Monday, December 21, 2009

How Wonks Amuse Themselves

First a note to my followers: The General Assembly will go into session on January 12th. The postings on this blog will increase considerably to several per week. Thanks for reading.

How Wonks (nerds) Amuse Themselves:
I have been concerned for some time about rhetoric concerning the size of state government. The News Journal has featured several articles referencing the number of Delaware state employees with the inference that state personnel is bloated. The assumption requires investigation beyond the superficial.

One should also note that regardless of the size of state government the current budget crisis is not about overspending. By that logic, all but a handful of states in the nation all overspent last year resulting in collapsed budgets. That's nonsense. The 43 states that had to make serious budget cuts last year are all suffering lost revenue due to the economic recession, not because they all became careless with spending at one time.

Small states deal with two conditions making an apples to apples comparison regarding state government and state payrolls difficult. First, because we are small we do not get an economy of scale in most endeavours. Second, and more importantly, small states notoriously blur jurisdictional lines in the administration of services. In large states, cities, sewer districts, water districts, libraries, counties, townships etc. all have duties distinct from state government. By contrast in states like Delaware, the state provides services usually assumed by other government entities in larger states. For example, in Delaware the state may patch potholes in your residential street, or plow snow on a county road, or provide a state trooper to handle a domestic dispute in rural Sussex, or send a truck to pick up recycling in New Castle.

Because of the unique adoption of services by small state governments, it is more useful to look at the aggregate number of public employees per 10,000 population rather than exclusively at state employees per 10,000 citizens. By looking for the total number of public employees per state, one somewhat compensates for the sharing of services factor.

By using the "Governing Sourcebook" of the Congressional Quarterly, one can find both the state government employees per 10,000 population and the local government employees per 10,000 population. Then it is a simple matter to total the two numbers and rank states. Now, before giving you the numbers for Delaware let me add a note of caution. Public services, from education to trash collection are a matter of local values and priorities. It is more useful to engage citizens in honest discussions about their values and priorities, than to play quantifying games.

With that caution given, Delaware has 362 state employees per 10,000 population and 295 local public employees per 10,000 population for a total of 657 (2008). That number ranks us 35th in the nation below conservative Texas with 662 and above neighbor Maryland with 652.

These numbers do not sound extravagant to me. However again, it's about values. What do you want for your children? Should education continue to improve? How should your state look, smell? How safe should the water be? How available should the police be?

Public services are those services too important to be left to the market, too important to be owned and operated by any entity other than the public themselves. Our investment in public services reflect our values.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Brings RTTT and Maybe Something Else

Race To The Top Briefings
DSEA local presidents will be briefed on the progress of the state's RTTT application,the Department of Education's strategic plan, and the regulatory changes that tie them together. The southern locals will be briefed on Thursday, December the 16th and New Castle locals on Monday, December the 21st. There has been a good deal of cooperation between DSEA and the Markell administration for positive results in many areas of regulation. The DSEA is looking forward to sharing with presidents at the briefings.

State Fiscal Policy
I was recently privileged to attend the national State Fiscal Policy Conference. This is an annual conference sponsored by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The conference gives advocates information about making public policy work for ordinary Americans. The following are a sampling of workshop titles this year: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about State Debt & Bonding (But Were Afraid to Ask); If You Tax Them Will They Flee? Countering Migration Myths; Writing About Fiscal Policy Effectively; Closing Corporate Tax Loopholes Through "Combined Reporting"; and Building and Sustaining Effective Revenue Coalitions.

The last workshop title brings up an interesting issue for Delaware. Delaware is one of perhaps three states in the nation that does not have a public policy analysis group. Most states have an affiliate of one of the following: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Economic Policy Institute, or Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

These groups provide analysis of public policy, particularly state fiscal policy and economic conditions from a populist perspective. They provide an important balance to corporate, anti-government, anti-public service, anti-union forces at work in most state capitols.

Advocates for public educators, state workers, and good public services are at a disadvantage without the research and analysis offered by economic policy groups.

Perhaps Santa is reading this blog and will bring Delaware a public policy group...we haven't been too naughty.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thoughts on Merit Pay vs. Alternative Compensation

Educator compensation issues seem to go hand in hand with education reform discussions. Federal dollars, particularly related to innovation in grants through Race To The Top have prompted more attention than ever on ways to compensate teachers and other educators. An interesting change in language seems to be happening in many position papers, articles, and discussions. The older and narrower term "pay-for- performance" is replacing the modern, more inclusive "alternative compensation". Unfortunately, it is more than a matter of semantics.

Alternative compensation can mean any form of compensation other than pay for seniority alone (the vertical steps in the salary schedule). Alternative compensation as it currently exists is for such things as education (horizontal movement on salary schedule), professional development and special certifications such as NBC. Moreover, many teachers unions are interested in exploring other possibilities for alternative compensation through the collective bargaining process.

