Category Archives: Education

Teachers’ Union Politics In West Virginia

A pair of nearly identical columns written by West Virginia teacher’s union activist Christine Harrison exemplify the extent to which unions sometimes assume a political authority in speaking for their membership far beyond their actual mandate of negotiating employment contracts including pay, benefits and the terms and conditions of employment.  The two articles which can be found here and here, typify the manner in which unions often push ever more and ever bigger government “solutions” to perceived and real social problems.  Rarely do such efforts have any obvious connection to the union’s stated purpose in representing its membership.  Usually they simply advance leftist political and policy perspectives.

Ms. Harrison claims that “the responsibility to fix the ills of society has fallen squarely on the shoulders of our public schools.”  Not to understate the difficulties that many teachers and administrators face on a day to day basis, but claiming the responsibility to “fix the ills of society” seems more than a bit hyperbolic.  But the hyperbole enthusiastically sets the stage for her demands for more authority and more money.

Of course, she omits any mention of the fact that public policy has been intentionally designed to create in schools a central location for providing public assistance and aid to children.  Public schools’ transition from institutions strictly focused on education to institutions focused on the social and psychological well-being of the whole child didn’t happen by accident.  It happened by design and was motivated largely by the same “big government can solve every problem” attitude we see exhibited in Ms. Harrison’s articles.  Accordingly, Ms. Harrison might have focused her demands on reversing this decades long public policy trend in order to return public education to its original and rightful purpose – education – but that tact wouldn’t serve her union’s purpose of expanding, rather than shrinking, the authority, scope and cost of public education.

Ms. Harrison urges a change in public schools from “an education model” to a “medical/behavioral/tactical model” where teachers will become well versed in medicine, fire arms handling and psychology so as to be better able to do the government’s work of treating, protecting and molding the minds of the state’s children.  Of course, it’s all tied together with more training, more administration and more money for the public school leviathan.  So it goes.  Big government grows bigger by creating legions of government employees represented by big government supportive unions who have a vested interest in supporting even bigger government.  The rest of us are left to watch and experience government’s continual incremental takeover of just about everything.

Ms. Harrison writes that “there is no doubt that educators across the state will be ‘United 55’ if teachers and service personnel are not given proper resources to deal with this impending crises.  If ignored, there will be another statewide revolt which will make the recent strike look like High School Musical 2.”  Her intentions are obvious.  She hopes to set the political stage in an election year and inflame her fellow union membership to take up political arms in favor of expanding public education’s authority, broadening public education’s mission and increasing public education funding. In the process I’m confident she hopes to enhance the electoral prospects of Democrat candidates.  I suspect that Ms. Harrison’s views are not shared by a majority of her fellow union members.  I hope those who disagree with her will make their voices heard within their unions and with those members (like Ms. Harrison) who assume the mantle of speaking for everyone else.

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The Teacher Pay Debate In W. Va.

West Virginia is currently in the throes of a teacher pay debate.  The teachers want raises and a cap on their exposure to increasing health insurance premiums.  Much of the debate has centered around the insufficiency of past pay increases, the comparative pay of teachers in surrounding states, and the effective diminution of their disposable income if it is subjected to market based health insurance increases.  The debate misses the larger problem with the manner in which teachers’ salaries and benefits are determined in West Virginia.

We’ve unnecessarily eliminated all free market pricing mechanisms from the process of setting teachers’ salaries and benefits. The free market would set the price of teacher labor by virtue of what actual consumers would be willing to pay for a particular teacher’s services and benefits. That function of the market having long ago been eliminated, there is no way to determine the ‘correct’ price for an individual teacher’s services.  Instead, it’s left to political (rather than market) processes, where price is determined by the political pull of teachers’ unions weighted against representatives’ mandate to balance the budget while (as always) operating under the perpetual influence of the next election.

Good teachers would undoubtedly benefit immensely from a system that determined teacher pay based upon free market mechanisms rather the ‘one size fits all’ deals cut by unions on behalf of all public educators.  Teachers unions will never support free market initiatives because they 1) necessarily result in higher pay for more effective teachers and therefore, 2) create a class of teachers who perceive themselves to be unfairly treated and thus not adequately served by the unions and thus, 3) erode the unions’ power and influence.

