State of the Union: Education Should be Priority #1 (Society’s Slideshow)

Barack Obama gave a rousing State of the Union address January 24 calling for a number of bold reforms in this country. Chief among these reforms was the ending of insider trading in Congress, the creation of a Financial Crimes Unit to take on Wall Street’s crimes against the American taxpayer, and improving education. Little can be done to improve the economy if people are not qualified to fill the positions employers offer. Here are several common sense proposals for improving the educational system:

1. Stop mainstreaming special needs students: Colleges have separate programs for teachers who wish to enter general education and teachers who wish to enter special education. They have separate requirements, and work to prepare teachers using different curriculum. Why then are we forcing regular education teachers to deal with students with special needs?

More often than not, a regular education teacher does not have the special training to deal with a student who has a low reading level, is learning disabled, or emotionally impaired. As a result, the teacher in a classroom of 25 or 30 kids may have to divert more of their classroom instruction time helping one or two special needs students and focus less time on the needs of the rest of the class. This leads to an overall drop in performance, especially in today’s high-stakes testing.

Special education teachers are taught how to deal with special needs students, and therefore special needs students should be referred to them for special help. By giving these students the extra time and attention they need in a special education environment, the students who are in regular education will not suffer from less instructional time resulting from a special education student usurping a regular education student’s instructional time.

2. Allow teachers to use classroom time to actually teach: In Michigan’s public schools, there is mandated curriculum surrounding the dangers of texting while driving, how to deal with bullying and cyber-bullying, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender awareness, as well as mandated preparation for the MEAP and the ACT. (I remember a time when you had to take the ACT on your own time. Now, they give the entire school a day off to allow juniors to take the ACT.)

While this curriculum is important, delivering it during normal school hours necessarily cuts into regular instruction time. Schools need to implement a mandatory early morning or after school home room session to deal with the issues I just mentioned. In addition, state boards of education should be required to develop the curriculum for these issues, not teachers. Requiring teachers to develop their own curriculum about texting while driving, bullying, cyber-bullying, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender awareness takes away from their time to develop truly meaningful and fun lesson plans that might interest students in school.

3. Reduce documentation necessary for student discipline: Once upon a time in this country, if a student misbehaved in school, teachers were given the benefit of the doubt. Parents sided with them in their decisions regarding classroom management and the administration’s decisions regarding student discipline. Now more than ever, teachers are being required to document to the last jot and tittle every behavior in which a student engages in the classroom.

This is especially true for special needs and alternative school students. In one two-hour period, I would estimate that I spent at least a half an hour detailing one student’s behavior. In the meantime, other students were asking for help or clarification. Because I had to spend time documenting this student’s ridiculous behaviors, I had to tell the other students to hang on until I finished writing.

This has got to stop. Teachers should never have to take time away from classroom instruction or from helping a confused student to document how one or more ornery students have difficulty following rules and procedures. Until we go back to taking teachers at their word, education will continue to crumble in this country.

4. Encourage parental/guardian involvement in education: There are some parents/guardians who care very deeply for their children, and wish to see them perform well in school. To that end, they go to parent-teacher conferences, volunteer at the school, and help the cause of education in any way they can.

Then there are those who do not involve themselves in their student’s education. The reasons for this vary, but all those reasons boil down to the student perceiving that their parents or guardians don’t care if they succeed. They translate this into a free pass to not care about school themselves.

There is really no way to legislate parental involvement. Making and keeping records for a parental involvement rewards system could prove to be a monumental task, not to mention unfair for people who do not have children, or have children that are not of school age.

However, parents must be held accountable if their student proves to be a behavior problem, needs medication and does not have it, or if their child is performing poorly in school and they are doing nothing to deal with it at home. The government could set up a special fund to aid those who could document a true need in helping their students succeed. The proof and documentation in that case would be handled by the parent/guardian and the government would handle the funding rather than forcing schools to dip into their already constrained budgets to provide school supplies and other necessities for success.

5. Extend the tax break for teachers who spend their own money on classroom materials: The current deduction is a measly $250 for teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies. However, that tax break expired in 2011, and unless lawmakers extend it, it will disappear.

$250 does not go a long way toward providing necessary learning materials for students, much less toward providing the things that teachers need to purchase to do their job. Before they purchase anything else for their students, they have to buy their gradebooks, lesson planning books, pens, pencils, and classroom decorations.

They sometimes also pay for facial tissue, hand sanitizer, scissors, glue, and writing utensils for students. Sometimes if they want to use special technology as some school district’s best practices curriculum calls for, they have to pay for that too. Some estimate that a teacher may spend as much as 10% of their own income on instructionally-related materials.

This all on an average national salary of $50,000 per year. I can certainly attest to the fact that first year teachers only earn about half of national salary when all is said and done, yet they are expected to provide the same resources as one at the $50,000 level. Tax breaks to cover all their work-related expenses might serve as a financial incentive for them to provide these resources. Another solution is to set up a stipend or fund for teachers to draw from to provide these necessary tools for instruction.

