At Thursday night’s school board meeting, the district’s 2017 Legislative Priorities were reviewed and I am pleased to say that the misuse of standardized testing was at the top of the list.
However, a seemingly small piece of information was presented that could have huge ramifications for public schools. One school board member informed us that in speaking with our local legislators on this matter, she learned that we would gain more traction with the Opt Out movement if we started calling it “Parent Choice”.
That’s right. They’ll listen to us, but only if we put our arguments in language that allows them to still feel like they are being outwardly loyal to their principles. They won’t change the laws based on the outcries of thousands of students and parents. They won’t change the laws based on the expert opinions of educators. They won’t change the laws even though many of them send their children to private schools to avoid the harmful effects of their own legislative actions. In the no-nonsense world of accountability that they have created, they are asking to be coddled with doublespeak that will allow them to sleep at night.
While I understand that sometimes we have to “play the game”, Parent Choice sounds an awful lot like School Choice. They are slowly but surely trying to change the narrative surrounding public schools (now unaffectionately known as “government” schools) and get us to come along for the ride.
In one final fiscal f@#k you to the residents, taxpayers, parents, and teachers of Clay County, Superintendent Van Zant recommended that the school board approve another charter school despite the district committee’s recommendation to deny the application. The school board voted 3-2 to override the committee’s recommendation and approve St. Johns Classical Academy, with recently ousted Chairwoman McKinnon leading the charge. School board members Condon and Gilhousen followed suit. School board members Kerekes and Studdard voted to deny the application.
Kerekes brought up the fact that the district committee listed several deficiencies with the charter school’s application. Representatives from the charter school spoke before the board and provided documentation that they claimed addressed these deficiencies. Kerekes suggested that the board review the documentation and vote at a later date. Unfortunately, McKinnon was unwilling to wait – possibly because she won’t be around at a later date.
According to the district committee, one major flaw in the application was: “The application does not provide a clear and coherent educational program design for grades 912.” I’m no expert, but that seems pretty important.
I spoke before the board, urging them to deny the application. The charter schools that we already have are costing the district approximately $5.6 million per year (~800 students @ ~$7,000 FTE dollars each). The St. Johns Classical Academy has a proposed capacity of 810 students. This district will be bled dry.
For those of you who are new to the charter school racket: here’s a brief rundown. They are “public schools” in that they use public funds but they are exempt from many of the state statutes that traditional public schools must abide by. These schools can look more appealing to parents because they have more control over their school day. They can boast about less standardized testing and more electives. The part they don’t boast about is their ability to turn away students who don’t meet their criteria or do not thrive once they are there.
As charter schools siphon off students and funds, they leave neighborhood school under capacity. While those schools end up cutting teacher allocations to save money, there are many costs that do no decrease as the student population declines. With the exception of portables, schools can’t run air conditioning in one classroom but not another. The entire building and grounds must still be maintained. The allocation cuts tend to target electives first, leaving the remaining students without art, music, or other resources.
Traditional public schools are being asked to compete with charter schools with one hand tied behind our back. This new charter school was praised by several school board members for its ability to offer a “classical education”. As far as I can tell, that means the opposite of the wall-to-wall career academies that have been shoved down our throats. Parents love the idea of less testing in charter schools while teachers in traditional public schools are quitting the profession because they are so disgusted with the volume of standardized testing being forced upon our students. Traditional public schools can offer the same quality education that charter schools boast about (although the results sometimes don’t always pan out), but only if we are allowed to do our jobs. Teachers across the state are screaming JUST LET US TEACH!
This problem must be fixed at the state level. If a school district denies a charter school’s application, they can appeal to the state. Kerekes suggested that we deny the charter and let the state force it on us if they win at appeal. I completely agree. We should all be working together to send a message to the state. We should also be working together to bring more of our private school and home school children back into the public school system. Gilhousen mentioned that this new charter school would be very attractive to home school parents. Why aren’t we trying to make our traditional public schools more attractive to them?
The St. Johns Classical Academy is one gift that the people of Clay County just cannot afford. Additional charter schools will eventually force the closure of neighborhood schools. Who will be here to pick up the pieces if these charter schools abruptly shut down? Not Van Zant and McKinnon. At this rate – maybe not Condon or Gilhousen either.
Some Republicans in Clay County are expressing their resentment towards the campaign to encourage Democrats and Independents to switch parties so that they can have a voice in the August 30 election.
Well guess what: we resent having to do it.
Closed primaries may have their place in elections for legislators, but we are talking about positions that many people feel should not be partisan in the first place. What does Republican v. Democrat have to do with running our school... system?
