I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, July 29, 2011

Education Writers, Please Get To Know Your Subject

So before I go off on this Wall Street Journal article, let's review:

- Rupert Murdoch not only owns the WSJ; he has his fingers in a lot of education pies:

- We are getting increasing evidence that Murdoch isn't busy denying involvement in the illegal activities of his subordinates, he takes a special interest in education stories in his media outlets:

How involved is Rupert Murdoch at the newspapers he owns? When the subject is education, Murdoch’s views directly influence the coverage in the New York Post and, at the least, the sorts of meetings taken at the Wall Street Journal.
Azi Paybarah at the Observer reports today that at the New York Post, education stories are ordered up according to Murdoch’s visits:
One former reporter said his own editor requested a week’s worth of stories about the New York City public schools because “Rupert was going to be in town.” It was coveted real estate in the paper, and the reporter reluctantly obliged.
We have previously chronicled the Post’s open campaigning on behalf of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies and its effort to renew mayoral control. The coverage prompted Education Secretary Arne Duncan to praise the newspaper for its “leadership” in covering mayoral control.
How likely is it that Murdoch's editorial point of view regarding education is starting to migrate over to the WSJ? Check this out:

When Newark's public school system accepted $5 million from the federal government last year to turn around the poorly performing Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, it agreed to replace at least half of the school's teachers, under the belief that principals could then hire better ones.
Instead, Shabazz swapped teachers with two other failing schools.
Some 68 teachers were shuffled among Shabazz, Central High School and Barringer High School, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
Shabazz, which had 90 teachers, sent 21 of them to Barringer. And Barringer sent 21 of its teachers to Shabazz, according to teacher transfer records obtained through an open records request.
Cami Anderson, who became Newark's schools superintendent in May, said teacher shuffling is "common and inevitable in a city with only a few comprehensive high schools and a slew of magnet schools where people are not going to leave."
Nevertheless, Ms. Anderson said she has changed the policies that allowed the swapping to happen.
Principals and teachers are now encouraged to attend job fairs and carry out a robust interview process.
However, because of the state's tenure law, which guarantees a paycheck to teachers regardless of whether any principal wants to retain or hire them, Ms. Anderson's new policy will cost the district an extra $10 million to $15 million a year that will go to paying the teachers who are not able to find jobs within the district.
"In other words, by doing the right thing, we created a massive budget issue," she said. Newark schools have a $900 million budget and employ about 4,000 teachers.
Ten other states, including New York, have tenure laws that make it impossible to dismiss tenured teachers even when no principal wishes to hire them. [emphasis mine]
No, no, no. Let's be clear:

Tenure is NOT the same as seniority. All tenure law does is say a teacher can't be dismissed for incompetence without a hearing from the Commissioner. That's it. Teachers can, however, be RIF'd (Reduction In Force) even if they do have tenure - that's when seniority comes into play.

Here's how it's supposed to work: let's say you have two competent teachers with the same certification. One has 4 years on the job; another 20. The school needs to cut one of them - the seniority rules (NOT tenure!) say the teacher with 4 years has to go first.

Why? Because the contract for most schools has the 20-year teacher making more than the 4-year teacher, and the school district could abuse their authority and fire the teacher who makes more money solely on that ground.

(While we're at it - the reason for those pay scales is to SAVE school districts money. Since 50% of teachers leave the field in the first five years anyway, you don't pay them as much as senior teachers who've made it through the gauntlet.)

Now, I know the counter-argument here is: "Well, what if the less-senior teacher is BETTER than the more-senior teacher? Why shouldn't the principal get to fire whomever he decides can't do the job?"

To which I reply:

- He can: he can have a tenure hearing if the teacher is that bad. Even the NJEA says tenure hearings should be accelerated - why aren't we doing that?

- Why should the 4-year teacher get the benefit of the doubt if the attrition rate for less-experienced teachers is so high?

- Why are we RIFing so many teachers in the first place?!?

- Even if you've got a below-average teacher, what makes you so sure that you can replace him with someone better? Do we have lots and lots of teachers who are lining up to teach in Newark who are just so fantastic and will stay for their whole careers? Because the money and the benefits are so friggin' great?

I work in a relatively affluent district, but many of my colleagues got their starts in relatively poor districts. They used their first few years to gain experience; then they moved on when they could to jobs that paid better out in the 'burbs. I've also known great teachers in those less-affluent districts who have stayed for a variety of reasons. But if you were a teacher and you could make more money in a wealthier district, wouldn't you be inclined to take it?

In any case, it's completely wrong to say that tenure law "guarantees a paycheck to teachers regardless of whether any principal wants to retain or hire them." If these teachers are that bad, Cami Anderson ought to get with the NJEA and demand accelerated tenure hearings. But even before then, she could suck it up and build the case against these teachers - no one is stopping her.

But that doesn't comport with Murdoch's meme that all of the problems with urban schools can be traced back to teachers - and not poverty, inequality, language, and racism. Because Rupert wants us to believe the world works in certain ways for certain reasons:

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