Commentary: Reversing teacher burnout in Los Angeles: Giving teachers room to invest

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-9-16-32-amBy Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.

Teacher turnover in the United States is a silent epidemic — one that is eroding the core of our schools. Every year, over 1 million teachers enter and exit our classrooms, and in Los Angeles alone, 40-50% will leave the profession entirely within five years. This creates unstable school environments — ones that are more difficult for administrators to manage and in which students are less likely to thrive, emotionally and academically (Teoh & Coggins, 2013*).

Regularly each spring, students, especially in our underserved urban communities, start asking their bright and passionate teachers, “Miss, are you coming back?” Every teacher who has left the classroom dreads that question — and the real heartbreak is that most teachers leave not because they hate teaching, but because they are so frustrated by systemic challenges that they feel they have no other choice.

Kara Reeves, a teacher in Memphis, details the reasons one of the reasons she left the classroom—norms on campus that are not created or desired by the teachers (and most likely event schools themselves): “As a test administrator, I was now responsible for reporting my teachers if they did not follow those guidelines. The stress and worry of that prospect was just too much for me. I had become an enforcer of a practice I didn’t even believe in. I couldn’t do this to my teachers, so I left the position after two years and went back to the classroom.” She eventually burned out, exhausted by trying to work within a system in which she had no agency.

Giving teachers agency (power) to create norms (i.e. guidelines, governing principles, structures, etc.) is a strong influencing factor for teacher retention. A norm is any condition of a school site that governs the expected behavior of either teachers or students. For example, a norm might be that when a student cusses, the teacher is required to carry out a specific response (e.g. a red form for suspension). Another example would be that a teacher is required to turn in three grades per week regardless of the topic or pace of the current unit.

If the school norms support how a teacher is attempting to carry out his or her job, that norm is meaningful and contributes to both teacher satisfaction and student engagement. However, when there are too many norms on a school campus that prevent the teacher from carrying out his or her job (because of ineffectiveness or uselessness), the teacher begins to perceive a sense of normlessness which prevents him or her from doing the work he/she so passionately wants to do (Senge, 1993).

A 13-year veteran teacher from an underperforming public school in Oakland, where The Teaching Well is attempting to reverse the local 70% turnover rate highlights a standard teacher response to norms: “… [Leadership is] just pushing too much at once… I can’t get anything done because [they’re] pushing for this thing to start and this thing to start and this thing to start. I haven’t even trained my little third-graders to take out what folder at what time of the day because we’re rushing through everything so fast… I feel like the people who are planning these timelines have never even been in the class; they don’t get it.”

Like the teacher above, when educators begin to feel like this, they may isolate, burn-out or act in direct violation of school culture in an attempt to maintain a perceived best environment for them and their students. As a result, they either isolate completely from their school community and work in a silo in their rooms, which cuts them off from collaboration and social support (Templin, 1988). Acting in defiance of norms which with they disagree, they run the risk of reprimand for not following rules. Both of these actions lead them closer and closer to burn out.

The following are several concrete ways to reverse feelings of normlessness on campus and prevent teacher turnover:

Continue reading

Commentary: The future of education reform at LAUSD depends on collaboration

photo

Jacqueline Elliot

By Jacqueline Elliot, Ed.D.

When PUC Schools opened the first start-up public charter school in the San Fernando Valley in 1999, I never imagined we would be at the forefront of a movement that has grown to 274 charter schools in Los Angeles, serving over 138,000 students and thousands of students being the first in their families to graduate from university. On Saturday, these pioneering leaders will come together in Pacoima with thousands of parents and students for a triumphant celebration honoring the rich history of public education reform in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

I was inspired to start Community Charter Middle School to help solve the high dropout rate at the local high schools. Along with the 100 families from the community who desperately sought a safer, higher-achieving middle school, we created a learning environment that was small and focused on meeting every student’s needs. We were quickly successful. Our state test scores far exceeded those of the surrounding district schools within our first two years.

We’ve now grown to 16 schools throughout Los Angeles and serve more than 5,000 students. In what is perhaps the biggest validation of the work we’re doing, we see every year that many of our graduates are returning after going on to pursue a higher education, to contribute to their community in which they grew up. Some PUC alumni are returning to work at PUC and other schools in the community, helping us realize our founding mission to uplift communities. We’ve witnessed firsthand living conditions improving, crime rates dropping and families getting empowered.

PUC is proof of what real collaboration can produce. We never would have opened our doors if leaders from different parts of our education community had not stepped in at the last minute to help. When we were opening our first school in 1999, our facility was not yet ready. Los Angeles Unified gave us two days to find a temporary facility or they would not allow us to open that year. My four teachers and I were about to fall to our knees in the Cal State University Northridge quad, to beg a staff member from the dean’s office to allow us to use a few classrooms until our campus was ready. He agreed and Los Angeles Unified board member David Tokofsky secured free transportation for our 100 students to travel to the university campus for six weeks.

Today, we’re at a critical juncture. The charter movement is a significant force for change in the district. Graduation rates have increased, but too many kids are still dropping out.

Somewhere along this journey, we lost sight of the spirit of cooperation that allowed PUC to open. Superintendent Michelle King has started making significant inroads toward collaboration, most recently by hosting a “Promising Practices” forum with a series of workshops aimed at sharing best practices.

It’s time now for all educators to elevate the discussion from the type of school, be it charter, traditional or magnet, to what makes great schools. We must adopt a student-centric approach where everyone comes to the table with those innovative, scalable ideas that are good for all kids.

Continue reading

Commentary: No surprise, Carol Burris misses the mark on California charter schools

Carol Burris

Carol Burris

Note: This post originally appeared on Education Post.

By Caroline Bermudez

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, writes about “a never-ending stream of charter scandals coming from California” in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet, a blog more slanted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

But as is typically true with Burris, her writing is long on bloviation and short on accuracy and reason. It seems as if she’s setting the stage for a report on charter schools her organization, the Network for Public Education, will publish next spring.

