Open Letter to the Registered Voter Who Believes in Public Schools

Note: I have combed through all of my op-eds, posts, rants, and lists and compiled from them what follows as a last posting to help get people to vote next Tuesday for pro-public education candidates.

The current General Assembly and governor are very scared of public school teachers and those who support them. Without their support in this next election cycle, many candidates for office simply cannot win. That’s why the governor and NCGA have touted so many “band-aid” style electioneering schemes to make them appear pro-public education.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When the GOP won control of both houses in the North Carolina General Assembly in the elections of 2010, it was the first time that the Republicans had that sort of power since 1896. Add to that the election of Pat McCrory as governor in 2012, and the GOP has been able to run through multiple pieces of legislation that have literally changed a once progressive state into one of regression. From the Voter ID law to HB2 to fast tracking fracking to neglecting coal ash pools, the powers that-now-be have furthered an agenda that has simply been exclusionary, discriminatory, and narrow-minded.

And nowhere is that more evident than the treatment of public education.

Make no mistake. The GOP-led General Assembly has been using a deliberate playbook that other states have seen implemented in various ways. Look at Ohio and New Orleans and their for-profit charter school implementation. Look at New York State and the Opt-Out Movement against standardized testing.  Look at Florida and its Jeb Bush school grading system. In fact, look anywhere in the country and you will see a variety of “reform” movements that are not really meant to “reform” public schools, but rather re-form public schools in an image of a profit making enterprise that excludes the very students, teachers, and communities that rely on the public schools to help as the Rev. William Barber would say “create the public.”

North Carolina’s situation may be no different than what other states are experiencing, but how our politicians have proceeded in their attempt to dismantle public education is worth noting. The list below is not by any means complete, but it paints a clear picture.

  • Removal of due-process rights – This keeps teachers from being able to advocate for schools.
  • Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Removed – Removed a means for teachers to invest in their profession.
  • Standard 6 – Teacher evaluation protocols are arbitrary at best
  • Push for Merit Pay – Never has worked in education. Besides, all teachers assume duties outside of teaching.
  • “Average” Raises – Average and Actual do not mean the same thing.
  • Attacks on Teacher Advocacy Groups – specifically NCAE.
  • Revolving Door of Standardized Tests – And many of the tests are made and graded by for-profit entities.
  • Less Money Spent per Pupil – NC still has not approached pre-recession levels.
  • Remove Caps on Class Sizes – Teachers are teaching more students and sometimes more class sections.
  • Jeb Bush School Grading System – This actually only shows how poverty affects public education.
  • Cutting Teacher Assistants – Hurts elementary kids the most.
  • Opportunity Grants – A Voucher scheme that profits private and religious schools.
  • Unregulated growth of charter schools – No empirical data shows any improvement in student achievement with charter schools.
  • Virtual Schools – These are hemorrhaging in enrollment.
  • Achievement School Districts – Again, an idea that “profits” only those who take taxpayer money and has no successful track record no matter what state they have been established (lookout Georgia!).
  • Reduction of Teacher Candidates in Colleges – We are lacking in numbers to help supply the next generation of teachers for a growing state.
  • Elimination of Teaching Fellows Program – Another way to discourage bright students from becoming teachers.

So what can be done? Actually lots. And it all starts in the ballot boxes.

Remember, North Carolina has 100 counties, each with a county public school system. According to the Labor and Economic Analysis Division of the NC Dept. of Commerce, the public schools are at least the second-largest employers in nearly 90 of them—and the largest employer, period, in over 65. That means teachers represent a base for most communities, the public school system.  And they are strong in numbers. Add to that their supporters. The numbers get bigger.

If public education matters to you at all, then please understand the damage this General Assembly and governor have done to our public schools and communities. The number of teachers leaving the state or the profession is staggering. It is has given rise to a new state slogan: “North Carolina – First in Teacher Flight.” If our communities are to recover and thrive, then this trend must stop.

Do your homework and see which candidates truly support our public schools.

Educate yourself, then please vote.


Merit Pay for Teachers and Other Bad Ideas

Much of what written below was also in a letter to Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam in response to an interview he gave concerning teacher pay. With the idea being floated to give bonuses to teachers whose students pass AP, IB, and CTE tests, the myth of merit pay needs to be revisited.

I do not know of a single instance in public education where merit pay actually has increased student achievement. Yet, many lawmakers (mostly Sen. Skip Stam) not only advocate merit pay, but differential pay based on the willingness “to take on additional tasks” like clubs, coaching, mentor, and chairing of departments. And now there is an item in the latest budget that sets aside $4.9 million for a 2-year pilot to give teachers a $25 or $50 bonus for each student who receives good test scores on AP or IB course tests or CTE tests.

First, look at merit pay as a whole. The bottom line is that merit pay destroys collaboration and promotes competition. That is antithetical to the premise of public education. Not only does it force teachers to work against each other, it fosters an atmosphere of exclusivity and disrespect. What could be more detrimental to our students? Add that to the fact that teachers are teaching more classes and more students than in the past. That alone raises the stakes.

Effective public schools are collaborative communities, not buildings full of contractors who are determined to outperform others for the sake of money. And when teachers are forced to focus on the results of test scores, teaching ceases from being a dynamic relationship between student and teacher, but becomes a transaction driven by a carrot on an extended stick.

Furthermore, the GOP-led NCGA still does not seem to acknowledge that student growth is different than student test scores. Just look at the formula for the grading of schools still in place. The overreliance on test scores alone shows that a bottom line figure that can be interpreted in many ways stigmatizes schools where real student growth is occurring. When some of our colleagues deal with students who experience more poverty, health issues, and other factors, then how can one say that those teachers do not “grow” those students when an arbitrary test score is all that is used to measure students?

