Friday, January 12, 2018

Why Teachers Are Leaving the Profession

A Louisiana teacher was pushed to the floor, handcuffed and humiliated! Her offense: She dared to question the use of school funds to grant a raise to the local superintendent at the expense of the pupil-teacher ratio in the classrooms. She was declared to be out of order and dragged away for questioning the priorities of the school system.

This incident could be a metaphor for what has happened to the teaching profession in Louisiana and in many other states as a result of radical reforms to public education. Teachers have become the scapegoats for anything that is considered as lacking in our public education system. Repeated rounds of so called "education reform" have resulted in demeaning the education profession and relegating teachers to standardized test rehearsers. Educators are increasingly rated and berated based on the handicapps faced by the students they serve.

Across the state and nation teachers are leaving the profession in droves because many of them no longer believe it is a true profession based on respect and empowerment of its practitioners.  This National Public Radio report on the growing teacher shortage cites mostly concerns about low pay compared to other professions. But while teacher pay in Louisiana and other states is abysmal, it is only one factor resulting in the  extreme demoralization of the teaching profession.

Teachers are handcuffed to lousy state tests

Students in grades 3 through 8 are required to take state tests each spring as a way of measuring their learning and the effectiveness of their teachers. But the tests are not age appropriate. Test scores statewide average only just above 40%. The average passing score is set by the state at approximately 30%. BESE has changed the guidelines for promotion this year so that students who fail all of their state tests can still be promoted to the next grade. Pure guessing on the multiple choice portions of the tests is a major factor in producing the score for each student.

Despite the flaws in the state tests, teachers and schools are rated according to the average test scores of their students. Teachers are extremely frustrated that their job has been reduced to repetitive standardized test rehearsal. Teachers of certain core subjects have little latitude in planing their course work, with little opportunity to use their creativity to motivate and inspire children to develop a love for learning. Instead most schools now are forced to channel teacher and student energy to producing higher standardized test scores at all costs. Some schools have pep rallies aimed at psyching up everyone prior to annual testing. Teachers are constantly threatened with bad evaluations and the possible loss of pitifully low “merit pay” bonuses if students do not produce constantly better test scores.

Teachers have been pushed to the floor and humiliated by legislation striping them of salary steps, due process, and seniority

In Louisiana, as a result of Acts 1 and 2 of 2012, most school systems have dismantled annual step increases that gave teachers an incentive to remain in the profession in favor of a poorly designed incentive program for higher test scores. But since the state legislature has provided zero funding for the merit pay scheme, many teachers have seen no meaningful raises while being subjected to relentless pressure to increase student test scores. These laws also chipped away at seniority rights and due process rights of teachers and pretty much reduced the status of teachers to that of teenage grocery store stockers. Teachers are now relegated to stocking the brains of their students with answers to questions on standardized tests with little regard to real education. Teachers were assured at the time that these new laws would actually empower teachers to seek better salaries and recognition. I ask teachers: "Do you feel empowered?" The few rights for teachers retained since 2012 were won as a result of lawsuits by the Louisiana Association of Educators, their much maligned teacher union.

State standards for students are fake standards

State education officials claim to have raised standards for student performance and preparation for college, but the reality is that practically all students are promoted to the next grade even if they fail all of their standardized tests and teacher made tests. Some students can make it to high school without passing a single state test given in grades 3 though 8! High school students are given shortened credit recovery courses if they fail or miss too much school. Students are being handed diplomas mostly for having a pulse. BESE regulations requiring regular school attendance and the achievement of an average of at least 67% on testing are being routinely ignored in the push to raise the graduation rate at all costs. Teachers are often instructed that if students fail tests that it is the teacher’s responsibility to retest or to give students make-up work so they can pass. The highly touted standardized tests given each year have their passing scores set just above 30%. But students are still promoted even if they fail their tests. Only the teachers and schools are punished for low performance.

Teachers have been humiliated and made less effective by being denied control over student discipline

In an effort to keep students in school at all costs, teachers are often limited in their ability to discipline disruptive students. A special Louisiana task force is presently considering recommending reductions in student suspensions for violations of school rules. Teachers are being told not to report students for disruptive behavior. Just like test scores, it is assumed that only teachers are responsible for student behavior. Many students routinely insult or curse their teacher with little or no consequences.

Teachers serving the neediest and most at-risk students are treated with the least respect. High poverty children consistently produce the lowest test scores, so their teachers are regularly rated most lacking even if they are the hardest working in the entire profession. Teaching in a high poverty school is equivalent to daily torture. Those schools serve students that are often poorly nourished, neglected, often abused, and sometimes homeless, yet are expected to somehow score competitively on state tests. Statistical experts have pointed out that external factors are much more important in determining school performance than the effect of educators. Yet such schools are often rated D or F no matter how hard the teachers work. Early in the school reform movement, such schools were closed or taken over by new administrators. But it turned out that such efforts did more harm than good, forcing children into less stable environments. In Louisiana, the state no longer takes over schools in an effort to reform them but instead schools in poor neighborhoods are subjected to increased competition from new charter schools that seek to recruit the highest performing students.