She mentions a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates contending 253 charter schools in the state, or approximately 20 percent, have illegal admissions policies.

Since the report’s release, Southern California Public Radio reported more than 50 charter schools have been removed from the list. A number of the violations were the result of poorly worded language or outdated documents posted on schools’ websites, hardly nefarious orchestrations.

An ACLU attorney, Victor Leung, said, in the same SCPR article, “the vast majority of schools contacting us have been in a really constructive way.” He added, “Most of these schools were quite concerned they had bad policies posted on their websites and they all wanted to change them pretty quickly.”

Contrary to Burris’ assertion that they shun accountability, charter school officials have called for better oversight instead of the hodgepodge system in place whereby 324 local, county and state agencies act as authorizers.

Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association (a group that draws Burris’ particular ire), has written about the need to close failing charter schools. Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, penned a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, explaining how the current system of oversight falls short:

Continue reading

Commentary: New state accountability system signals progress

youthtruth_student_short_la-sr

(Courtesy: YouthTruth)

By Sonya Heisters

There is a growing, and arguably overwhelming, array of ways to measure school performance. Many researchers and policymakers say that we’ve been measuring the wrong things and, in some cases, I think that those naysayers are on to something.

Then, in Thursday’s California State Board of Education meeting, the board unanimously adopted a new accountability system that, in addition to state indicators, favor four local indicators over the single Academic Performance Index (API) score. This is great news for those of us who tire of a single data point representing a complex system. The API was well and good, but we’ve got to have more — and better — measures. My perspective is one of a parent, educator and nonprofit leader. And also as someone who believes, and sees that research shows, that we need to do metrics better.

Two of the local indicators are particularly worth celebrating: one on parent engagement, and another on school climate. Both can be measured through local surveys of parents, teachers and students.

On the first measure, districts need more nuanced data to engage families. Since parent involvement is linked with academic performance, districts have to get the parent-school relationship right. The Harvard Family Research Project comments, “As schools increasingly focus on building parent capacity to support their children’s learning and on promoting positive home-school relationships, schools and districts need new measures to ascertain which types of approaches work best.” 

Just as family feedback can help prioritize the agenda for parent engagement programs, school staff need a voice too. The suggestion box will not suffice. We need a valid, reliable and third-party feedback instrument about the school as a workplace. This is critical to improving the teaching profession and helping districts find and keep talent. With 20 percent of experienced teachers leaving the profession before retirement, districts are well-served to seek and act on staff feedback to make schools great places to work. 

So what if parents had an anonymous way to tell their child’s teacher and principal if they felt valued by their child’s school? And what if there were easy and accessible tools for school staff to give feedback on the degree to which their school is managed effectively?

We might have stronger relationships in our communities. We might have more committed staff. We might have better schools.

But we need to go beyond that. The first step toward achieving those goals is to measure and learn from family and staff members’ alternate, yet complementary, perspectives and attitudes. The second step is to incorporate that feedback into school improvement initiatives.

parentsurvey

YouthTruth feedback data on students’ experience of academic rigor at a school.

That’s what led us at YouthTruth to create and launch this month Family and Staff Surveys: 15-minute online tools that complement our core student surveys to provide districts with feedback data to identify what is working and not working. As a national nonprofit, we’ve surveyed around a half-million students and coached hundreds of education leaders in using student voice data to drive change. Through this work we’ve learned that student voice is not enough – we need multiple perspectives paired with multiple measures.

Critics of the new accountability system worry that measuring school climate is too nuanced and gathering perception data too complicated. We’ve solved for that. Check. Now let’s get back to focusing on what matters.

Education leaders have a responsibility to build partnerships with staff and the community to drive learning and achievement. Like students, the families, teachers and staff within a school system are uniquely positioned to provide actionable feedback about performance that simply can’t be captured through other measures. When evaluating the effectiveness of systems, strategic plans, programs and interventions, considering the perceptions of those you seek to help is key.

Continue reading

Commentary: California’s proposed school rating system will only lead to confusion

Proposed school report card (from California Department of Education).

Proposed school report card (from California Department of Education).

By Laurie Benn

As a mother of seven children, I’ve spent a lot of time involved in my local public schools. I’ve always known that a good education was one of the most important things that I could give to my children. I was shuffled around in the foster care system from birth until I was 9 years old, so I don’t have a lot of good memories of my early school experience.

When I was 9, I was adopted into a loving home where my mother, who was actively involved in my school, cemented the importance of a good education. Now, as parents, my husband and I not only show up to parent/teacher conferences and ensure that homework is completed, we also make sure that our children’s schools are doing their part to ensure that our children are learning.

This was particularly important in my district, Pasadena Unified, which allows families to apply for any school within the district, not just the school closest to their house. Even though my husband attended Pasadena Unified District Schools, as each of my children got older, I always had to do some homework of my own – going on school tours, interviewing principals, looking at school performance data and finding the right fit. I have spent countless hours looking into schools and trying to figure out which ones were right for each of my children.

This is why I was deeply concerned to learn about the new school rating system that has been proposed by the California Department of Education for California’s schools. This system would make it much more difficult for families, like mine, to find the right schools for their children, or to know if their children are attending a low-performing school that needs improvements.

This proposed system does have some important new information that families deserve to know about schools. California is finally going to measure every school based not only on test scores, but also on their school safety and climate, graduation rates and efforts to engage families. This new potential system, however, has been designed in such a way that it will be virtually impossible for most families to easily understand their school’s overall performance.

For example, the new system does not include any overall rating for each school. Instead, the plan is to give every family a report card with seventeen different categories, each of which is rated by one of five colors. Every family will have to look at this sea of colors and figure out for themselves whether their school is excellent, about average or low performing.

