We Invest In That We Value

The recently released ASU Morrison Institute report titled “Finding & Keeping Educators for Arizona’s Classrooms”, offers a myriad of interesting insights into Arizona’s teacher shortage. Like the fact that 22% of new teachers hired in AZ between 2013 and 2015 left after their first year on the job and of the new teachers hired in 2013, 42% were not in the AZ Department of Education (ADE) database by 2016.

We know teacher attrition rates – about 8% over the past decade in the U.S. versus 3–4% in high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore – are a problem. Our national price tag for teacher turnover is in fact, estimated to be $8 billion per year. With the rate ranging from under 9% in Utah to the high of 24% in Arizona, it is clear our state owns a higher than average share of this cost. But, cost isn’t the only factor as “High teacher turnover rates have been found to negatively affect the achievement of all students in a school, not just students in a new teacher’s classroom.”

A 50th ranking for elementary teacher salaries obviously has much to do with this. And although wages for all occupations across the nation actually rose by 2% between 2001 and 2016, teacher salaries have remained flat. In Arizona, elementary school teachers are actually now paid 11% less and high school teachers 10% less than in 2001. This dearth isn’t helped by our state’s low cost of living either. Although we are “only” 49th in secondary teacher pay, when compared to Oklahoma’s lower cost of living, Arizona drops to 50th.

It should have been no surprise to anyone then, that one month into the 2016–17 school year, our state had over 2,000 classrooms without a teacher and another 2,000 with an uncertified one. This despite the fact districts recruit from other states and even other countries to attract qualified candidates. According to the Morrison Report, many graduates from Midwestern colleges come to Arizona to gain two or three years of experience so they can return to their home state and get a teaching job. It appears that increasingly, “Rural Arizona districts may be importing inexperienced teachers and then exporting high-value veteran teachers back to the Midwest.” States surrounding Arizona have also been busy addressing their own teacher shortages by luring away ours. The median salary for California teachers is $30,000 more than in Arizona (even adjusted for the higher costs of living in California) and $10,000 to $15,000 higher in Nevada and New Mexico, making it enticing for AZ teachers to either move to those states or just work across the borders.

Of course, the competition has only become more fierce in light of dropping teacher education enrollments across the country. Between 2009 and 2014, institutions saw a 35% reduction in these enrollments. And, although Arizona prepares almost double the number of teachers as compared to its total teacher workforce of other states, it still isn’t enough. In 2015, there were 1,601 bachelor’s of education degrees granted by the three state universities, yet 8,358 teachers left the ADE teacher database that year. The shortfall is only exacerbated by an increase of district school enrollment of 53,000 over the last five years. In addition, a full 24% of Arizona’s current teachers are eligible to retire by June 2018, so this problem isn’t going away.

What is really sad, is that we know what needs to be done, we just don’t have the political will to do it. The truth is, that in America, we invest in that which we value. If we aren’t paying teachers what they are worth, we are telling them they aren’t worth much. That’s just the bottom line. But it isn’t just about money as teachers also report that working conditions like class sizes, competent and supportive leadership, a school’s testing and accountability environment, and teacher autonomy are also important factors. In the Morrison Report, one rural elementary teacher said, “While an increase in pay would help, I feel a lighter workload and more respect from the community, students, and political leaders would be more beneficial.” I ask you, is that REALLY too much to ask?

Throughout history, K–12 teachers have probably rarely entered the profession for the money, and ironically, that has likely worked against them. Willing to work for less — because of their commitment to their students — has made some value them less. And yet, these are the very people responsible for our precious children a large portion of each day. How’s that for irony?

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Misogynistic Malfeasance

What is going on with K–12 teachers in Arizona’s district education systems is nothing short of malfeasance on the part of the state and ultimately, on the part of the people. We have allowed our teachers to be disregarded and undervalued to the point that one must question why anyone would care to be a teacher. Truth is, today very few are choosing that route.