Pay-for-performance is a term which comes with much more baggage. Linking teacher pay directly to student performance is not new or innovative. The very first pay for performance experiments happened in the United Kingdom in the 18th Century. In the United States the flirtations with pay for performance began in the 1920s. The history of pay for performance is of failed attempts.

In spite of the heavy touting of merit pay by the big business interests (who declare themselves as stakeholders in education), it is quite uncommon for private sector professionals, particularly if the compensation is based on client outcomes. Certainly, the Chief Executive Officers of corporations have not based their own compensation on performance.

The challenges to pay for performance in education are legion, but just to name a few:
Educators are a self selected group not likely to be motivated by money. To put it another way, one has a group of people who by choice have entered a profession that has historically not compensated well. Thus one could conclude money is not a primary motivator, yet these programs seek to motivate primarily by money. Also, the concept of pay for performance assumes that educators are holding something back in their teaching, not giving 100%, and that they need a cash incentive to give that extra effort. For educators this is a ludicrous idea.

The variables between students and educators are exponentially staggering. 'I have more special education students than Mary. Mary has more students below the poverty line than Mark. Mark has several emotionally disturbed students not shared by Ann. Ann has numerous English as second language students, a challenge not seen by Ted at a magnet...on and on.' Finding a formula that is fair will require Stephen Hawking's help, but I hear he is tied up (pardon the expression) with String Theory.

New compensation plans cost money. One assumes that with new improved measurements for teacher effectiveness that almost all of the teachers will qualify for the incentives. Many of the same folks pushing for merit pay see little merit in paying taxes. From where will the sustainable funding come?

Finally, there is absolutely no data supporting the idea that pay for performance improves student learning.

Considering all the drawbacks to merit pay should not confuse the issue with the broader concept of alternative compensation. Teachers are open, within the context of collective bargaining, to opportunities for compensation that take into account qualifications beyond their experience.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

RTTT in the News

Race To The Top and related:
Yesterday saw a splash in the paper with the release of the Delaware Department of Education strategic plan. This year many of the plan's initiatives are tied to positioning Delaware for the program known as Race To The Top (RTTT). RTTT is a federal program that provides competitive grants to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform. Delaware is eligible for a grant between $20 million and $75 million.

Within that framework are guidelines under the following headings: Great Teachers and Leaders; Turning Around Struggling Schools; Standards and Assessments; and Data Systems to Support Instruction.

Delaware had many innovations already in place that fit well with RTTT guidelines. The remaining changes needed are for the most part regulatory versus statutory. This means that the Department of Education can draw up new regulations and have those approved by the State Board of Education instead of needing to draft legislation and have changes made to the Delaware Code. This is another advantage for Delaware because the deadline for PhaseI applications is January 19th. If changes to law had been required it would have been close to impossible to meet the deadline with the General Assembly not beginning session until January.

DSEA has been involved in discussions with the Governor's office and DOE. DSEA is encouraged by the communication and collaboration with the Administration. There is a sincere effort to make educators into partners with the RTTT program.

Everyone has to work together to make sure educators are given the resources they need to implement new ideas because all reform innovations eventually boil down to a teacher with a class of students.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Part 2 Executive Summary

Now for Part 2 of the DSEA Executive Summary, Comments on Race To The Top (RTTT)

Performance Zones
DSEA believes that the Performance Zone concept for low-performing schools included in DOE’s strategic plan should be used only where other well implemented strategies have failed. DSEA favors the creation of a performance zone only under the following conditions:
• Schools within the zone will be part of a “reform network”, but the district retains oversight of the schools.
• DOE oversees the “reform network”, including technical assistance and resources.
• DOE will develop capacity within the districts to support their zone schools.
• School improvement plans will be developed within a collaborative, collective bargaining environment. Other stakeholders such as parents and community groups will be involved in the development of the plan.

DSEA believes that sustainable funding must be a part of any reform effort in order for Delaware to avoid the “funding cliff” when federal stimulus money is no longer available and improvement efforts are left without funding.

Standards and Assessments
While the Common Core Standards have the potential to provide educators with far more manageable curriculum goals to promote student success, the standards alone do not guarantee student achievement. Delaware must provide effective teachers and the necessary educational and community resources to ensure quality education.
DSEA also favors the state’s effort to develop a student assessment instrument that is both formative and summative in nature, commonly referred to as growth model testing. To ensure the success of the new instrument, the DOE should determine its validity and reliability and align it with the proposed “Diamond State Curriculum” before moving to statewide implementation.

Data Systems to Support Instruction
A data system needs to provide educators with timely and relevant information to impact instruction; provide parents with the information to be active in their children’s education; and provide colleges and universities with information to make teacher preparation programs relevant to today’s classrooms. DSEA does not support the use of data systems that link student tracking information to individual teachers for the purpose of performance evaluations.

