Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Happy Furlough Day!

I’m on furlough today. Along with all the other teachers. Due to budget cuts, we each lost a day and a half of work time last year and this year. This is, in effect, a “tax increase” on teachers, because we get less income than we would normally have earned.

So, in celebration of my tax increase, at the benefit of those who don’t have to have theirs increased, today is a good day to discuss the influence of money in education.

Most government officials will say that the majority of educational expenses are used for staffing. If you add up salaries and benefits, they say most of the money gets spent here. And this is a true statement.

The problem is, this only concerns money spent specifically on schools by the government.  And it doesn’t discriminate between teacher salaries and school bureaucrat salaries. In addition, gargantuan sums are spent by other organizations in other parts of the educational industry. Let’s look at a few other areas of education expenses.

  • Advocacy groups. These include groups like the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, Stand for Children, the Alliance for Education, the Gates Foundation, and the League of Education Voters. There are dozens of these kinds of organizations across the country, and they are mostly funded by private and corporate donations.
  • Standardized testing. The state of Washington spends about $50 million per year on its state assessments. This includes grades 3-8 and 10. In 10th grade, students take reading, writing, two math, and now science (officially biology) assessments. 
  • Technology. The McAllen School District in Texas is planning to give away over 25,000 free iPads and iTouches to its students over the next couple years. This despite the fact there is zero evidence it will have any benefit to student learning. Why is it districts are so willing to “experiment” with massive technological expenses like this, but can’t find the money adequately staff schools? At my high school, we have three counselors and 1400 students. That’s almost 500 students per counselor. As teens like to say these days, “Really?”
  • Administration expenses. This is not about principals or school staffs, which are for the most part understaffed. This is about district and state staffing. How many people does it take to track all the data from the hundreds of schools and districts across the state. Look at the OSPI website. The amount of data accumulated there is impressive. Someone is being paid to collate, analyze, and present all that. Someone’s being paid quite a bit, most likely. Then there are the coaches, the professional development course instructors, and all the managers and the managers of managers. A couple years ago, the Seattle School District eliminated 90 district staff positions as part of budget cuts. When I heard this, I wondered, “What could 90 people have been doing that we are able to cut it and still keep the lights on?” If 90 people can be let go and operations still keep running, something seems off. If we lost 90 people at our school, the building would be empty.
As a sidenote, the Potter scandal from last year only bolsters this argument. Why does a school district even have a “small business program.” What does it have to do with schools? And there was an entire office, with multiple (likely paid more than teachers) employees, doing...what? The mishandled million dollars was only one of the scandals here. The other scandal was, why does this program even exist? In a school district? (Read the Seattle Times article)
  • Standards development. I have been teaching for eleven years. In that time, we have seen three different versions of state and district standards, such as GLEs and EALRs. And the fourth one (Common Core) is about to be forced upon us. Four different sets of standards in 11 years. It’s laughable when you think about it. But how much money does it cost to develop, edit, rewrite, test-run, rewrite again, and finally publish these standards. Based on these numbers, I’d say about three years. Because then they start doing it again. I believe there are professional “standards writers” who work full-time continually revising and re-developing new sets of standards. Am I wrong? Then why have we had four sets of them in twelve years? Do they really make that big a difference? (Or, are they just changing the acronym? In that case, acronym writing is pretty lucrative)
  • Union dues and expenses. My monthly union deduction was $75.33 in 2010. Last year, it increased to $83.25. That’s a 10.5% increase, in one year! This is at least triple the increased cost of living. What in the world do they need a 10% increase in dues for in a single year? Where is this money going? Why, if it’s supposedly used to lobby in our interests, did we get a tax increase (the furlough) the last two years? So, I lose money to furlough days, and I pay an additional $95.04 to the union? That doesn’t add up. We talk about government accountability. What about union accountability? What are they spending my dues on that demands such a huge single year increase, and why don’t I get to vote on this? 
  • Certification expenses. This isn’t just the money teachers are forced to spend to re-certify themselves every five years (which amounts to many thousands of dollars over a career). It also includes the expenses of running the re-certification programs. There are state and district expenses here, but also the colleges and other programs that offer courses to teachers. There are entities called “Educational Service Districts,” or ESDs, that specialize in courses like these. In addition, there are standards for these programs. Even the colleges that offer initial teaching credential certification are subject to state and federal standards for their programs. And like the learning standards for students, these program standards also change every few years. So that’s more people employed to re-write more standards, more re-evaluation, more feedback loops, more development, etc.