We resent being locked out of the 2012 election - a wound that is still raw for many people but our superintendent has yet to acknowledge.
Many teachers and parents resent the intrusion of politics into our students' education.
We resent the Don Quixotesque tilting at transgender windmills.
We resent the lack of respect.
We resent not being given a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions that affect our working conditions and our students' learning environment.
We resent that we have to ask for a seat at the table when it's our table to begin with.
You say you don't like that we are "invading" your party? I think we've found something that we can agree on.
The teaching profession is under attack. Union thugs. Lazy, tenured teachers and their bloated pensions. It wasn’t always this way. Our profession used to be respected. Oddly enough, many of the people who label our system broken and call for major reforms were taught in this very system. This can mean one of three things: (1) Why are we listening to people who are clearly undereducated, having been brought up in such a broken system? (2) These individuals are the oh-so-rare exception to the rule - they are smart and successful despite this system and we should listen to their sage words of advice, or (3) The system isn’t really broken and these individuals have something to gain from the reform movement.
The change in attitudes towards teachers is fairly recent. While unions and their employers have always butted heads, the general public was brought into the fight after the Great Recession. Cities across the country found that they could not meet their public employee pension obligations. Never mind that the underlying cause was that many of these pension funds made investments in assets that were later found to be toxic - a fact known to the banks and investment companies pawning them off on these unsuspecting municipalities. Teachers, police, and firefighters bore the brunt of the public’s anger.
I am the daughter of a 43-year teaching veteran. When I decided to go into teaching 12 years ago, my dad didn’t try to talk me out of it. I think he was proud. I’ll never forget the moment we were walking through a store and a teenager walked by and said “Hey, Mayberry!” My dad looked confused and said “I don’t remember teaching her.” I said, “No, dad, she was talking to me.” We both laughed, and I knew that the rest of my life would be full of these encounters. In my 11 years of teaching economics, I’ve had the privilege to teach almost 3,000 students. Every time one of them tracks me down after graduation to tell me that they started an IRA or saved money on a car loan because of what they learned in my class, I know that I’ve made the right career decision. What other profession can claim this type of impact on their community? I love what I do, which makes it painful for me to hear my own students say that they want to go into this embattled profession. Some of my colleagues discourage them. Some of their parents do too. I try to remain neutral, but it gets harder each day.
When society attacks teachers, what message is being sent to our students? When teachers are accused of being minions, manipulated and controlled by their union, what message is being sent to our students? When teachers are given scripted lessons and reduced to little more than test monitors, what message is being sent to our students? When schools and teachers are graded on things that are not entirely under their control, what message is being sent to our students?
But schools are failing! We have to have accountability!
Are schools actually failing? Throw out all the bogus school grades, based on ever-changing factors with arbitrary cut-off scores. Throw out all the comparisons to other countries, who have drastically different education systems and criteria for which students get tested. Throw out the “bad teacher” anecdotes that have proven to be the exception, not the rule.
Let’s look at schools as a whole and our children as individuals. Are you happy with your child’s teacher? Are you happy with your child’s learning environment? A quote from a recent gallup survey says it all.
“Americans continue to believe their local schools are performing well, but that the nation's schools are performing poorly. More than three-quarters of public school parents (77%) give their child's school an "A" or "B," while 18% of all Americans grade the nation's public schools that well.”
This makes no sense. If the majority of parents are happy with their child’s education, why does the public have such a negative view of the public school system? The answer is that we are under attack. The education reform movement (dubbed the “deform movement” by many in education) has successfully convinced the average citizen that major changes are needed. Teachers are finally waking up and fighting back, but most of us are too overworked to deal with anything beyond our individual classrooms. We have not been good at being our own advocates, but that is slowly changing. The high-stakes testing pendulum has finally swung too far and many parents are joining the fight.
So what is this lazy, tenured, union minion advocating?
Treat us like professionals and let us do our jobs! Teachers are actually begging to be able to work harder. We want to create our own lesson plans based on our students’ needs, not read from scripted curriculums. We want to create our own classroom assessments and evaluate our own students, not take them to a lab to take another high-stakes test. Perhaps this scares people who think that testing is the only way to hold teachers accountable. Accountability rests at the local level. Parents, mentor teachers, and school-level administrators are in the best position to evaluate teacher effectiveness. Just imagine how much feedback and mentoring teachers could receive if their administrators were not so bogged down with testing and the pressures of gaming the school grade system.
So next time you are tempted to disparage an entire profession or an entire system, please consider a few things:
1.Who is telling you that we are failing and what do they have to gain from that failure?