Besides, if the NCGA thinks merit pay is effective, then I would question their willingness to fund that merit pay. Anyone who has taught in North Carolina for an extended period of time remembers that we had the ABC’s in effect for years which gave teachers/schools bonuses based on scores. One problem with that model was that it pitted teachers against each other. Another problem is that Raleigh decided not to fund it any longer.

That reason alone makes the idea of giving bonuses for the passing of AP, IB, and CTE course tests to individual teachers a terrible idea. It is saying that some test are more important than others. It is saying that some teachers have a harder job than others simply because of the title of the course. There’s more to it than that.

I teach multiple sections of AP English Language and Composition. Some years I have over 150 AP students in my classes. That’s a lot. To say that all of them will have a passing grade on the AP test in May of the school year is ludicrous. The national pass rate is well below 60%. BUT THEY ALL LEARN AND GROW AS WRITERS.

While I may teach a “tough” course, to say that I alone deserve the credit for their passing the test is also ludicrous. So many other teachers in the lives of those students helped to hone the skill set needed to allow them to even be in the class to begin with. History teachers gave them context for a lot of their arguments. Science teachers and math teachers gave them a basis in logical thinking. Other English teachers gave them a foundation for writing well. And that’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.

How would any lawmaker like to be subject to a system of merit pay as a legislator? Since each person in the NCGA does work that effects all of our state, maybe an evaluation should be conducted by people outside of each legislator’s district arbitrarily chosen without input and that legislator’s pay would be dependent on that report. What if those people were registered with another political party who supported LGBT rights?

The argument for differential pay does not hold much water either. It is very hard to quantify what teachers do for the betterment of the school community. On top of teaching more classes and more students now than when I first taught in NC, I serve on committees, perform duties, attend workshops while having to provide sub plans, work on recertification, coach academic teams, sponsor two clubs, chair a fantastic English department, and provide tutoring. Can you honestly put a market value (words you used) on that? Oh, that does not include the hours spent at home grading and planning.

If North Carolina paid teachers on an hourly wage at “market” value, then Raleigh would literally see almost every teacher’s income double, but that would tarnish our reputation for being in the lowest rung of states in compensating teachers. And if market value is something that some want to use as a guideline for teacher pay, then simply look at our teacher salaries in comparison to other states. In that context, we are literally driving the market down.


When a “Zero” Becomes a “50” And Other Miracles in Numbers – Or, How No Glass is Half-Empty

So, are you a glass is half- empty person or a glass is half-full person? It’s a generic question. I know.

Preferably, I would like to be around a water source and not worry if I had enough to fill a glass and just drink my fill.

But there is another way to never have to worry about if a glass is half-full or half-empty. Just pour what you have into a smaller glass and change the paradigm.

That’s exactly what has happened with many school districts in their decisions to make a “50” the lowest possible grade a student could receive for a quarter grade on a report card.

Let me explain. In a four quarter system for a yearlong A/B class like an AP course, a student could do absolutely no homework, complete zero papers, and refuse to answer any questions on any assessment and get a true zero percent for a quarter score while that student was present for class on almost all possible days.

I would still have to give that student a “50” for the quarter. That’s ten points below a passing grade for doing nothing.

I could have a student who is busting his/her butt to complete work, but is not mastering the concepts as quickly as others. I offer tutoring, extra credit, and differentiate instruction, but that student is still struggling. That student gets a 65 for the quarter.

I would have to say that there is more than a fifteen point differential in the performance of the two students.

It is hard to fathom, but there are students who literally can do nothing for over half the year (or semester for a block class) and still salvage a passing grade in a class where other students have literally sweated and toiled just to pass. They simply pass two quarters and the state exam, an exam that is not made by the teacher but a third party and graded by a third party who then can designate a conversion formula to alter the outcome.

I don’t like it.

Proponents of this policy for a “50” being the lowest possible quarter grade argue that it allows a student to not be placed in a hole of academic failure for a bad quarter. It gives them a chance to work out of the abyss of failure.

However, when you place a 10 point letter grade system for all high schools in North Carolina where a “60” is a “D”, it means that of the 41 of the possible 51 quarter “averages” one could possibly obtain (60, 61, 62, … to a 100) are passing grades. Only 10 (50, 51 … to 59) are failing. I am not sure that this is saving grades for students or actually enabling many of them to play the system.

Think of it this way. I am getting older. My metabolism is not what it used to be. My body does not have that teenage ability to heal quickly and take the demands of rigorous sports activity. Consequently, I weigh more than I did years ago.

What if all of a sudden, the state’s health department changed the guidelines by which obesity is defined? All of a sudden, in the eyes of the medical community, I am not as overweight as I was in previous days because the labeling has changed; the measurements have changes.

Does that make me healthier all of a sudden? No. My body is still my body. You can’t make it healthier by changing the criteria.

But we can make students more successful academically using the same logic? I don’t think so. What if we extended this policy of inflation for other areas of students’ lives? It would be hard to do that in this economy. Many of the students in my classes today have jobs. If they decided not to show up for work without an excusable reason, then they will get fired. If they drive a car and they (or their families) miss a car payment, then they will lose the car.

I guess my point is that we are not doing students a great favor by artificially raising a bad grade due to lack of performance and work. When doing no work at all can still get you half of the points available in a quarter grade, students might be getting a message that that cushion will exist for them at all times.

It won’t.

A good teacher will work with a student, if the student is willing to work. There is tutoring. There is spending extra time looking over a paper or problem. There is conferencing. There are lots of available options to help a student raise a grade that involves still learning. The grade is authentically earned.

In that respect, students learn to advocate for themselves. And that will serve them wonderfully throughout all of their lives.