Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to "Bad" People

It’s funny what the human mind can remember and what it chooses to forget.  Why do we tend to remember all the bad – and not so bad – things that happen to us, but we forget many of the fun, exciting or positive events in our lives? I don’t know the answer to this question.  I suspect it’s because when bad things happen to us, we fail to look for the reasons why, and we seek retribution or compensation. 
I truly believe that the general public supports most – if not all – of the cuts to education (and the additional burdens placed on teachers and administrators) because almost everyone has at least one negative school experience – that, for whatever reason, they cannot let go.  Here’s what I mean.  How many times have you heard someone tell a story about a teacher who “hated my guts?”  No? What about a “worst teacher ever” story?  Then there are those people – adults, professionals – who claim that a math teacher “ruined Algebra” for them.  Maybe, lurking in your own cognitive recesses is an English teacher who made the words Romeo and Juliet comparable to "root canal" and "taxes".  When you close your eyes, you can still see that PE teacher who looked the other way while the entire varsity basketball team beamed you with the dodgeball balls while the cheerleaders looked on and laughed. 
Sadly, these “bad” memories stay with us, while the memories of kind, caring and dedicated teachers quickly and easily become distant or forgotten memories.  You think I am wrong?  When was the last time you listened to a story about a band teacher who stayed after school until 6:00 for four weeks to prepare for the Christmas concert (oops, Winter Holiday event)?  Where is the story about the dedicated baseball coach who threw a 100 extra batting practice balls to you, even when his elbow ached (and while his wife waited for him at home, holding off dinner for the fourth time that week)?   How quickly we forget the 5th grade teacher who bought extra folders, paper, glue and pencils so one of his students would not be embarrassed because their family could not afford them.
Apparently, politicians operate under the same anger-filled and amnesic mindset.  We – teachers – are the bad guys, the whipping boys of a poor economy.  Politicians are looking for a “bully” to punish in these poor economic times.  They want their pound of flesh and don’t care whose hide it comes from. 
You think I am exaggerating? Consider the latest attack on teachers – this time from the district level.   District X (again the names have been changed to protect the innocent and my job) recently decided to “amp it up a notch” and turn teacher against fellow teacher in the latest round of "spending cuts."  Who/what is the target?  Teacher bonuses.  According to District X’s budget negotiation team, unless a handful of teachers give up their “bonuses” the district will be forced to fire x-number of teachers!    
What?  Wait a minute.  Slow down.  Teachers get a bonus?  Well, sort of.  Since the mid 1990’s Florida State Statute has required school districts to reward “top-performing teachers” (based on teacher evaluations and student performance).  Over the years, the E-Comp, STAR and MAP programs have all been legislated (and amended) by the state to give “merit pay” to a small number of teachers.  Under the current system, District X "anticipates" having to award  $1.8 million in “bonus money” to exemplary teachers. While that amounts seems quite large – especially in today’s economic climate – let me put that figure into perspective.  That is the total amount budgeted by the district.  It does not represent total dollars given to teachers.  It does represent all the taxes the district must pay back to the state and federal government (i.e. withholding and FICA taxes).  To the average teacher, this “bonus” amounts to approximately $1,000 after taxes.
A thousand dollars might seem like a lot of money, so let me put that tidy little figure into a “corporate perspective.”  The excerpt below was copied from a recent Wall Street Journal article*:
During the first nine months of 2009, five of the largest banks that received federal aid — Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — together set aside about $90 billion for compensation. That figure includes salaries, benefits and bonuses, but at several companies, bonuses make up more than half of compensation.
Read that paragraph again.  That’s 90 BILLION DOLLARS from five companies that just recently received “bailout money” from the federal government – taxpayer money from you and me!  According to the article, Goldman Sachs paid its employees “an average of $595,000 EACH” in bonuses.
Here’s the kicker.  The truth of the matter is District X does not even know – yet – how much money it will receive from the state.  It also does not know how many teachers will be eligible for a “bonus”.  And finally, our state legislators – with much pomp and circumstance –recently touted a new bill (soon to be a law) that eliminates teacher tenure and the “traditional salary structure” and replaces it with a plan to – you guessed it – reward “top-performing teachers” (i.e. give them bonuses) who have excellent evaluations and outstanding student performance.  In short, District X must retain this money to be in compliance with the law.
Telling the public (and reporting it in the press) that eliminating teacher bonuses is the only way to save teacher jobs is just another example of the on-going efforts to turn public favor away from teachers and make us the bad guys.  And why not?  As I said before, everyone has at least one negative school and/or teacher experience.  George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.”  Apparently, Shaw had one or two Dodge Balls kicked his way, or perhaps his math teacher “ruined Algebra” for him.  Based on his prolific writing, I’d say he had one or two teachers who COULD DO and DID.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Squeaky Wheel Gets The Grease...Sometimes

