New Rules for Teachers
The author won an SPJ award for coverage of post-union landscape
By Michael Meidenbauer
Shorewood High School English teacher Mike Halloran taps the wall-mounted screen at the front of his class and shows his students how to upload their term papers. He turns back around, surveys the class with a devilish grin, and shows his students how effective the new software is at detecting plagiarism. He pauses a moment before laughing softly and telling his class that he knows them well enough to know it won’t come to that. The wall behind him fills with a slideshow and he moves on to ancient mythology.
When he isn’t teaching English, Halloran represents Shorewood teachers as the President of the Shorewood Education Association. He recalls the inspiration he felt back in February, when protests were swelling the streets of Madison.
“People from all walks of life found a political voice they didn’t know they had,” Halloran said.
Halloran is using that voice in Shorewood to communicate a teacher’s perspective to administrators as they hammer out an employee handbook, as required by Act 10, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget repair bill.
Act 10 abolished collective bargaining over anything but wages, and requires that districts replace union contracts with employee handbooks created by administrators and approved by School Boards. Crucial and sensitive issues such as layoffs, teacher evaluations, and compensation models are all on the table.
Now, eight months after the controversy in the state capitol, the Shorewood School District is fleshing out its handbook, touchy subjects and all. Shorewood taxpayers rejected a Department of Public Instruction template handbook in August, citing concerns that it wasn’t collaborative enough. The district opted to create its own.
Superintendent Blane McCann is meeting with labor groups to discuss components of the handbook while political animosity continues to run high in the state. McCann can listen to the employees’ concerns, but Act 10 forbids negotiation.
Despite the tension, McCann is confident in the district’s ability to draft a fair, functional handbook.
“I think there’s a lot in there that we’re going to agree isn’t a big deal,” said McCann, “but there are probably five or six things we’re going to arm wrestle over, and that’s healthy.”
Teachers Are Worried:
On a Thursday night in December, social studies teacher Debra Schwinn bustles about under the aging copper-dome up at the peak of Shorewood High School. She stops to lean over a table of her mock trial students, assign roles, and answer questions. She waves her hands around in front of her wildly as she explains the particulars of the case. Despite her small stature, she seems to tower over the mock trial students at the table in front of her.
Schwinn is among a vocal group of teachers in the Shorewood School District who fear what Act 10 has in store for them.
“I think the thing most people are concerned about is the standards around layoffs and non-renewal of contracts,” said Schwinn. “I think that’s our big number one issue, because you have people who’ve had tenure and seniority forever who now all of a sudden are completely exposed.”
John Jacobson, a political science and government teacher in his twenty-third year with the district, is wary of the new environment. To him, Act 10 feels like a betrayal.
“I come in. I give it my all. I work as hard as I can to create a creative, critical thinking based classroom and I have pretty good job security,” Jacobson said. “Now that’s gone. Now, technically speaking, my time here—and therefore, the salary I worked my way up to—could be seen as a liability.”
Jacobson jokes that, if the current School Board and administration were to remain in place for another fifteen years, he would have no concerns. Schwinn and Halloran also feel that the current School Board and administration are looking out for them. What they fear is that someday a School Board member or administrator will arrive with the intention of cutting expensive teachers.
“Sooner or later somebody’s going to leave,” said Schwinn. “Somebody’s going to get replaced, and who is that person going to be that comes in the door?”
Equally disquieting to teachers is the proposed state-mandated teacher evaluation model, which they say would resemble a “business model,” in which test scores would be analogous to profits.
Schwinn said that, unlike a business owner, she can’t fire a student who isn’t motivate.
“I teach but you have to be willing to learn, and be focused enough to learn,” said Schwinn. “[In the business model evaluation system] if people won’t do the things they need to do to be good students or to achieve, then you punish the instructor.”
Schwinn thinks that teachers may be forced to do what they fear most, to “teach to the test,” rather than promote a creative atmosphere or critical thinking.
“This is a place where we try to teach kids how to think,” said Schwinn. “The liberal arts education is the heart and soul of the culture here.”
Jacobson says that a good evaluator is like a coach, consultant, or partner, and that evaluating with test scores represents a misunderstanding of the classroom.
“If you don’t see good teaching as a creative process, underwritten by good content and knowledge on the part of the teacher, you’re truly misunderstanding the dynamic of a classroom,” said Jacobson. “The idea that we could truly evaluate a classroom with a Scantron test, arbitrarily written from outside the school district, stands on its own as being counter to common sense.”
The Administrative Perspective:
Superintendent Blane McCann and the school board sit before a packed house of teachers and community members at an October school board meeting. Halloran and Schwinn, among others, have come to speak out against joining a consortium of school districts whose purpose it is to create a teacher evaluation model. They would rather the district create its own, and after a long back and forth between the board and audience members, the school board votes not to join the consortium.
Teachers showing up at school board meetings to speak their minds is becoming a common occurrence, according to Halloran. While Act 10 isn’t helping with staff morale, McCann said it will force a deeper conversation.
“There’s not going to be the ability on either side to say ‘I don’t want to discuss that’ or ‘that’s a non-starter’ like in the negotiation process,” said McCann.
He said no Shorewood administration would use an evaluation system as a punitive measure, or as a way of cutting out costly teachers.
“We’re not looking to target older or more expensive teachers,” said McCann. “We’ve never had that discussion, [and it’s] certainly not what we would be about because we have made a huge investment in these teachers. Why would I want to get rid of someone I’ve invested numerous dollars of professional development in?”