While some families might be able to interpret such a complex system, most families will be left frustrated when they try to answer the simple question, “How is my child’s school doing?”

And what about when families want to choose the right school? Under this new system, a family like mine couldn’t just ask, “What are the highest performing schools in our districts?” and then get more information about those schools. Instead, we would have to compare 17 different color ratings of each school to each other. The new system should be designed to be user-friendly and provide greater access and equity for all families so that they can easily compare different schools to one another.

California’s new school rating approach cannot and will not succeed unless families are given clear information that summarizes their overall school performance. When I was in Sacramento recently to speak out on this issue as part of the Parent Power Network, I told lawmakers that an overall rating for schools is like a resume for job applicants. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, but it at least gives you a quick way to determine who is at least worth interviewing. Our state has an obligation not just to give us a bunch of data or colors, but to tell each and every one of us overall how well our schools are doing.

Commentary: A caterpillar curriculum — the importance of environmental education in K-12 urban classrooms

Josh Brown's caterpillar

(Courtesy: Joshua Brown)

By Joshua Brown

At the beginning of every school year, my students ask me what I did over summer vacation. This year, I have an answer that will surely mesmerize them: I cleaned caterpillar poop. 

Let me elaborate.  

I was fortunate enough to participate in a weeklong professional development fellowship to the Yanayacu Biological Research Station in Napo Province, Ecuador, to study the effects of climate change on caterpillars. The trip was sponsored and organized by the Earthwatch Institute, an organization whose mission is to engage citizens of all ages in the scientific research process by expanding their awareness of environmental issues. I was part of a team of K-12 educators who assisted climate change researchers as they collected, cataloged and studied the pupation periods of different species of caterpillars in one of the most bio-diverse cloud forests in the world. 

Our findings were pretty grim. On average, the pupation periods of these little furry guys are rapidly accelerating because of temperature increase, meaning they’re turning from caterpillars to moths much faster than before. While this has myriad negative implications for their ecosystem, it also serves as a strong indictment of the destructive effects of global climate change. 

Prior to my Earthwatch Fellowship, I gave little thought to the minute environmental interactions unfolding around me daily. While trekking through the Ecuadorian jungle, I gained a profound appreciation for caterpillars, the negative effects climate change has on their habitat and the power of citizen science programs. (I also learned that caterpillars produce large amounts of poop!)  

Citizen science is one of the most effective ways to increase environmental literacy. The idea is simple: anyone, with the guidance of a professional scientist, can participate in and contribute to the scientific research process in meaningful ways. This symbiotic relationship between researcher and volunteer provides increased data collection and manpower for the scientist, and an unforgettable, empowering experience for the volunteer. In the case of my colleagues and me, the experience also meant innumerable teaching opportunities for our students. 

Josh Brown vertical with leaf

(Courtesy: Joshua Brown)

I teach in the San Fernando Valley, a Los Angeles suburb punctuated by tract homes and strip malls. For many of my students, meaningful interaction with nature is difficult given nature’s scarcity and lack of accessibility: 6th and 7th graders commute between their homes and school through a sea of concrete and a web of power lines. The result is an often total disconnection between themselves and the natural world, one that is especially treacherous when I try to teach environmental education.

For example, when teaching about water conservation, I quickly discovered that most of my students were entirely ignorant of the water cycle. They were unaware of the water source in our local mountains or the (cemented over) tributary that runs mere feet from our school campus. I realized that my students’ connection to their natural world directly correlate with their level of environmental stewardship. Put another way, they were more likely to care about nature if they understood it better.  In order to cultivate the next generation of conservation-minded citizens, it is imperative to empower and connect students to nature. 

Continue reading

Commentary: Empowering teachers by reinserting their voices into the education space

teachers

By Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.

Two previous articles in this series, here and here, have detailed the enormity and the complexity of the teacher turnover problem in our country: more than 1 million teachers entering and exiting the classroom every year, and somewhere between 40 percent to 50 percent permanently exiting within five. This lack of stability in many educational communities means less emotionally stable and academically productive spaces for students.


As countless researchers, writers and experts on teacher retention have argued, keeping teachers engaged in our schools is not necessarily about pay. Recently, researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia discovered that the highest indicating factor for teacher retention is whether or not teachers feel that they are part of a productive and meaningful community—one where their voices are heard, valued and collectively used to inform practices and policies on school campuses (Fuller, Waite & Irribarra, 2016).

In order to stop the ever-revolving door of teachers in and out of our highest need schools, schools must become spaces where teachers can empower themselves as expert educators and honor their valuable contributions to our communities. Empowerment in any space must start with voice; Individuals must be allowed to speak what is true for them and have what they say valued by the community.

But how, in a concrete way, do we move away from top-down models of leadership and organization to honor our teachers and hear their voices?

As an 8th grade English grade teacher in Los Angeles, this is the point I used to make again and again with my students: “Anais, but what do you think? What is your belief? What do you have to say—what is the view that you have to offer that is unique to you?”

In the beginning of the year, many of them looked at me as if no one had ever asked or even requested of them to find their voices. Unfortunately this has proven to be the reality for many teachers as well.

In the public education system today, teachers labor in environments in which their voices are marginalized (Fullan, 1993). Federal and state regulations govern standards, funding, and almost all facets of education, which ultimately trickle down through systems. Administrators have less power than superintendents, and teachers are the lowest on the totem pole. Much of their daily lives are governed by grading systems, statewide tests, mandates, etc., all of which their voices have never been a part (Hargreaves, 1994; Ingersoll, 2003).

This has been going on for so long that teachers have learned to accept their powerlessness and adapt to “live within a broken system.” It’s the only way to have any chance at getting to be the change agents they so desperately want to be. But when we strip teachers of their voice and continue to demand that they work in broken systems, we should not be surprised about high burnout and attrition rates that coincide with such treatment.