They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but right now  my “gears” are all rusted up, and I have no reservations when it comes to grinding and scraping these tired, rusted parts in the vain hope that someone will hear me.

Tuesday was the first day of FCAT Science testing, and the fifth day (in the past six school days) my students have been assessed.  They have been great.  Have they been a little anxious?  Yes.  Do they get a little squirrelly right after the test?  Yes.  Have they been focused and serious?  Absolutely.

So, why am I taking up another ten minutes of your day to read over another “squeaky wheel” rant?  Here’s why.  Lately, it seems that no matter what I say or how emphatically I say it,  I cannot  create a strong enough argument (for some people) as to why using test scores – more specifically FCAT test scores – as half – that’s 50 percent - of the formula to determine teacher pay is such a BAD IDEA (Insert grease here).  That is until Tuesday – I think.  Let me give you a little insight into the lives of six of the 22 students in my class who took the FCAT Science test on Tuesday.

Let’s start with Sally.  Sally’s name has been changed to protect her identity (and my job). Sally, like all 5th grade students, had 55 minutes to complete Session 5 of the Science Sunshine State Standards Test.  Sally was “done” in less than 20 minutes.  State law prohibits me from asking questions or engaging students in any way during the test.  After the test, I spoke to Sally.  I said, “You know, you have 55 minutes to work on the test.  You were done kind of early.  You really should read back over all the questions just to make sure you didn’t make any mistakes.”  Her response was, “I don’t care what I get on it.” (Insert more grease)

Next, there was Caroline.  As the proctor of this assessment, I am required to read the Test Administration Manual, verbatim, each day.  Tuesday was the fifth day of testing, so my students had heard the phrase, “If you draw a line or an X through an answer that you think is wrong and the mark goes into a bubble, that bubble might be counted as your answer” FIVE times prior to taking the test.  Within the first few minutes after the test started, I glanced at Caroline’s test book.  Despite five warnings, five urgings not to do so, she had drawn lines through many of the answers!  Again, I am prohibited from speaking to her or making any comments that might be construed as “helpful”, so I simply walked away.

Then there was Star.  While walking into class Tuesday morning, Star made the following statement, “Mr. Mucci, I was in the emergency room last night.  The doctor said I have gastrointestinitis.”  My initial thought was, “Why are you here then?”  Then, I remembered – it’s FCAT testing.  Students can’t be sick during FCAT testing.  Star took the test.  By lunch time, she was queasy and sick.  She went home.

Let’s not forget Larry.  Monday during recess, Larry fell while playing soccer.  Tuesday morning, Larry showed up at school with a bandage around his arm.  “I sprained my wrist yesterday,” he tells me.  “Does it hurt?” a classmate asks.  “A little,” Larry replies, “but the doctor gave me some pain medicine, so it doesn’t hurt that much now.”  (Big sigh. More grease.  Additional wrinkle lines on my face).  Larry joined Gary, who broke his ankle the week before and has been wearing a boot. Not to mention, two students stayed home on Monday, recovering from cases of strep throat that has swept through our school district.

So what?  What does all this have to do with the price of tea in China (or oil in Saudi Arabia)?  I’m getting to that.  Senate Bill 630, which will soon become law, ties teacher pay to student performance.  In a class of 22 kids, six of my kids were either absent, sick, medicated, did not follow directions or “done” before ½ the time had expired.  Of the remaining 16 (actually 15 because one withdrew from school that day), I have one student who just exited the ESOL program.  I have one student is a “consultative ESE student”, and one of my student has a 504 plan, which provides him additional time to work on assessments because his ADHD is so severe he cannot concentrate long enough to complete the questions in the allotted time.  When all was said and done on Tuesday, I had12 students (out of 21) who had no “mitigating circumstances” that could impact these students’ test results.  (Lots and lots of grease needed here)

