Saturday, March 15, 2008

Those whiny teachers…Does legitimate criticism depend purely on the eye of the beholder?

I was angry after watching that omnibus bill go through the non-process last week and had (well, still have) more pointed things to say about Speaker Curtis, Senator Stephenson, and others. I decided to let it go for a few days and get other things done. In the last week, I have seen legislators express their frustration with educator criticism and many comments calling teachers “whiny” and “ungrateful.”

After stepping back for a few days, I could see why that perception exists. Teachers got a much-appreciated raise for the second year in a row as well as an increase in WPU. (Sidenote: WPU is the traditional funding mechanism where the state distributes so much per student to each district. It is NOT a measure of how much or little it actually takes to educate each student; the funds are pooled and shared hyper-efficiently in our crowded schools. Distributing money by number of students is just the fairest way the state has come up with to share state funds among districts with vastly different amounts of students and different needs—big/small districts, urban/rural districts, etc.)

Why are they so mad when the legislature gave them substantial raises two years in a row? Why did some educators argue against the raises?

I think the answers have to do with a common assumption about the legislature’s role and the perceived antipathy for teachers and public education from the legislators.

First, the charge of ingratitude relies on the common language I used in the question above—that the legislature “gives” public educators, and other public employees for that matter, their funding. The language bears some resemblance to common practice both nationally and locally, but I don’t think the arrangement should be viewed that way. We are not children, “ungrateful” for the reward doled out by our legislative parents. Public education for all is a morally just innovation of the 20th century, as well as part of the Constitution of the State of Utah. The legislators are constitutionally charged to effectively fund public education. Funding for the basic needs of education should be viewed as a baseline duty for legislators, just above that of showing up for the session.

Legislators are also elected to represent their constituency. This is a moral duty as well as a pragmatic one for those wishing to be re-elected. Polls at the beginning of the last legislative session and for the last few years have consistently shown immense support for increased funding for education, even when the alternative is a tax cut. Wouldn’t further underfunding public education be breaking the public trust?

So I view legislators who increased education funding during the years with the largest (2007) and 3rd largest (2008) budget surpluses ever in the history of the state as doing their duty and enacting the will of the electorate. A solid, admirable job, but not spectacular. That is not the same as fighting for real improvement in education.

The legislature often tacitly defines “gratitude” as unquestioning acceptance of their will, which educators view as insulting and paternalistic. “Look. We “gave” you these raises, so just quit griping about vouchers, top-down merit pay schemes, false accusations, unproven corporate programs, message bills aimed at non-existent educational problems (i.e. flag and Constitution in every classroom), and our removal of local control. You wouldn’t want to make us mad after all we’ve done would you?” That’s not good or “generous” government; that’s ham-handed manipulation.

That line of reasoning frustrates almost all involved with education. And on top of that general condescending attitude, legislators are constantly misrepresenting information and sending negative messages about educators, directly and indirectly. That doesn’t engender trust or gratitude.

Legislators pressured State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to sign off on legislation attacking their right to donate personal funds to the UEA in 2001, which was over-turned in an expensive court battle, just as outside observers and Shurtleff himself originally predicted. [h/t to The Sidetrack for the link to the Trib blog]

They constantly maligned teachers and education officials as being dishonest during and after the voucher debate.

A week before the referendum vote, Rep. Dougall even photo-shopped an image of State School Board Chairman and voucher foe Kim Burningham and the Borg from Star Trek and wrote an insulting little poem on his blog. Here’s a couple lines:
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a hideous creature -- your absolute worst nightmare, With a little old chairman, so lively and slick, I knew in a moment I'd probably be sick

This was the single most childish thing I saw from a non-anonymous figure during the voucher debate, and you know the legislators would throw a self-righteous fit about disrespect for the office if Burningham were to write a similar caricature of one of them. The attack also includes the vast majority of public educators whose views Burningham represented as their state chair and voice in state government.

Senator Stephenson has made repeated comments on the Senate floor and in meetings with education officials that he believes technology (i.e. teaching software from well-connected development companies) is a substitute for class size reduction as well as accusing teachers of not being willing to use technology. He views us as replaceable by programs and disagreeable because we don’t turn all of our lessons over to computers and become skill drill facilitators. He works against the one issue I view as the most pressing need in education, class size reduction, because his business lobby group (Utah Taxpayer’s Association) doesn’t like education taxes. I would bet a higher percentage of teachers can design their own websites and Powerpoint presentations than of legislators.

I heard claims that teachers and school districts waste money in both of the town meetings I have attended in recent months. Teachers were portrayed as obstacles to progress and the legislators tried to pit us against each other by claiming veteran teachers don’t care about new teachers. (I discussed the real differences between teacher views here.) Senator Madsen made similar claims about district funds and then tried to backpedal when proved wrong by actual numbers.

These are my own views, but many teachers feel the same way. We are glad when our salary and other education funding is increased, but feel betrayed when those important improvements desired by the public are then condescendingly used as justification for attacks on public education by our elected representatives. Is that whiny? I view it as principled intellectual honesty.


Anonymous said...

If technology is such a bad thing, how do you propose reversing the reduction in productivity that we've seen in K-12 education over the past three decades?

Test scores and graduation rates over 30 years are flat yet we are spending more than double per student in inflation adjusted dollars than we did 30 years ago.

Most of the increase in education spending has been for class size reduction, but we haven't seen the benefits after 30 years.

You can't blame all of this on single-parent parent families and Mexicans either, unless you want to sound like a reactionary, xenophobic, patriarchal ultraconservative.