This political issue over teacher salaries and benefits is a good context in which to see this inefficient paradigm at work first hand.   Elected representatives are trying to cope with a budget that must be balanced and an electorate that is clamoring to be heard from both sides of the issue – but particularly from the side advancing the cause of teacher pay raises and increased benefits packages.  Why particularly the teachers?  Because they have the political pull, a perceived vested interest, and the most to gain from winning the issue.

On one hand there is a self-interested political power base in the teachers’ who, for the most part, individually had nothing to do with creating or maintaining this system, but have operated within its paradigm their entire careers.  They’re organized and they want what they want.  They perceive that they wear the white hat in this political battle and they’ve taken that mantle for themselves in the press and in the public statements made by their union leaders and by many political officials who either truly agree with them or are willing to patronize them in hopes of gaining their political support in the future.

On the other hand there is everyone else – the mass of citizen tax payers who have varying experiences with their respective employers and health insurance. No doubt, many have long suffered the experience of seeing their disposable income reduced annually by increasing annual health insurance premiums. As a result, this group is naturally somewhat unmoved by teacher complaints that their disposable income may now suffer because of their own health insurance premiums increasing.  Many who are not employed in government jobs have been laboring under that harsh reality for years.  But as a group, they are not sufficiently organized to take a strong position in opposition to unions who are demanding benefits for members which non-government employees cannot get in the private sector.  The individual benefit or detriment regular citizens will realize from whatever pay scheme the system ultimately puts in place is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.  Their perceived individual interest in the outcome of the issue pales in comparison to that of the teachers.

Everything about this problem ultimately lies in the fact that that there is no market based pricing mechanism for teacher pay and benefits in West Virginia.  As a result, the teacher faction makes appeals as to what the universe of all teachers in West Virginia “deserve”.  If free market mechanisms were employed we would see that some teachers deserve a raise and some don’t.  And some deserve a bigger raise than others.  Rather than implementing market mechanisms to determine what individual teachers actually deserve, the entire question gets dumped into the arena of representative majoritarianism – can a political faction persuade or threaten a sufficient number of elected representatives to their side of the issue to get what they want as a collective group from the public fisc.  That is no way to set the price of labor in a free society, regardless of how much flexibility West Virginia has, or doesn’t have, in the budget.

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A Teacher Speaks Out Against Testing

Tracie Happel, a veteran teacher from South Carolina, authored the following letter wherein she logically and concisely lays out the reasons for her objections to standardized testing and requests that her students not be required to take the two standard assessment in South Carolina. While New York teachers have been the vanguard of the effort by educators against the testing monstrosity, teacher support from the rest of the country is much needed and welcomed. Ms. Happel’s motivation for taking a stand against testing is obvious. While her deep concern for her students does her credit, her willingness to speak out demonstrates real courage and commitment to their education and well being.  Kudos to Ms. Happel.  Here’s to a thousand more like her.

 

I have had the immense fortune of being able to be in front of children for 25 years, as of this year, as a teacher in many different capacities. It truly humbles me to know that for 25 years, parents have entrusted my professionalism, training, care, creativity, and judgment when it comes to their children. My experiences include both regular/general education, and special education. I’ve been able to teach in public schools but I’ve also taught two years in private schools, as well as overseas in New Zealand and China. I’ve been in front of children, college students, and adults. I have loved almost every minute of it.

We all know teachers tend to be a bit more caring than others’ are required to be in their jobs. We are the ones to kiss little boo-boos from the playground, give hugs when a best friend is mean, help tie shoes, do some hand-over-hand guiding when those darn scissors get the most of a little second grader. We are the ones to offer some tough love when writing is not up to par, or math problems can be done better. We are the ones who wipe tears, offer hugs, and offer empathy and part of our lunch when a little one comes without breakfast.

For most of my career, I have taught kids who have special needs; mostly kids with what the profession calls “specific learning disabilities.” This means my students are below the achievement gap, as indicated by ability testing, in reading and/or math. In some schools, they are pulled out for either or both classes and taught a separate or modified curriculum. In some schools, they are mainstreamed, or in the regular class along with me, where I accommodate their lessons according to their learning needs. But no matter the learning environment, the one thing I have consistently heard from my student with learning disabilities is, “I am stupid.”

