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Teachers to Deal's Ed Reform Commission today: Weary and wary of experiments, promises

Teacher John Palmer, spokesman for TRAGICT eachers R ally to A dvocate for G eorgia I nsurance C hoices, will present an abbreviated version of this statement to the Education Reform Commission meeting today at 2 p.m. to finalize recommendations to the governor.

While TRAGIC formed in response to health benefit issues, the group has grown and now addresses broader education issues, as this piece by Palmer reflects.

Here is Palmer's statement in full:

A recent poll by the Foundation for Excellence in Education found 67 percent of Georgian’s surveyed believed we needed lower class sizes and higher teacher salaries, even though 75 percent of those surveyed did not have children in the public schools. The commission could have acted on these two recommendations alone, and I believe the state would have seen both higher student achievement and higher teacher retention.

Instead, the commission has elected to cement austerity cut funding and recession-era class sizes. In refusing to examine what the cost to educate a child should be, I believe the commission missed an opportunity to improve our educational system.

The commission also missed an opportunity to examine why 47 percent of Georgia’s teachers leave the profession within the first five years and why enrollment in Georgia’s teacher preparation programs has recently plummeted.

Since there are no active classroom teachers serving on the Education Reform Commission, focus groups were with some of Georgia’s classroom educators. Teachers in these meetings overwhelmingly listed curriculum, instruction, and assessment as their greatest concerns. Changing curriculum, excessive testing, and evaluations based on this testing were the greatest concerns of these focus groups. Teachers are frustrated having to adopt new curricula, standards, and tests every year. They are frustrated their evaluations are based on ever-shifting criteria; can you imagine always having to hit a moving target?

The Teacher Recruitment, Retention, and Compensation Subcommittee prepared a list of 12 recommendations. There are some excellent proposals in this list, even a few that addressed teacher concerns, but, when asked to rank their proposals to present to the full commission, the TRCC made changing teacher compensation their No. 1 recommendation. At the same time, the funding subcommittee has proposed capping the state contribution for new teacher hires at $51,000, leaving the rest up to local districts.

The combination of these proposals will create an uneven system of teacher compensation across the state, and, we fear, lead to lower teacher salaries across the board in just a few years. The commission has estimated the state contribution for training and experience to be around $90 million. When this goes away, it will be up to the local districts to provide that money or decide they cannot afford to pay their teachers.

What other profession requires a four-year degree, continuing education for certification and encourages additional two-year degrees, yet caps the salary at $51,000? We have districts in this state that still can’t afford to open their doors for a full 180 school days -- where are they going to find the money for additional teacher compensation?

This commission and our legislators need to know teachers and parents are very concerned about these proposals. After a decade of underfunding, curriculum changes, unfunded mandates and over reliance on bubble tests, you must forgive us for being wary.

Teachers are data-driven, and we learn how to analyze and interpret research, especially in graduate level courses. When we hear we should consider research on the lack of correlation between years of experience and many advanced degrees on student achievement, we ask to see the research.

I do not know of any specific research analyzed by this commission, but I know Mary Jane Pearson, former regional director for the U.S. Secretary of Education, stated in the 2013 Nation’s Report Card, “Children who are taught by a teacher with a master’s degree consistently score higher on the NAEP reading and math than children whose teacher holds a bachelor’s degree.”

We ask the same of this commission as we would ask our students: to backup your statements with data, and be prepared to explain your conclusions.

Georgia teachers haven’t seen an increase in state base pay in more than seven years, and it would certainly help to recruit new teachers if Georgia would raise the entry-level pay. However, raising the entry pay must not come at the expense of higher salaries for experience down the road. In order to retain quality teachers, salary increases must be built into to pay scale and allow us to keep pace with the cost of living.

Teachers are used to broken promises from the state. A decade ago, Georgia promised teachers a 10 percent salary bonus for achieving National Board Certification -- a task that was both time-consuming and costly to the educator. About 2,500 of Georgia’s teachers completed these requirements, but the Legislature discarded the bonuses in 2009. Educators do not trust any promises for additional compensation in exchange for the newest certification fad.