The NPR report on the teacher shortage found that most teacher training programs across the nation have experienced drops of enrollment of over 30%. The pipeline for new teachers ruptured when our present teachers started warning their children, nieces and nephews to find a more rewarding profession. Here in Louisiana, teachers in charter schools do not need an education degree.  Many schools cannot find math, science or special education teachers.  The Department of education is further insulting master teachers by offering them a measly bonus for helping to mentor new teachers.

The problems listed above are the concerns I hear from teachers every day. The scapegoating of teachers, and yes, the increasing class sizes are the real reasons why teachers are leaving the profession.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas!

The best gift is to treat every person you encounter the way you would like to be treated.

Many years ago when I was teaching, I noticed something interesting about my students around Christmas time. 

I was a high school Chemistry and Physics teacher and taught mostly Juniors and Seniors. At the same time, my wife was a 4th grade teacher. Each year at Christmas time she came home with bunches of little gifts from her students. It was not cool for Juniors and Seniors to give gifts to teachers so I usually got only about one or two gifts. What I noticed is that the students who sheepishly handed me a gift usually after class on the last day before the holidays, were teacher's children. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Louisiana Educators and Citizens: Wake up!

A recent survey of teachers by Education Week reported that nationwide about 30% of public school teachers voted for Trump for president. Based on the overall overwhelming vote for Trump in Louisiana, my rough estimate is that probably close to 50% of teachers in Louisiana voted for Trump. I decided to do a few simple math calculations to see how this is going to pay off for teachers and other Louisiana citizens. Let’s analyze just one Trump achievement: The Trump tax cut.

CNN estimates that the average taxpayer who earns between 35 and 85 thousand a year for a family of four will see about $18 more per week as a result of the tax cuts. So most teachers in Louisiana may see about $72 more in their paychecks since they are paid monthly. But for other citizens in Louisiana, about 40% will get absolutely nothing from the tax cut because they don’t earn enough to pay taxes in the first place.  So only about 30% of families will get the extra $18 per week. That amounts to about two large pizzas. So what will the fortunate 30% of Louisiana workers get other than these two large pizzas per week?

In ten years, the extra amount that the United States will have to borrow from China, Japan and other high saving nations to cover the Trump tax cut will be approximately two trillion dollars. (I am assuming that the Congress will continue the individual tax cuts that are now scheduled to end after 5 years) That will amount to $619 of extra debt for every man, woman, and child in the USA owed mostly to people in countries that don’t even like us!

In Louisiana, it has been estimated that most families of 4 do not even have $500 saved up to cover the cost of any emergency without going into debt. So in ten years, the Trump tax cut going mostly to very rich people will result in an additional federal debt for each Louisiana family of four amounting to a total of $2,476. How will Louisiana families deal with this extra burden placed on their families by the Trump tax cut of 2018? They probably won’t have to pay it all off in one lump sum. Instead, as the wage earner of that family of four gets to age 65 where she would have expected to receive a small social security check to help her survive in retirement, the U.S. treasury will be using that money to pay back loans to China and Japan. There will be little or no money left to pay for Social Security or Medicare. So when those individuals need a little help from their government for food, clothing, shelter and healthcare, it will not be available.

One of the biggest campaign issues for Republicans over the last few decades has been absolute opposition to building up a federal debt that would have to be paid by our children and grandchildren. But when president Bush decided to declare war on Iraq based on false claims of WMDs, not a penny of the cost has been paid by current taxpayers. Trillions to finance war in the Middle East  has been borrowed mostly from other countries to be paid back with interest at a later date. All of it is going to be passed on to future generations along with the growing interest on the debt. We need to remember that all of our Republican congress members have also chosen to pass on the costs of this most recent tax cut for the wealthy.

Teachers will do a lot better than most Louisiana citizens, primarily because they have a separate retirement system independent of Social Security. But the way things are going now in the Louisiana Legislature, (We have a looming billion dollar deficit caused by state tax cuts during the Jindal administration) that wonderful retirement system will probably not be funded much longer for future teachers. Health care benefits are also at risk. LABI and other conservative groups don’t think that teachers deserve these benefits, and soon our state will start diverting retirement contributions and health coverage to balance our deficit plagued state budget, The conservatives keep telling us that “our state doesn’t have an income problem, we have a spending problem.”  But none of them have been able to find the waste that could be cut. So our colleges are now starved of critical funding, and the next targets are sure to be funding for teacher retirement and health care.

This is how our Louisiana voters will be rewarded for their votes for Donald Trump and our Republican party congress members.