2.Think about your favorite teachers from your school days. Would the things that made them special be able to survive in today’s high-stakes, micromanaged system?
3.How will starving our public schools of funding and forcing them to compete against charter schools make them better? When crime goes up, do we defund police departments? No. We know that the police didn’t cause the higher crime rate and areas that suffer more need more funding, not less.
4.When teachers push back against specific reforms, it does not necessarily mean that they are against change. The very nature of our profession is change. We readily embrace it when we believe that it is in our students’ best interests. We fight against it with a passion when we know that the only ones who will gain from it are those outside our classrooms.
Clay County School District: Innovate, Engage, Empower
It’s a catchy slogan. Kudos to whatever consulting firm we paid to come up with it. Sarcasm aside, I think we’ve finally got an initiative that everyone can buy into.
Thanks to the out of control rise in high-stakes testing, our students are now engaging with computer screens more than with their teachers and their peers.
Thanks to mandatory weekly PLCs that take time away from planning lessons, grading papers, and tutoring students, our teachers are now empowered to arrive at school earlier, stay later, and take more work home.
Thanks to the district’s failure to follow the intent of the class size amendment, our teachers are now engaging with more kids than ever before. And yes, I know we’re not technically in violation of the law due to the district of choice loophole. This district seems very fond of this particular loophole in the law. Too bad you didn’t care enough about your annual contract teachers to use any loopholes to help them.
Thanks to the lack of job security provided to our annual contract teachers, they are now empowered to take on additional responsibilities without earning a supplement in order to ingratiate themselves to their principals.
Thanks to the growing pressure to increase graduation rates, teachers are finding innovative ways to push kids through the system, regardless of their level of effort or learning.
Thanks to the district’s failure to budget for step and insurance increases, teachers are finding innovative ways to make ends meet, such as working second jobs.
And finally, thanks to your complete disregard for the well-being of those in their charge, the people of Clay County are now getting very engaged in the political process and are feeling empowered enough to vote you out.
Fred Gottshalk, write-in candidate for Superintendent of Schools in Clay County, recently posted this on Facebook:
"Now that Gov. Scott has signed the bill that lets children attend ANY school that their parents want them to; who will the naysayers and the union blame then???? If a person does not like their job, for whatever reason, then they are free to find employment elsewhere. If a person wants more pay, then they should take more educational courses, to increase their personal value, while working towards advancement. If you just want to be a teacher, fine............That is a very honorable profession, but you should not expect the same salary that a CEO recieves.........."
Many of the comments that followed were appalling, but they were written by private citizens who are entitled to their opinion. The most egregious example was from a regular on the Talking Clay County Politics & More page: “Real teachers, honorable teachers, caring teachers teachers who are truly dedicated to student success, those teachers, are in the profession for the outcome, not the income.”
Statements like this make my blood boil. No one would dare make that comment about a male-dominated profession. However, we as teachers need to take some ownership for this perception. How many times do you see teacher shirts, signs, posts, etc. with the following phrase: “Teaching - I’m in it for the outcome, not the income.” How cute. But cute doesn’t pay the bills. Have we just given up on decent salaries? Do we not believe that we are on par with other professionals who are paid better and treated with far more respect?
Do people who say that we are “in it for the outcome” think that we can pay our mortgages with heartwarming stories about teaching a child how to read? When is the last time you paid your utility bill with a well-constructed lesson plan? When did grocery stores start accepting payment in the form of data-driven instruction?
I can assure you that I am an honorable, caring teacher who is dedicated to student success. I honor my profession and my students by demanding that I be treated like a professional. Many teachers have done exactly what Mr. Gottshalk prescribes: We HAVE earned higher degrees (at our own expense) to increase our personal value. What do we get for that in Clay County? A $2,000 supplement for a Masters degree - barely enough to cover the cost of the student loans we took out to earn our degrees. We don’t expect to be paid like CEOs, although I would argue that our value-added to society is much greater than many private-sector executives.
Educational outcomes and decent teacher incomes are not mutually exclusive concepts. Teachers are expected to work for practically nothing because “we love the kids”. Try that line on other professions. Don’t doctors and nurses love their patients? Don’t members of the military love their country? Don’t computer engineers love designing software?
To those who wish to pinch pennies on the backs of teachers: be careful what you wish for because you will get what you pay for.