However, when teachers are actively engaged in systems that allow them to both process (alone and in groups) their beliefs and their opinions, those teachers are likely to sharpen the clarity of their voices and more likely to listen to the voices of others around them. What is created is a dialogue of mutual respect where all human beings are honored  (Darder, 2015; Freire, 1970). And as evidenced above, this meaningful use of voice in contribution to community is the highest indicator for teacher retention.

If we as a society are truly committed to a sustainable education system, we have to make listening to and trusting our educators a priority. Without space for teacher voice and meaningful dialogue, turnover will continue to plague the system.

Teachers are our leaders—we need their voices in policy, curriculum, and philosophical school decisions. We cannot afford to continue this to lose their expertise and passion if we intend to provide thriving, sustainable spaces for young people.

Here are some ways to create space for teacher voice and dialogue on school sites, which can act as a catalyst for teacher empowerment and re-engagement:

Continue reading

Commentary: Vergara’s dissenting justices write for history

Judge Rolf Treu affirm vergara decisionIn the long struggle to make the United States more just and perfect, court majorities have made some horrific mistakes. When that happens, the burden falls on dissents to provide hope for the future arc of the moral universe.

Such dissents often come from the most distinguished jurists. Benjamin Curtis, for instance, was the first formally trained lawyer on the United States Supreme Court. In 1857, he dissented from the Dred Scott case that eviscerated the civil rights of African Americans, arguing that: “free persons, descended from Africans held in slavery, were citizens of the United States.” John Harlan dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) with the following famous lines:

“Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. … The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

Justices Curtis and Harlan were vindicated by history, as were Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead v. United States (1928) regarding the right to privacy, and Justice Harlan Stone in Minersville School District (1940) regarding freedom of religion.

Today, justices unable to persuade their peers write for history, as in the 2011 dissents of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg (the Dukes v. Walmart case regarding workplace rights of women) and Sonia Sotomayor (the United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation case regarding the rights of the Apache Nation).

These examples come to mind in light of recent news from California, the nation’s largest state, and education reform, which the Urban League’s Esther Bush and many others have called the greatest civil rights issue of our time.

As background, in 2012 public school student Beatriz Vergara and 8 other schoolchildren sued California for violating their constitutional rights by providing them with systematically inferior education. In 2014, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed with the students, ruling that the California educational system “shocks the conscience” in its mistreatment of students of color. Judge Treu’s decision met with immediate and widespread approval from almost every major newspaper editorial board of the left, right, and center, as well as longtime progressive education leaders such as California’s former Congressman George Miller.

Unfortunately, three California appellate judges, led by Justice Roger Boren, made a clearly flawed decision to overturn Vergara.

As I wrote at the time, I was confident that the California Supreme Court would overturn Justice Boren’s clearly flawed ruling, in part because of my confidence in two of the individual justices of that court: Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. Both Liu and Cuéllar have sterling reputations and have been discussed as future justices of the United States Supreme Court.

Continue reading

Commentary: UTLA head should seek to avert state crisis, not create one

Alex Caputo-Pearl strike talks UTLABy Caroline Bermudez

Nearly two years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez posed a question in an op-ed worth revisiting.

Is the L.A. teachers union tone deaf?

Based on a recent speech given by Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of United Teachers Los Angeles, the answer is a definitive yes.

The juvenile world of heroes and villains Caputo-Pearl described, one where evil corporations and billionaires look to profit from public education while scrappy, earnest underdogs try to stop them, bears no semblance to reality.

Teachers unions in California comprise one of the most powerful political forces in the state.

Rather than admit this, Caputo-Pearl issued a battle cry worthy of a Bugs Bunny cartoon in his speech given at the UTLA Leadership Conference:

“With our contract expiring in June 2017, the likely attack on our health benefits in the fall of 2017, the race for Governor heating up in 2018, and the unequivocal need for state legislation that addresses inadequate funding and increased regulation of charters, with all of these things, the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018. There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

What is glaring in Caputo-Pearl’s speech is that aside from mentioning his own two children, the word “children” was said only once. This speaks volumes as to the rationale behind his leadership, a role serving the interests of adults before those of students. Threatening to strike should be an absolute last resort, not the first order of action.

It calls to mind a classic paradox.

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

The unstoppable force is the rising cost of health care and pensions in this nation. As a result of these sharply increasing costs, LAUSD faces a staggering amount of debt, to the tune of more than $11 billion, that threatens to cripple the entire system because the district is on the hook, per demands made by UTLA, to provide lifetime health benefits and retirement pensions to its employees.

According to a report written by an independent financial review panel that was commissioned by LAUSD, the district owes more than $20,000 per student for unfunded liabilities (see page 44) although per pupil expenditure in California is less than $10,000 per student. Placed in further context, the liability for retirement benefits LAUSD is obligated to pay for is four times that of other large urban school districts. Twenty-seven percent of state funding LAUSD receives goes to paying pension and health care costs before factoring in teacher salaries, school supplies and textbooks.

Continue reading

Commentary: Why teachers are burning out — reimagining the American education system

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 9.00.17 AMBy Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.

This is the second in a five-article series about teacher sustainability in Los Angeles and California public schools and the available solutions to reversing teacher turnover. Read the first article here.


Teacher turnover, otherwise known as burnout, is a multi-faceted and complex problem currently plaguing the public education system in our country. And it’s one that hits relatively close to home. Education is a unifying element of American society—we’re hard-pressed to find many institutions that have influenced the lives of every citizen.

Because there are approximately 3.5 million to 5.5 million teachers in our country, which amounts to 1-2 percent of the population (reports vary based on categorization of administration, grade levels, etc.) almost everyone knows and loves a teacher. And 40-50 percent of them are leaving our schools within five years of entering, unable to sustain careers within the current education system.