Four weeks into the 2016–2017 school year, Arizona saw 53 percent of its district classrooms without a certified teacher; over 2,000 had no teacher and another 2,000 had an uncertified person at the head of the class. Part of the problem is recruitment and retention. In fact, an upcoming report from ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, states that 85% of rural school and 77% of urban administrators say hiring new teachers is somewhat or extremely difficult. The report also states that Arizona is losing more teachers than bachelor of education degrees produced by its three state universities. Turnover is high, with 22% of teachers not teaching in state after one year and 42% of them leaving the profession within three years.

Probably one of the biggest problem is teacher pay that is rock bottom lowest (50th) in the nation. In fact, elementary school teachers here are paid 14% less than in 2001 and secondary teachers are paid 11% less. Governor Ducey’s response for next year’s budget is to give teachers a 0.4 percent pay raise amounting to $187 extra next year on an average salary of $46,384 in 2016. I don’t know about you, but an extra $187 per year wouldn’t convince me to do anything I hadn’t already decided to do.

This paltry teacher raise isn’t the only funding boost to education Ducey is recommending, as he’s proposed a total of $113.6 million for K–12 education next year. But, in light of the fact that per pupil funding is $1,365 less than it was in 2008 (adjusting for inflation) that amount is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.43 billion that has been cut.

The Legislature (including some Republicans) is going a step further in proposing a one percent raise for teachers, which would amount to an additional $430 per year at a total cost of $31 million. Democratic legislators and AZ Schools Now, a coalition of education groups, are advocating for a four percent raise which would give the average teacher an annual boost of $1,720 by freezing corporate tax cuts. Even this amount though, would still leave Arizona teachers $8,616 short of the U.S. average annual salary for teachers.

Why this isn’t something all of us are screaming bloody murder about is, I’m sure, multi-faceted. The most obvious is it doesn’t support the agenda of school choice proponents. After all, from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children, to Michael and Olga Block and their BASIS empire, to Senator Yarbrough and his cash cow School Tuition Organization, raising the salaries of Arizona’s district teachers just isn’t a high priority. But, there is likely a more insidious reason, one that most people probably never think of, and that is the fact that most K–12 teachers are, and traditionally have been, women.

Back in 2014, a teacher in Portland named Nikki Suydam, penned a guest opinion published by the Oregonian on oregonlive.com. In it, Ms. Suydam pointed out that “blaming women for society’s problems is as old as the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Pandora and her box of woes, or every medieval witch hunt spurred on by crop failure or plague outbreak.” “Contemporary education reformers” she wrote “have launched a similar witch hunt to root out ”rotten apples“ from a profession still more than 75 percent female.”

She goes on to make the point that “No similar reform movement targets doctors (65 percent male) for our nation’s spiraling obesity epidemic. America’s dentists (78 percent male) are not held responsible for their patients’ tooth decay. Law enforcement officers (80 percent male) are not blamed for crime statistics. Nor are engineers (78 percent male) ‘held accountable’ for the crumbling U.S. infrastructure.”

And yet, teachers (three-fourths of whom are women) are often vilified for any lack of success in today’s public district schools. This, despite the fact that 20 percent of Arizona’s children live in poverty and the vast majority of these children attend district schools. This despite the fact that Arizona is 48th in the nation in per pupil spending. This despite the fact that our Governor and Legislature continue to push for ways to siphon more tax dollars away from our district schools.

Let’s face it. Whether we are talking about homemakers, or nurses, or teachers; professions traditionally filled by women just don’t earn the same respect and salaries of those dominated by men. We really should get past this old paradigm though, and not look at who does the work, but what work is done. After all, for most people, their child is their most precious “possession” and they turn over the care of this precious possession to a teacher for six to eight hours each day. Shouldn’t we want these teachers to be highly skilled, appropriately valued, and sufficiently compensated?

