Data raise questions about school staffing – but don’t answer them

Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for the percentage of school employees who are teachers and near the top for the percentage who provide “support services,” according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

I don’t know if those stats are perfectly accurate, but they have become a handy talking point for state legislators who claim to want to raise teacher salaries but don’t want to spend any more money.

Lawmakers have pointed to data, reported to the U.S. Department of Education by the states, that indicate only 37.7 percent of Indiana school employees are teachers. The implication is that teachers could be paid more if only there weren’t so many other school employees.

The National Center for Education Statistics is a reliable and widely cited source. The figure is based on 2015 data, the latest available. Only Ohio, at 31.5 percent, has a lower percentage of school employees who are teachers. The national average is just under half.

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Kentucky educators and supporters try to reclaim state

The nation’s eyes were on Kentucky in the spring when Bluegrass State teachers walked off the job because of low pay and threats to their pensions. We should all be watching again on Nov. 6, when teachers and their supporters try to take the state back from ALEC-aligned Republicans.

Over 50 active and retired teachers are seeking seats in the Kentucky House and Senate, part of what veteran Courier-Journal political reporter Tom Loftus calls “an unprecedented wave of educators running for the General Assembly this fall.”

It’s happening across the country. HuffPost, citing National Education Association figures, reports over 500 educators are running for state legislative seats. Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider highlight the phenomenon in episode 52 of their “Have You Heard” podcast.

Empty House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

But nowhere are teachers running with more enthusiasm, or is more at stake, than in Kentucky, as members of Save Our Schools Kentucky made clear last weekend at the Network for Public Education conference in Indianapolis. Four of the activists led a panel titled “How Grassroots Can Stop the Kochs in Your State,” arguing that citizen activism can check big-spending outsiders like the Koch brothers.

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‘A Nation at Risk’ redefined purpose of education

A common take on “A Nation at Risk,” the government report on education issued 35 years ago, is that it had its flaws but at least it provided much-needed attention to America’s schools. But it sure didn’t look that way from the trenches, said Ray Golarz, a long-time Indiana school administrator.

“The end result of ‘A Nation at Risk’ was that teachers, administrators and schools were seen as the enemy,” he said. “Now tell me that was a good result. I don’t think so.”

The 1983 report, by a commission created by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, claimed the United States was falling behind foreign economic competitors for the first time since World War II and laid the blame on the nation’s substandard educational system.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” read one of its best-known lines, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

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Indiana teacher pay shrinking

Average teacher salaries in Indiana have declined by over 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation. That’s according to an interactive analysis produced last week by Alvin Change of Vox, drawing on data from the National Education Association.

Indiana’s pay cuts, Chang writes, are “worse than the nation as a whole, where teachers have had their pay cut by an average of 3 percent when we adjust for inflation. And since 2010, teachers in Indiana had their pay cut by 9.7 percent.”

They’re also worse than in West Virginia, where low pay and a lack of raises touched off a two-week teacher strike that pushed state officials to approve a 5-percent raise for educators. Clearly, lagging teacher pay is an issue across the country. The West Virginia strike could be a harbinger of things to come. Kentucky or Oklahoma could be next.

Chang quotes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to explain what has happened:

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Educators give thumbs-down to school choice

Teachers, principals and superintendents don’t much care for charter schools and vouchers. Not even the ones who voted for Donald Trump for president.

That’s a key take-away from a survey conducted by Education Week and reported by the publication last week. The survey was administered to more than 1,100 educators in September and October.

It found that 74 percent fully or somewhat oppose the creation of charter schools. And 79 percent fully or somewhat oppose publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Among educators who voted for Trump, 64 percent oppose charter schools and 70 percent oppose vouchers — even though Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, have made expanding “school choice” a centerpiece of their education rhetoric.

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Listening to teachers

Teachers are passionate about their work. They love their daily interactions with students, value collaborating with each other and feel strongly about the importance of public schools. They’re also frustrated by accountability mandates that make it harder to do their jobs. But they see value in some required tests, and they aren’t letting the annoyances keep them from doing their jobs.

