Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An Open Letter to Ohio's General Assembly

An Open Letter to the Ohio General Assembly:
Dear Honorable Legislators of Ohio:
You're killing us out here in the public schools, and I thought it was time someone told you.

We have been through budget cuts in the past, and we will survive this one somehow, but in the midst of a recession when our incomes are low and our government is cutting our funds, you are also siphoning off money to the tune of millions and millions of dollars to charter schools. We could see the rationale for this if it really did give students choice and if the charters could serve students better, but have you looked at the results of the charter schools in Ohio? ALL of the bottom 5% achieving school districts in Ohio are charters. Nearly all of the bottom 10% are charters, with a few large urban districts thrown in. 

With cuts in funds, we have been criticized sharply for spending money on central office staff and administration. Did you notice that charter schools, who do not have to operate under the same rules as the public schools, spend MORE per student on administration than we do by a good bit? While you are forcing us into the position of cutting administrators, you are expecting us to totally overhaul our curriculum and teacher evaluation systems, both of which require MORE support and time from central office staff and principals. We are valiantly attempting to do twice the work with half of the staff, but you're killing us.

Here's another thing you should know. The new teacher evaluation system requires every teacher to be evaluated through a lengthy process every year. The teachers I evaluate don't suddenly become a lot better or a lot worse over the course of one year, and so I'm not sure the reasoning behind this, but here's my point: if we're doing three times as many evaluations per year than we have been, where does a principal find the time to do this? Your solution is to use outside evaluators. Have I mentioned that you have cut our funding? And now we have to hire outside firms to evaluate our personnel to meet your new regulations. And here's another question. Why don't the charter schools have to do this? They allocate more money per student for administrators than we do - why don't their administrators have to use this burdensome system? Now, don't get me wrong - the rubric for the teacher evaluation isn't bad. In fact, I kind of like it. ODE has done a great job developing it, but using it on EVERY TEACHER EVERY YEAR is not physically possible. 

Since we're on the topic of the evaluation system, let's talk about the idea of basing any part of a teacher's evaluation on student scores. This is a bad idea. Anytime you evaluate anyone, you should evaluate them on things they can control. As a Value Added Leader in Ohio, I have more understanding of these growth measures than most, and I will tell you that there are other factors besides classroom instruction that impact these scores. The size of a class - a teacher can grow 22 students much more effectively than 32 students. The length and timing of the instructional period - the more extended time on task earlier in the day, the better the student growth. The alignment of the school's curriculum to assessment instruments affects the value added measure. The school climate. Student absences and mobility. All of these factors influence student scores and are beyond the teacher's control. The other reason that you should not use student scores to evaluate ANYONE is because the test scores become the be-all and end-all of instruction. If a teacher knows that her career is dependent upon student scores on a once-a-year paper and pencil test, guess what is going to be going on in the classroom? Test prep. As a former teacher, I can tell you that what I do in the classroom is very different if I'm just preparing a student to pass a test than if I'm allowed to actually teach. The inappropriate emphasis on standardized tests is stomping the creativity and love of learning out of students and teachers alike. Schools are reducing or eliminating time with the arts and music. Teachers are afraid to go off topic and be creative because they might not be able to get all of the information crammed into the little heads so that they can pass a test. Stop doing that.

Another thing you're doing to us that is destructive is this propensity for legislators to intrude into things that should be decided by professionally trained educators and parents at a local level. With the Third Grade Guarantee, you are telling us which children to retain. Is that your business? Are you going to tell doctors how to treat the flu next? Or dentists how to fill teeth? The parents and schools working together can best make that decision on whether to retain a student. Yes, I know your data about how students who are behind in reading are more likely to drop out. Are you also aware of the data that suggests that students who are RETAINED are more likely to drop out? Not only that, in HB555, you have told us that any child with a Reading Improvement and Monitoring Plan has to have a teacher with at least three years of experience. So, not only are you telling us what children to retain, you're telling us what teacher my child can or cannot have. This decision is only appropriately made LOCALLY by teachers and parents who know the child and the teachers. We have an excellent teacher with a reading endorsement with 1 year of experience who has been working successfully with struggling readers, and yet, as of September 30 when the assessments for reading are scored, you expect us to yank second graders out of their wonderful teacher's classroom and put them with someone else because that other teacher has more experience? I thought you were the ones telling us that teaching experience doesn't matter and we can't RIF (Reduction in Force, ie lay off teachers) based on teaching experience, and we shouldn't give teachers raises based on can't have it both ways. Which is it? Experience is meaningless, or experience is the major criterion deciding who teaches young children?

