Thursday, February 24, 2011

Educational Insomnia

I thought I'd learned my lesson the last time that I posted something political on my blog, but alas...

The frustration and sadness that accompany the decision today by the Idaho State Legislature have caused me to lose sleep. I just can't seem to keep my mind from racing about it.

Let me preface this by saying, I know that the members of the State Legislature are trying to have Idaho's best interest at heart, and they voted the way they felt was best; however, in this case, I believe they were truly wrong, and I hope that they don't realize it after it is too late.

Today the Idaho State Legislature voted "Yes" on two of State Superintendent Tom Luna's Education Reform bills. I will tell you what these two bills do in a nutshell...and why I believe they are bad for Idaho. Please note, this is simply my own opinion, and I don't harbor ill feelings towards anyone who feels differently.

In a nutshell, these two bills basically take away any rights the teachers of our state had through the teachers' union. In essence, they make the teachers' union obsolete, because bargaining to keep your job and having an opportunity to for your rights as a teacher are basically being denied. The bills also have taken away a teacher's right to tenure. In other words, if you are a teacher who starts to get "expensive" i.e. you have a master's degree in your field and are in the higher income bracket for teachers, the school district can simply fire you for being too expensive...there will be no meeting to discuss what can be done, no opportunity for you to bargain with the district to keep your job- it doesn't matter how many years you've'll be in other words, someone like me, with a master's degree basically has no hope of finding or keeping a teaching job in the state of Idaho because, with massive cuts to education funding, few districts could afford to keep me...add to that the fact that I am working to be a music teacher and its definitive that I would be "over educated" and "too expensive". Never mind the work that I've done, never mind the fact that I am knowledgeable...forget what I can teach the children, I am too expensive, I'm not worth it....

These bills also institute "merit pay". Basically, this means that a teacher is rewarded if their students are doing well. Sounds all fine and dandy, right? Wrong! Base salary is going to stay the same, and the merit pay will mostly be based off of standardized test scores. Which leaves music and other arts educators out in the cold because there are no standardized tests for the arts. My friend, who is a teacher, informed me that merit pay can also be awarded by administrative decision....well, I guess that leaves some hope for the poor, lowly music teacher, drama teacher, or art teacher, but imagine the headache for the administrator?

Let's imagine why it would be a headache for an administrator. My friend works in a school where a group of students could see 3 teachers a year in any given core subject...if that group of students does well in standardized testing, who gets the merit pay? How does the administrator give merit pay and not make it seem like he or she is playing favorites? The merit pay idea basically creates an extra level of politics and competition amongst the teachers that work for that administrator. It also effectively ends the sharing of teaching ideas and tips...if you are barely making enough to be considered above the poverty line, you want to do everything you can to increase your chances of having a little extra cash...why would a teacher want to share ideas or help a teacher who is struggling with a group of students or a single student in particular if it means that they could be giving that teacher a leg up in the competition. Seems to me that this idea is counter intuitive.
Learning is best in an environment where ideas can be shared freely. Imagine what students will be missing out on because teachers don't want to share with each other. Imagine the poor administrator trying to keep his or her faculty together and on the same page. In effort to avoid appearances of playing favorites, I could imagine many administrators becoming aloof and not being as able and willing to help teachers when they have issues with students or parents. Who then will step in? The teachers' union? They've already basically lost any and all power to fight for the teachers. so many people this is a bad word. People think of strikes and underhanded, sneaky tactics so that people can get what they want...well, if the Idaho teachers' union was that underhanded and sneaky, the state legislature wouldn't have been successful in passing a massive budget cut to education last year. Many good teachers lost their jobs and were forced to relocate, I had several friends that were victims of the "last hired, first fired" mentality when school districts couldn't pass levies to keep them on as staff...and in all this, yes, I worry about the suffering of the teachers, but what about students?

