Sunday, March 2, 2014

Walker's Act 10 Devalues Teaching in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Teacher Value Not Adding Up
My first teaching contract 19 years ago at a Midwest Catholic high school grossed $15,000. My retirement benefits consisted of a whopping $500 401K. Cutting into my take-home pay was a $1500 annual premium for an inadequate health insurance plan with a high deductible and 80-20 coverage on remaining family medical bills.

Money aside, I was a good Christian soldier. I taught a full load with 3 or more preps, moderated the school newspaper, ran the service program, coached baseball, drove the school bus to athletic events, and volunteered for all kinds of school activities.

Considering money, I was a naive Christian soldier. I did not think finances mattered all that much. After growing up on the lower rim of the middle class, the $15 grand I grossed in my first year of teaching felt like a million dollars. When the family budget tightened as college loans came due and the family grew, I practiced my own personal “no excuses” policy and doubled down on work by milking cows in the evening and on weekends, painting houses in the summer, and working a variety of odd jobs. While many Americans were "moving on up" during the 1990’s, my wife (also an educator) and I shuffled funds around trying to survive on less-than-professional pay.

In these conditions, my teaching suffered. My professional goal of getting my masters degree by age 30 came and went. I recycled the same lesson every year. Innovation was limited to what I could concoct late at night or each morning before school. I was a resourceful teacher, but not a developing educator.

In the midst of this mess, one of my kids became seriously ill. She did a few tours in the hospital before some highly skilled and professionally-priced specialists got a handle on her condition. The medical bills mounted. Things became desperate.

So I made a desperate move. I sold my soul and left teaching for a year. I searched for funds in other fields. In the midst of this despair came some soul-saving, professional advice from my brother teaching in Wisconsin. He coaxed my wife (also an educator) and I to move to his neck of the woods, where we could earn professional pay and benefits by teaching in Wisconsin’s public school system.

With the move north, our lives took a financial one eighty. The affordable healthcare coverage alone was an immediate boom to our family budget. My wife also found a good paying teaching job in a neighboring district and our incomes steadily improved. Over a decade into our professional careers, we could finally breathe easier. We weren’t rich, but we were middle class professionals.

Under these much-improved conditions, my teaching improved. I’ve been able to ditch most of my part-time work and focus on being a professional educator. I’ve spent some of the extra time collaborating with other well-paid professionals and developing better lessons for my students. Middle class living has allowed me to read and write about curriculum, pedagogy, public school history, and current education policy (and politics). Professional pay and the promise of advancement allowed me to invest in over a dozen professional courses and pick up my masters degree. My district, school, and students have benefitted from the community investment in my professional development.

This move to a new state and professional pay, however, did not move me to a state of ignorant bliss. My journey seasoned me. I am no longer naive. I know money matters.

Thus, I am keenly aware of the detrimental effects Governor Walker’s school funding cuts are having on the professional pay of public educators around Wisconsin. Walker’s Act 10 hit my school district this school season and consequently shifted a percentage of district expenses onto the backs of public school employees.

Sunny days for district budgets are financial storms for teachers. Thanks to Walker’s new teacher taxes, I take home about 8% less (-$5039) in regular pay than I did last school year. Walker’s soldiers will argue that the new pay deductions keep put public educators, like me, inline with private sector workers, who are already chipping in similar amounts for healthcare and retirement benefits. Of course, the Walker apologists will ignore that public school educators’ earn less than comparable private sector professionals. The Walker disciples also hypocritically support Act 10 regulations that limit future negotiations for teacher pay increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) even though they are usually big critics of such heavy-handed regulations.

Headlines in local newspaper mislead public 
The average Wisconsin taxpayer has little understanding of how the teaching profession is being devalued. Contrary to the local paper’s misleading headline (“Teachers to see pay hike”), almost no returning teacher in my kids’ school district saw a pay raise this school season. District leaders recently imposed a teacher’s contract that fell well short of last year’s 2.07% CPI. For me, the imposed salary adjustment only covers about 5% of the Walker-imposed deductions from my pay. The $265 salary advancement given to almost every teacher was calculated by multiplying .75% by the lowest possible base wage (BA+0, $35,370). This salary adjustment was far less than the $1000 or more given by most area school districts to their teachers. To play this out, if this year’s salary adjustment becomes a pattern over the next 15 years, I’ll be a lucky guy to finish my career with the same pay I received last year. Toss in the rate of inflation, I am well past my professional peak.

