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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The attack on teachers continues


by Tracey

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Wisconsin Governor Walker succeeded in his aim to remove collective bargaining rights to teachers and other public employees. And, following right behind, Providence, Rhode Island issued pink slips to all of their 1,926 teachers. Sure, most will likely get hired back. But what this move effectively does is remove collective bargaining for these teachers. If you watch the heart-wrenching video of the board meeting, the teachers were begging to be laid-off rather than terminated. A termination for everyone means that the district can hire whomever they want back, regardless of seniority. It’s difficult to sit back and watch these two demoralizing attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions.

In both of these stories, the governor of Wisconsin and the mayor of Providence claimed these were necessary moves because of severe budget shortfalls. While it’s true they’re experiencing a budget crisis; it’s false to presume these actions will aid in alleviating the budget. We know that Walker offered tax cuts to businesses and is further diminishing state revenue by eradicating collective bargaining for public employees.

Unfortunately, people seem to be buying the argument and agree that everyone “needs to sacrifice.” I wonder if these drastic moves are being blamed on budget issues because if Gov. Walker and Mayor Angeles Taveras came right out and said, “We want to dismantle labor unions and end collective bargaining for working Americans,” they know they wouldn’t get elected. A recent poll shows that Americans are still in support of collective bargaining. This brings me some hope. However, there’s no question teachers’ unions are under attack. And the fervor behind this comes from the mistaken notion that teachers’ unions are all about protecting bad teachers.

We know this isn’t true thanks to Tom’s post, where he featured data showing that about two percent of public school teachers get fired each year. Unions provide teachers, whether good or bad, with due process. They don’t protect a bad teacher from being terminated. If that’s not happening in your school, look around and you’ll also find an ineffective principal.

One thing we all seem to agree on is how important quality instruction is to a child’s education. I hear this idea repeated from everyone discussing education policy: teachers, administrators, parents, teachers’ unions, politicians, Davis Guggenheim. It’s a common-ground issue. So, why did congress lower the standard for defining what it means to be a highly qualified teacher to include “teachers in training?" Valerie Strauss, education blogger for the Washington Post, calls it “a gift for Teach for America” since their teachers enter the classroom with only five weeks of training under their belt.

Teach for America, as I’m sure you know, is made up of young college graduates from elite institutions who commit to teach in high poverty schools for two years. It’s a sort of “Peace Corps” experience before moving onto graduate school and other careers and leadership positions, such as, say… for example, superintendent of DC Public Schools. (Michelle Rhee got her three years of teaching experience by becoming a TFA teacher.)

There’s no labor union for teachers of Teach for America, unless you’re including NEA, AFT, and local affiliates. These teachers aren’t negotiating for lower class sizes and health care benefits. But they are moving into areas where there aren’t teacher shortages. And, yes, in some cases, they are taking the vacated classrooms of laid-off, more experienced teachers and competing with brand new teachers fresh out of teacher education programs. Starting next year, TFA teachers will be in both Seattle and Federal Way school districts. Likewise, they'll also be in Providence, Rhode Island. According to the TFA website, they are hoping to hire 35 new TFA teachers for the 2011-2012 school year.

You might think that TFA would have the benefit of alleviating budget issues, such those facing the Providence school district. Teachers with the least amount of experience are lowest on the pay scale. Hiring TFA teachers could save money. But that’s not the case. In fact, due to their high turn over and necessary training, they actually cost districts $70,000 a year per recruit. Districts pay the same salary to TFA teachers as they do to their regular teachers, plus a $5000 finders fee to the organization.

Regardless, the Teach for America model seems to be a success. They’re in their 20th year and expanding to more regions. The Department of Education awarded them $50 million to broaden their work.

Does this raise questions for you like it does for me? If TFA isn’t working to improve the quality of instruction students receive, reaching out to address teacher shortages, or reducing the cost of educating students, why is it getting so much praise and attention? I can see how putting high energy, bright people in classrooms with high needs can have a positive outcome. I’m all for more people in the classroom. But who is it benefiting? Is it benefiting kids? Maybe. However, this account doesn't suggest that. Nor does this one. Research also doesn't support this claim when comparing test scores of students of TFA teachers with students of certified teachers. But, we know how murky test scores can be.

Is it possible that TFA benefits another group of people we’re not thinking about? Maybe, people who want to see the demise teachers’ unions? What do you think, does Teach for America weaken teachers’ unions?

Here’s an internet game you can play. Open up the page listing the Board of Directors for Teach for America and Google the members. Try, in your search, not to bump into Texas oil billionaires, off-shore oil drilling ventures, and financial consultants for 80% of the 70 biggest banks and financial institutions. I’m not saying these are bad people. I have no idea. Their mission seems extremely admirable. I’m just questioning if they share the same interests I have as a public school teacher who wants to see public education become the best it can be for a free democracy. Or, might they be more concerned with removing one of the last obstacles restricting the privatization of the public sphere? NEA president Dennis Van Roeke made a statement regarding these recent attacks to our union, "America Cannot Have a Middle Class without Unions." I hope that once we get through this recession and our next series of elections, we can still find quality instruction from teachers who enjoy their work, students who are curious and engaged in valuable learning, and labor unions protecting the interests of the middle class.

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