It’s no surprise that many teachers in Clay County are frustrated with current Superintendent Charlie Van Zant. We have blogged about it, posted on Facebook, spoken at school board meetings, and written letters to the newspaper. Most of the teachers who are speaking up have professional services contracts. No, that doesn’t mean tenure. No, that doesn’t mean a job for life. It means we have due process. We cannot be arbitrarily let go at the end of the school year. Although any teacher, regardless of contract status, should feel comfortable voicing their concerns and opinions, annual contract teachers live in fear of being told they are “not a good fit” and their contract is not being renewed.
With all of this anger and frustration towards the superintendent and some school board members, why aren’t we hearing from school and district level administrators? Their silence this election cycle is deafening. Many people don’t realize that they are on annual contract too. They fear being transferred or losing their job at the end of each year. As much as the Van Zant campaign likes to use catchy phrases about not bringing Duval policies to Clay (as a slight against his opposition, Addison Davis), the constant shuffling of administrators is a trademark Duval tactic that we have seen a lot of in the last few years.
Clay County administrators have been virtually silent about our current situation, which is a shame. Their insight into district policies and how they have affected teacher morale would shed more light on what is going on in our schools.
Despite their lack of gusto in supporting Van Zant for reelection, there is one critical way that they have shown their “support” for our current superintendent – with their wallets. A quick trip to the Clay County Supervisor of Elections website will show you that the campaign contributions have been rolling in. While I wasn’t there to see those checks being written, one can only assume that for many administrators it was with gritted teeth and after much moral wrangling. I’m willing to bet some of them have never donated to a political campaign in their life. I take that back. Some of them did donate once before – to Van Zant’s 2012 campaign. Interestingly, the donations from administrators were still pouring in even after he defeated Ben Wortham in the primary election. There was zero chance of his losing the general election, yet the money kept coming. Draw your own conclusions there.
I participated in the legislative committee meeting where CCEA vetted Addison Davis. The subject of campaign contributions came up and he stated that he would not seek out contributions from Duval County administrators because it wasn’t right to put them in that position. I wish our superintendent had done the same. Sending district level administrators into schools to encourage donations is ethically questionable. Using any means, stated or implied, to pressure your employees to fund your reelection campaign is wrong. It amounts to extortion. Pay-to-play doesn’t seem like a traditional family value to me. The right thing to do would have been to announce that he would decline all donations from his employees to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
One of the worst parts about these donations is that they are causing rifts at the school level. Many teachers have become disheartened after finding out that one of their administrators has made a donation. While we understand the pressure that they are under and sympathize with them, it still stings. Teachers have been putting their jobs on the line to stand up for their students and their working conditions, only to have their bosses unwittingly help the very man whom many of us view as just a politician climbing his way up the ladder, not an education practitioner looking out for the best interests of all students.
*Upon further reflection, I want to make it clear that the intent of this post is not to “out” specific administrators for their donations. I actually feel sorry for them. I know why they did what they did. They have a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed just like teachers do. They know on which side their bread is buttered. It is a shame that they are put in this difficult position. It’s too bad they don’t have a union that would protect them against this unfair labor practice.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” - Aldous Huxley
“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin
While I hate to draw further attention to this group, as a teacher I cannot resist the opportunity to share my opinion on the dangers of this type of close-minded thinking. Many people like this will be voting on August 30 in order to “take a stand for their conservative values”. I don’t believe they truly have our schools’ best interests in mind.
There are so many things that jump out at me in this post:
1. “Liberal” is practically a four-letter word to some people. I took the liberty of looking up the definition of liberal and here is what I found: “open to new behavior or opinions”, “concerned mainly with broadening a person's general knowledge and experience”. Synonyms: “tolerant”, “non-prejudiced”, “forward-looking”. Scary stuff!
As much as this will ruffle many conservatives’ feathers, I have to say it: The very concept of public education in the United States has an inherently liberal bias. (If you see the word ‘liberal” and automatically think “democrat”, please re-read the above definitions.) As educators, it is our job to expose our students to new ideas and broaden their general knowledge. Not preach. Not indoctrinate. Not brainwash. EXPOSE. The very idea of educating ALL children at the taxpayers’ expense is progressive.
2. If you read the article that is attached to the post (http://news.wjct.org/post/duval-par...), Duval County Superintendent Vitti does a good job of explaining why the two books in question were selected as part of the curriculum. I’ve never been a big fan of his, but he is absolutely on point regarding this issue.