Numerous studies have looked at teachers’ impact on student achievement. A 2012 research study by the RAND Corporation, found that “among school-related factors, teachers matter most.” The study also found “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.” Steve Seleznow, President and CEO of Arizona Community Foundation and a former school administrator said, “Teacher pay and support is a proxy for how highly we think of students and their education…If we value the education our children receive, we must provide teachers compensation commensurate with those values.”

Every parent knows that children are sponges and they are really good at picking up on the dissonance between our words and our actions. When we undervalue our teachers, on some level, our children know we are undervaluing them as well. And that my friends, is a really, really sad state of affairs.

Money matters, maybe it’s just public education that doesn’t?

Maureen Downey, on her blog getschooled.blog.myajc.com writes, “I have never understood the disagreement over whether money matters in education.” After all she points out, “top private schools – the ones that cater to the children of highly educated parents – charge tuition two to three times higher than the average per pupil spending at the local public schools. And these private schools serve students with every possible learning advantage, kids nurtured to excel from the first sonogram. The elite schools charge $17,000 to $25,000 a year in tuition and hit parents up for donations on a regular basis.”

I get where she is coming from, but also think she is taking literary license in writing she doesn’t understand the disagreement. I suspect just like me, she does understand, because it really isn’t that complicated. The “disagreement” is stoked by a myriad of those who would stand to gain from continued underfunding of public education. These include state lawmakers, who would rather divert public education funding to other special interests; commercial profiteers who look to get their piece of the nation’s $700 billion K–12 education market, and the wealthy who want to keep their piece of the pie as big as possible and not have it eaten up by more taxes to pay for “those children’s” education.

One of the most common refrains I hear from the “money doesn’t matter” crowd is “just look at how much they spend in Washington D.C. yet their schools continue to underperform.” Of course, those of us “in the know”, know that where there is concentrated poverty, there are a myriad of challenges presented that are very difficult for schools alone to overcome. We also know that how the money is spent is a key factor in how well it works. No, money is not the only answer, but there is plenty of proof that it does matter.

As reported by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker in an Albert Shanker Institute report, “On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.” He goes on to write, “Clearly, there are other factors that may moderate the influence of funding on student outcomes, such as how that money is spent. In other words, money must be spent wisely to yield benefits. But, on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes, money matters.” Plain and simple, the things that cost money “(smaller class sizes, additional supports, early childhood programs and more competitive teacher compensation) are positively associated with student outcomes.” A study by “Jackson, Johnson & Persico in 2015, evaluated long-term outcomes of children exposed to court-ordered school finance reforms, finding that “a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25 percent higher wages, and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.” Likewise, a study of Kansas school finance reforms in the 1990s found that “a 20 percent increase in spending was associated with a 5 percent increase in the likelihood of students going on to postsecondary education. “There is” writes schoolfinance101wordpress.com, “a sizeable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels.”

Of course, I’ve no doubt the “money doesn’t matter” crowd can dig up some “facts” of their own. But, I ask you to forget all the facts (after all, they don’t matter anyway, right?) and just think about what makes common sense?
– Is the critical shortage of teachers in Arizona classrooms good for student achievement? (Average AZ teacher salaries are the 48th lowest in the nation.)
– Can students learn as well when the ratio of students to teachers is 23:1 versus having 7 less children in the classroom? (Nationwide, the average number of students per teacher was 16:1 in the 2013–14 school year.)
– Can students concentrate in a classroom that is too hot or too cold, or where water leaks into it when it rains, or where lighting is insufficient? (From 2008 to 2012, districts received only two cents of every dollar they should have received for facility maintenance and renewal and a pending new lawsuit is evidence the trend isn’t improving.)school-funding-011817
So, we know that money can make a difference, and wealthy parents that pay big bucks for their children to attend elite private schools know that it matters. Small class sizes, highly qualified teachers, beautiful facilities and campuses all make a difference and that’s why parents with significant means are willing to pay for those things.

