Stand for Children & Coalition present ‘People’s Plan’ for Washington Education

Excellent Schools? We all want them–and many excellent schools already exist in our state.  Excellent Schools NOW?  It’s not going to happen now, it’s going to take time and hard work.   A coalition that names itself Excellent Schools Now therefore deserves some extra attention as to their members, motives, and funding.   Who’s in this coalition?  Stand for Children, Teachers United, Partnership for Learning, Washington Business Roundtable, League of Education Voters, Washington Technology Industry Association, and many others.

The other day I had the opportunity to attend an event to provide feedback to the Excellent Schools Now (ESN) coalition on their legislative agenda for next year.  It was named the People’s Plan.  We met in a well-appointed hotel conference room with wine and fancy chocolate. There were about 15 teachers and perhaps about 12 community members present.  We had all been given a draft of the ESN’s “People’s Plan for Education” so we could read it beforehand.

An open question, well articulated by another teacher present:  Did the ESN coalition actually want teacher input into their legislative plan, or did they just want to say they had consulted teachers in formulating this plan?  The lack of transparency in the creation and feedback process of their plan (Where was this plan coming from? What was going to happen next?) and the vague doublespeak of much of the language in the plan led many present to believe that perhaps this group just wanted to state that they had consulted teachers.

The agenda for the evening involved two rounds of small group discussion.  During the first round, I found myself seated at a table with about with about six teachers. The policy director of Stand for Children sat with us and listened in to the conversation; the leader of Teachers United acted as moderator and scribe.

Who are these people, and who wrote this plan?

This whole thing was called the ‘Peoples’ Plan.’  The title begs the question: So who are these people, and who wrote this plan?   The plan was developed by Education First Consulting. A political firm named Strategies 360  also seemed to play a role—one of their senior officers was emceeing the teacher input forum I attended.  Designating their legislative agenda as the “People’s Plan” did not seem to fit this coalition–even some of the organizers were saying this by the end of the evening forum.

Many of the points in the plan were versions of policy proposals we’ve been hearing from around the country in the past year.  Excellent Schools Now advocates for larger class sizes in their plan, just as Bill Gates did in a speech to the National Governor’s Association.

Who is funding these groups?  Well, in Washington state, Bill Gates is one of the major donors. The organizations in Excellent Schools Now do not just work on a state level: the Tacoma chapter of Stand for Children received a $150,000 grant from the Gates Foundation with the first goal of influencing local teacher contract negotiations there.

So what’s in this Plan?

At the first discussion table I sat at, the topic was listed as Teacher Job Rights: we discussed tenure, RIFs, and firing.  Tenure was the first confusing language issue we had.  Does tenure mean a teacher has a job forever, almost no matter what; or does tenure just mean that a certain process is followed before a teacher is dismissed? How tenure is defined matters when discussing these matters, and tenure was not defined at this forum.

One point in the People’s Plan concerning dismissal was to “Establish an expedited hearing and appeals process.”    What “expedited” means was not specified by ESN, and because it was so vague, it was virtually impossible to discuss in a reasonable manner.  Another point was “Allow cause for dismissal to be lack of available, applicable positions.”  Does this mean a district can decide a certain teaching position is no longer necessary and then dismiss that teacher, even if that teacher has been there 15 years?  That certainly seems to allow for arbitrary firings–and furthermore, this dismissal process will be ‘expedited’?

Teachers who are not doing their job should not remain in the classroom, but due process should be followed in dismissal.  However, teachers are in a relatively public position, open to criticism by many, and if teachers have no job security, no one will want to be a teacher.  We are already having a hard enough time recruiting great new teachers.

During the next discussion round, I was at the Teacher Evaluation table.   Much of the ‘People’s Plan’ was supportive of many parts of the Washington’s Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot, which is a good thing.  However, while TPEP seems to focus on whole teacher evaluation, much of the People’s Plan focused on “measures” which seemed to mean test scores. The ESN coalition would have a statewide panel “identify appropriate measures in untested subject and grades.”  In other states, this has resulted in extreme amounts of testing and some ludicrous testing requirements in subjects like physical education which would tie PE teacher evaluations to the health of their students.  Not only teachers would be evaluated by test scores—schools and districts are included as well: The People’s Plan depends on implementing a “growth model to compare student learning gains across the state, disaggregated for individual classrooms, schools, and districts.”

