By Wayne William Cipriano
As you may have surmised, this is an opinion column. I am not a reporter.
I read as did you the proposed amendments to the Missouri Constitution that we will accept or reject on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
There are several proposed amendments and each effects us with varying degrees of importance. One is extremely important to all of us, called the ‘Teacher Amendment” Amendment Three.
It has six sections, each a paragraph long, and has a total of around 500 hundred words. Even for a slow reader like me, it takes no longer than ten minutes to read. You should read it, then compare what you have read to my interpretation of Amendment Three.
It seems to me there are four important changes this amendment would make to our school system:
1) Tenure is abolished and replaced by renewable three-year contracts; 2) Grade and time specific standards-based skills and abilities are established; 3) An objective evaluation system is introduced; 4) Teachers are mostly evaluated based on their students’ achievement.
What follows is my interpretation by section. How does it compare with yours?
Sections 3(d) and 3(e), paragraphs 1 & 2, say that tenure disappears for teachers who do not now have it, replaced by renewable three-year contracts. What is tenure? As you may know, tenure is a guarantee of future employment, and began as a way to reward and retain excellent teachers by relieving them of the threat of being fired or laid-off so they could ply their profession without interference. It is somewhat like the life-long appointments we give to judges, and for the same reasons –– so they can do their jobs without fearing undo influence may deflect them from the correct path. No other profession, vocation, avocation, employment other than possibly Civil Service, offers such guarantees. Unfortunately, tenure has now become nothing more than a reward for not quitting a school district and has nothing to do with teaching excellence. There are school districts which award this life-long employment guarantee to teachers who have taught no more than two years. I was told by a school employee that Ava requires a longer term – five years – but is also based on nothing more than longevity, not professional excellence.
When I spoke before the Ava School Board concerning Article Three, I offered a list of six powerful reasons why tenure is often considered a good idea. I think these are the top two: an excellent long-time teacher who has performed well and received longevity as well as meritorious pay raises becomes a budget-cutting target when their single salary can pay for two or three new teachers paid entry-level compensation. An even more important argument for tenure is it protects the very best teachers we have.
Our best teachers who are never ground down to mediocre performance by others ashamed to be shown as less diligent. Teachers who forced us to read Catcher in the Rye, while some groups were burning it. Teachers who insisted we understand and contemplate what Infinity suggests. Teachers who patiently explained how geometry would someday become useful in our lives. Teachers who tore up adequate essays that were far from our potential. And, teachers who said, “I do not care how well she play softball, if she doe not pass my class, she is off the team.” These great teachers will now be subject to removal by various powers in any community which hold sway with a school board that retains or releases teachers.
But as strong as these two are, and my other four and the many you can envision, none of these arguments individually nor all of them collectively overcome the main argument against tenure –– the damage a poorly performing almost impossible to remove tenured teacher does to his class now and the classes students enter in the future.
In the best case, that next teacher remediates the deficiencies but does so by turning away from the rest of her class, or she teaches to the lowest common set of skills and abilities inhibiting the progress of many in her class so that gains of some sort can be made by all.
In the worst case, that next teacher ignores a poorly prepared student’s inabilities and passes him onward to a higher level where he is at an even greater disadvantage. That student often becomes frustrated, angry, depressed, embarrassed, acts out, withdraws, even drops out, hurting chances of succeeding in life while the students around are also damaged. Eventually everyone in the community pays for this as we depend on this next generation for pretty much everything when they take over.
Perhaps the great teacher by virtue of her rigid standards and superior teaching techniques will prove valuable enough to her district to withstand the budget-cutting axe or some vocal interest groups’ pressure to remove her simply because she is so good at what she does without the benefit of tenure. Perhaps not. But the damage caused by an inadequate teacher with tenure, to my mind, is far more detrimental to the goal of educating our students than the removal of a great teacher without tenure. You will have to decide between these competing arguments concerning tenure. Which is more compelling for you?
Section 3(f) (Paragraph 3) is the heart of Amendment Three and has three functions. First, it requires individual teachers, teachers in groups, whole departments, and then the entire teaching faculty to devise a list of the minimums a student should and must possess to successfully face the challenge presented by the next level of teaching they will encounter. Sure, teachers will be strongly encouraged and heavily rewarded for going beyond the minimums, but no student having a normal level of mental and physical ability will be forced onward to face failure because he is unprepared.