Barbara said...

Utah Teacher, you should submit this to the Daily Herald's as a 'Quest Opinion'. You've done a marvelous job articulating the issues. Well done.

Technology is not a bad thing, nor did Utah Teacher claim it was a bad thing, unless you expect it to replace a teacher. Technology is a tool and must be used correctly as such which requires training and support. Sen. Stephenson loves to complain about schools lack of use of technology but won't admit that his own program is as much to blame. You can't appropriate money for just hardware and/or software without the manpower to support it like he has done. I place far more "blame" on failure to educate our students on failing families than I do on our education system. The class size reduction funds were inadequate, barely funding increases in enrollment and, therefore, unable to affect class size. That is a failure on the Legislature's part.

UtahTeacher said...

You can't blame all of this on single-parent parent families and Mexicans either, unless you want to sound like a reactionary, xenophobic, patriarchal ultraconservative.

I think you have those bases covered anonymous.

Technology is great. It cannot teach in depth. Even the vaunted TALL language training software at the MTC is nothing special without extensive teacher instruction and evaluation. The problem is that Sen. Stephenson thinks we can use software to actually increase class size because it makes things more efficient.

I use a writing program at school that I find very helpful in assisting instruction. It motivates the students and helps achievement IF I carefully train the students and monitor its use. More students makes that more difficult and more time-consuming...i.e. less efficient . I spend just as much time grading though because it cannot score a paper accurately.

The company behind the program makes false claims about the "power" of the grading program and how much time it saves teachers. That's pretty much what you expect from a software company seeking to sell their product. After figuring out which of their claims was true and which were hyperbole, we just ignore the rhetoric and use the program for what it does. Senator Stephenson accepts the claims and "studies" of these software companies at face value with absolutely no understanding of the realities of the classroom.

The unique inflation of public school costs is a myth. The "doubled" inflation-adjusted dollars that you state are exaggerated stats from organizations supporting vouchers and privatization of education. Public school costs are intertwined with all of the other inflationary problems out there. University education costs at public and private institutions have risen even more than K-12, excluding many students and demonstrating that education expenses are not a function of being publicly funded. The healthcare crisis costs the system immensely since teachers are its primary asset. The costs of construction, technology (we didn't have to pay for any computers, software, projectors, scanners, or techs to service them 30 years ago), insurance, transportation (gasoline), and even food have risen along with school costs.

Most of the increase in education spending has been for class size reduction, but we haven't seen the benefits after 30 years.

This is untrue for all of the reasons I stated above, and the recent legislative audit of Utah's class room reduction efforts specifically found that the money allocated had barely kept up with growth.,5143,695237166,00.html

I think a valid argument can be made about the difficulties of increasing funding beyond the rate of growth in a young state such as Utah, but twisting the data to try and cast Utah's schools as fiscally wasteful is dishonest.

Anonymous said...

You want more funding for schools? Cut services. Why did St. George, for example, spend $25,000,000 to build a sixth grade center? That's just one school. Utah is already in the top five for tax burden and yet schools want more, more, more...
Yes, we spend less per pupil than other what? We spend in the top 5 for percent of taxes collected on education. We can collect less property taxes than our neighbors, have less commerce and don't have a lottery. Funding education in Utah "ain't" easy. So why do we have all of these silly programs that we can't afford? Some kid wants to be in a choir? Great. Have their parents deal with it. They want to paint? Good. Have them go to a craft store. I'm willing to help pay the cost of a kid learning to read, write and count.
If you REALLY want to talk about funding education first talk about cutting some fat. If you want numbers I'm happy to provide them to you. $0.42 of every dollar spent on education goes to a non-core class. We're spending 42% of our education budget on classes that matter very little.

UtahTeacher said...

Apr. 8 anonymous,

Please check your numbers again. I know nothing about specific schools in St. George, but 25 million dollars is more than the state spends to build a new high school.

And the Utah Foundation showed recently how education spending as a percentage of our total tax burden has actually gone down dramatically over the last 10 years. We are at somewhere in the high teens now in percentage of tax $ spent on education, and I believe we are no longer in the top rankings of overall tax burdens as well. I totally agree that we have unique funding difficulties in the state and that there is a very valid debate on what our funding priorities should be, but let's work from accurate numbers.

As to wanting to cut all of the non-core classes, I disagree with you on two levels. First, education is more than the three R's. There is constant debate on what body of knowledge and classes compose a "basic education," but I don't believe the vast majority of parents would actually send their kid to a school that eliminated non-core classes. And there are a lot of studies that show non-core subjects actually enhance the ability and motivation of students in their core classes. (i.e. links from music to math skills, art to writing, students who stay in school and complete their core classes because of the non-core classes.)

That leads to my second point, that you are blaming the wrong group for meta-curriculum and class decisions. Teachers have input, but all-encompassing policy like that comes from the state legislature (law last year requiring one more year of mandatory math and bill this year to mandate financial education.) and the public. The culture here highly values the arts and athletics, and I believe the parents of students would give even more fierce opposition than teachers to a plan such as yours. I know I wouldn't send my kid to a school with no other creative and physical outlets. Rep. Hughes, the leader of the Conservative Caucus in the legislature, snuck $15,800,000 for elementary art programs into the education omnibus bill passed during the last two days of the session. I absolutely agree with the principles of the bill; I am unsure whether the actual amount of money spent was justified; and I deplore the dishonest method of packaging the bill. But the point is, arts, music, and other extra-curricular activities are not some "teacher issue." They are demanded across the board by the public patrons of our school.