Along with the Big Brother mentality dictating to educational professionals and parents WHO teaches the children and which children to retain, the Third Grade Guarantee also mandates intervention for students who are not on track. I'm not sure if you are aware of this, but interventions cost money. Have I mentioned that you have cut our funding? We need staff and we need materials to provide interventions. Both of those things cost money. Can you say "unfunded mandate?"

Now there is the issue of graduation rates. You seem to be encouraging students to go to charter schools. School choice, right? Our students withdraw to charter schools where they are in one of the worst-performing schools in the state, as I've already commented, and so guess what? Little learning happens. These same students return to their public school district in high school extremely credit deficient. They don't graduate on time. Guess who gets dinged for this? Local schools. We have no choice even if the student returns to us well into his "senior" year. The charter schools, in the meantime, tell the students that if they want to drop out, they have to re-enroll at their home school first. This happens regularly. Public schools are having graduation rates diminished every year by students who have never been in our schools their entire high school career. Why can charters expel, suspend, and transfer out at will and yet we are required to take these students back and record the failure of the charter schools on our report cards?

Here's another thing that gets me. We are moving to an entirely new curriculum and working hard to be prepared for the new assessments in 2014-15. These tests will require a day for speaking and listening, 2 days for an English performance assessment, 1 day for an English end-of-year exam, a day for a math performance assessment, a day for math end of year exam. This is for every single student in grades 3-11. On computers. Plus another required graduation test and the additional social studies and science tests. I would be curious to know how much of our education money is going to Pearson and AIR and third party vendors of assessments. When budgets are tight and teachers are being laid off and class sizes are in the 30's, do you think maybe we could use this money better in other places?? Not only do we not have enough computers to accommodate this excessive testing, the new tests require operating systems that we don't have now. How are we going to afford to purchase enough new computers and upgrade enough existing computers to be able to test this many students? How will our infrastructure handle all of these students testing? When will we ever have time to actually use the computers for instruction to prepare students for the tests when students are spending weeks of lost instructional time doing the assessments? Another unfunded mandate. Have I mentioned that you have cut our funding? And that NO additional funds come with this mandate?

Now, I know you'll mention the casino money that is pouring in to the schools, right? That's what you would have the public to believe, right? The reality is that most of us don't have a casino in our back yard and the little dab that filters to the rest of us doesn't make up for the amount you've cut us. I see that the governor is suggesting a new funding formula which will solve our problems, right? Problem is, NONE of the small, rural districts around here get one more dime than they're getting now, and this is AFTER the cuts. In fact, Danville Local educates students for $7732 per student. Olentangy Local spends $9460, and yet Olentangy gets an increase in state funds of over 300% while Danville gets NO increase at all. Dublin spends over $10,000 per student and THEY get an increase while Centerburg Local spends $7440 and get nothing. In fact, over 2/3 of the public districts in Ohio get NO new money at all while charter schools receive significantly more. Somehow this doesn't seem right, especially with all of the unfunded mandates that will increase expenditures. And now I hear that the governor is talking about merit pay. Merit pay. The idea is, maybe these teachers would quit slacking and step up to the plate and actually take their jobs seriously if we throw a little more money their way. It works in business, right? I find this to be one of the singularly most insulting things you have done to us. To insinuate that we will work harder, teach better, care more if we are paid more is ridiculous. You saw what happened at Newtown. There's not a teacher I know who wouldn't do the same thing for her students. We would take a bullet for your kids. Put a money amount on that. 

I don't know if you caught my phrase "done to us." That is how we feel. Teachers are having things done TO them. Nobody has asked for us to sit on a committee and help design a plan to improve education. Instead, you are hellbent on taking our money away and giving it to poorly performing charters and to assessment companies. We have been blamed for everything from the state budget crisis to national security problems. I don't want to be cynical or disrespectful, but, the thought occurs to me that these charter companies and assessment vendors are large contributors to some of your campaigns. I'm sure that's just a coincidence. I would hate to think that you are robbing the children of the state by taking money from their public schools and filtering it indirectly into your campaign coffers. But I wonder. 

Something else I have wondered about. We have new very restrictive rules about exclusion and restraint. I am very much in favor of our children being safe and so if safety is your goal here...why aren't the charter schools subject to these same rules? Do you not care whether their students are excluded and restrained? Yet another mandate for us but not the charters. Trying to be supportive and respectful here, but this is starting to look a bit suspicious. It's almost like you're setting the public schools up for failure.

Anyway, thanks for reading all of this. I know your time is valuable because you're busy coming up with new ways to "help" us with school "reform." Good teachers are leaving the profession. Kids are checking out of school and bored silly by all these tests and test prep. You're killing us out here. I just thought you should know.

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