One of my students this year had tears in his eyes when he asked me why he was “retarded.” I told him he wasn’t at all…he just learned differently. His response was, “Then why am I in the retarded class and all my friends are in the other class?” My students get angry that we are reading texts written for 2nd and 3rd graders when their friends are reading big, fat, thick chapter books. But what big, fat, thick chapter book is out there for kids who read at such a low level? My students KNOW they are different, and from that, they conclude they are retarded, or stupid. And when they say “retarded,” they are talking about the purest sense of the word, not the slang, unacceptable colloquialism that is so common today.

Everyday part of my job is to remind my students they are beautiful, smart, capable, amazing, creative, and worthy. Everyday I work HARD to show them the ways they CAN instead of the ways they can’t. They are all too aware of how they can’t. And it’s not right. Our educational system is set up to show kids what they can’t do. Especially when it comes to testing.

My middle school students, who read between a high first grade level to a high third grade level will have to sit for hours and weeks being forced to read material on a test in all core subject areas: reading, math, science, and social studies that will give them a score. Sure, we can say the score doesn’t matter. We can say it doesn’t affect the kids, and only has meaning for the school or the administration or the teachers. But in reality, we all know kids want to make adults happy. Especially adults who care. My students know I care about them, and when they sit in front of that test, trying their hardest to make me happy and do their best, they will only be reminded that they are stupid. That they can’t read. That they are behind their peers. And their feelings of inadequacy or being retarded will only be pushed further into their heads. For a student who is capable of reading Junie B Jones and being forced to read about Ansel Adams, taking this test will only make them feel worse about themselves. I love what Diane Ravitch says, “Sometimes, the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine on standardized tests because they do not have standardized minds.”

My students are far from standardized. Just look at their IEPs. Even better, come spend a few hours in my classroom and see how they can draw, hear how they can rebuild an engine, how they take care of their sick mothers or grandmothers, how they handle a horse no one else in their family can handle, how they can cook for their family of eight. As a matter of fact, come spend a day with any student in any school and see how not one student is standardized. Isn’t that what we teach them all the time? That they are unique and individual, and not like any one other person on this planet? Why would we change our tune for testing? We shouldn’t change it.

Some people will argue this and say testing shows achievement. It shows learning. As a teacher, who has taught for a very long time, I am here to tell you it does not. And if you are an educator, you already know that. If you are a parent, or a community member, you need to hear and understand it. It is one test. Taken in one day (mind you, each subject area is taken each day, culminating into days and days of testing). Results are not given to teachers in a timely manner, and if/when they are given, they are not diagnostic or useful. They only give us one moment in time showing us either Johnny failed or shined on that day. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no achievement in testing. Just pure, and total failure.

The following are reasons that I object to standardized testing in general and especially for the learning disabled children I serve as it developmentally, psychosocially, and professionally wrong to test these students on an academic level we know is well above their ability. I object to the inhumane test environment imposed upon us. This single test will potentially rank and sort children so that labels of failure may be applied and the door will open for takeover of public schools by private interest groups in the name of ‘accountability’.

I object to treating my students like guinea pigs in an experiment that has not produced any real learning gains but will increase drop-out rates, decrease motivation and will increase anxiety disorders leading to what we’ve already seen: increased suicide among teenagers for the incredible pressure they are put under. I object to the use of Pearson’s set “cut-scores” predicting ⅔ of our kids. These scores will not inform our instruction but will discourage the incredibly hard-working school staff and diminish brave innovation in coming school years. I object to the lack of trust in classroom experts which has been replaced by faith in test publishers devoid of teaching experience and who deny the whole child’s uniqueness. I object to the time stolen as testing becomes the main goal of my reading, writing and language instruction. I object to the fact that SC PASS and SC READY because by failing this test students will lose faith in their individuality, self-worth and higher education or career prospects. Confidence is key to perseverance. I object to the use of SC PASS and SC READY or any standardized assessment that directly correlates to family income. Students of color, English learners, and those with low socio-economic status are disproportionately harmed by standardized testing and yet we continue to increase it-often IN THE NAME OF CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP. This is ludicrous. I object to the lack of transparency on test items and scoring mechanisms; that teachers and parents are not permitted to view the test or the answers their students write is insulting to the people who know a child best. Teacher assessment data and report cards are disregarded by accountability ‘experts’ who strive to label students for their own purposes. I object to the misuse of precious revenue spent on SBA scoring, on practice tests, on required test materials, on contracts with test-prep corporations’ consultants and on staff time for training to teach to the test as well as training for administering the test.