I know the State Legislature voted with the best interest of the state in mind; however, its a reflection of the times we live in. Everyone wants a "quick fix" and instant gratification. These education reform bills are essentially a "quick fix" to the problem that arose out of hacking the education budget last year at about this time. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, the quick fix isn't the best route. It may solve our problems now, but it could possibly create even bigger problems. Allow me to elaborate:

Our children are the future of our community and state. Without a quality education, how can they ever be expected to be productive and fruitful members of society? The passing of the two bills today, known as the "Anti-Teacher Bills", basically sends the message that we as a state don't care about the quality of their education. These bills basically send teachers with extended education and experience to other states because they can make more money and will have more protection. Yes, there may be that chosen few who stick it out, but what is left for them? With the passing of the "merit pay" notion, it seems to me that what little semblance of creativity they had left in the classroom will be gone, replaced by the need to teach children how to memorize instead of how to reason and think critically for themselves. Its been proven that information simply memorized for a test is forgotten unless there is something for the students to attach the information to.

Let me give you an example, by the end of 2nd grade, I could write a complete paragraph, using the correct punctuation given the rules I had been taught. My nephew, who is in 3rd grade, can barely write a complete sentence and freezes up when asked if he can do more because the teacher, unfortunately, has to focus so much on the rules of punctuation she doesn't have time to teach the reasoning or application that go along with them. I'm not blaming her, I'm blaming the system...I'm not blaming the state of Idaho, I'm blaming No Child Left Behind...but with the bills passing today, I fear that what little creativity is left in the classrooms of my nieces and nephews will fizzle away.

The rest of the Education Reform bill is a doozy, it is still currently being debated in the state legislature... one suggestion made by the bill is that we cut kindergarten, an initiative that unfortunately, school district 25 in Pocatello is having to seriously consider unless a levy passes, with one elementary school that performs poorly on the ISATS across the board(a school that is populated mostly with children who live below the poverty line), and the state budget cuts to education, this is their reality and what it comes down to...but to think that it may be cut across the board in all school districts is saddening and maddening.

Other suggestions include consolidating Idaho's 119 school districts in just 41 school districts...I can see how this would save money, but in the end it would cause entire schools to close down, causing more teachers to lose their jobs, and making classroom sizes even BIGGER...right now many students are already working in classrooms that have 35 to 40 students in them (when I was in school, a room of 20 to 25 students was large)...imagine how hard it would be to get the attention of a teacher in a classroom of 50 students... It also would require high school students to take 2 online courses, again, eliminating teacher jobs...and sending state tax money to Virginia, which is where the online courses that are being required are based out of...not only does it require these 2 courses, but it penalizes the schools by cutting their budgets for "fractional attendance"... many of the high schools are barely operating on what little money they have now. The biggest question that arises from this requirement of online courses is: Where will students get the computers? Well, our tax dollars are going to pay for them ladies and gentleman, using the money that will apparently be "saved" by cutting teacher jobs and the "fractional attendance" policy.

But more problems arise. 38% of the students in Idaho live below the poverty line. You can't expect or require the parents of these students to have wireless internet in their houses (which is required to take these classes because you need a large enough bandwidth to support the class programs). How do you expect these students to take these classes? Well, I guess the school will have to begin supplying wireless where are they supposed to get the money for it with their budgets being cut because of the "fractional attendance" that is required of all the students?

The other big problem is this: Many students that have take online courses to try to get ahead before the next school year will tell you that online courses are a joke. They are either extremely poorly paced and almost impossible to keep up with, let alone understand, or are ridiculously easy (Online P.E. anyone?) Many Idaho students are already finding it almost impossible to graduate high school as it is with the addition of required minimum scores on ISAT tests and increasing the number of credits required to graduate...if you make them take a class where they have no help and will have trouble keeping up, you just set them up to fail. TEACHERS teach students, computers don't. You can't ask a computer a question. Yes, there are "teachers" for these online classes, but as my younger sister can tell you from experience, they are notoriously difficult to contact, and when you finally do, you have to very precisely word your question, or they can't help you, because they don't have your paper right in front of their face so they can see where you've started to get lost like a living, breathing, hard working teacher can.

In all, the rest of this bill that is being debated holds on the line 1000-2000 Idaho teacher's jobs, and our childrens' futures.

I can already see the result coming from the 2 bills that passed today. I can see good teachers leaving Idaho in droves because they will get more respect and better pay somewhere else.