What’s normal? It is rational, that is all. A blind student is not required to differentiate between red and green. A paralyzed student is not required to print legibly. A mentally challenged student is not required to pass solid geometry and calculus. Rational expectations, but inflexible ones, minimums.
Minimums such as – can a student add two sets of three integers for the correct total? Can a student identify the capital of Brazil? Can a student accurately predict the outcome of adding baking soda to vinegar? Can a student list the symphonies of Beethoven? (a gift question to the music lovers) And, whatever else the teaching professionals decide is necessary for the student to move on in their intellectual development and experience success at the next instructional level.
The second function of Section 3(f) is the tests. Yes, tests. Tests like we face every day of our adult lives, but these tests are composed of clearly asked questions and objectively scored answers or methods of response. Tests that indicate how successfully the minimums are being met and more importantly when they are not.
Not yearly tests when the results are far too late to effect necessary change, or to “prove” a building or a district is doing “well” or “poorly,” but continuing programs of testing that over short periods of time discover weaknesses of individual students that can be addressed quickly to assure that deficiencies do not accumulate and become impossible to remediate.
The third function: The professional educators to whom we pay our taxes in exchange for educating our children will be evaluated based on how well they do their job as shown by how their students do on objective tests. These tests will show how closely their students meet (and hopefully how far they exceed) the minimums established by those same professional educators.
Unlike what you may have heard, I read this Section’s mention of a majority of a teacher’s evaluation to mean what it says, a majority or 51%. The other 49%? Perhaps how many students the teacher has who are not fluent in English. Or, the number of school days canceled due to inclement weather. Or, the irrationality of a standard much more rigorous than expected. Or, just about anything a school district may wish to consider. But 51% of a teacher’s evaluation must be how well his students perform academically … how well that teacher does what we pay him to do.
Section 3(g) (Paragraph 4) lists causes for which teachers can be demoted, removed, discharged, or terminated, and most are clearly correct such as incompetency, felonious arrest and conviction, excessive absences. Other reasons for termination seem like lawyer-bait such as inefficiency (endless babbling speeches to class members or untidy lesson plans?) and still others, such as insubordination, for example, reminds us of the monolithic system of education that often drives our very best teachers to frustration and silence or worse yet, drives them out of the profession altogether. Are some of these reasons for termination important enough to carry the other ones along? You will have to decide that with your vote.
Section 3(h) (Paragraph 5) seems to me to protect teachers whose classes show by test scores that the teachers are doing their jobs, the jobs we pay them to do, educate our students. Beyond the listed reasons for dismissal, a teacher can contest firing, demotion, etc. by showing that his students are performing well based on standardized testing. If his hair is unruly, tie stained, jokes in “poor taste” or teaching style “controversial” or disliked by peers or has an enemy in administration, they cannot be released against their will. As I read Amendment Three, as long as they are doing their job of educating –– and prove it by good student performance on tests –– doing the job well secures their place within their profession.
Section 3 (i) (Paragraph 6) sensibly prevents educators during contract negotiations from collectively bargaining away or making material changes in the main characteristics of Amendment Three.
So, having subjected you to my opinion of Amendment Three, and having read it yourself, how do you see it? Is the “perfect” Amendment going to be the enemy of the “good” Amendment?
I agree with many who oppose Amendment Three that there are parts of it that are not perfect. As I mentioned earlier there are facets that I do not support, find silly, useless, and even foolish. But overall I believe Amendment Three is a good and necessary first step toward changing an educational system that is failing in the most insidious of all ways. It is slowly, almost imperceptively showing itself to be unable to perform its main mission, I’d say its only mission: the education of our young. It is only when we look back decades and compare student performance than to student performance now that we see the magnitude of the slow backward slide.
Will we reject Amendment Three because of the relentless pressure brought against it by those unable to do the job for which they are paid? Will we give this attempt at reform a chance? Pay the freight, get it done, and see what benefits and what problems obtain? Then mitigate as necessary?
Or will we wait for a “perfect amendment” to come along in a couple of years or ten years, or never, while year after year students move into, through, and out of an educational system that fails them by not requiring they meet sensible standards, frequently evaluated by testing, taught by competent educational professionals who are paid on the basis of what they accomplish?
Amendment Three may be flawed but in the final analysis will we be a better-educated society with it or without it? Read it, think about it, decide, and then vote your decision on November 4, 2014.
I look forward to seeing you at the polls.