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WEATHER REPORT: TWO STORMS BREWING
This owl has been flying at 4,000 feet, where the air is calm and the sky is clear. But it's not calm down there on terra firma. We've got ourselves a wild weather front. Now I know why. This storm isn't one stormit's two.
STORM #1: THE TEACHER UNION BACKLASH
The financial storm in California continues to wreak damage, and more people are touched. Unemployment in the state is over 11 percent, the highest since 1941. Both companies and public sector agencies are cutting back hours for everyone. Sharing the pain is common in public sector shops where organizations such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) represent workers, yet sharing the hardship in schools is rare. Teacher union locals are opposing both across-the-board reductions in the work year and reductions in pay. The exceptions prove the rule. This owl is aware of only two districts where labor and management have negotiated pain-sharing solutions: Poway and San Jose.
This owl once expected the California Teachers Association (CTA) leadership to be singing "Solidarity Forever." How naive. Instead, now I hear them singing "Step and Column Forever." No surprise that most locals are following their leaders' cues and defending the jobs of the most senior teachers and the salary schedule. The cost of letting seniority dictate who stays and who goes is terrible for teachers, students, and management. For teachers, the disruption in workplace relations that results from lay-offs is vast. One bump leads to another, causing multiple disruptions for each lay-off event. Of course, it is younger teachers who suffer the most. Those teachers who stay are not necessarily the most deserving or the most effective. They simply have the greatest seniority.
Management takes a hit in the district pocketbook, too, when seniority drives the lay-off list. First, according to Marguerite Roza, economist extraordinaire at the University of Washington's Center for Reinventing Public Education, a district seeking to save 10 percent of its payroll must cut 14.3 percent of its teachers. The reason: younger teachers are less expensive than senior teachers, of course. So the district retains fewer teachers of the more expensive sort. (Note that management shares responsibility for this tradition of relying on seniority to guide lay-offs. If management didn't agree, in the end, it would not be in the contract.)
Second, the dollar value of investment in new teachers that is lost as a write-off when those teachers are laid off is estimated to be between $13,000 and $17,500, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. This owl discovered their research at the California School Boards Association Conference last December. This represents money invested in recruiting, induction, BTSA and other support, and professional development. Where does that cost appear in districts' budget calculations?
Third, management can't determine which teachers are the most effective or least effective. Research from the Battelle Foundation in Ohio shows the lack of correlation between teacher experience and gain-score measured using value-added techniques from Bill Sanders' program with SAS. The opportunity to trim for efficiency in a downturn is not available to management because no districts have both the test instrument and the consent of their teachers association to act on measures of teacher effectiveness. The cost of this opportunity lost is enormous.
This owl discovered that teacher unions in other states are not as defiant as our own. The New York Times of May 24 carried a story about New York state teacher union locals that are voting to share the financial burden. In Westchester County, one local agreed to donate $1,000 per teacher to the district. On Long Island, 733 teachers in the district of Mastic Beach voted to give up $1 million in salary increases to restore 19 jobs that were on the cutting block.
STORM #2: LOS ANGELES LEADERS PUSH THE UNION TO SHARE THE PAIN
Evidence of the brewing backlash was visible in Los Angeles, where the board tried to pass a policy in April that would have enabled management to free up the wheels of administrative review of teacher performance. Whatever diplomacy preceded the board meeting wasn't up to the challenge, and the policy failed by one vote. The policy had several smart practices going for it, including the following:
Well, within a week of the board meeting, the dam broke. A news story in the Los Angeles Times reported on 150 teachers who are on administrative leave from the district and who have been earning full pay while they wait for their day of reckoning. The district's total cost of maintaining these teachers on the payroll is $10 million.
Supt. Cortines was beyond his usual state of calm and controlled grace. In a radio broadcast he sounded livid. The following quotation is from the Los Angeles Times of May 6.
"If I had my way, I would fire all 150, and they would not get another damned penny," Cortines said in response to a question at the end of a news conference at Fairfax High School. "I do not have the legal right to do that, and they're milking the system," he said. "And the system is designed not to protect kids and schools and the educators, but it is designed to protect the very few incompetents that we have."
The story prompted more than 1,200 public comments in 24 hours. Never has this owl seen such an outpouring of outrage, including the following comment:
"I am so glad that the L.A. Times is choosing to stand up against the union and really bringing to surface the waste that teachers are generating. Instead of the constant finger pointing on district officials, UTLA needs to reflect on their own flaws and bureaucracy. How many instructional minutes in a day are wasted when teachers come late? UTLA should follow and shadow teachers in school sites with known problems and work with administrators to weed out problem teachers. Maybe if they step out and see the big picture, they'll begin to realize the burden some teachers create to the whole system."
-- Concerned teacher
When the public learns that California's teachers are the best paid in the country, and that the most senior teachers earn more than twice what the least senior teachers make, I would guess that the union's support will diminish considerably. When the union's dogged opposition to measuring teacher effectiveness with value-added techniques becomes clear, watch out.
Interestingly, the storm over teacher effectiveness and the public is directly connected to the financial storm. What if district leaders could approach teacher layoffs the same way that baseball managers dokeep the best, along with the ones with skills in most demand, send some of the others down to the farm club for the season, and cut the rest loose. The result would be improved morale in the teacher corps, a rebirth of professionalism, and an improvement in teacher productivity.
Listen to local folks. This owl urges leaders to test the public's mood as you move into arm-wrestling over cutbacks to what you spend on teachers. Survey your citizens. Meet with them. Read what they say in your newspapers. Your public's support is likely to be your best ally in any negotiations with your unions.
Use your Web site to communicate. Tell it loud and clear. If your teachers' association is not working with you in this crisis, you can do many things well within the bounds of good diplomacy and law. For starters, why not publish what teachers actually earn in full (salary plus benefits) site by site? You already do so in your SARCs.
Own your choices. If the board of L.A. Unified can consider daring proposals like requiring principal affirmation of each teacher before granting tenure, you can, too. Where does the buck stop for this fundamentally important choice?
Ask parents to evaluate schools. At Supt. Ray Cortines' direction, L.A. Unified established report cards for its schools only a few months ago. Those report cards are not to be mistaken for the official state SARC. Rather they are L.A.'s own way of evaluating schools. As an extension of this project, 350,000 surveys were mailed to parents on May 7, seeking their opinions about school responsiveness to them and their children, customer service provided by school leaders, instructional quality, and more.
To see the report cards for L.A. Unified schools, go to their Web site.
Teachers in L.A. Unified called for a one-day strike on May 15.
Los Angeles Times, April 29. "LAUSD backs off plan to ease firing of teachers."
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