Like hedge fund managers setting up a ponzi scheme, Walker and his cronies have concocted a teacher salary scheme under Act 10 so complex it takes numerous pages to explain it and so ambiguous that interpretations vary from district to district. Act 10 requires teacher salaries to now be divided into two categories--a base wage salary and a supplemental salary. In my kids’ district, the former is calculated by equating the worth of every teacher to that of a rookie teacher with only a bachelor’s degree. Thus, almost all teachers in my district, regardless of their experience and (self-funded) advanced degrees, are paid the same salary adjustment. Pay I previously earned for my experience and advanced degree is now considered to be like bonus pay (i.e.-supplementary).

I tried explaining this newfangled pay system to two financial professionals. The supplemental pay that makes up almost half of my salary is also foreign to them. Under Walker’s system, veteran teachers, like me, see around half of their pay classified as “supplemental.” Granted, annual bonuses (i.e.-supplemental pay) are attached periodically to many private sector professionals’ regular pay--but the financial professionals tell me these bonuses are usually just a small percentage of someone’s salary.

Doing an end-around on Walker’s Act 10, some local district leaders in my kids’ district promise teachers that their supplemental pay is not actually supplemental at all and teachers can rest easy and be assured that no teacher will move backwards in pay. However, under Walker’s reign, the promise of guaranteeing supplementary pay is ambiguous and certainly not binding, like a contract. A school board/superintendent or two later and teachers’ supplemental pay could be a new source of revenue for a struggling school district and/or the anti-government types.

My money experts also confirmed that percentage raises in the private sector world are almost always figured as a percentage of a professional’s total current salary. This is no longer the case for many Wisconsin public school teachers. The money pros also confirmed for me, with Act 10’s rules limiting salary negotiations to base wages and the CPI, veteran teachers’ regular pay will not keep pace with inflation.

Adding to the unfairness, districts, like mine, do not subject administrators to this base wage system. I do not begrudge administrators being paid raises as a percentage of their total current salary. However, it is ironic that those defending base wage raises on teachers continue to have raises calculated as a percentage of their total salaries.

A feeling of being shafted permeates the teaching profession in Wisconsin. Paternalistic school officials simply dismiss professional educator’s angst as entitlement thinking. On some sort of free market mission, they are determined to break teachers from desiring security. They ignore that almost all other experienced and highly educated professionals are afforded autonomy and security. They also disregard the latest research related to motivation in highly cognitive professions, like teaching. Increasingly in Walker’s new world order, important decisions are made about teachers and without teachers. A new age paternalism prevails. Along with pay, the teacher’s perspective is devalued.

Ignoring that teachers were never the problem, reformers further contend educators must be held to higher standards of accountability and perform better. Even though educational research does not support it, some districts across Wisconsin recklessly forge ahead designing (often without teacher involvement) and implementing new teacher pay plans built around complicated, unproven teacher evaluation systems that are connected to flawed valued-added testing measurements.

The aforementioned financial experts assure me private sector pay increases are almost always linked to something easily measurable, like improved sales or cost-saving initiatives. Never mind that incentivized pay plans are not backed up by educational research and good teaching and diverse learning are beyond measure, the MBAs act as if they know better than educators what is best for the teaching profession.

Act 10 has led some school leaders to act as if they have sole ownership of the local public school system. No means no, even if professional educators know better. In business-like fashion, they tell professional educators who do not agree with the new metric-driven initiatives to acquiesce or leave.

What these corporate types do not know best is how public schools are supposed to work. Government-run school districts are not private businesses. Attempts to make them such are wrong. Government schools are public entities. Local teachers, administrators, support staff, union members, coaches, board members, taxpayers, voters, parents, students, and even business owners are all stakeholders. Local school districts are owned and operated collectively.

Teacher Roots Run Deep
Complicating this collective undertaking are a large percentage of educators, like me, who are invested in local schools on many levels. I am a teacher man, taxpayer, involved constituent, coach, union leader, and parent of students in the local school district. I’ve grown roots that run deep and in many directions. I’ve connect with layers of students, their parents, colleagues, and community members.

I harbor no fantasies about the strength of these roots though. In Walker’s new world order, veteran teachers can be uprooted tomorrow. Like in deforestation, removing strong-standing and long-standing teachers can lead to enduring detrimental effects on the wider environment. Sure, cheaper and easier-to-handle saplings can replace veteran teachers, but new teachers will be planted in a less nurturing environment. To survive many school seasons, the next generation of professional teachers in Wisconsin will have to be seasoned young, impervious, and able to manage doing more, for less, and with less.

The present devaluing of the teaching profession feels like my early professional years. This devaluing of the teaching profession brings erraticism to my kids’ schools and students' lives. All the while, the scapegoating of teachers distracts communities from public education’s eight ball. For the kids’ sake, I hope the roots hold strong. Politics brought on the devaluing of educators in Wisconsin. Politics can restore educators' professional standing.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

False Narratives Dogging Public Education

Yale Commencement, 1962
In annual class discussions about slave history, almost always some student asks, “Why didn’t slaves resist slavery?” Of course, this is a fallacious question. I do not blame the annual questioner since the premise is rooted in a false narrative retold many times in the historiography of American slavery.