On the whole, teachers are passionate, compassionate, innovative and intelligent members of our society. Ask any teacher why he or she got into teaching, and almost everyone will give you some variation of wanting to mentor young people, pass along a passion for a subject, serve the way a childhood teacher had served him, or—in no uncertain terms, “change the world.” No one gets into teaching because of the prestige, the easy work or the money. Teachers go into teaching because they are called—and because they have a vision of themselves as change agents in the world.

So, the question becomes (and rightly so, as pointed out by several comments on the first article), why are these passionate, committed and bright people, who set out to serve our communities, leaving at such astounding rates?

The knee-jerk response often revolves around poor salaries, though the answer isn’t as simple as giving people a raise (but with a national starting salary of $35,672, raises wouldn’t hurt). There are places in our country where the increased cost of living dramatically outpaces teacher salaries (like Los Angeles and San Francisco) and actually dissuades people from becoming teachers at all.

But despite pay, many of our nation’s teachers would happily continue working in schools if other conditions that lead to burnout were changed. And the other good news is that there are concrete and effective ways to address the conditions that are driving our teachers out of classrooms across this state and our country.

So, back to the question at hand—if it’s not simply money, why are they leaving?

Richard Ingersoll, one of the foremost experts on teacher attrition and a former teacher himself, reflected on this question personally in an interview with The Atlantic: “‘One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible,’ Ingersoll says. ‘But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.'”

Could it really be so simple that all teachers need to stay in the classroom is to feel heard, respected and empowered?

Yes.

When there is a workforce that is intelligent, well-educated, compassionate and committed to service, the best way we can honor them is to trust them to do their jobs. Trust them to teach what needs to be taught, trust their experiences in the classroom are valuable sources of information, trust that they are experts at teaching.

Unfortunately, the educational system we have today is not set up to honor teachers as experts—and it actually prevents them from speaking their voices, experiencing personal power and having agency to affect change. Complicated federally mandated testing, district-mandated behavior systems and ineffective school-wide policies affect every teacher in every classroom. As I have heard again and again from teachers around our city and state, our current education system actually keeps them from the being best versions of themselves as educators.

Continue reading

Commentary: Los Angeles is losing good teachers because of this policy

teacher (blonde) at blackboardBy Benjamin Feinberg

Teachers unions often argue that the “last in, first out” policy is the only fair way to lay off teachers. Reformers say that LIFO protects bad teachers while indiscriminately getting rid of young and creative new teachers.

The way we lay off teachers will become more important as Los Angeles Unified School District enters yet another budget crisis.

Let’s ignore the policy argument for a moment and instead focus on LIFO’s effect. Ironically, this policy supported by teachers unions ends up benefiting charter schools.

To get a good understanding of LIFO’s impact, we should look back to 2009, when LAUSD laid off 1,806 teachers.

THE YEAR I WAS LAID OFF

This happens to be a very personal subject for me because I was laid off that year.

I started my teaching career in 2008. Three weeks after the first day of school, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the economy went into a tailspin. At first, this didn’t really hit the teaching sector hard, but by February it became clear that layoffs were coming. And then, on May 15, 2009, 5,618 LAUSD teachers received layoff notices.

Many of those layoffs were rescinded, and those whose notices were not rescinded were told that we could sub for ourselves and stay at our schools. But from a more personal perspective, getting a layoff notice makes you panic.

That is exactly what I did. I. Freaked. Out.

As a relatively risk-averse person, I chose to apply for a new teaching job.

And who was hiring?

Charter schools. Oodles and oodles of charter schools.

I was hired at Aspire Public Schools, one of the fastest-growing charter networks in Los Angeles. My girlfriend was hired at Partnership to Uplift Communities (PUC Schools). My friends got jobs at Green Dot, Synergy, Para Los Niños, Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools (ICEF), the list goes on.

In fact, of my Teach For America (TFA) cohort who received layoff notices that year, only 21 percent were rescinded, 18 percent decided to sub for themselves, and 57 percent headed to charter schools. LIFO took a bunch of young, excited teachers who already had a year of experience under their belts and pushed them into charter schools.

Continue reading

John Deasy: Bridging the chasm between the world and me — my promise to Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

By John Deasy 

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is absent of tension to a positive peace which is in the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’ … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

An open letter to Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Mr. Coates, I have read with great interest your many provocative and painful articles and books over these past few years. I feel I must speak louder and broader about my reaction, my realizations, and my responsibilities; in writing to you, I am acutely aware of the imprecision of my language, so I ask forgiveness for my prose, and seek acceptance of my purpose.

I cannot come to any other conclusion about our country’s current state of affairs than that I believe we are now engaged in an uncivil war. The evidence is everywhere: our streets, our schools, our courts, our financial system, our borders, our neighborhoods — and, of course, our politics. I watch people being killed, being re-enslaved in poverty, being removed from the middle class; I watch as walls are erected to prevent upward mobility; I watch seemingly incomprehensible reactions to murder, market manipulation, and monstrously hateful rhetoric; I watch a criminal justice system that seems detached from justice, the willful and deliberate incarceration of our youth, and the deliberate means of school punishment perverted in ways to sort out young black men, and other youth of color.

I watch adults model rhetoric and incivility at a level of such hate and invective that it shames the soul.

This uncivil war is being fought in boardrooms, classrooms, jails and housing patterns; on street corners and throughout our political process. It has many causalities, and I by no means make light of death or destruction (for I am sick and tired of burying children), but I fear the greatest casualty is yet to come: that of a destruction of belief. Belief in our system of governance, education, finance — and most of all our structures built around belief in one another.

Layered in the paralyzing prose you have penned is the chilling statement that you have come to expect nothing from us.

Mr. Coates, you so eloquently place the conditions and plight of the black family in front of us, starkly, without apology. But then I put down your book, and see nothing being done to remedy these wrongs. Again, I read, like so many others, the chilling implications of our collective inaction. (One need only review the New York Times article by David Leonhardt on The 1.5 Million Missing Black Men to fully understand your points of pain.)