Deeper Analysis
I may be leaving a few things out, but these are the big money-sucking expense areas that immediately come to mind.

What are we to make of all this? How much of this is necessary, and how much is exorbitant waste? What are the dollar amounts?

Answering these questions first requires a little more information. A case can be made, however, that our furlough days would be easily avoided if some of these expenses were scaled back or re-routed.

Advocacy Groups
This is the politically correct label for these groups. A more accurate one would be “agenda-driven organizations.” On this blog, I prefer the acronym “PeWKoB,” which stands for the People Who Know Better, because they think they do. I also call them the “meddlers.”  But whatever the term, I have written a fair amount about them in the past year.

For this entry, the main point is this: With the many millions of dollars raised and spent by these groups, you have to wonder what would happen if that money was used for other purposes, such as helping us avoid our tax increase. Now, I know in the real world this would never happen, but the point remains that there are vast resources being spent in the area of education outside the government.

The charter school vote on Initiative 1240 coming up this November is a prime example. The entire funding for the pro-charter campaign has come from a handful of people. All of them are extremely wealthy; none have any firsthand experience with education; all believe they know what’s best for it.

Top donors include Bill Gates and other Microsoft people, Jeff Bezos from Amazon, and Alice Walton from Walmart. (Check out who gave how much to previous failed charter campaigns here). So an entire campaign survives because of a few rich guys with no actual expertise. So far, these wealthy supporters of Initiative 1240 have already donated $3.5 million. How much would it cost to eliminate our furlough tax increase?

Now, people can spend money on whatever they want. But there’s not much justification for much of what these groups do with theirs.

Another example occurred about ten years ago. The Gates Foundation decided it wanted to transform large high schools into smaller “schools within the schools.” It paid for us to have shorter school days sprinkled throughout the year, small discussion groups, catered food, and a variety of committees that explored ways to change the structures of the school.

Gates spent millions on this in dozens of high schools. And a few years later, the Foundation itself admitted that the cause was misdirected and ineffective. The schools that were transformed did not show significant improvements. They abandoned the effort a few years later. So, millions were spent, and made only marginal improvements, at best.

And people say the private sector does better than the government?

Standards Development and Testing
But wait! Here comes the government, striving to outdo the ineptitude of the meddlers.

Every time a new set of standards is developed, a whole series of events follows. The state tests have to be modified to conform to the new standards. New questions have to be written, evaluated, field-tested, and edited. New grading criteria have to be developed and properly aligned. New curricula has to be developed and/or approved such that it reflects the new standards as best as possible. When possible, this also means new textbooks have to be purchased.  And, new teacher and principal evaluations have be developed to reflect the new emphases in the standards, if they have changed sufficiently.

New standards can also mean in many cases new software, new professional development courses, new training, and new test preparation resources (available on the OSPI website).

Now, some standards are more different than others, so not all these changes have to happen every time. The point is, it’s all interrelated. There’s a ripple effect. You can’t just change standards, and now magic! The system reflects them.

The expenses spread throughout the whole system, both government and private.

I’ve sat in on these test-question development/revision a couple times. Coming up with high quality test questions is hard. It takes hours just to get a few really good ones, including the scoring guides if it’s not multiple choice. We are spending over $50 million a year to produce, administer, evaluate, and report results for the inordinate volume of testing to which we’re subjecting our students.

So, we should ask ourselves, shouldn’t we: What kind of difference is all this making?

And here’s where you can get seriously depressed, if education is your whole life (which fortunately, it isn’t mine, believe it or not). 

The truth is, these standards make little to no difference in educational achievement.

There are a fair number of teachers (myself included) who hardly ever even look at the standards. In fact, we do what we can to avoid them. Why? That’s a long answer, and I’ll have a post on it in the near future where I explore the new Common Core standards in great detail, and demonstrate how little difference they will actually make.

But you hear people in the education industry talk about how great an impact these new standards will have. They talk about them like they are the Second Coming. Of course, they’re really the Fifth or Sixth Coming, as I’ve mentioned.

But this time! This time they’re perfect! We know we said those other standards were really good when we wrote them or approved them. We know we promised great improvements in math skills, or reading comprehension, or science literacy, or writing ability. We know we trained you, and emphasize how important it was to follow this, do that, teach this, and assess that.

But this time! This time it will really be true! This time you’ll see.

I’m not holding my breath.

