Saturday, June 7, 2014

PA Joins Assault On Teaching Profession

This week the PA House Education Committee pushed forward the latest assault on the teaching profession in Pennsylvania.

Following the template pushed by StudentsFirst (a piece of naming genius right up there with "Peacekeeper Missile" and "jumbo Shrimp"), House Bill 1722 proposes stripping teachers of most meaningful job protections and seeks to line PA up with North Carolina on the list of States Where Teaching Is Not A Viable Career.

The bill is in line with what we've seen proposed across the country. Allow school districts to furlough teachers for economic reasons based on job evaluation. That seems reasonable, right? Why am I making all this noise about the destruction of teaching as a career?

Economic Reasons

The bill, like its brethren across the country, proposes that the only school districts that may drop seniority considerations when furloughing are school districts with economic problems. In other words, all of them.

Seriously. Pennsylvania is the land of educational budget cuttery, the state where charters are allowed to suck the blood out of public schools without restraint. Where in Pennsylvania is there a school district that is not facing economic stress? Where is the school district whose elected school board has turned to the voters and said, "We're just going to tax you a smidge more than we think we need, just so we don't feel any economic stress."

But let me have a ringside seat for the hearing in which a teacher tries to fight his firing by proving that the district is too economically well off to invoke the "economic problems" clause of the law. I am sure that will go well.

The Commonwealth could use the economic travails of its districts as motivation to buck up and do a better job of financing schools, but that doesn't seem to be where we're headed. The "economic reasons" clause might as well say "all school districts."

Uniform Evaluation

Rep.Timothy Krieger, the bill's chief salesman (I'm not sure I'd say he wrote it, exactly) says "No one can argue the best teachers get good results." And since that's more of a definition than a correlation, like saying "No one can argue that a convertible is a car with a top that goes down," I'm going to agree with him. But that's not the problem. The problem is in identifying the best teachers.

Observers say this bill (which died the death of a thousand cuts a few years ago) has legs this time because this time we can totally tell who the good teachers are. Unfortunately, that system is kind of crazy crap, based in part on an observation that is not terrible, but not perfect, and certainly not immune to administrative malfeasance. The other part is based on a wacky quilt of bureaucratic horse patooty.

PA has PVAAS, a cousin of TVAAS, a bastard child of VAM, and all largely discredited by most everybody who actually understands how these things work (which is a small club, actually, because PVAAS is made with a special super-secret data sauce that nobody can really explain). Our evaluations also fold in school ratings, which include things like "How many AP classes are there?" Turns out you can now pay the College Board people to improve your school rating, which is an impressive state-level protection racket indeed.

PA's rating system also includes a healthy dose of stack ranking, the system that trains evaluators to not give outstanding rankings often. What's important is that there be a distribution so that there is always a Bottom 10% (or so) that is always poised and ready to be fired in case of a day of financial problems, and that day is-- hey, look!-- today!

There is still some debate among PA teachers about which is worse-- to be the teacher of tested students and thereby have a huger chunk of your evaluation based on test scores, or to be all other teachers and have a still-notable chunk of evaluation based on tests of material that you don't even teach. Pennsylvania administers the Keystone exams, which are essentially a paper PARCC (we had a traumatic encounter with on line testing a few years ago). These tests are, to use a technical term, inexcusably terrible crap. Of course, I can't show you examples because then I would have to kill you and then kill myself, because the tests must be kept under super-secret double-swear security. Otherwise people would notice that they are crap.

One other cool feature. My teacher evaluation won't actually be done till some time in the fall, because this year's test scores won't be released till then. So if I'm going to be fired for my egregiously inadequate teacherly behavior this year, it won't happen until at least another full year has gone by.

StudentsFirst Has One Complaint

StudentsFirst is unhappy with the current bill because the legislators did strike the part about making teachers go five years before they get tenure. StudentsFirst, noble crusaders for educational excellence that they pretend to be, thinks teachers should have a proven track record of excellence before receiving the tenure that will be rendered moot by the rest of this bill. Seriously-- since we're gutting and bypassing all other job protections, the only possible reason to want a longer tenure trial period is to extend the period during which a school can fire a teacher without even pretending to show cause. It seems likely here that StudentsFirst wants everyone to have a TFA-sized career of just two or three years.

Gutting Teaching Careers

So the bottom line of this bill would be that any district can fire teachers at any time, based on an evaluation system that rests on bad data generated by bad tests using a formula repudiated by the statistics experts, combined with observations that are still largely subjective. Under rules like this, it would simply be foolish to go into teaching as a career. At best, it presents the standard choice as best written into law by North Carolina's education-hating legislature-- you can either keep your job indefinitely as long as you don't ever make yourself too expensive, or you can get a raise and make yourself a more attractive target for firing.

It's as if these folks are really committed to discouraging people from going into teaching.

The bill has bipartisan backing (can teachers please stop automatically voting Democrat) and of course the big fat love of Governor Tom Corbett. It's not a done deal yet; if you are a Pennsylvania teacher, a good summer project would be to start contacting your representatives on a regular basis and encouraging them to say no to this dumb bill.


  1. Take the state to court if it passes.

  2. The problem is we are stuck in a box called the two party system. It's really one party because both parties are beholden to the 1% of the corporate and financial elite. Rank and file workers must develop our own party to represent the 99% with a program of free, equitable K through college education for all, full health care, and a jobs program which recognizes employment as a right.

  3. Primary challenges should be mounted against anyone who votes for this bill. Incumbents from both parties despise a viable primary challenger. Until they are fearful of losing their seat, both parties will continue to cater to their 1% donors.

  4. In North Carolina, teachers went to court, the district judge said the legislature couldn't strip teachers of a "property right," so the legislature came up with the plan Peter discussed in his post "North Carolina to Teachers:"F#@! Off"

  5. Well, if you are following FL, you know we teachers in this state are dealing with attacks from all sides (most recently the judge who declared the mysterious VAM score was unfair, didn't make sense, didn't do what it claims to do BUT it wasn't unconstitutional so with his approval, it shall remain as part of the evaluation system for FL teachers). Like you Peter, my official decree of worthiness to put in 60 hour weeks, jump through numerous in-service hoops, keep my sanity while numerous "new" teachers who have done ALT-Certification which around here is called the Teacher Ready program are favored, protected and babied because they are less expensive than people who have degrees in Education will be delayed because the data won't be ready to be applied to the VAM formula until late summer. I guess it is the same everywhere.
    I am deeply saddened by the demise of teaching as a vocational pursuit where respect for the craft involved has gone by the wayside with the blessings of those who profit financially and politically from the work done by those who are truly dedicated to being a teacher. There is no occupation nobler or more far reaching into the lives of every citizen but it doesn't seem to matter much to those mysterious "powers that be" or the public in general. Even with that, I do not regret my decision to enter and remain in the field as a fully trained teacher (I went back and got a second bachelors in education) for the past 24 years. I am not and have never been "just a teacher". And I will stay in the field to advocate for the most important people in the situation - my students!