Cue dramatic music – perhaps something from Inherit the Wind – as I make my closing arguments.  IF all 12 of the remaining 21 students score on grade level, my success rate would be a whopping 57%!  O.K., O.K. maybe not so dramatic, so for argument sake, let’s add the kid with the broken foot, the ESOL student, the kid on pain medication and the student who crossed out the wrong answers.  That would give me 16 out of 21 students who should have “reliable” test scores.  IF all 16 score a 3.0 or higher (at or above grade level), my success rate would jump to 76% - a C, average, satisfactory – certainly not highly effective or exemplary.  Certainly not something that screams “bonus worthy.”

Last month, Representative Seth McKeel told me “the public deserve accountability” and that “good teachers need to be recognized for the work they do” as two of his reason why he was supporting SB 630.  I could not argue with either point.  I can argue, however, that ONE test – an assessment designed to “guide instruction” – is NOT the appropriate tool to gauge a teacher’s job performance.

Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak.  I will continue to squeak, speak, type, complain and rant in the hopes that enough people – or the right person – will hear my pleas and/or get the message.  A colleague of mine likes to use the expression, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.  The only thing that matters in the end is that you get a naked cat.”  There is more than one way to assess student achievement.  Shouldn’t there be more than one way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

When Did We Become The Bad Guys?