Those are a few take-away messages from a panel discussion this week by seven Bloomington teachers: Sheila McDermott-Sipe and Kathleen Mills from Bloomington High School South, Kathy Loser and Greg Chaffin of Bloomington High School North, Megan Somers-Glenn of Marlin Elementary and Erika Peek and Ben Strawn of Summit Elementary. Some highlights:

      • Support is important. McDermott-Sipe said the local district’s adopting of Professional Learning Communities to facilitate collaboration was “a wonderful, wonderful development.” Mills said reading intervention staff, funded by a 2010 tax referendum, have been “life changing in high school.”
      • Panelists feel strongly about public education and fear it’s threatened by forces that, as Somers-Glenn said, “want to make money from our children.” Loser urged people in the audience to read Diane Ravitch’s book “Reign of Error” and vote for candidates who support public schools.
      • Strawn, who teaches third grade, said rounds of standardized tests and a state-required 90-minute block of uninterrupted reading instruction don’t leave enough time and flexibility for creative teaching. He said IREAD-3, the state’s third-grade retention test, puts “incredible stress on teachers.”
      • At the high school level, high-stakes assessments for sophomore English and algebra produce stress. But McDermott-Sipe said NWEA tests help tailor teaching to student’s needs. Mills said standardized tests don’t drive her teaching. “I definitely don’t feel I’m living a life of test prep,” she said.
      • Loser and Chaffin highlighted the fact that schools are about more than academics. Both talked about the importance of clubs, activities and informal relationships in keeping high-school students engaged – and not just sports and band but book clubs, groups for LGBT youth and international students, counseling groups, etc.
      • Teachers like talking about why they love their jobs and how much they enjoy their students. In an anecdote that could only happen in a public school, Mills said she overheard two students talking about their parents. One’s father went to Harvard; the other’s mother went to hairdressing school. The students, she said, were genuinely curious about each other’s families and their experiences.

The Monroe County Coalition for Public Education sponsored the discussion because teachers’ voices are often missing from public debates over education policy. Teachers are busy and many don’t have time for politics and public advocacy. They won’t all agree with each other. But when they talk about their work and their schools, those of us who claim to care about education should listen.

Spotlight on teachers

With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett putting “identify and reward great teachers and principals” at the top of their education reform agenda, it’s a good time to share some of what’s being said and written about the subject of teacher quality.

The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel, working in partnership with the New York-based Hechinger Report, is wrapping up a multi-part series titled “Building a Better Teacher.” Every Sunday since early November, the paper has included a story on the challenges to training, identifying and rewarding great teachers.

Topics have included teacher evaluations, merit pay, steering better teachers to high-need schools, teacher education, the role of unions and the importance of principals. The stories tend to focus on Wisconsin schools and issues. But they’re well reported and clearly written – a good overview of the questions that the Indiana Legislature will be considering.

Part Two, titled “Grading Teachers is No Easy Assignment,” and Part Three, “School Districts Evaluate Merits of Merit Pay,” report on the nationwide push to measure teacher effectiveness and use the results to determine how teachers should be evaluated, paid and retained in their jobs.

What does the public think?

According to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll reported this month, Americans think teachers should be paid more but that it should be easier to fire bad teachers.

The poll found that 78 percent of respondents think principals should be able to fire teachers whose performance isn’t up to snuff. At the same time, 57 percent think teachers are paid too little and only 7 percent think they are paid too much.

Only 35 percent said the number of bad teachers is a serious problem in American schools; and just 45 percent blamed teachers’ unions for the problem. Higher percentages were critical of parents and federal, state and local education officials.

A commission on teacher quality

The nation’s biggest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, announced recently that it will establish an independent panel on teacher quality, called the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

The commission will include 21 accomplished teachers, who will be supported by researchers, policy experts and academics, the NEA said. Their goal will be to “craft a new teacher-centered vision of teaching and the teaching profession.”

The commissioners will meet four to six times over the next year and hold public meetings to gather input on the topics they’re considering, according to the NEA.

School improvement the Finnish way

Hechinger Report has a Q-and-A with Pasi Sahlberg, an official with the Ministry of Education of Finland, which was once again among the top-scoring nations on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Here’s what Sahlberg says about using “value-added” data from test scores to evaluate teachers: “It’s very difficult to use this data to say anything about the effectiveness of teachers. If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away.”

Daniels and Bennett have said they want student achievement – measured by improvement in test scores – to count for at least half of the annual evaluation of Indiana teachers.