What’s important to McCann is that teachers know what is expected of them, so that if teacher gets a bad evaluation, the reasons would be clear. McCann envisions using data to help teachers pinpoint students’ needs, not to make them fearful.
“I don’t want people running around being worried about compliance,” said McCann. “I want them worried about student performance and being innovative and creative.”
School Board President Paul Zovic said that because voters control who is on the school board, and the school board hires administrators, the community is the ultimate source of security for teachers in the post Act 10 environment.
“If someone wanted to take a hatchet to our school district and use the power and the abilities afforded by Act 10 to decimate our school district, they wouldn’t get elected [to the school board,]” said Zovic. “Or if they were elected they would immediately be recalled. Before [teacher security] was what the contract said, and now their fate lies in the community.”
Board Treasurer Michael Mishlove doesn’t want to be a leader in what he calls the “race to the bottom” in terms of teachers’ rights.
“We could, if we wanted to, exercise our rights to the fullest extent and conversely deprive teachers to the fullest extent possible over the terms and conditions of their employment,” said Mishlove, “but if we create a really miserable working environment for teachers, where they really are just employees at the whim of the school district, I don’t think we’ll be creating the optimal work environment.”
Board Member Rob Reinhoffer wants to get the community involved as much as possible in the creation of the handbook.
“Where I’d like to see us go is to get more community feedback on the handbook,” said Reinhoffer. “This is uncharted territory and I’d like to make sure that I get it right.”
Although the members of the school board have differing ideas on how an evaluation model should look, they agree with McCann that teachers shouldn’t be worrying about their job security instead of focusing on students. They emphasize creativity over test scores.
“Some teachers are great and some teachers are okay and some teachers need a lot of help,” said school board Vice-President Ruth Treisman. “If there’s some teacher out there being really innovative, they could share that with other teachers to help them move forward. ”
Board Clerk Colin Plese said that evaluation models shouldn’t include test scores at all.
“I don’t think those tests are useful and the information from them is not useful,” said Plese. “I’m not saying that at some point in the future somebody might come up with good way of using metrics in the teacher evaluation process, but currently I just don’t believe we’re at that point.”
McCann and the school board hope to complete the handbook by early 2012.
A Difficult Climate:
Adding to the difficulty of creating the handbook is the politically charged climate in Wisconsin, with tempers running hot, education facing criticism, and teachers, according to Schwinn, being demonized.
Schwinn recalls sitting in a bistro earlier this year with a few other teachers and being confronted by a man spouting anti-teacher and anti-union rhetoric. She got up and confronted him, and he launched into an explicit tirade against teachers and union members. Schwinn said some teachers are afraid to even admit in public that they are educators.
“Sometimes I’ll be out or at a party or some sort of gathering,” she said, “and I don’t want to tell people I’m a teacher, because I just don’t want to deal with the animosity and the anger.”
That animosity can harm the construction of the handbook, according to McCann.
“You work hard trying to keep morale and keep people happy, and you’ve got people criticizing public education from afar, all the time,” said McCann. “Trust is sort of built like a house of cards. One misstep and the house comes down.”
Charges that administrators are going to take an axe to expensive teachers is harmful to the process as well, said McCann.
“The way that some of this has transpired, my message has been lost and people aren’t listening,” he said. “If you’re doing a good job, you’re working hard, and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, I don’t think there’s any issue.”
The DPI and State Evaluation Models:
Although districts around Wisconsin are creating their own evaluation models, they could be superseded by any state-mandated model in the future.
In early November the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released its framework for a statewide teacher and principal evaluation model. The framework was created by the DPI, the Office of the Governor, the Professional Standards Council, and various Wisconsin education associations.
Fifty percent of the teacher evaluation will be based on student outcomes, which will be determined by a mix of statewide standardized test scores, district-adopted standardized tests, student learning objectives established by teachers and approved by administrators, district data based on improvement strategies, school-wide reading scores for elementary and middle school students and graduation rate for high schools.
The other half of the evaluation will be based on, as DPI Spokesman Patrick Gasper puts it, “the science and practice of teaching.” Districts will be able to create their own rubrics for teacher effectiveness evaluation, although they will have to submit to an equivalency review process in order to do so.
Gasper said that fear about teaching to the test comes from thinking that test scores will account for the full fifty percent of the student outcomes section of the framework, which isn’t the case.
“Test scores are a component of the fifty percent,” said Gasper. “What we’re talking about here is student achievement data, and we’re not saying that will only be how the students do on the state tests. It’s about a combination of things that can show how a student has progressed.”
According to Gasper, pieces of the framework and the model that comes out of it will be subject to changes as the DPI pilots evaluation models in schools around the state in 2012 and 2013.
“This is something that’s going to be developed with input,” said Gasper. “It will be modeled and there will be opportunities to modify it based on practice and then implementing it. Local schools get to have a decision as to what local determining factors get to be part of it.”
The DPI expects to implement their evaluation model statewide by 2014.
As the district moves forward with its handbook, all political science teacher John Jacobson can do is pace back and forth in front of his class while elaborating on the constitution, make sure his voice is heard, and hope that future evaluation models will reward his teaching. Yet, when Jacobson comes to work each day, one thought lingers in his mind:
“You could hire somebody right out of college to do what I do for less than half of what I’m being paid,” he said. “That’s an elephant in the room that cannot be ignored.”