The Four Ignored Elephants of Quality in the Classroom and Teacher Retention

I gave up my calling last summer and quit public school teaching after 25 years. That was never my plan; I was going to go 40 years. It wasn't "kids today," parental apathy or even standardized testing. Frankly, we were going broke.
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The following was originally published in Kevin's blog,

I was reminded of Winnie the Pooh and his hallucinogenic-trip, envisioning heffalumps and woozles, the other day...

My priest was giving me an update on contract talks with his elementary teachers. "I tell them, 'You only work 3/4 of the day and 3/4 of the year, why should you expect full-pay anyway?'"

I wanted to say "Yeah, Padre, and you only work three hours on Sundays and get free clothing, room and board." But then I'd have to escort him to the confessional right afterwards for absolution of the sin of sarcasm.

I gave up my calling last summer and quit public school teaching after 25 years. That was never my plan; I was going to go 40 years. It wasn't "kids today," parental apathy or even standardized testing. Frankly, we were going broke. After my state and city imposed four years of pay-cuts -- including a 9 percent six-month retroactive cut mid-year -- I knew that my second and third jobs were pulling me away from my family and my mortgage.

Now I'm in a second career, away from my calling, hoping to retire in another 25 years, and continuing to believe that someday the general public will also notice a few of these elephants that I've been seeing in my classroom since college.

Elephant #1: Unlike Their Bosses, Teachers Cannot Move Laterally
  • "Schools should operate more like businesses."
  • Schools-of-Choice makes the competitive market work for districts"

Few of my friends realize that once a teacher in Michigan is in a district for five years, that teacher is more-or-less a captive. After five years, if the same teacher wants to be a "teacher-of-choice" and shop her services to the highest bidder she is stopped by collusion from every district in the state.

A district will ignore the most capable, experienced employee for the cheapest. Maybe that's smart business and is the ticket of charter schools -- whose Logan's Run approach is to keep renewing the corps with the inexperienced. But in business you don't see too many 25-year-olds in "important" positions. Teachers that are at step #5 on a ten-step scale (that's now been moved to an average of fifteen steps in most districts to reach the top) will be asked to take a 30-60 percent pay cut.

Those same districts do not hesitate to pay administrators -- from assistant principals all the way up to the $200,000 superintendents -- whatever they were paid in their last district or higher. Their argument is, "We need to attract the best."

Allowing teachers to move laterally -- like members of the military who transfer to the civilian service or like an employee at the Secretary of State's office can move to another branch -- creates a healthy, competitive job-market that will truly reward the best teachers with pay that represents their capabilities.

Elephant #2: Schools of Choice Can Work -- But Only with Proper Support

My former district opened its doors to neighboring students to help pay the bills. In theory, it's a great advantage for the students in poorer districts whose cities may not be able to offer the same electives, AP courses and activities -- let alone the current books, clean furniture and overall security. And, in theory, it should work for the host districts, too. For each kid has a bounty on his head that is established in the fall on "Count Day." Kid-in-seat = money-for-district. But not all students are created equally. Different districts have different per-student rates and kids from less-affluent districts arrive with less funding.

If the state truly cares about the less-fortunate students, they should reward the districts that take on this important mission. Instead of bringing kids in at a discount, these students should come with a scholarship. For, as districts soon discovered, students coming in from tougher parts of town needed that much more dedication to "catch them up." I've had no greater reward teaching than when I've seen a school-of-choice kid blossom in our district--I know of one in an Ivy League school and two others in med school right now.

Every study shows that the quickest way out of poverty is education. It's the best deal that the state could ever make to improve its future. Unfortunately, with term-limits passed, there is no desire in Michigan's legislature to make any deal that goes deeper than six years -- the magic number when a legislator is eligible for lifetime golden free health care.

Elephant #3: Union Tenure Isn't Bullet-Proof
Tenure, in Michigan, is gone. Salaries are dropping and the Right-to-Work legislation that was bum-rushed through the capital behind locked doors last lame-duck December made sure of that.

Sixty percent of Michigan superintendents gave their own principals a sub-par rating. Yet those same sub-par shooters get to determine who's a good teacher and who isn't.

But even before Michigan joined the Wal-Mart Belt of states supporting "workers' rights," tenure wasn't the Kevlar vest most believe. Ever since the collective bargaining that Mitt Romney's dad signed into law in the mid-1960s to promote quality in the classroom, the understanding was, in every contract, that bad teachers could be removed.

Of my favorite lines, in over twenty years as a union representative and crisis chair, were the following complaints:

"The union protects bad teachers." First of all, who hired these bad teachers? Secondly, the principals were given five years to, for little reason necessary, to get rid of them before tenure and they didn't? The capacities of these administrators should be seriously brought into question.

"Once you've got tenure, you're set for life." If a principal can't take the time to stand outside in the parking lot once in a while and document that the same person is coming in late for four mornings in a row, who should really lose his job?

The entire point of a contract is operate by a clear set of rules that both sides agree to follow. If the management side can't follow the rules they agreed to (and they often elected not even to read those rules in my experience) then it truly is impossible to cull the herd.

Elephant #4: You Get What You Pay For

The same lip-service that makes us stand up at ballgames for our military or applaud the police and fire trucks at parades next week on July 4th makes us "Celebrate the Gift of Teaching." But doesn't it make sense that those same devoted folks ought to get paid more than the manager of Starbucks?

I know of ten outstanding students who spoke of becoming teachers from the first moment I met them as freshmen. Now they're in college and have switched their majors. It's their calling but they know they can't afford it.

Summers off, decent health care, contributing pensions do not drive outstanding individuals to become great teachers. Teachers are your parents-by-proxy. Elementary teachers spend more hours with your kid than you do. Last December they died in Connecticut to protect children that weren't their own.

It should be as obvious as these four elephants that attracting and retaining these exceptional people should be a priority for all of us.

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