I object to how financial backers for the corporate takeover of education are funding campaigns for candidates who will support SBA testing using billions of dollars earned on the backs of hard-working taxpayers whose children are harmed by this test. I object to the undemocratic process of adopting testing and South Carolina State Standards whereby members of society, notably parents and educators, have not been engaged in ethical discourse around the ultimate purpose of public education and whether or not new standards may or may not solve the real problems impacting education.

I object to the socialist approach to the methods used before and during testing with our families, and students, and in our classrooms, where parents have a right to opt out of other school activities such as field trips, and students have the right to opt out of other school activities such as pep rallies, but neither have a right to object to testing.

I object to forcing children to sit through hours of bubble tests when they don’t even understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. This is inhumane.

I object to children who are just learning to speak, read, and write in English being forced to take standardized tests using English academic language and culturally biased language.

I object to forcing children with special needs to take standardized grade level tests when they have already proven to be 1 ½ to 2 years behind typical peers via a formal evaluation using standardized tests.

I respectfully request that my students not be required to take the SC PASS and SC READY, which goes against my professional conscience.

 

With Best Regards and in Sincerity,

Tracie Happel, M.S., ABD

Teacher

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Our Other Dying “Constitution”

A short time ago, I wrote a blog concerning the death of our founding document, the Constitution.  The point of that blog is that the incremental moves by our Supreme Court away from any devotion to the actual text and the original meaning and intent of our Constitution are rendering it of little meaning or value in politics and in jurisprudence.  As a result, I postulated that the American people may not be willing to abide the Supreme Court as our final arbiter of what the Constitution says and means for much longer.  The Supreme Court is an undemocratic institution.  If it isn’t going to abide by the Constitution, why would we agree to abide by its rulings?

In this blog, I’m addressing a different “constitution”.  Merriam-Webster defines “constitution”  in part as follows: “the structure, composition, physical makeup, or nature of something”.  The point of this article is to demonstrate the manner in which the nature of the American people is changing to the point of non-recognition when compared to what it once was.

To begin, we need to consider what our nature as a people once was.   After our founding on principles of limited government, popular sovereignty, individual liberty and personal responsibility, people from all over the world came here for the opportunity that exists only in liberty.  They did not have perfect lives here.  They struggled.  They suffered.  They faced injustices.  But over time they prevailed and created for themselves a society like no other.  They assimilated.  Their assimilation was not only by language or custom.  Their assimilation was by creed—a  creed reflective of our founding principles of individualism and individual liberty and responsibility.  Relatively quickly, hostilities between and among immigrants from different areas of the world abated as fear, prejudice and misunderstanding were replaced by familiarity and a common language.  Through time, they ultimately understood that they had far more in common with each other than not.  Despite the fact that they spoke with different accents and worshipped in different ways, they shared the same essential creed which is what compelled them to America in the first place.  A prevailing respect and adherence to our creed continued to set the table in America for much of the best a human life can achieve.

Sadly, our creed has suffered through various mechanisms over time.  Intentional political manipulation at the hands of those who have sought to defeat and replace it has done its damage.  Such people have worked for generations to persuade our citizenry that the positive changes and attributes of individualism and free market capitalism are either inadequate or occur at too slow a pace.  As a result, we’ve seen our society incrementally yield freedom and liberty to governmental authority in exchange for promises that rarely materialize.  We’ve seen our creed diminished as such people have worked to drive wedges between “segments” or “classes” of society in order to marshal power for themselves.  Such “segments” or “classes” are created, supported and magnified by such people.  Such “segments” or “classes” would not even exist if our creed were still as strong.