As a career educator and public leader, I know much the same could be written about our Latino brothers and sisters, our yet-to-be-documented youth, our families who have recently descended into poverty. Your words also aptly apply to our rehabilitated felons who are seemingly no longer considered full citizens, and also our workers who earn minimum wage for work no politician will do, even as those same leaders push back against efforts to raise the minimum wage.

However, the excruciating impacts of America’s twin original sins — slavery and segregation — leave you no choice but to focus on our black brothers and sisters and their families. Wage justice, criminal justice, social justice, community justice, health justice and environmental justice seem to have been removed from “Equal Justice Under the Law.”

Continue reading

Commentary: The hidden crisis of teacher turnover in Los Angeles’ public schools

teachers

*UPDATED

This is the first in a five-part series about teacher sustainability in Los Angeles and California public schools and the available solutions to reversing teacher turnover.


When I was growing up in Birmingham, Ala., nearly 30 years ago, the same teachers taught kindergarten year after year. It was almost a given that my sister would have the same four options for teachers at each grade level as I had two years before. Everyone in our community knew that Ms. Mayfield loved giraffe gifts and Ms. Dorsett sang to her students. Teachers only left the classroom when they retired, or perhaps moved to another city.

Today, in most public schools in Los Angeles, somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom within five years. Let me put that into perspective. That means, on any given school site, that if you have a child who starts kindergarten in 2016, and another one who will start in 2021, approximately half of the staff will be new by the time your second child enters a classroom. In Oakland, that number is a staggering 70 percent.

Teacher turnover isn’t just a problem in California. Nationwide, more than 46 percent of teachers leave the classroom within five years (see chart below from researcher Richard Ingersoll). This costs our school districts nationwide over $2.2 billion every year.

unnamed

(Credit: Richard Ingersoll’s teacher attrition study)

You can calculate the cost of teacher turnover in your own district by using this calculator from the National Council on Teaching and America’s Future.

But this isn’t just a money problem.

When a great teacher leaves a school site (or more than a few a year, which is more of the current average), there are many effects on the school site ecosystem:

  1. Expertise is lost. Ask any teacher how long it took them to get really good at his or her job, and you’ll hear almost unanimously, “At least five years.” Teaching is hard—and it takes a handful of years to feel like you know what you’re doing, how to manage a classroom and affect the academic outcomes that you, your principal and the government want. Every time a teacher leaves, academic and social expertise is lost. And who does that hurt the most? Kids.
  1. Community connections are lost. Most good teachers work very hard at making positive connections with their students and their students’ families. Many great teachers build powerful partnerships with community organizations (like after-school tutoring programs with local businesses or college students). When the teacher who created those connections leaves, it’s very difficult to maintain that same level of engagement with those specific families and community organizations. Schools should be active community spaces, and teacher turnover makes that more difficult to maintain.
  1. Emotional stability for students suffers. In many of our communities, especially in underserved urban areas, school sites are one of the most stable fixtures in students’ lives. Most pre-teens and teenagers actively emotionally develop by attaching to adults outside their nuclear families. In addition, students affected by autism, homelessness, childhood trauma and the foster care system need stability in their teaching populations at an even higher level. When teachers make vital connections to these marginalized youth and then leave, the students in our public schools are affected emotionally and academically.
  1. School site productivity is affected. Every year, administrators across Los Angeles invest time and money into professional development for teachers. The goal of professional development is to use continuing education to continually increase the productivity and cohesion of a faculty. When teachers leave on a regular basis, administrators must waste time and money repeating professional development for new teachers and never get to move their entire staff forward with higher levels of academic and organizational development. Teachers must spend time and energy investing in new department teams, new personal relationships and “catching new staff up” on school culture, student needs and community expectations.

If we intend to provide educational spaces where all students (especially those in underserved, urban schools) thrive emotionally and meet the continually increasing standards set out by the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards, we must create educational policy and systems which value the sustainability of the teaching force.


Jane Mayer is a former LA Unified and charter school teacher in Los Angeles. She currently directs the Los Angeles region of a nonprofit organization, The Teaching Well, committed to transforming education by prioritizing teacher well-being and sustainability.

*UPDATED to add author’s note:

I am thrilled at the energy around this topic, as evidenced by the comments and shares of the article on Facebook since yesterday. It’s part of my life’s work to engage educators in reimagining solutions to public education, especially as a former teacher. Over the next several weeks, LA School Report will publish four more articles on the topic which detail WHY teachers leave and how we can solve it. If you are interested in sharing your story, email me at janemayer@theteachingwell.org. I would love to hear and integrate your voices into the exposure of this critical issue.

Commentary: LA teachers head is ready to incite a ‘state crisis’ if union demands are not met

Alex Caputo-Pearl

Alex Caputo-Pearl

Alex Caputo-Pearl is the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a union that has a long and storied history of discarding presidents elected as firebrands but who reign as defenders of the status quo. Caputo-Pearl seems determined to end that cycle and bring teacher union militancy to the entire state of California.

In a July 29 speech to at the UTLA Leadership Conference, Caputo-Pearl outlined the union’s plans as it readies for the expiration of its contract next year and a gubernatorial election in 2018.

“The next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018,” Caputo-Pearl told an audience of 800 activists. “There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

While it’s not clear what form a “state crisis” would take, Caputo-Pearl described a series of actions the union will undertake in coming months, beginning with a paid media campaign denouncing “billionaires … driving the public school agenda” and a “massive” political mobilization to ensure the November passage of Proposition 55, which would extend a 2012 measure that raised taxes on high-earning residents to fund schools.

UTLA will then set its sights on the next Los Angeles Unified School District board elections.