One thing this country cannot afford to do is keep demanding more of teachers and paying them less money for it. Big banking CEO’s who were criticized for their lavish multi-million dollar salaries during the  2008 mortgage defended their salaries by saying “If you want top talent, you have to pay top dollar.” The same goes for education. I can;t think of a single educator who gets into the profession for the money. However, it’s about time that we recognize the passion and dedication that goes into the profession and start making sure that we get top talent by paying top dollar.

Snyder’s State of the State: Mute on improving education. (Society’s Slideshow)

Gov. Rick Snyder gave his state of the state address Wednesday, January 18, detailing his accomplishments for the past year. So far, his claims are impressive.

Michigan’s unemployment rate is down to 9.3% from 11.1%. However, he doesn’t mention that some of that improvement could have stemmed from people leaving the state, being dropped from unemployment rolls because of expired benefits, or because the big three have turned themselves around and started hiring again.

He promised to treat the state’s money like a CEO and lo and behold the state has zero deficit. He has also managed to set aside over $200 million for a rainy day fund.

He promised to bring about financial change to cities in dire financial straits by changing the emergency financial manager law. Sure enough, the emergency financial managers now have virtually unlimited powers to rip up contracts negotiated in good faith, force pay cuts on employees, and enforce any and all austerity measures they see fit.

He promised to eliminate the Michigan Business Tax, and promised to pay for it by taxing pensions, eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit, and ruling that school districts require their teachers to pay at least 20% into their own health care. All those things have been done.

He also promised to improve education, and to that end lived up to another promise to remove the 150 school cap on charter schools as well as online academies. He also introduced a teacher evaluation system that promises to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers while retaining effective ones.

All this sounds well and good on a piece of paper, but Snyder also managed to slash not only the K-12 School Aid fund, but also cut the educational budget as a whole, and cut governmental assistance to public universities.

My question to you, oh wise one, is how do you expect to improve something without investing a bit of money into it?

As an educator in the field of adult and alternative education, I have witnessed the effect that a lack of monetary investment can have on education. My school has computers with Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003 (which was the original software installed on the computer).  It just recently added an electronic attendance system that is not at all suited to the program type.

The copy machine at this program requires regular maintenance that is not provided under any sort of paid service plan. The duplicator machine has been broken for several months with no word on when it will be repaired.

The program also depends very largely on the $7,000 per student the state gives to the school for enrollment. The fewer students that enroll, the less money the program has to invest in new computers. Teachers in this program are also under scrutiny for the number of photocopies they make when the copier is working.

To top it all off, the program is housed in a small administrative building with no windows other than in the front of the building. There is no cafeteria, no lunch breaks given to staff or students, and if enrollment is down, classes are cut and teachers are not paid for the cut classes.

If this is what Snyder calls improving education, it is clear that he is out of touch with the true state of education in his state.

I for one never expected to be an underemployed teacher. I was under the impression that teaching was a profession with which one might be able to pay their bills, raise children, own a car, and maybe have a little bit left over for having fun. I was also under the impression that as long as one was able to maintain their status as an effective teacher, you would never have to worry about losing your job.

The proof, it seems, is in the punch. It seems other educators and I who are employed in this program have to worry about losing pay that could make the difference whether we still have electricity, a telephone, a car, or even a place to live from month to month because the funding for our program depends on students who the education system has already failed. Students and staff alike are being told that they are not as important as dollar signs on a balance sheet.

Students whose classes are dropped will have to wait until the next semester to try to take the class again, further delaying their educational goals. Teachers who have their classes dropped have to worry about whether or not they will be able to pay their bills, whether they are effective or not. Frustrated students may leave the program and siphon more dollars from the program, causing effective teachers to throw in the towel and seek employment elsewhere.

It is sickening to think that this is the way our governor wants education to be. He claims that he wants jobs to come to Michigan, yet is unwilling to make the educational investments necessary to have a workforce qualified for those jobs. He claims that he wants poor, underemployed, and otherwise left behind workers to have a chance at earning their money, yet refuses to provide the necessary resources for them to get there.

Gov. Snyder has presented a mixed message regarding education in this state. It seems that he would rather evaluate teachers on things like personal appearance and likeability among staff and administrators than their actual teaching ability. He would rather hold teachers 100% accountable for what happens in schools rather than allow teachers to evaluate the job administrators are doing and hold bad administrators as accountable for a poor performing school as teachers might be for a poor performing classroom.

Gov. Snyder needs to focus on more proactive ways to reform education. Simply generating more forms that more administrators and secretaries will have to fill out, keep track of, and turn into the state is not the solution. Snyder should live up to his general claim of approaching things fairly by allowing evaluation to be a two-way street: teachers can evaluate administrators and even school districts as to whether or not their needs are being met in the same fashion teachers can be evaluated for their job performance.

And please quit expecting better results for less money. You as a CEO know that all businesses say that they have to pay top dollar for top talent. If you want top talent in your schools, why not pay them a few dollars more? Teachers who are effective certainly must deserve it.