It is imperative we place quality teachers in some of our most challenging schools. Higher salaries might help, but no salary will make up for evaluation methods that link a teacher’s effectiveness rating to the test scores of students; children who often face severe challenges and obstacles to learning outside of the school building. No teacher believes in excuses, and all teachers want to give every student an opportunity to learn.

But the harsh reality is the business adage of “location, location, location” applies to education as well. Tying teacher effectiveness, and eventually teacher pay, to student test scores will only make it harder to fill hard-to-staff schools with quality teachers.

In regards to the new teacher compensation models, the commission has recommended the state design several models: districts would be able to pick one or create their own. The only requirement would be some form of “teacher effectiveness” would factor into the compensation. While I have no doubt some districts would work diligently to ensure the most effective teachers were compensated fairly, on what metric will they rate teachers? Our evaluations? Our test scores?

The Georgia Milestones results from last April were just released this week. As one teacher wrote on this blog  yesterday, “the state took six months to grade a test we had seven months to teach.” Teachers who are evaluated on student scores from this test can’t even see the questions being asked -- but at least this test is supposed to align with the class curriculum.

I teach music. My class does not have a component in the Milestones, so I am rated on Student Learning Objective tests, or SLOs. I can only give a computer-based, multiple choice test for my SLO, and these can only measure a limited amount of my class material.

I have a sixth grade student who entered my class with no knowledge of the trumpet, but he has been taking piano since he was 6. He scored a 100 percent on his SLO pre-test. At the end of the year, he will know how to play his trumpet, but he will show no growth on his SLO, so as far as the state is concerned, I will be ineffective.

Luckily, I have an administrator who sees the insanity of this. She sees the growth of my students over their three years in my program, she knows I have ensembles performing on state, regional, and national stages, she knows I am a highly effective teacher.

I am fortunate; not every teacher has an administrator willing to look beyond the limitations of a test score. Teachers will not trust compensation models that focus solely on test scores.

Finally, we appreciate the assurances of members of this commission that current teachers be allowed to stay on the current pay scale, and the state should honor its compensation obligations to us. However, we do not have faith in these assurances.

Charter districts and strategic waiver systems already have the ability to design new compensation systems for their teachers. All but two of Georgia’s school districts fall under those two categories, yet none have eliminated training and experience from teachers’ compensation. If districts could already change their teacher compensation models, why haven’t they? If this was such a good idea, why have districts not rushed to do so?

I’ll tell you where they have changed teacher pay: states like Arizona, Kansas, and North Carolina have all changed their teacher compensation models to ones similar to these proposals. These states have not seen an increase in student achievement, but they have seen drastic teacher shortages. These shortages have led to higher class sizes and the waiving of teacher licensure requirements.

What mechanisms will be put in place to make sure our teacher shortage is not exacerbated by these proposed changes to teacher compensation? As of now, I don’t see any plan to revisit these proposals down the road: Remember, QBE has been the law for 30 years, even if it was ignored for the past decade.

Teachers are not afraid of change… we are awash in change. Every year or two someone decides they have the next great idea, the best curriculum ever, the best new strategy for teaching math concepts. Teachers are tired of experimentation, of moving goalposts, of political games at our expense.

This Education Reform Commission had the opportunity to be bold and remake teaching as a true profession in Georgia. Instead, the subcommittee tasked with recruiting and retaining quality teachers has recommended eliminating compensation for education and experience, asking the Legislature nicely to stop changing the curriculum all the time, and will use a question on an administrator survey to somehow protect planning time.

Teachers are professionals, and we want to be treated professionally. Give us a target, give us the resources, and trust we will do everything we can to hit that target. As an educator, I want to be an effective teacher, and I want to succeed. But if the state does not treat educators professionally and does not compensate educators with a professional salary, then our best and brightest students will no longer look to teaching as a viable profession, and many of our best teachers will have no choice but to look for another profession.

Thank you for your time.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.