This is why I don’t look at standards. Because they keep changing. And in continuous change, we find no change at all. If it’s constantly being altered, then in reality, nothing is altered.  Let me say it a different way:

Do you believe that when a new set of standards comes out, that teachers sit down, examine their curriculum (for each prep–I have three), search out how the new standards might conflict or challenge what we do, and then make all the necessary alterations?

Do you know how much time that takes? If the new standards are different enough, it takes years. It takes wholesale revamping. If they’re not that different, it might be even harder because we have to evaluate each assignment, activity, and test for how closely it aligns. We can keep some parts, but not others. 

Knowing new standards will come out in three or four years, would you invest much time in this? In addition, the reality of teaching is that what we teach doesn’t change that much year to year. I mean, when in algebra will we not teach slope? What writing class isn’t going to teach persuasive writing? When will we not need to learn how to add and subtract?

Yet, these standards-writers (how much do they make?) will fret and parse and debate the merits of every single word in their latest draft, as if a single word will have colossal ramifications across the state. As if teachers will be left in panic-filled trepidation and uncertainty.

No, I’m still teaching the atom. I’m still going to teach density. We’re still teaching the Pythagorean Theorem.  This stuff isn’t going to change.

Am I saying we need no standards at all? Well...

I’m saying at the very least that we place far, far too much emphasis on them, and expect way, way more from them than we will ever get. And the amount of time and money spent on them is largely wasted. It would be better spent to prevent my tax increase.

Union Dues and Expenses
Is a teacher going to publicly criticize the union?

Well, yes.

Let’s look at the data. Here are the monthly dues and percent increase for the last seven years:  
2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
$66.26 $67.50 $69.75 $72.50 $75.84 $75.33 $83.25 ???

1.9% 3.3% 3.9% 4.6% -0.7% 10.5%
(This is the combination of SEA, WEA, and NEA dues. They are taken out as a lump sum, so I can’t break down how much each union gets)

It sure is interesting that the percent increase goes UP every single year, except for 2010, probably because of the down economy. Thanks for your consideration. Of course, this was vaporized the next year with the 10.5% fleecing.

We get no say in this. We get no accounting of how it’s spent. We have no reprieve if we feel it’s excessive, unnecessary, over-burdensome, or wasteful. 

Now, most union reps (but not all) will tell me that if I have a problem with it, I should “get involved.” My answer to that is, “No, the union should act responsibly and work with what it has. Further, it should have to justify its need for increased dues.” I don’t want to spend my time working in the union. I’m not interested in that part of the job. It just doesn’t appeal to me.  I have other interests.

And having other interests does not make my opinion invalid. If the only answer to my complaint is to “get involved,” then what I’m being told is that only people who are interested in working with the union can have a say in its policies and procedures. But, isn't it my union?

The truth is, they don’t need this much money. The cost of living over the last seven years has not gone up that much. The whole economy tanked in 2008, and has only recently sort of recovered. Yet, in the last seven years, our dues have increased by almost 26%! That’s approaching the levels of health care costs. 

Where has this 26% gone? Advocating for my interests? Well, considering this furlough tax increase, these dues increases seem to be money not well spent.

It looks suspiciously like an entity that exists to serve itself. To them, it probably seems like they have lots of unavoidable expenses. I would imagine though, that if an independent mind were to examine their expenses, they would come to a different conclusion.

The problem though, is that unions are highly un-democratic. We get to vote for our local reps, and supposedly for the top positions of the union (president, VP, etc).  But in fact we have almost no information about what these people actually believe, especially on issues like this.

All their campaign literature is filled with promising rhetoric about serving our interests in Olympia, and fighting for us, and the like.  I have never once heard the subject of union dues even mentioned.  They never talk about the efficiency or accountability of the organization. They never talk about how to listen to teacher voices better or run meetings more productively. 

In government, we can vote about taxes. We can vote them in and vote them out. We can make it harder or easier to pass tax increases.  We can also see how the money is spent. There’s even an entire office, the state auditor, who monitors how the government spends its money.  And there’s still waste!

So how is it then that in a union, there’s none of this? And we naively expect them to wisely and judiciously use our dues money? With no oversight? Why don’t we get to vote on our dues increases?  Or see what it gets used for? (And I need more than a pie chart with three or four broad, vague categories). 

Someone, somewhere, settled on a 10.5% increase in dues. That number came from somewhere. I want to know where. Because that, combined with my furlough tax increase, just doesn’t seem right.