Arizonans are willing to pay more for education as well, as indicated by recent polling which shows 70% think we need to plus-up education spending and with 61% willing to pay higher taxes to do it. “Read my lips” Governor Ducey though, is determined not only to not raise taxes, but cut them every year he is in office while also continuing his steadfast committment to corporate welfare in the form of tax cuts. The $114 million he has proposed for the FY 2018 budget isn’t nothing (and it is new money as opposed to that which already belongs to education), but it also isn’t nearly enough. As David Safier points out in TucsonWeekly.com, it moves us all the way from 49th in per student spending to well…49th. And, this is just the Governor’s proposal, the Legislature is the entity actually charged with passing the budget. In addition, it isn’t just that our districts are currently underfunded, but that the funding continues to be siphoned away by commercial schools’ choice. The impacts of a “leaking bucket” with an insufficient stream of water to keep ahead of the losses are really starting to stack up. Money matters alright, maybe its just public education that doesn’t (at least to our Legislature.)

Open letter to those opposed to Prop. 123

Cross-posted by Christine Marsh, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year:

To all of the folks who are voting “No” on Prop. 123,

In case people don’t read to the end (but read to the end), if you are voting against Prop. 123, contact your legislators and the governor and tell them why. If Prop. 123 fails, the false narrative from our legislators and the governor will likely be something along the lines of this: “SEE?! We knew that the public didn’t care about public education. And this proves it.”

As a teacher in the trenches, I have to wonder where the public has been for the past six years. Education—students, teachers, parents, support staff—has been left to languish in the bottom of the nation for many years. We have the worst funding in the entire nation, and we’re over $3000 per student per year below the national average (we’re about $15,000 below the states that fund their public education the best/highest).

We also have the lowest administrative costs in the nation, the highest class sizes in the nation, and we’re in the bottom four states for what we pay teachers.

We already have a teacher shortage, and with roughly 30% of our state’s teachers retiring in the next five year, we’re reaching crisis proportions. In many districts, it’s already a crisis.

As a teacher, I feel abandoned by the public. You can say, “I didn’t cause this. I’ve voted for education-friendly people.” But that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of the voting public has continued to elect legislators and other politicians who simply do not care about public education.

Now, when we have a bit of light (meaning—yes—money) coming our way, the public that has essentially abandoned us for the past many years wants to extinguish it by killing Prop. 123.

You do realize that we’re in this mess because of the way Arizonans voted (or apathetically skipped voting) in 2014, right?

You also realize that the plaintiffs (representing the schools) have been fighting for this money since 2010, right? Where were you then? Why didn’t you vocalize your support?

You hopefully also realize that as much as we want to, we can’t force the legislature to pay. And, apparently, we can’t throw them in jail for their refusal to pay, either (although, I wish we could). It’s ironic that we can throw “deadbeat dads” in jail, but not deadbeat legislators and that Ducey is going after deadbeat dads.

If you vote this down, what’s your plan? The fact is that we have a legislative majority that doesn’t value public education, so the chances of them paying are slim to none. You can’t claim that they “should” pay and that the money exists without raiding the trust land, because what “should” happen doesn’t matter. The facts matter, and the fact is that they won’t pay. They’ve already proven that they won’t. So if Prop. 123 doesn’t pass, we won’t see the money for many years, if ever. (Remember “Flores Vs. Arizona”? It took over 20 years to settle that case).

So if you vote this down, do you have a plan?

Are you going to as aggressively fight to elect new legislators as you are fighting to defeat Prop. 123?

Or are you going to kill this one chance at light and abandon public schools again? Again??

Please, have a plan if you kill this.

Because with this particular legislature, we won’t be seeing any other funds any time soon.

Our Vote is The Only Power We Have Left

I was privileged to spend some quality time yesterday with Rebecca, a middle school teacher in southern Arizona.   She had taken the afternoon off from teaching to go to the state Capitol to protest proposed funding cuts to public education. In the past, she admitted to being careful about advocating, but she felt she just couldn’t stay silent any longer. She commented that if she didn’t speak up now, there might not any job to protect.