Exposing children to other religions should be applauded, not criticized. Reading a book where the characters are Muslim is not tantamount to religious indoctrination. (Side note: Would it be so bad if more people read the Koran so that they could see and interpret for themselves what it says, good or bad???) Why stop there? Should we remove any book from our curriculum that contains characters who do not perfectly adhere to traditional Judeo-Christian values? No more books with divorced people. No more books with murders. No more books with characters who lie. We can’t expose our children to these dangerous ideas! I doubt that anyone would go that far. There would be no books left. It seems that sin is ok to read about as long as it’s Christians doing the sinning.
At the heart of the argument against exposing children to new things is the idea that they cannot think for themselves. You will rarely hear a teacher make this argument. We give our students Alice in Wonderland and don’t worry that they will become addicted to opium due to that cute, fuzzy caterpillar. As long as the books are age-appropriate, teachers should be trusted as professionals to include them in their curriculum.
3. The current push in education is to get every child “college and career ready”. (I have so many issues with that phrase, but that’s another rant for another day.) How can our students work alongside their diverse peers and be ready to compete in the global job market if they are not exposed to ideas not present in their current bubble? They need a basic understanding of other countries, other cultures, other religions, etc., in order to function in today’s society. That is the job of public education. What are we teaching our kids when we say that some knowledge is off-limits and do not given them the opportunity to learn and judge for themselves?
4. Teachers should be trusted to take the curriculum supplied by the district and augment/supplement as necessary to meet the needs of their students. We have always done this and will continue to do so because we are professionals. I am all for parent and community involvement when selecting curriculum, but ultimately, teachers have to be trusted enough to make the right decisions regarding the education of their students. Yes, it’s YOUR kid, not mine. That’s why they are in your care for more hours of the day than mine. It’s YOUR body, but you trust your doctor because they have specialized knowledge about medicine. It’s YOUR house, but you trust the architects/engineers who designed it because they have specialized knowledge about construction. It teachers are not being given this same level of trust, then we have a much bigger problem on our hands than a few controversial books.
5. Considering all of the tragedies that are occurring here and abroad that center around hate and bigotry against one group or another, I am absolutely terrified of people who advocate for LESS knowledge, LESS exposure to other view points, LESS open discussion and debate. Intellectual walls are dangerous - they keep good ideas out and allow bad ideas to fester.
While I don’t claim to speak for all teachers, I’d like to share a few thoughts about why many of us can’t wait to break up with our current superintendent on August 30. Like any good break-up story, this one involves lying, cheating, and poor communication.
1. We have been accused of never giving Van Zant a chance. His supporters say we have been antagonistic since his first day in office. While this is an odd way to begin a relationship, this is one that many of us never wanted to be a part of in the first place. Using a (now infamous) loophole in the elections laws, Van Zant disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters in Clay County to defeat Ben Wortham in the 2012 primary. His election that November felt more like an arranged marriage than a first date. This left many teachers in Clay County very bitter. We felt like our school system was being used for the dowry that this position would bring to his political resume. Our students should not be used as a stepping stone to a higher political office.
2. Once he was in office, Van Zant did little to mend this fissure. He doesn’t even acknowledge why it is there in the first place. His supporters claim that the teachers’ union is sowing these seeds of discontent - that we are convincing teachers to dislike Van Zant. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that if you love someone, no amount of “he’s no good for you” from your friends will change your mind. You must see it for yourself and then acknowledge that they were right all along. I have spoken with many teachers who voted for Van Zant in 2012 but now say that they wish they had not.
During our 3 1/2 year relationship with Van Zant, we have felt marginalized, mistrusted, and undervalued. The school district has made decision after decision without seeking true input from teachers. They take us out to dinner, but then order our meal for us. They have paid outside consultants instead of trusting and relying on our expertise. The recent fumbled implementation of Professional Learning Communities is a prime example.
3. The current election has only served to confirm our desire to move on. At the last superintendent debate, Van Zant ended by saying that he was sick and tired of President Obama shredding our Constitution. What does that have to do with running public schools in Clay County??? Nothing. While he is whispering these sweet nothings in the ears of conservative voters in Clay County, the rest of us are left wondering why he isn’t talking about education.
He isn’t talking about education because he’s not an educator, although he did manage to teach Kenny Leigh a thing or two about elections laws. The movement for an appointed superintendent stemmed from the desire to have actual qualifications for this position other than just residing in the county. One would think that if you lacked expertise in an area, you would seek out the advice and knowledge of those who do.
The recent bargaining impasse hearing shed some light on our rocky relationship. The public is becoming aware of just how much teachers have bent the last few years. We are now at a breaking point. We have taken the abuse, but we are now seeing the effect it is having on our students. Staying together for this children’s sake would not be healthy for anyone involved.
Mr. Van Zant, no means no.