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.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Embrace Yesterday and Today for Tomorrow

Monday I “officially” report for my 11th year of teaching in Janesville’s public schools. This year, however, will be my first season of servicing Janesville without a negotiated contract between the district and my teachers union.

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. Even though the constitutionality of Act 10 is still in question and now before the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, my district and union are forced to stumble together into uncharted territory this upcoming school year.

As we stagger forward, the historian in me finds value in looking back. History matters. I concur with Einstein, "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning." Better understanding the past allows us to move forward better.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Lesson George Zimmerman Never Learned

Usually I trend toward indifference on high-profile court cases, like the George Zimmerman trial, when the constant media coverage kicks in.

However, this case was different. I was and continue to be enthralled on many levels.

My anger toward Zimmerman and his supporters persists. Regardless of what the jury’s "not guilty" ruling indicates, Zimmerman’s inappropriate racial profiling, unnecessary gun-toting, and his obvious hypermasculinity (which allowed him to ignore the 911 dispatcher’s advice for restraint) are deserving of some sort of just punishment.

This Zimmerman case reminds me of my involvement in a criminal chase. I have shared this following story from time to time with my students and long before the Martin-Zimmerman incident. I wish Zimmerman had heard it before he played sheriff in pursuit of Trayvon.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why are Optimists so Negative about Pessimists?

Why are optimists so negative about pessimists?

Pessimists have much to offer society. I would not go as far to write that pessimism is the best policy, but I would not take the other extreme and support my superintendent’s pitch that “Optimism Is the Best Policy.”

True to the optimist approach, my super outlined in a recent blog posting the many positive benefits of optimism, like “...that optimists are: healthier, less likely to give up, more successful in school, on the job, and on the playing field, more successful in relationships, depressed less often, and for shorter periods of time.” Furthermore, she affirms “optimists help create some of the good they come to expect, so they are probably right more than not – and they don’t waste time worrying about what they’re not right about.”

Who would criticize such an optimistic view of optimism? Optimists won’t. The dirty, but noble work of critical thinking is left to the pessimists.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Voucher Schools: Inherently Unequal

State Senator Tim Cullen is one of Wisconsin's finest.  He consistently provides reasoned, historical perspective on state matters.  This is Sen. Cullen's finely-crafted essay on the latest voucher proposal being pushed through the state budget bill.

Last week, I expressed my extreme disappointment when the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee voted along party lines to create a statewide unaccountable school voucher program.

Make no mistake – this plan creates two separate school systems in Wisconsin, both paid for by taxpayers.

In 1954, late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Earl Warren said, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” His words hold true today.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wisconsin's Private School Vouchers Prove Wasteful

John Forester, Director of Government Relations for the School Administrators Alliance (SAA), shares in this blog posting more sound reasoning opposing Wisconsin Governor Walker's private school voucher plan.

Many observers have called Governor Walker’s proposal to expand private school vouchers bad education policy. I agree. But, today, I would like to address voucher expansion from the perspective of fiscal policy.

If voucher advocates are successful in expanding private school vouchers in this budget, vouchers will eventually become one of the largest taxpayer‐funded entitlements in Wisconsin.

I realize this is a strong statement. I also understand that voucher proponents argue the governor’s proposal increases voucher eligibility to just nine new school districts in 2013‐14. But, if you let the nose of the camel inside the tent, it won’t be long before the rest of the camel is inside the tent as well.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dittoing Diane on School Vouchers

Yesterday's release of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) choice school data is ditto to what Diane Ravitch has been reporting on Wisconsin's voucher program for some time.

America's premier education historian, Diane Ravitch has been building the case that Wisconsin’s “voucher schools perform no better than public schools.”  

For the third straight year since being required to pony up test scores, Wisconsin's voucher schools trail neighboring public schools in reading and math scores and lag significantly behind the state averages in student achievement, according to DPI's reporting.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Restore Pride in Wisconsin Schools

With my teaching schedule, I am unable to attend the public hearings on this year's state budget, so I sent the following letter to Wisconsin state legislators to express my serious concerns about inadequate funding for public schools. 

Wisconsin Legislators:

As you ponder this season's state budget, you should weigh heavily this reporting out of Evansville. This story adds to the mounting accounts of how the recent state cuts to public education are not working for Evansville or Wisconsin. 

Evansville's story is Wisconsin's story. Educators and school leaders in this small community have done nearly everything asked under the state proposals of the past two years. Nevertheless, this tight-knit community is being ripped apart from the outside by the reckless state government policies of the past couple years. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Curiously, George Will Joins Demolition Crew

Curiously, George Will, the renowned political columnist, joined the demolition crew hastily trying to tear down Wisconsin’s public school system.

Over the past two years, Wisconsinites have become accustomed to outsiders trying to raze our public school system proudly built by generations of Wisconsin taxpayers, parents, students, and educators--conservatives and liberals alike.

Will joins the ranks of corporate associations (like ALEC), plutocrats (like the Koch Brothers), right wing think tanks (like Heartland Institute), and clandestine groups (like the pamphleteers in my hometown) defacing Wisconsin’s public schools.

This wrecking ball approach to public school reform is typical of those working in concert to tear down public education. Their pseudo-reforming of public schools involves destroying everything (with no regard for existing value) in public education. The demo crews claim to be reforming public education, but actually seek to raze it and rebuild with publicly-subsidized, privately-run schools.

