSD Administrators annually consume more than 30% of the budget. In 1988-89 the LAUSD budget was $3.5 billion. Last year (1988-89) the 33,000 teachers earned an average salary of $35,000 (including benefits), that comes to$1,245,000,000. Add the $83,766,000 spent on text books and supplies for students. You then realize that only 35% of the budget is spent directly on the classroom. The district’s administrators received 25% of the entire $3.5 billion budget, $976,700,000. That figure does not include the cost of school site administrators. Any business that only spends 35% of its budget on the product (in our case, students’ education) would be out of business or creating a lousy product. It is almost impossible for a bureaucracy to reform themselves. It will take legislation to do the job. One absurd California law that must be changed is the one that allows districts to have one administrator for every 12 teachers. There should be a law that requires districts to budget 75% for supplies and personnel that work directly with children. Teachers are the real educational experts, not administrative bureaucrats that “escaped” the classroom as fast as they could for higher pay and less work. You want real reform, ask an experienced teacher. They will tell you what to do and how to do it. The problem is nobody ever asks!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fire the Doctors?

On November 26, 2009, the Lung Cancer Alliance - California released the report “State Makes Little Progress on Improving Lung Cancer Outcomes“.

Bad news. How should we respond? How about the following:

All these bad doctors should be stripped of their licenses to practice medicine. They obviously have failed to reduce the lung cancer rates; consequently since they are not doing their jobs they should not be in practice. Such incompetents should be removed from the medical profession.

Ridiculous. Not a solution to the problem, and an insult to an entire group of highly qualified professionals. We would not offer such a “solution” to a problem and certainly would not assume that any physician should be judged by such a statistic. We know, for example, that in spite of all the evidence that smoking can cause cancer, millions of people continue to smoke. Their doctors have told them to quite smoking and offered help in doing so, without success. Penalizing the doctor will not solve the problem.

Equally ridiculous, though not as immediately obvious, is the common cry that teachers are responsible for the stubbornly low scores made by California school kids on their standardized tests. And since it is the teachers’ fault that the kids are not making good scores, fire the teachers! Get rid of the incompetents!

President Obama and his Secretary of Education Duncan are not proposing the firing of teachers, but they are planning, among other criteria, to rate, to judge (and that means to pay) teachers on the basis of how their students score on standardized tests. The implication is incompetence, and the insult to the profession is clear.

What about those scores? Do they indicate something important about the quality of teaching? In fact, there is considerable doubt among testing experts as to the validity of the standardized tests being used. Scoring involves a median point, so that every score is either above or below; thus 50% of the scores are going to be “below”, no matter what. Even if the scoring were done differently, the individual child is not being judged as an individual; the whole point of a standardized test is that everyone is tested the same way, regardless of individual needs, skills, or situations.

Take a look at the kids being tested in the populous inner cities - a euphemism for areas of poverty. Poverty for children means having inadequate access to healthcare; it means living in crowed conditions with insufficient parental attention and guidance (especially where both parents work or a single parent is trying to support a family, which is all too often the case), plus fear and anxiety because of gangs. In addition factor in English language learners and children with learning disabilities. Throw all of these into a classroom, give them all the same test, and then judge them by a score.

Take a look at the teaching conditions in these classes. Irregular attendance and poor health alone will guarantee that many of the kids aren’t present enough to learn the lessons they will be tested on. Where motivation is hampered by emotional issues, where the youngsters are feeling their way into new territory with customs and ideals different from those they learned in their homes, how well are their scores going to compare on a test that in effect competes them against luckier children from affluent communities?

Moreover, poor urban children move often - it is not uncommon for inner city children to move two or three times a year; each move calls for more adjustment and provides more difficulties for a child to overcome. Studies show that every time a child changes schools the probability of graduation drops 2% to 3%. With millions of kids changing schools several times a year, we can begin to see just one of the many reasons why those test scores and the graduation rates are too low. (Johnson, in his capacity as UTLA president, learned that it is not rare for a teacher to have a class that does not have one student in class at the end of the semester who was enrolled at the beginning.)

Rating teachers on the test performances of kids who live in all the conditions listed - and more - makes as much sense as rating cancer doctors on the recovery rates of their patients.

Unfortunately, the President and the Secretary of Education are showing a very limited understanding of education today and the role of the teacher. Every teacher knows that many social and economic factors have dramatic impact on a child’s classroom performance. When these factors are negative, they reduce the child’s ability to do well academically, and increase the difficulty of classroom teaching.

Instead of threatening teachers and humiliating their low-scoring students, let’s give proper support to all of them: enough time, enough materials, for teachers to work with students as individuals, and enough good sense on the part of the rest of us to refrain from judging them on the basis of questionable standardized test results.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Where Have All The Union Leaders Gone?

When teacher union leaders lose their will to fight the bloated bureaucracy of the school district, they have to give the membership some hope of improvement. Many of these leaders then substitute fighting for real union issues by becoming advocates of reform.
Unions and management are natural adversaries. Teachers don’t always understand this but the administrators do and are trained how to win disputes with union members. School administrators are not good at not having their way. Their attitude is usually, my way or the highway. Teacher unions are the only powerful interest that will fight to save public schools. Politicians only support schools as long as the union contributions roll in, even then that support is usually lukewarm at best. Most parents don’t support public schools, they would prefer private schools for their children. Unions work to improve public schools while being attacked as corrupt and protectors of “bad teachers”. In this atmosphere, union leaders have to be strong. This is not a world for the timid and faint hearted. The English Historian John Keegan wrote in his recent History of the American Civil War that General George McClellan
“ was psychologically deterred from pushing action to the point of result; he did not try to win.” He wrote “General U.S. Grant, turned out to be both an absolutely clear sighted strategist and ruthless battle winner”. Union leaders have to be latter day Clarence Darrows in the defense of their profession and the institution they serve. As President of the United Teachers Los Angeles from 1984 to 1990 (self analysis, always dangerous), I tried to strongly advocate for what was fair and fight that which was not fair or equitable. I seldom missed a chance to go on the offensive, always looking at the end game. The objective was to win the war. This scared a lot of teachers and engendered the hatred of a lot of civic leaders and district officials. Improving the lives of our 32,000 members was all that mattered. As Harry Truman said, “If you want to be loved, get a dog.” What UTLA accomplished between 1984-1990 had not occurred before or since. During those years we increased salaries 54%, ended all elementary teacher yard duty, negotiated lifetime medical benefits for retired teachers and created a good school based management program. Future union leadership killed SBM by creating a phony program under the direction of corporate Los Angeles called LEARN. It was never intended to work and no longer exists.
UTLA won one of the largest teacher strikes in U.S. history. In May of 1989 twenty five thousand teachers went on strike and the school district collapsed in nine days. A great example of what teachers can do when they get organized and fight. Current teacher leaders have to stop being George McClellan and turn themselves into U.S. Grant. Fight everyday for your kids and your teachers. Be the best Clarence Darrow you can by defending the interest of your kids, teachers, and the institution that has made America great.
Free public education in the United States depends on these leaders
and their members.