When Did We Become The Bad Guys?
American culture - particularly American film and literature - has always had a love-hate relationship with teachers and the teaching profession.  In the 18th century, there was the sniveling, ruler-slapping Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  More recently, we’ve become both engrossed and frightened by the brooding Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series. And who can forget the monotone, lecturing economics teacher from the 1980’s John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  - Anyone? Anyone?  On the other hand, there was the reluctant, yet inspiring, musician-turned-band teacher, Glen Holland from Mr. Holland’s Opus.  In the turbulent 1960’s, we were moved by the racial stereotype-busting Mr. Thackeray (portrayed by Sidney Poitier) in To Sir, with Love.  Then there is my favorite teacher of them all - the leader of the Sweat Hogs – Gabe Kotter, from Welcome Back, Kotter
I have been a teacher for 20 years.  In that time, I have taught every grade from 4th through 12th (and even several semesters at the college level).  A few weeks back, I sat at my computer and reflected on some of the many things I have experienced – in and out of the classroom.  Here is a truncated summary:  I have been hit, bit, insulted, peed on and puked on.  I’ve taught LD, ESOL, on-grade level, below-grade level, wheelchair-bound and deaf students. I’ve taught students who have been neglected, abused and two who were raped.  I have taught students who have been arrested for a variety of crimes ranging from vandalism to murder.  I have also taught kind-hearted, generous, intelligent, eager students.  I have taught kids who have won science fair awards, writing contests, and those who have been appointed the military academies.  Some of my former students are doctors and lawyers, and one – that I know of – is a teacher
In many ways, teaching has been a love-hate relationship for me, too. Throughout it all, I have loved every minute – every heart ache, every late night, every success, and every failure.  Despite the numerous occasions when I felt like the walls were closing in on me, and I wanted to give up, I have never considered working in another profession – until this year.
What changed?  Why now?  Is it the prospect of making even less money next year (for a third year in a row)?  No, not really.  Money has never really been a motivating factor for me, or for any teacher for that matter.  No one has ever heard a teacher say, “I got into teaching for the money.”  Like so many other teachers, I have always worked summer jobs, after school jobs, or conducted/participated in workshops and trainings to make ends meet.  I have worked at Walgreens.  I have cut lawns.  I have painted houses.  I have taught on-line classes. 
Likewise, this change of heart has little to do with the new law dictating how teachers will be evaluated next year.  While the new teacher evaluation system has me worried (about how it will impact teaching and not how it will impact my pay), I have seen changes like this before.  As my mother used to say, “This too shall pass.”  My guess is that once school districts and politicians realize how much money “merit pay” is going to cost to implement and sustain, as well as the impact it will have on student achievement and the additional emphasis on the “teach to the test” mentality, this “new evaluation system” will be replaced.
What would cause a 20-year veteran, a National Board Certified Teacher, a two-time Teacher of the Year and an Exemplary evaluated teacher – and dozens of teachers just like me – to consider leaving the profession?  The answer is simple.  Somehow, we – all teachers – have become the bad guys.  Suddenly, we all became Ichabod Crane, Professor Snape and the monotone, un-inspiring lecturer all rolled into one.  If you think I have engaged in extreme hyperbole, or I am perhaps I am just whining – as a “friend” recently commented to me – read on. 
This year alone, there have been numerous bills either discussed or passed by the Florida legislature aimed at “improving” education.  These bills include the following measures:  elimination of teacher tenure, teacher pay based on student performance, increasing teacher contributions to the Florida Retirement System (FRS), raising the retirement age/years of service, increasing student testing, reducing the number of “core” classes (an attempt to subvert the Florida Class-Size Reduction amendment), and last but not least – a 3% cut in teacher pay.
Why the sudden assault on the teaching profession?  Perhaps a brief history lesson will help. In the lead up to the 1992 presidential election, political advisor James Carville coined the now-popular phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  No truer words were spoken.  Despite the fact that Florida teacher salaries rank 47th in the nation (yet student performance has risen steadily over the past eight years), most people think teachers – make too much, work too little and have not had to sacrifice like others. 
Looks can be deceiving.  Politicians know this and have amped up the political rhetoric machine.  During these tough economic times, politicians have bandied around phrases like, “cut spending…create jobs…pull ourselves up by the boot straps…”  In order to get some of this accomplished, however, teachers and the teaching profession have become the proverbial whipping boys.
Politicians would like the voting populace to think that teachers have been unaffected by the current economic conditions.  They make claims such as “teachers have not lost jobs at the same pace as other professions,” and “teachers don’t pay for benefits like other professionals in the private sector…” What they haven’t told the public is that teachers – good teachers – HAVE lost their jobs.  All teachers have seen a gradual decline in income due to salary freezes, loss of summer jobs, loss of stipends and increases in health insurance and other benefits.  The general public does not know that teachers have had to make do with less materials (copy paper, pencils, pens, glue, construction paper, folders, staples, etc.) and resources (school resource officers, health assistants, office staff, cafeteria staff, behavior specialist, etc. ) each of the past four years, with much of that shortfall coming out of their pockets.  While politicians pound their collective chests when test scores rise and graduation rate increase, they fail to report to their constituents that teachers have had to take on extra job responsibilities due to cuts in personnel.  The bottom line is the general public is misinformed, and the politicians who “represent them” have fed off this lack of insight to promote their own personal and political agendas.  
To make matters worse, the language and tone directed at teachers by politicians has become increasingly vitriolic.  I recently took a trip to Tallahassee to meet with six state legislators about pending education bills.  What I learned and what I heard astounded me.  One representative made the comment that teachers – those wearing red shirts as a sign of solidarity – looked “like Christmas elves…”  Another representative barely let me speak.  In mid sentence, he would intone, “…it’s in the bill…look at the bill…” between other profanity-laced comments about teachers, unions and the media.  Most representatives were courteous and attentive.  None of them listened, however.  Their minds were made up.  Things had to change, and teachers were the bad guys.
These bad guys – the ones you see holding signs by the side of the road or rallying in Tallahassee, Orlando or Miami – are not fighting for more money, fewer students or better benefits.  They are fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights.  They are rallying to prevent more testing for students.  They are campaigning to maintain retirement benefits that were promised to them – some, like me, over 20 years ago.
Like the main character in the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, I see myself slowly and deliberately forced out of the classroom.  Not by budget cuts but through the deterioration of the simple pleasures that pulled me into the classroom over 20 years ago.  Gone are the days when creativity, cooperative learning, project-based learning and inquiry reigned in classrooms around the state.  They have been replaced with a standards-driven, assessment-verified, results-oriented, one-size-fits-all curriculum model.  But more important, gone is the respect teachers once had.  The steady erosion of respect for teachers is palpable in parent conferences, in the conversations among patrons waiting in line at the grocery store, and among politicians and other policymaker’s statements in the newspapers and on television. 
As one legislator said to me, “The public deserve accountability…they deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.”  In one respect, he is right, but what good are numbers and test results if we lose our integrity, our compassion, our humanity along the way?
I will end with another axiom my mother used to say, “Be careful what you wish for.” Ultimately, you may not like – or want – the results.