Our creed has suffered at our own hand as well, through atrophy and inattention, as our focus has tended more toward leisure and personal satisfaction.  Our material successes seem to have bred complacency.  The cost of our loss of focus has been a knowledgeable and wary citizenry, capable of understanding that the benefits of liberty are necessarily accompanied by burdens of obligation and inconvenience necessary to maintain that liberty.  We’ve been too easily convinced that we can avoid those burdens by turning responsibility (and thus, power) over to our elected officials and appointed judges.

Finally, the way in which our government has been structurally altered has emplaced real and psychological obstacles to meaningful individual civic involvement.  As a result, the nature of the subset of Americans who are still wedded to our original creed is even at risk of changing.  Centralization of everything from healthcare to public education to speed limits on local highways slowly engenders a defeatist attitude in the mind of the civically interested individual.  Her political voice, once easily heard on a local or even state level, has become a mere whisper, taking a back seat to the special interests groups and cronies who have the financial wherewithal to amplify their voices loud enough to be heard in Washington.  The ever growing and seemingly all powerful regulatory and administrative state is even worse, often leaving individuals with feelings of helplessness and inevitability.

All of these factors are diluting our creed, whether intentionally, by manipulation and propaganda, inadvertently, by our own sloth or lost sense of priority, or by virtue of the perceived immovability of our huge, centralized government.  These factors can be seen at work in any and all areas of society and in all our institutions.  To provide just a few examples:

Education:  In our early years, education was primarily the responsibility of parents.  They sought for their children a classical education which included instruction in the enlightenment.  Children were taught the value of individual liberty and they came to understand and appreciate the greatness and uniqueness of their popular sovereignty.  In more recent years, we’ve yielded our education to “experts” who do not appreciate the importance of teaching our founding history and our founding principles in the context of other governmental and economic systems. Accordingly, when enemies of our creed seek to discredit it, they appeal to minds which have not been prepared to understand and appreciate liberty and free market capitalism.  Moreover, whenever educators themselves oppose our creed, they are perfectly positioned to work to defeat it. When that happens, public education itself becomes a tool in the hands of those affirmatively seeking to change our nature as a people.  Finally, as the authority for local education has moved from cities and counties to state capitals and from state capitals to Washington, our ability to affect meaningful change or even be heard on issues bearing directly on our own children has been diminished.

Entitlement/Dependency:  In our early years, there was little or no notion that society owed anyone anything, other than the protection of the laws.  As the country became materially more prosperous, the idea of a “safety net” garnered favor, particularly when the country faced hard times.  So averse to welfare were the American people that FDR needed to fool them into accepting social security. He did so by packaging it as a retirement savings program into which everyone pays and from which everyone would benefit.  But the amount an individual paid in often had little or no direct relationship to the amount paid out.  Social Security benefits have always been tied directly to longevity, which has nothing to do with the amount an individual paid in.  It was never a true savings vehicle, but a device for transferring wealth.  In modern times, we see that society as a whole is less reticent to entitlements and wealth redistribution schemes.  Wealth redistribution is accomplished through payroll taxes, income taxes, state taxes, our new national healthcare system, forced wages, volumes of regulations and cronyism.  The malevolent forces working against our creed make matters worse by their efforts to divide us as a people.  They instill a sense of victimization and entitlement in subgroups.  This tactic has the intended effect of pitting subgroups against each other, making it more difficult to see us all as a common people with a common creed.  Further, because the citizenry is no longer sufficiently educated to appreciate our founding principles, we are less likely to rally against all these redistributive schemes. Finally, the ubiquity of wealth redistribution which now infiltrates so many aspects of society renders many unsure of their personal interests.  So many receive benefits of one form or another that it is not always clear who are the net winners and who are the net losers in the redistribution game.  What has resulted is a society on autopilot, all too often acquiescing to whatever tweaks and modifications are made to our vast and encompassing redistributive system.