Will’s recent op-ed attempts to bring a sledgehammer to Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) for allegedly indoctrinating students in “consciousness-raising” about racism, recycling, and reproduction. Instead, Will practices sloppy journalism and relies on the unprofessional research of Education Action Group (EAG)--yet another right wing anti-public education group--in formulating his critique.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Biased Letter From a Public School Product

Jenni Dye, an attorney and a Dane County Board Supervisor, let me republish below her open letter to the Janesville Board of Education. She blogs regularly at More Fine Print*

A Biased Letter

I submitted this letter today, with tears in my eyes and hope in my heart. I am sharing it with you because I am truly saddened by what things have come to in Wisconsin and because I think as we deal with contracts, and are often caught up in their financial components, we shouldn’t lose sight of how public education is about students and successful communities.

Dear members of the Janesville Board of Education:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

DNR School Vouchers

For the betterment of Wisconsin, Gov. Walker should adhere to the do not resuscitate (DNR) order and let the state's voucher experiment die peacefully. Instead, this past week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began administering CPR to his flatlining school voucher plan.

In an attempt to rescue the Koch Brothers-promoted plan, Gov. Walker has reversed his position and now supports voucher schools being subjected to the same accountability standards of Wisconsin’s public schools. The falsehood of Gov. Walker’s sudden compromise plan is exposed by the laissez-faire think tanks trying to pump artificial life into this dying plan.

The death bell tolls on the voucher proposal as school leaders, communities, and, surprisingly, some Wisconsin GOPers have come out against the expansion of private school vouchers. This free market fantasy has been beaten and battered by reality for the past two decades in Wisconsin. Comprehensive research shows public schools outperform voucher schools and voucher funds mostly help those who do not need help.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Staff Swap: A Revealing School Experiment

Mixed in with voucher and school choice nonsense, Wisconsin Gov. Walker pitched yet another useless and wasteful education reform this past week that panders to his free market-minded friends.  

His unproven plan to improve Wisconsin schools involves financially rewarding schools that score well on the state’s flawed school report cards. I suppose Gov. Walker believes the free market fairy will miraculously motivate the staff at underperforming schools to replicate the wisdom of the high-achieving schools in exchange for the almighty green carrot.

This nonsensical proposal presumes that staffs in high-needs schools around the state are failing because educators lack the motivation and/or know-how to help students succeed. As usual, Gov. Walker’s education plan ignores the reality of inequity plaguing our schools.

Monday, February 18, 2013

School Choice, A Free Market Fantasy

I worry Act 10 and the subsequent recall attempts have muddied the Wisconsin waters to a point many cannot see clearly what is best for our kids and schools. Clearly, the expansion of Wisconsin’s voucher program is a bad choice for Wisconsin public schools.

Certainly, some anecdotal success stories exist among voucher-using students, but (as Diane Ravitch explains) two decades of comprehensive educational research distinctly shows that, overall, voucher schools perform no better than traditional public schools.

Do not be blinded by the well-funded, school choice marketing of the the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP). AFP is not out to improve Wisconsin’s public schools. Traditional public education runs contradictory to the free market model of competition favored by AFP and other free market think tanks. These tanks think for Governor Walker.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Along with Learning, Let's Measure Love!

I hail from Mark Twain country. Thus, a little satire for this week's posting.

With Valentine’s Day nearing, my family just took its annual love survey.  

Using a privately-run, publicly-funded love rating system--my family members and I rate our love for one another using a scale of 1 to 5. While the surveys are done individually and anonymously, the answers are compiled collectively and the results are shared publicly.

In a spirit of transparency, I am proud to report that the family love meter reading comes in this year at an impressive 4.37. This is a rebound from last year’s dip to 4.28, but short of our all-time love meter high of 4.76 in 2011.

Three of six family members showed improvement. The new grandson broke in at an unprecedented, perfect score of 5.0 on the love meter. The two that did not improve only went down slightly at .09 and .12. The eldest child improved the most at .97. Mom and dad made love meter gains of .41  and .11, respectively.

Why, you may ask, do we go through this annual ritual and analysis of our family love? Of course, who better to turn to in matters of love than business-minded reformers. The data meisters profess that we must measure what we value. In our family, we value love, so--hence--the love meter matters. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Far Right, But Far From Right

What’s right for public education is complicated. Opinions on what’s right are as diverse as the variables that affect school performance. My opinion of what’s right for public schools includes a Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a culture of collaboration, teacher leadership, integration (racially and economically), respect for the teacher’s voice, ongoing professional development, student-centered learning, school-led community partnerships, recognition that learning is beyond measure, differentiated instruction, and, above all, extensive social and academic support for our neediest students.  My opinion alone is complicated.

In formulating comprehensive education ideas, I lean on the thoughts of model teachers (like Dwain “Doc” Preston, David Costigan, and others), renowned education researchers (like Robert Sternberg, Linda Darling-Hammond, David Berliner, and others), respected education analysts (like Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, Valerie Strauss, Alan Block, and others), influential activists from the teaching profession (like Paul Thomas, Anthony Cody, Joe Bower, Nancy Flanagan, Katie Osgood, my wife, my colleagues, and others), and my own teaching experiences. Researching what’s right for public schools is complicated.

The thinking is not so complicated for the right busily repressing Wisconsin’s public schools. The GOP, with its stranglehold on Wisconsin’s state government, are implementing policies that are far from what’s right for Wisconsin’s public schools and simply what’s right for the far right.