If the rest of the bill passes, 1000-2000 people will be out of jobs. Idaho's unemployment rate will increase, more people will leave the state to find work (namely teachers) and Idaho will again be lacking tax money to pay the bills,and because the word "taxes" is such a dirty word, the education budget will be cut again and the vicious cycle will continue.

I can also see parents either leaving the state so that their children can have a better education (because some people care enough that they would do that), I can see parents taking their children out of public schools and placing them in private schools and charter schools, which do not receive state funding, and because they don't send their kids to public schools, they don't have to pay education taxes, and again, the public system will suffer. I can see more parents opting to home school their children, again, if their kids are not in the system, they don't have to pay to support it... What I basically see is the beginning of the end of public education, and that makes me sad.

Maybe I'm being dramatic. Maybe you're reading this and saying to yourself, "Oh Brittany, you're making a mountain out of a mole hill." But I don't think I am. I know plenty of teachers, and I know that the majority of them have said they will leave the state if the rest of the education reform passes. What are we left with? When there are no teachers left, who will teach the children who have parents that can't afford private school or dues for a charter school?

Yes, there will likely always be teachers, but I can see them being so beaten down and so tired of politics that they just won't care anymore...and that makes me sad. I am a product of public education. Yes, my mother did a lot of work with me. I was blessed to have a mother who stayed at home, who had patience to teach me things. However, if it weren't for some amazing teachers, I wouldn't be half of what I am today.

When you put teachers last, you put students last, its just that simple. Students are a product of their education. If they don't have teachers guiding them and helping them along the way, how can we expect them to be successful? If this education reform plan is supposed to help students, I would like to see how. I can't see how firing good teachers and taking away their right to bargain for their jobs and wages is drives good teachers away. I don't see how eliminating Kindergarten will make things better? Who will take the time to teach kids the alphabet and how to write and about numbers? Parents? In today's day and age the majority of households have two working parents, or one hard working single parent. They rely on grandma and grandpa and daycare. They can't afford preschool, or a private kindergarten class, they barely make ends meat as it is. I can see a group of illiterate children entering 1st grade. Of course, there are always exceptions, but without kindergarten, 1st grade learning targets will likely be placed lower, meaning the following grades will have to set their targets lower or children will be lost. I can't see how setting them up so they are already behind is helpful.

I don't see how forcing kids to take online classes is going to enrich them and make them will make a better bottom line for Apple computers, the company working with Tom Luna on the bill, the company who has "generously" agreed to give the state of Idaho a discount on laptops....

But I digress...I'm allowing myself to wander onto a topic that makes me severely irritated with how the government in this country is run, and I don't want to go there...

All I can say is I am frustrated. I am frustrated because, in spite of massive outcries of disdain for these bills, they still passed. I am frustrated because I worry for my friends, my nieces, and my nephews.

When my husband and I heard the news tonight, he looked at me and said, "Well, that's it. We are definitely NOT staying in Idaho now." It kind of makes me sad. I was raised here. Except for graduate school, I have lived here my whole life in various cities and little towns. I would love to finish my teaching credentials and give back to a community that has given me so much...but, unfortunately, I am not ashamed to say that I know what I'm worth. I deserve to have rights, and I deserve to be proud of my education level rather than nervous or scared about it. I deserve to not have a fear of being fired because I'm too "expensive" to keep on staff. I would deserve to have tenure if I stayed at a school long enough for it to be warranted. Some people argue that tenure gives bad teachers a way to keep their jobs in spite of complaints and misdeeds; however, there are so many wonderful and devoted teachers who deserve tenure. Should we punish the majority because of a few cases of the opposite?

Jeff and I have also in the last few weeks made some important decisions for our childrens' futures. I suppose announcement of those decisions will be for another post. At almost 1 AM , sleep, like an old friend, has decided to visit me.

Again, I don't mean to offend anyone. I know everyone has their own viewpoints on such subjects,and maybe I am being a drama queen. But I know so many good teachers being negatively affected by everything that is going on, and I hate to think of what will happen to the students that depend on them.

Hugs and loves (and hopefully a better tomorrow) until next time.

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