Certification Expenses
Lastly, let’s look closer at the certification industry. Yes, industry. This is probably the least known sector of financial expense (and waste, in my opinion) in the education industry.

And it is one of my most loathed. When I was going through the worst of it, I thought the main reason I might someday quit teaching is because of all the certification hassles. If something is hard, it better be useful.

To be a teacher, the first step is to get certified. This is the most important step. If you want to improve teacher quality–Listen all you meddlers!–the worst way to do it is to make it easier to become a teacher.

The fact that many of the pro-charter advocates like Steven Brill also speak highly of alternative forms of teacher certification, such as Teach for America and the plethora of highly questionable online programs, demonstrates their lack of understanding of quality teaching.

There are online programs that certify teachers with no in-class experience required. I even once heard a person argue that it was a terrible idea to risk allowing intern teachers to “practice” on real students. Are we going to teach the air? So there are some laughable and oblivious opinions out there, and some of these people have started programs to spread their lunacy.

Learning to teach online would be like learning to fly a plane by watching videos. At some point, you have to do it, and it’s a lot better when there is a mentor nearby to help you get started.

So, I am not in any way against certification. What I am against is this odd notion that somehow, five years after getting the job, we apparently forget how to teach and have to spend several thousand dollars getting re-certified all over again. 

I was in the first class (the guinea pigs–it was a legendary nightmare) of what was called the ProCert, or Professional Certification program in Washington. When you first got licensed, you’d get an Initial Certificate. Within five years, you had to begin a program to get your ProCert. Since then, I heard the name has changed (big surprise) and the requirements have changed almost yearly as they revise and refine it. But all along the way, universities have had to develop programs to make it possible for teachers to fulfill the requirements of certification.

This means doing much of the work we just did a few years back to get certified the first time. Another in-depth, laborious process with lesson plans, video samples, work samples, reflections, student work, assessment data, analysis, and much more–all of it to demonstrate that we know how to teach.

The problem is, we just showed all that in the Initial Certification program we just finished. Any teaching program worth its salt has a rigorous process that is hard to pass. In other words, few teachers will pass these programs and be incompetent teachers. Very few.

So why, five years later, must we prove again what we’ve just recently proven?

I’m not arguing against evaluation. I’m arguing against having to spend thousands of dollars more, hundreds of hours, and lots of stress, proving what we just proved when we can least afford it and have the least amount of time. The first few years of teaching are already the hardest. And now we want to saddle new teachers with this huge additional burden on their time?

If so, we better be sure it’s worth the expense and headache. I assure you, from experience, it’s not. And I have a hunch the colleges are annoyed with these programs too. I bet they’d much rather be able to devote all their resources to initial certification, and leave this unnecessary hoop-jumping alone.

More Certification
That’s not all. In Washington, after showing we haven’t forgotten how to teach, we then have to get re-certified every five years. We must accumulate the equivalent of 15 college credits every five years by taking various courses, seminars, workshops, training sessions, meetings, or other PD (professional development) opportunities.

Some of these programs are good. Most aren’t.

I had the benefit of being part of an excellent one a few summers back called Professional Teachers of Science (PTOS). It helped us improve our instruction of science in significant ways. So there are some good programs and opportunities out there.

But every five years? 15 credits worth? Not a chance.

This becomes a major burden, and we end up having to resort to very unhelpful online courses, such as one I took a few years ago from an ESD. It was supposed to take me 20 hours to complete it. I did it in less than two. And I learned even less.

And it was then I wondered, where does the funding for this course come from? The website had dozens of other classes, all with “instructors” you never meet. But someone sat down, wrote this material, created the assessments, and keeps them maintained and evaluated. Someone is being paid to do all this. Probably many someones.

How much money is spent on all these programs?  Will we ever know? Where does it come from? And if we were to cut those amounts in half, would that be enough to pay for our furlough tax increase?  I wonder..

So, as you can see, this could go on much longer. All of these areas, and others, have multiple layers that could be explored and dissected. All of them could be evaluated based on this question: Is this entity worth doing at all, and if so, at what cost? Is the amount we’re spending worth it, at the expense of the other things (teachers, supplies, books, school admin) we could use the money for? Are we maximizing the return for these expenses? Are we improving student learning?

When I consider testing, standards-writing, technology, union expenses, certification, and the meddling advocacy groups, I think you can make a convincing case that most of these things are predominantly inefficient or wasteful uses of resources. And with that, there’s only one thing left to say.

Happy Furlough Day!

1 comment:

Manh Khang said...
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