This teacher has been teaching in the same school district for 16 years, and brings home only $900 every two weeks, despite normally working about 10 hours per day. Her husband is also a teacher and between the two of them, they barely make it. They have two children, an 11 year-old girl and an 8 year-old boy. I asked her what her daughter wants to be when she grows up. She said she has talked about being a veterinarian, but time will tell. But, she did tell her daughter that if she chooses to be a teacher, Rebecca wouldn’t pay for her college. This surprised me so I asked her why. Rebecca’s response was should make all of us sad. She said she didn’t want her daughter to have to deal with the lack of respect, low pay and insufficient resources that come with being a teacher.

This teacher confirmed my suspicions that what is driving teachers out is not the low pay, but the lack of respect for the profession and the continual changes that don’t result in positive outcomes. As much as Rebecca loves teaching and loves her students, she doesn’t want her daughter to work in a profession that is undervalued, underpaid, and overwhelmed. How sad.

But, Rebecca hasn’t given up. She wants to fight for her kids, her school, and our future. Problem is, she is just one person and just one vote.

The job of a teacher is not to advocate for resources for their students. The job of teachers is to teach their students. They need the rest of us to step up and speak out. Many credit Albert Einstein with saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If the greater “we” doesn’t get out and vote, we can’t expect anything other than what we’ve got in our elected representatives. Our vote is likely the only power any of us has left and if we abdicate that, we’ve given up. Get motivated, get registered, get informed and VOTE! It is the only way we’ll make a real change for the better!!

The Truth About Common Core

First of all, let’s set the record straight.  The Common Core Standards are not a curriculum.  They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. The workplace is very different than it was even ten years ago and teachers today must prepare students for a world of possibilities that may not yet exist. The ability to effectively communicate, collaborate, and adapt to situations will be critical to ensuring we remain competitive in a highly globalized market.[i]  Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others are critical to making this happen and will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.

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Secondly, they were not developed by the Federal government or the current administration, but by the nation’s governors and education commissioners, through their representative organizations the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  The education reform movement began in 1996 when the nation’s governors and corporate leaders founded Achieve, Inc. as a bi-partisan organization to raise academic standards, graduation requirements, improve assessments, and strengthen accountability in all 50 states.  This led to the launch of the American Diploma Project (ADP) in 2005, the initial motivation for development of the Common Core Standards.[ii]  Teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders provided input into the development of the standards.[iii]  In fact, our very own Dr. McCallum, head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona, was a lead author of the Common Core Math Standards.[iv]

There can be no doubt that one of the reasons the United States rose quickly to its super power status is our commitment to providing every citizen a public education.  This was a new concept that helped us make the most of our most valuable resource…our people.  It is also what helped make the American Dream a reality for so many.  Unfortunately, that dream is now no longer a given – studying and working hard no longer guarantee that you’ll be better off than your parents were.

Fear mongering over “the Obama administration federal take-over of education” is simply that, and diverts focus away from the real threats to our public education system.  Instead, we should be concerned about the corporate influence in the form of venture philanthropy as opposed to the more traditional philanthropy.  The difference of course being that the traditional philanthropists supported the work of others and the venture philanthropists view their giving as entryways into that work.  The 1983 report by the Reagan administration, A Nation at Risk, set the stage for the business elite to look at public education as a profit center.  The leading venture philanthropies are now pushing charter-school growth, school choice, and education privatization in general; alternative routes of teacher and administrator certification; and curriculum and test development.  Unfortunately, all this drives a transition from public deliberation by elected officials to decisions of individuals with no accountability to the public.[v]

Opportunity, that most fundamental American value, is now at risk for so many.  It is at risk, not because of some imagined plot to nationalize education, but because we are refusing to deal with the real threats – poverty and a lack of respect for our teaching professionals whom I believe can fix what’s wrong if we’ll just give them what they need and get out of their way.  Learn more at www.azed.gov/azcommoncore.