Media:  In our early years, the press understood its role as a government watchdog on behalf of the people.  It worked to safeguard our liberties and alert us to threats of government overreach.  Over time, many in the media became enemies of our original creed and came to the belief that it should be defeated in favor of an egalitarian and redistributive mechanism.  As a result, most of what we get from our national press is, at best, reported in terms which exemplify an acquiescence to the current big government paradigm and an expectation that it will continue.  At worst, it exhibits an affirmative effort to diminish and discredit the founding principles, capitalism, and individual liberty in favor of an even bigger national government with more control over every aspect of our lives.  Finally, too many of us care little about issues of civic importance preferring leisure, or even work, to time spent becoming informed or active with respect to matters of civic importance. Exacerbating this problem, many are overwhelmed and resigned to the belief that there is little they can do. As such, they lose interest in following civic issues, have little interest in current events and few expectations of the press.

In these examples, we see three forces working in concert and effectively reshaping the very nature of the American people.  Malevolent forces undermine it.  Complacency causes it to atrophy.  The centralization and scope of government causes it to become dispirited. The forces changing our nature are much stronger and more effective working together than any one of them would be working alone and there is no sign of any of them reversing course.  As such, it’s difficult to envision us readopting our original creed unless those who still stand for that creed redouble their efforts to persuade the American people as a whole back to our founding principles.

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The Common Core Debate’s Implications For A Return To Constitutionalism.

The grass roots effort to defeat the Common Core might be interpreted by many as a sign of hope.  In an age when federal overreach is routine and the centralization of governmental authority in Washington is widely accepted or even welcomed by the States, the media and a great portion of the citizenry, a proponent of decentralized government and constitutionalism might find the opposition to the Common Core a welcome reason for optimism.  Perhaps not since the advent of the Tea Party movement has there been an issue that coalesced individuals in a cause against centralized government on such a wide spread basis.

To be sure, the reasons for the movement against the Common Core are many.  Not all are motivated by concern over the potential for the centralization of education in Washington or the potential loss of local control over curricula.  Some are motivated by concern over the testing protocol, others by the collection and consolidation of personal information and privacy issues implicated thereby and still others by the perceived lack of rigor embodied in the standards. But it is clear that the “federalization” of education is among the primary concerns giving cause for the movement. For this reason, constitutionalists might be heard to breathe a sigh of relief.  Sadly, further reflection leads me to conclude the opposite—the grass roots movement to defeat the Common Core illustrates the magnitude of the centralization problem and the revelation is disheartening.

One would have a difficult time identifying an issue that could be more important to people than education.  The public apathy for political issues is widespread and obvious, but Americans still love their children and grandchildren and we still go to great lengths to plan their futures for the best and to manage their lives while they remain under our care.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, it occurred to me on many occasions that there are not many issues more personal and thus, of greater importance than health care.  It seems to me that maintaining the ability to influence public education is one such issue.

Unfortunately, the debate over the ACA became bogged down in the minutia over the efficacy and costs of the plan.  Rather than focus on the free market and constitutional principles involved and the implications for human liberty, the debate was too much based on the pragmatic; would the ACA improve healthcare, how much would it cost, and how would it be paid for.  Happily, it does seem that the debate over the Common Core may be developing somewhat more of a focus on the fundamental principles involved.  Certainly the proponents of Common Core would be happy if the debate could be made to focus on pragmatic issues.  Arguing about the supposed benefits of nationwide standards or a technical debate over the details of the standards themselves would suit their purpose.  If the debate can be made to be technical and obscure they know that most eyes will glaze over and they’ll be far more likely to get the result they want—people leave it to others to figure out the best approach and bow out of the debate.  As long as a substantial focus of the debate remains on the ability to affect decision making at the local level, the grass roots is more likely to remain interested and engaged.

For today, my sad point is this: If it is this difficult to gain sufficient widespread support to defeat Common Core, an issue which implicates our ability to influence and affect our children’s education, how far removed must we be from an age where constitutionalism and widely dispersed government are generally appreciated and ultimately demanded?  If Americans will not “wake up” in sufficient numbers to protect the free market in health care or demand a continued say in the education of their children, what will be required to awaken them to all the other benefits of constitutionalism?  The decades long trend of diminishing State sovereignty and federalism in favor of growing and centralized power in Washington must be broken if we are to enjoy the larger liberty, free markets and individual role in self government contemplated by the founders. That it is so difficult and effortful to engage sufficient numbers of Americans in the effort to ensure the continued local control of public education does not bode well for breaking that trend without some larger, likely terrible eventuality to trigger a national introspection on the slow decay of our first principles.

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