Friday, June 4, 2010

Money Matters

Maybe you’ve heard, there’s a financial crisis in America. New York City, being a part of America, is having its own struggles. Most recently, there have been rumors and threats that 5,000 teachers will be laid off next year. This includes almost every teacher hired since 2007, and it goes without saying that it includes me.

The teacher contract expired earlier this year, and the city and the union have been in negotiations for months. The union is pushing for an 8% pay raise over the next 2 years. The city is pushing back. They say that they don’t have the money, and the union says that they won’t accept anything less. When they finally reach an agreement, if they agree on a raise, they will have to retroactively pay all of us.

To prove that they have no money, the city has made various threats - some with a stronger foundation than others. They claim that we are in a financial crisis, and prove it by threatening to eliminate free metrocards and yellow buses for students. Given that public transportation is the key method of travel for most students, this was no small thing. My logic said that it was posturing - after all, how much money does the city really save by taking away metrocards? The MTA isn’t a limited commodity - they don’t sell less metrocards to regular people because of the free cards that they give to students. And it’s not a very strong argument to say that less people ride as a result of the kids being on the trains. There aren’t actually many other options in NYC.

But, posturing or not, earlier this year it went to a vote, and they decided that next year there will be no metrocards.

Then it was about charter schools. The Union is anti-charter schools, because teachers in charter schools aren’t unionized. Currently there is a cap of 200 on the number of charter schools in New York. Obama is offering up to $700 million of education funding through Race For The Top. States compete for the money. this money is an incentive for states to change their education policies to focus more on teacher accountability, and less on teacher security. Obama embraces charter schools, and New York’s cap on them looks bad. The city said that unless the union agrees to lift the cap, we won’t get the $700 million, and therefore, teachers will lose their jobs. After much debate, the cap was lifted - it’s hard for anyone to justify walking away from that kind of money in this kind of economy.

The threats continued, big and small, some followed through on and others dropped. The teacher layoffs were the biggest one, marched out this past month. They said that unless the union accepted no raises, there would be 5,000 teacher layoffs. This means that they would have to increase class sizes by up to 45, as they did in California. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a controlled class of 45, let alone one in which learning is taking place. This isn’t college - you don’t just lecture and hope kids learn. A good teacher has to cater their lessons to each individual students level and learning style.

This week, the mayor made an announcement. Bloomberg said that there would be no layoffs, and that he would not agree to give teachers raises. This was great news for those of us whose jobs were on the line, but infuriated a great many teachers who were counting on the raise, and the union, who felt that he had gone over their head, and outside the parameters of the contract negotiation.

Regardless of whether or not we get the raise, the fiscal crisis is doing permanent damage to education. One key example came up this week, when we met to discuss promotional criteria. To go from 6th grade to 7th grade, and from 7th grade to 8th grade, you have to pass your math and ELA state exams. To be clear, passing your state exam requires getting at least a 25% on the state exam.

The exams are graded on a scale of 1 - 4. 1 is 25% or less, 2 is 25% - 55%, 3 is 55 - 75%, and a 4 is 75% and up. The test itself is simple, very basic, minimally challenging. This is where the state sets the bar for its students. The reason for making the bar so low is logical - Bush’s No Child Left Behind bases state funding on performance on these exams. Unfortunately, this part of the plan is as short-sighted as the rest of it, and doesn’t set parameters for the exam. States dumb down exams to increase their funding.

To go to the 7th or 8th grade, all you have to do is pass these exams. You can fail every single class and still get promoted. You can only come to school for the test, pass it, and be promoted. this is a financial decision - the state can’t afford to send kids to summer school, and in an effort to avoid sending masses, they lower the criteria. Again and again they lower the bar to get money, and to avoid spending it. If failing your classes mattered, they would have to sent exponentially more students to summer school, especially considering that most teachers have standards that are far more challenging to meet than those of the state exams. however, as it is, it is essentially permissible for students to move from one grade level to the next only having mastered 25% of the years content. And yet people seem mystified as to how people can graduate from high school being functionally illiterate.

Special education is just as bad. It lowers the bar enormously, and ultimately harms the people in the system. If you have an IEP that says that you have a socio-emotional disturbance, the promotional criteria is lowered. To be clear, socio-emotion disturbances are not a cognitive impairment. The kids with this problem should be able to achieve every bit as much academically as their non-special education peers. Perhaps they need a modified environment, or other specialized services, such as counseling, but lowering their promotional criteria is ridiculous. And yet most of the special education students in my school have this very disability, and they have promotional criteria that requires that they master as little as 20% of the content for the year in order to go on to the next grade. Unsurprisingly, when they end up in a class of kids who mastered 80% of the content the year before, they feel alienated and diminished by their general education peers, and their problems are exacerbated.

Set the bar low, and people won’t fail to meet it. The low expectations that the education system has for its students is infuriating. It the efforts that we as teachers make all year round. We spend our time maintaining expectations, making it clear that there is a high bar that they are expected to meet, and that As are difficult to earn. Then, the student who failed every subject gets the same diploma as the one with straight As.

Financial decisions do effect education - far more than people want to admit. It's not about class size, or lack of resources. Rather, it's about these systemic decisions that are made at the expense of student achievement.

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