I have learned to anticipate the question and use it to launch into deeper lessons about false narratives in history. The retelling of the slave compliance myth was certainly a byproduct of our country’s persistent racism. Thankfully, ex-slave testimonies and the work of revisionist historians challenged this myth and unveiled how slaves resisted slavery often and in many ways during America’s antebellum era. However, the yearly recurrence of the slave resistance question in class discussions shows how these false narratives dog the study of American history long after facts have refuted the myth.

Likewise, many falsehoods persist in the public education narrative. The central approach of historian Diane Ravitch’s brilliant new book, Reign of Error, is to counter the many national myths dogging public education. As anticipated, Ravitch’s facts are ignored by the opponents of public schools in defense of their strong held beliefs that government can do no good and MBAs know more than teachers about schools and students. Corporate-minded reformers cling to their beliefs and turn a blind eye to the facts.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Meritless Pursuit of Pay-for-Performance

The history of merit pay in schools is almost as old as public education in America. It has failed many times over and in many forms. Many have pursued pay-for-performance (PfP) for teachers as a panacea for alleged public school ills. Progressives and conservatives have promoted it. Both President G.W. Bush and President Obama have supported it. 

Chapter 12 of Diane Ravitch's brilliant new book, Reign of Error, lays out the old and new history related to merit pay in schools. In short, old schools and new schools of many types pushed by many different entities have failed to implement successful PfP plans. 

Unfortunately, my kids' district keeps signaling a move from the current teacher salary schedule to a complicated, labor-intensive, stack-ranked pay system for teachers. I worry a PfP is being produced by local officials without a thorough look at the educational reasoning and research.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Turn This Ship Around

My good friend, Fr. Joe Zimmerman, chimes in this week with his own review of Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error. Zimmerman blogs at

Diane Ravitch has bitten off a lot to chew. She aims to change the direction of ten years of national education policy. She attacks No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration program which she originally promoted. But she attacks with equal vigor the Race to the Top program of Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

Author of fourteen books on education, she has been awarded the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize sponsored by the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and like Moynihan, takes opinions from both sides of the political spectrum seriously.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Diane Ravitch: Public Schools' Modern-Day Dewey

Three years ago, a colleague of mine kept telling me I just had to read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Admittedly, I knew little about Ravitch then and was less enthused to take on the read, realizing Ravitch previously served in President George W. Bush’s administration. My colleague, however, was relentless in getting me to take on the book. The persistent pestering paid off and her book instantly became one of my favorite professional reads.

Two pages into Ravitch’s reflection on her life’s work, I was hooked. She jumped right into a courageous mea culpa for formerly supporting failed education reforms--such as accountability, high-stakes testing, and school choice. At the time of her conversion, Ravitch was already well-past retirement. Instead of looking back nostalgically, Ravitch reflected critically on her former support for competition-based education reforms. Ravitch asked herself, “What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt but adheres unflinchingly to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence?” I was and still am impressed with Ravitch’s open-mindedness and authenticity. Since then, I have soaked up almost all that she has written. 

Ravitch was a renowned education historian long before The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but has emerged in the past three years as the most respected, modern-day defender of public education. She is refreshingly authentic in an educational world saturated with self-serving reformers. She is as critical of President Obama’s test-based education policies as she is of Republican plans to dismantle public education. She stands for public education. Her style is direct. Her work is reasoned and researched. She courageously takes on the corporate education reformers determined to inject free market ideology into public education. She thinks critically and is a prolific writer. She is the John Dewey of our era.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Just in Time for Labor Day, A New Employee Handbook

A big deal to many Janesville school employees, but a sidebar note in the local paper (and just in time for Labor Day!) was the unanimous board approval of the school district’s employee handbook this past week.

As noted in my last posting, the Janesville’s teachers union is one of the last holdouts in Wisconsin to be subjected to Gov. Walker’s discriminatory Act 10 legislation, which ends most collective bargaining rights for almost all public employees. This questionably constitutional and purely partisan legislation forced districts, like mine, to shift the rules and regulations of work conditions from collectively bargained labor contracts to district-produced employee handbooks.

Of course, this is what Wisconsin (and more commonly non-Wisconsin) neo-cons wanted. Top-down management dominates. The public educator’s perspective is devalued. Under Act 10, hierarchical bureaucracy now trumps collaboration and teamwork in many Wisconsin public schools. This is a step back from the collaboration-focused professional learning community (PLC) model I desire for all Wisconsin public schools. Most frustrating, this neo-con concocted counterfeit medicine distracts all of us from the eight ball.