I didn’t have a chance to participate in other discussions, such as that at the Teacher Compensation table. The People’s Plan starts off on a nice note, stating, “increase beginning teachers’ salaries to make the profession more appealing to newcomers.”  However, apparently after you get that new higher beginning salary, that’s all you’re going to get, because it also suggests to “remove the salary enhancement for master’s degrees.”  National Board Certification is also not included in the People’s Plan.  Teaching is an education profession.   Shouldn’t higher education and professional development be encouraged?

Instead of the current salary allocation model, ESN proposed an amorphous four step “career ladder” but never described it with any detail, so I can’t comment on it.

Even worse than some of the vague language was the doublespeak.  In a prime example, the People’s Plan has a section concerning the establishment of “transformation zones.”  Close reading reveals that “transformation zone” actually seems to mean “charter school.”  How are these “zones” going to be “transformed”?  Through the reduction and elimination of collective bargaining, of course.   The People’s Plan states: “All schools in Zones will be expected to renegotiate or request waivers from union contracts in order to meet the needs of students in their building.”  Can’t student needs be met through working with teachers?  Wisconsin, here we come!

On a personal note, many of the ESN coalition organizations were very vocal in last year’s legislative session in wanting to maintain the science assessment graduation requirement for the class of 2013.  Maintaining the requirement would have meant students would be responsible for two completely different sets of science standards in their high school career–an injustice.  Students who did not pass a science exam would have had to pass a biology end-of-course exam.  This end-of-course exam would not have been given at the end of their biology course, but instead, a full year later.  This defied common sense.

Rather than address these logical issues, the ESN coalition members’ entire argument was that delaying the science requirement was lowering standards for our students.  Holding students responsible for a test, even when that test makes no sense, is not, in my opinion, a valid way to have high standards.  Conversely, advocating for a delay so that a more fair test can be administered is not the same as advocating for lower standards. Their argument left me personally offended.

The Excellent Schools Now People’s Plan seems to follow in the same vein as their science assessment arguments last year–rather than cooperation with teachers, there seems to be a pattern of suspicion and blame.  Inviting a few teachers to a forum to provide input on a legislative agenda, as ESN did last week, is a good start.  Seeking input from even more teachers, and then honestly considering that feedback and incorporating it, would be an even better next step.  The only way to reform education in Washington state is to work with teachers, not against them.

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7 Comments

  1. Karen Lippy

     /  August 15, 2011

    I am thankful that a thoughtful, high quality teacher like you is there as a witness to these sorts of shenanigans.

    Wonder if anyone out there really wants to do the honest, hard work to improve education…oh that’s right, there are. They are in classrooms and called dedicated teachers. Time for policy makers and influential others to honestly come together with excellent teachers in authentic endeavors to improve the system.

    Reply
  2. Todd

     /  August 15, 2011

    This is really upsetting, not your blog but the apparent obfuscation of just what this group is up to. Who pays these people and why? I certainly share the reluctance to allow them get teacher input not knowing how it will be used. Good job for going, you are an inspiration to us all.

    Reply
  3. super website carry on.

    Reply
  4. sarah

     /  August 16, 2011

    Maren- excellent summary of the ESN meeting. I appreciate your willingness and ability to put it all together. I am glad that at least a few teachers got to see what ESN “is” about.

    Reply
  5. Thanks, Maren, for fighting for us and for the kids and for keeping us informed!

    Reply
  6. Judy Schneider

     /  September 19, 2011

    Well written and analyzed! Public schools are such an easy target. No longer it seems is education a cooperative venture between teachers, administrators, parents, and students – it’s “tell the teachers what to do” as if they were themselves students. I agree that it should be a goal to have all teachers good ones, but NO ONE is going about this in the right way. As for larger class sizes, it can work with some techniques in some subject areas, but not as a baseline for individual classes. It discourages discussion, assigning papers, and individual attention. And Bill, as much as I admire him most of the time, is not the best expert in this area. He went to Lakeside where class size is small and his children go to private schools where class sizes are also small!!

    Reply
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