Monday, December 12, 2011

More Blood and Guts

Public education has been nothing but blood and guts the last few years, but the gore spread across the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has been particularly copious of late. Let’s start with the latest. December 15 is the deadline for California’s Department of Finance to announce its final revenue numbers for the year. For those of you with short attention spans, you may not remember how Governor Brown and the State Legislature reached a budget agreement earlier this year: through magic. One day it was announced the State’s economy, much to the surprise of everyone, was doing really well and billions of dollars in unexpected revenue would show up by December. This week, also much to the surprise of everyone, it will be announced there is no such thing as magic.

As we speak, LAUSD is facing the loss of $38 million in transportation funds. That means 35,000 magnet school students and 13,000 special education students may no longer have a way to get to school. What happens to a school or program when everyone attending has no way to get there? What happens to the students? What happens to the teachers? On December 15, an additional $113 million may have to be cut from, well, everything else. For the last few years, Superintendent Deasy has been giving away public schools to any and all for-profit charter operators that had the decency to register a heartbeat. It’s hard to know where he will find $113 million without selling real estate.

Then there was the “Tentative Agreement” (TA) signed by Deasy and UTLA leadership a week or so ago. Sorry all for the acronyms. Educators love nothing more than a good acronym. It appears that UTLA leadership has grown so desperate, it has signed on with Deasy to an agreement that is possibly its own death warrant. This is no surprise in an environment already drowning in desperation after a decade of NCLB policy.

In the current context of economic fear, there is little wonder why people like Eli Broad and Bill Gates can get away with encouraging a commercialized education package replacing curriculum with products and concepts courtesy of big business interest. The atmosphere is already toxic with years of propaganda demonizing teachers, tests replacing teaching, and relentless bashing of the profession by corporate-supported news media (the LA Times).

UTLA has provided teachers with virtually no information regarding the matter (other than how wonderful it is), given them no time think about the issues (let alone discuss them), and are asking teachers to vote for the agreement starting, well, they already started. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have not read the fine print. But that is only because the large print is so despicable.

On the surface, the agreement looks like a good one for LA teachers. Charter giveaways, supposedly, receive a three-year moratorium. Limits will be placed on school reconstitution (where all teachers are basically summarily fired, then forced to reapply) as well. Schools will be granted “unprecedented” autonomy in school governance including waiving certain school board policies such as selecting a principal, creating alternative assessments, reorganizing the school, modifying instructional time, selecting grade-level and department chairs, coordinators, deans, etc. The fact all of these waivers are basically balderdash seems beside the point.

Using a standardized test score to evaluate teachers is specifically not among the waivers.

In fact, the agreement cuts UTLA and teachers off at the knees, if not the waist and neck as well. By granting false autonomy, teachers will in fact be isolated from each other and have to fight for their rights individually. Deasy, of course, knows this and relishes the opportunity. Any and all school reforms plans can be vetoed by the principal. Under the totalitarian regime of Deasy, all principals are interviewed and can be fired by him. In effect, the voices of teachers, parents, and students critical of his agenda can be ignored or in some cases removed.

The “no reconstitution clause” is also a farce. In fact, no school can be reconstituted/restructured only if it demonstrates “reasonable progress toward overall improvement.” Anyone who knows Deasy (to say nothing of Broad, Gates, and the LA Times), knows this means standardized test scores. These people mean nothing but standardized test scores. “Data must drive instruction,” Deasy says over and over and over and over. He means standardized test data, that is. Never mind that standardized test data is dismantling public education and creating a generation of poor, minority intellectual cripples as inner-city teachers desperate to hang on to their jobs abandon things like divergent thinking and creativity, to say nothing of trivial concerns such as science, social studies, and the arts.

Teachers displaced by Deasy will provide “intervention services” (test prep, of course), tutoring (more test prep), CAHSEE support (another acronym, the California High School Exit Exam, did I mention test prep?), and class coverage support. In effect, they will become substitutes and test prep teachers’ aides. That is until Deasy fires them too.