“We must face off against the billionaires again in the School Board elections of 2017, and WE MUST WIN,” Caputo-Pearl said, explaining that the next board would vote on a new contract. The union needed to help elect a board that would resist a “vigorous campaign to cut our benefits” by district leaders, he suggested.

But Caputo-Pearl isn’t content to shape LAUSD’s agenda. He hopes to organize the entire state.

“All of the unions representing LAUSD workers and the teachers unions in San Diego, San Bernardino, Oakland and San Francisco share our June 2017 contract expiration date,” he said. “We have an historic opportunity to lead a coordinated bargaining effort across the state.

“Coordinated action could dramatically increase pressure on the legislature and fundamentally shape the debate in the 2018 Governor’s race.”

Caputo-Pearl stopped short of calling for a multi-city teacher strike, but pointing to a common contract expiration date that enabled “coordinated action” put it on the table.

Continue reading

Commentary: Making sense of state’s new school evaluation system is practically impossible

Los-Angeles-Times-logoBy the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

It’s not easy to measure the performance of a school, because there are so many things that go into providing a good education. But neither should it be as hard as the State Board of Education is making it.

After three years of work, the board recently revealed a draft of its new annual accountability system for California schools. These are the report cards, in effect, that are to replace the old single-number Academic Performance Index by which schools have been judged for the last decade and a half. The API was based almost solely on the results of the annual standardized tests taken by students.

The board’s determination to measure schools by more than merely test scores is laudable and has led national thinking on the topic. But the new system is more than overly warm and fuzzy. Making sense of it is practically impossible.

Click here for the full article from the Los Angeles Times.

Could Donald Trump make social security great again — and win over 7 million voters in the process?

#EDlection2016By Kirsten Schmitz

Donald Trump has promised to make America great again. One thing he says he won’t look to change? Social Security. While maintaining the Social Security status quo might seem at the very least unobtrusive, it neglects an opportunity to extend coverage to the over 1 million teachers and 6.5 million government workers whose jobs go uncovered.

On February 29, Trump told Georgia rally attendees, “we’re going to save your Social Security without making any cuts. Mark my words.” He made similar remarks at an April rally in Wisconsin — both states, interestingly enough, extend social security coverage to only some of their teachers — and spoke favorably (though without specific recommendations) about preserving the program in a statement to AARP. Though no official stance on the topic appears on his website, and recent adviser statements seem to hedge toward cuts, let’s assume Social Security under Trump remains as is. He’s missing — perhaps not for the first time — an opportunity for real greatness.

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

While existing state pension plans aren’t offering all workers adequate retirement benefits, Social Security at least offers them a solid floor of benefits. Expanding Social Security would help millions of uncovered workers, including all teachers in California, Illinois, and Ohio (where Trump will be accepting his party’s nomination tonight). Further, universal Social Security coverage would actually reduce the program’s existing deficit by 10% — yes, reduce — by more evenly distributing the program’s legacy costs. While Social Security isn’t designed to take the place of a stand-alone retirement benefit, it would provide all teachers with a much deserved and too often missed baseline of secure, nationally portable retirement benefits.

Neither candidate has broached the idea of universal coverage, though Hillary Clinton has proposed its expansion by increasing benefits for high-need groups, including widows and caretakers. Trump has yet to commit to any one approach – only promising not to make cuts. But to this point neither Clinton nor Trump has taken any steps towards addressing the benefit coverage gap that impacts millions of educators, many of whom will ostensibly head to the polls in November.


Kirsten Schmitz is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners.

This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

Flashback: That time Arne Duncan, Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton traveled the country talking about education

#EDlection2016By Peter Cunningham 

In the spring of 2009, newly-elected President Barack Obama took a meeting in the Oval Office with civil rights leader Al Sharpton. Reverend Sharpton told the White House he wanted to talk about education so Education Secretary Arne Duncan also attended. Sharpton also brought along an unlikely guest: former House Speaker and GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich.

By all accounts the meeting went well but towards the end, according to Secretary Duncan, the President suddenly suggested that the three of them go on the road together to talk about education. “You’ll get tons of media,” he said.

Duncan was somewhat flabbergasted by the idea but nodded. When he got back to the department, he stuck his head in my office and said, “You won’t believe what just happened.”

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

As the Assistant Secretary for Communications at the U.S. Department of Education, I had the delicate task of organizing school visits with Reverend Sharpton, Speaker Gingrich and Secretary Duncan. Reverend Sharpton wanted to see schools serving low-income kids of color. Speaker Gingrich wanted to see charters. Turns out they are mostly the same.

As a lifelong Democrat and strong supporter of President Clinton, the notion of spending quality time with his nemesis Newt Gingrich was not high on my bucket list. Nevertheless, I became friendly with one of his top staffers and the Speaker himself turned out to be pretty agreeable. A few months later, at my request, Speaker Gingrich even came to the administration’s defense in social media over a little dust-up involving the president’s back to school speech.

The Sharpton-Gingrich tour visited schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C., where we chatted with teachers and kids. Before talking to the media, we typically spent a few minutes together in a holding room collecting ourselves.

“Who wants to go first,” I asked. Everyone pointed to the others.

“What do you want to say?” I asked.

“The kids are learning,” said Sharpton.

“Charters are working,” said Gingrich.

“This is amazing when people come together around education,” said Duncan.

“Let’s do it,” said I.

And we did – just a few times before scheduling more visits became difficult. The episode was one of the more surreal experiences I had in Washington.

In today’s polarized political environment, it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton and a Democratic cabinet member on the road together. Hard to imagine perhaps, but more needed than ever.

Newt Gingrich is scheduled to speak tonight at the Republican National Convention, where the theme is “Make America First Again.” Who knows, maybe he’ll bring up his visits to some of America’s best schools.


This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

GOP convention commentary: Is obsession with local control of public education out of control?

