Friday, August 19, 2011

Teachers facing uphill battles as school year begins

National Public Radio did a service last week by highlighting the mood of teachers as they return to the classroom this month. And thank goodness for NPR; when was the last time your local newspaper surveyed the mood of teachers, asked them to comment on what's happening to them, published much more than a political cartoon at their expense?

As students prepare to begin another school year, their teachers are hopping mad. They're facing layoffs and deep budget cuts and many say they're tired of being blamed unfairly for just about everything that's wrong in public education. They're so mad that many are bypassing their unions and mounting a campaign of their own to restore the public's faith in their profession.

Betsy Leis, a middle school teacher in Florida, is one of these angry teachers.

"I give my heart and my soul to every single student in my classroom and all I see on the news is that we aren't doing our job. We're constantly beat down. That's why I'm angry," Leis says. "I don't make any money and part of me is OK with that because I don't do it for the money."

And it's not enough that people don't appreciate teachers, they've become punching bags, says Claudia Rueda-Alvarez, a high school counselor in Chicago.

She says if people believe this country is going down the tubes, why don't they single out the people on Wall Street who are still getting million dollar bonuses?

"But everybody seems to be talking about a teacher making $50,000 to 60,000 a year — 'Oh my God, greedy teachers!' — so that passion that I feel for my profession will not be taken away by fear. If anything, it energizes me more," Rueda says.

This energy and need among teachers to speak out is not just in a few places. It's all over the country.
The consensus though is that the Obama administration's education policies are no less prescriptive or punitive than the much maligned No Child Left Behind law. And high stakes tests are undermining quality instruction and good teachers, especially if test results are used to evaluate teachers or decide how much they should be paid.

"Testing is a more of a means of addressing the accountability issue despite the way it's been portrayed," says Joe Williams, who heads the Democrats For Education Reform, a liberal lobbying group that focuses on teacher quality issues.

Williams says no one is trying to punish teachers or make testing more important than children. The problem is that this discussion is taking place in a very polarized political climate.

"The notion that education reform could get wrapped up so closely with attempts to eliminate collective bargaining has made it very difficult to have this conversation all over the country," Williams say.

But it's not just about politics, says Mike Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute.

"The reason that these debates are happening now is because of the economy. You see policymakers seeing that this crisis is an opportunity to fix some things that have been broken for a long time," Petrilli says.

Petrilli says tenure and seniority policies are good examples. With teacher layoffs on the horizon, how do you decide who to let go?

"It has never made sense to say that when layoffs are necessary, we're going to get rid of the youngest teachers, regardless of effectiveness. How that could possibly be good for kids? That's crazy," Petrilli says.

And yet, at the beginning of the year, Petrilli says, 14 states mandated that layoffs be based on seniority, not effectiveness. The other huge issue that doesn't get nearly as much attention is the teacher pension crisis.

"Many teachers teach for 30 years and then retire for 30 years and for those 30 years, they're making 60 or 70 or 80 percent of their salary indexed to inflation. This is like the Social Security debate. At some point the numbers just don't add up," Petrilli says.

That's why state lawmakers are asking teachers to put more of their own pay into their pensions and health care benefits, which teachers view as attack on their profession.

As for the broader education debate, Petrilli and others agree that Washington will remain in gridlock and the big education battles on the horizon are going to play out in the states.

"This is where teachers unions are at their strongest and this is where you've got some of these bold Republican governors who are ready for a fight," Petrilli says.

Just in time for the 2012 election.

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