Between November 15 and March 1 of each year, schools interested in “autonomy” will be required to develop school proposals, including their Single School Plan, a voluminous, ungainly document schools usually develop every several years, they take so much work, then routinely ignore because they do little to improve instruction. There must be a petition which must be signed on by a majority of the school faculty, but only with the principal’s concurrence, of course (a principal approved by Deasy), followed by more meetings and discussion. Teaching, evaluating student work, communicating with parents, apparently, will be conducted in our spare time. Waiver packages come with secret ballots, and only then with the concurrence of the principal.

PSC’s (Public School Choice) schools (sorry, another acronym, read “charter schools”) have their own dictums. Principals may be chosen by a “Personnel Team,” but of course Deasy must approve the choice. Teachers must sign onto the “The Plan” (whatever that means) or may leave “without harm” (again, whatever that means) after one year. The Deasy-approved principal retains the right to transfer any teacher with a voice. If Deasy does not like their plan, the process becomes so convoluted, I’m pretty sure no one understands it. But it involves hours and hours and hours of teacher time unrelated to teaching. Teaching is extra.
UTLA withdraws all its grievances on public school choice. They are now totally irrelevant according to the agreement. UTLA withdraws its two Public Employee Relation Board ( PERB) cases (acronym, sorry) at Jordan and Clay High Schools, though the case against Clay/Jordan giveaways remain in play. In perhaps the most grievous abdication of its duty, UTLA agrees to abandon its PERB lawsuit against the district regarding the use of a standardized, value-added test score to evaluate teachers.

Without getting into a whole “thing” regarding value-added, VAM (sorry) has a number of shortcomings including a failure to take into account school factors such as class sizes, curriculum materials, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, and more). VAM entirely misses the level of home and community supports or challenges, individual student needs and abilities, health, and attendance, peer culture and achievement, prior teachers and schooling, as well as other current teachers. VAM does not account for differential summer learning loss (which especially affects low-income children) and varies greatly depending upon the specific tests used. It does not account for students who have moved or changed classes. These tests and VAM’s emphasize some kinds of learning and not others, and rarely measure achievement that is well above or below grade level. 

Oh, hell with it. Here is my “thing” on value-added: VAM was invented by Dr. William Sanders, a statistician working in the field of agricultural genetics at the University of Tennessee in the 1980's. He was, quite literally, a bean counter. He believed he could use his statistical models used to produce plump, ripe tomatoes (and probably beans) to evaluate teaching. Governor Lamar Alexander told him, basically, "Go for it." Unfortunately, children are neither tomatoes nor beans and teaching is not agriculture.

The broader UTLA leadership was not brought into the negotiations leading up to the “agreement”, to say nothing of the teachers themselves. They have created no “alternative vision” and thus this agreement is almost totally on Deasy’s terms using his definition of reform and progress. UTLA is not structured for, nor does it have the capacity to support individual schools –support they will badly need in moving forward with this TA. The other side (Deasy, Broad, Gates, et. al.) are very well organized and extremely well funded. One does not freely waive collective bargaining or contractual rights to such opposition.
The voices of parents will be fragmented as well.
Meanwhile, charter schools hang over us like Damocles’ sword as teachers face this Faustian bargain. If we approve, we lose much, if not all of what we have fought for as long as teachers have been organized. If we reject the agreement, we embarrass UTLA’s new leadership and face further demonization from the press, public, and “billionaire boys club” as being “anti-reform” –to say nothing of accelerating of the process of dismantling public education to private, for-profit corporations (few of which have proven superior to public education).

But reject the agreement we must. This was shoved down our throats in the dead of night and we have been told without warning to vote one way or the other the week before the Winter Break. Why? Shouldn’t teachers, of all people, have the opportunity to study the issue?

And the tide is beginning to turn. The public is waking up to the myth of charter schools and the for-profit fraud perpetrated by Corporate America in education and elsewhere. The same is true for standardized testing. We gain nothing by maintaining that single hair from the horse’s tail which holds the sword of Damocles over our head for a few more years. With Deasy in charge, the sword will fall sooner or later. I say we go down fighting. We go back to the negotiating table. We create a clear, united vision for the future. We reject the “Tentative Agreement.”

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