#EDlection2016A new RNC dispatch from Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post:

If Republican conservatives stand for one thing above all else when it comes to public education, it is local control. Just as some conservatives see tax cuts as the only answer to an ailing economy, some also see local control as the antidote to everything wrong with schools. Yet, the evidence for local control as a strategy to improve schools is weak, at best.

Consider standards. By law, the federal government is prohibited from setting learning standards and, historically, states have set them all over the place. To their credit, governors and state education leaders on both sides of the aisle came together and created the Common Core State Standards, believing that common standards across state lines make sense.

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

But, after the federal government offered incentives to adopt the standards, local control zealots fought back and prompted some states to abandon the standards they helped create, including Indiana, the home state of the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence. Ambitious, common standards may be good for kids and for American competitiveness, but they now violate conservative principles. The quality of the standards is, of course, irrelevant.

Look at integration. Sixty-two years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools illegal, local control has undermined most efforts to promote integration in the world’s most racially diverse country. Today, our schools are more segregated than ever.

When it comes to innovation in education, conservatives often point to charter schools, which are authorized at the state and local level. But the biggest threat to charter schools is not centralized oversight, but rather its absence. While the best charters have closed achievement gaps, on average only a third out-perform traditional neighborhood schools. The real problem facing charters is quality control and local control does little to address it.

The accountability argument against local control also applies to traditional public schools. Until the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, there was no real accountability in public education. Low-performing schools languished for decades. Graduation rates in thousands of high schools serving low-income students hovered around 50 percent.

For the last 15 years, the federal government has forced states and districts to provide objective proof that kids are learning and to take action when they aren’t. Alas, under the new federal education law passed in 2015, local control zealots on the right conspired with the left to weaken federal oversight of schools.

On issue after issue – teacher training and evaluation, curriculum, funding equity – local control trumps fairness and quality, but don’t expect to hear any complaints at the Republican convention in Cleveland.


This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

Commentary: California — the state of magical thinking when it comes to education

Westside Rentals signBy Caroline Bermudez

The great Joan Didion rose to literary fame chronicling her love-hate relationship with her native California. In Where I Was From, she unleashed a cool invective about the state’s less than firm grasp of reality that still applies today:

“A good deal about California, in its own preferred terms, does not add up.”

California, in particular Los Angeles, is defined by its contradictions. It’s a place of indescribable beauty teetering on the edge of environmental disaster. It exudes a glamour and carefree spirit that draws thousands of hopefuls, but as you stroll through the city’s rejuvenated downtown area, you see rows of tents nearby inhabited by the homeless. The University of California system is the nation’s crown jewel of public higher education, yet prisons comprise a bigger chunk of the state’s budget.

Perhaps the most glaring contradiction of California is how it regards K-12 education as both a priority and an afterthought.

A report cited by a recent article in L.A. Weekly shows how out of reach a good school is not only for its many residents scraping by, but also for those who, if they lived in other regions of America, would have a surfeit of options:

“The jaw-dropping takeaway here is that the average home price near the highest-ranking public schools in L.A. is $1,430,000, the report from RentCafe found.”

The same RentCafe report the article refers to determined most high-achieving schools are concentrated in one wealthy area of Los Angeles:

“It defines highest top-ranking campuses as those with ratings of between 8 and 10 on the GreatSchools site. Those compose 12 percent of public elementary schools in L.A. Most of these campuses are on the Westside, the report states. That makes sense, since the median home price on the Westside is now $1.2 million.”

To live in proximity to an excellent public school, a resident of Los Angeles will have to pony up seven figures.

Pause here for a second.

But what about renting?

The outlook does not improve much, according to the report:

“Renters spend approximately $617 more on rent every month to live near top-performing elementary schools in L.A. than those living near low-ranking schools,” a RentCafe spokeswoman said. “That amounts to more than $7,400 a year.

The average rent in a bad-schools neighborhood is $1,614, while the same in a good-schools area is $2,231, the site says. That’s a 38 percent rent difference.”

Continue reading

Commentary: Democrats rewrite education platform behind closed doors, abandon core party values

Clinton-Obama panelBy Peter Cunningham

The Democratic Party has always stood for one thing: we fight for the little guy. In the field of education, the little guy is the student. He can’t vote. He doesn’t have much say about his school. He mostly has to do what he’s told. And he is trusting us to do right by him and set him on a path to success.

That should mean that we are giving him a good school filled with hard-working adults who set high expectations and hold themselves accountable for results. It should mean that when the student isn’t learning the adults in his school don’t blame factors outside the classroom. Instead, they make the most of things under their control – like time, curriculum, technology, parents and the trusted relationship between teacher and student.

It should mean giving him and his guardian the freedom to find the right school for his unique needs, whether he is gifted or struggling, non-English speaking, poor, gay, straight, trans, athletic, artistic, emotionally stable or vulnerable. It should mean that we don’t allow adult rules about governance or working conditions to inhibit the child’s right to a quality public school and an effective teacher. The needs of the student come first.

Unfortunately, the new Democratic platform does not fully commit to any of these things. Instead, the one adopted behind closed doors in Orlando last weekend affirms an education system that denies its shortcomings and is unwilling to address them.

For example, Democrats are now against “high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners as failing.” No argument here, but what about standardized tests that truthfully and fairly identify underperforming schools and struggling students? The platform is silent.

Democrats are also against “the use of standardized test scores as a basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools.” OK, but are there any circumstances when Democrats support closing schools? What if those schools show little to no growth? What if parents stop choosing those schools? Would we keep them open anyway? Again, the platform is silent.

Democrats are also against “the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.” Obviously, they didn’t check with America’s most-prominent Democrat, President Barack Obama. He thinks test scores, along with other measures like classroom observations, examples of classroom work, and feedback from peers, parents and even students, should inform evaluations.

Continue reading