Effective, Efficient Service Delivery

Regional Centers
DSEA supports the experimentation with regional centers for purchasing and providing various human resources tasks. A cost benefit analysis on those centers should be completed as soon as practical.

School District Consolidation
DSEA questions the educational value of district consolidation. Delaware decision makers must examine the state’s experience with consolidation, review previous studies, and commission new studies of consolidation to determine the educational merits of such as a proposal. Furthermore, DSEA is committed to the principle of “leveling up”. Leveling up is the practice of making the new salary schedule for a consolidated district match the salary schedule of the best paid district among those absorbed. A thoughtful discussion involving all stakeholders must occur before serious consideration is given to consolidation.

DSEA is proud of our advocacy role as a union which we view as complimentary to the reform process. The union gives voice and input to educators in substantial ways. Efforts to weaken unions or collective bargaining agreements diminish educator ownership of the reform process and create the potential for failure. Every reform ends with implementation by an educator in the classroom. This reality makes DSEA more than just another opinion in the room. DSEA takes the responsibility and the opportunity seriously.

Delaware State Education Association
November, 2009

Our Mission:
The Delaware State Education Association, a union of public school employees, advocates for the rights and interests of its members and outstanding public education for all students.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

RTTT Executive Summary Pt1

A thousand apologies to the blog followers for the length of time between posts. I have been traveling the last week.

Posted below is the first installment of two featuring an Executive Summary of a DSEA position paper on Race To The Top.


Delaware State Education Association Comments and Concerns Regarding RTTT and the Delaware Department of Education Strategic Plan

Executive Summary

The Race to the Top Fund (RTTT) is a federal program that provides competitive grants to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform; implementing ambitious plans in the four education reform areas described in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA); and achieving significant improvement in student outcomes. The four education reform areas include Standards and Assessments, Data Systems to Support Instruction, Great Teachers and Leaders, and Turning Around Struggling Schools. The Delaware Department of Education created a Strategic Plan for the Delaware Public Education System, that attempts to align their plan with the four federal focus areas and adds a fifth goal of Effective, Efficient Service Delivery.

Great Teachers and Leaders

Teacher Preparation and Alternative Certification
DSEA endorses a variety of strategies to improve teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all of Delaware’s students:
• DSEA supports many of the recommendations made by the DOE Innovation Action Team sub-committee, dealing with teacher quality and teacher preparation programs.
• DSEA supports teacher preparation programs that will continue to recruit and prepare talented graduates, with specially designed programs for those choosing to work in Delaware’s high need schools.
• DSEA supports the implementation of teacher residency programs as part of the DOE strategic plan.

Providing Effective Teacher Supports for Instruction
DSEA favors the use of timely student data to inform and evaluate teacher and principal support programs such as professional development, collaboration, and common planning time. DSEA urges DOE to partner with Dr. Eric Hirsch and the New Teacher Center to conduct an ongoing teaching and learning conditions survey statewide.

Teacher Compensation
DSEA believes any proposed teacher compensation system must recognize the skills and knowledge of educators while promoting a collaborative work environment to enhance student growth. Additionally, compensation systems must be:
• Cooperatively developed by the state or district and the collective bargaining representative for educators.
• Developed with a differential pay component to recruit and retain teachers for low performing schools.
• Fully funded and sustainable.

DSEA does not support compensation systems that link teacher pay directly to student performance based primarily upon student assessment.

A moratorium has been placed on both National Board Certification and cluster incentives. Moreover, educators are currently working for 2.56% less than last year. Delaware must first restore basic compensation and lift the moratorium on incentives before exploring alternative compensation.

Determining Teacher Effectiveness
DSEA supports the Delaware Performance Appraisal System (II) use of multiple measures when assessing student achievement relevant to teacher evaluation. DSEA is opposed to changing the current weighting between and within the DPAS II components.

Turning Around Struggling Schools
Delaware is not unique in the struggle to find effective strategies to consistently improve low performing schools. Four options are offered by the US Department of Education for dealing with these schools:
• Turnarounds - Replacing the principal and at least 50% of the staff
• Re-Starts - Closing the school and reopening as a charter or with an education management organization
• Closures - Closing the school and transferring the students to other better performing schools in the district
• Transformations - Restructuring of the school that involves a change in school leadership, new instructional programs, extended time for students and staff, intensive support, and increased services.
DSEA acknowledges the immediate need to deal with low-performing schools and endorses the work of the Learning First Alliance (2009), a partnership of 17 major national education groups, as a responsible plan of action. The Alliance recommends the following operating principles for turnaround schools:
• Measure progress toward a broad vision of student success.
• Measure the conditions for school and student success.
• Ensure that measures are clear and available for all stakeholders.
• Track progress over time.
DSEA believes a district developed plan with adequate resources and support from DOE provides the best opportunity to turn around schools and improve student achievement.

Charter Schools
DSEA believes that charter schools have a niche in the education community, but they are not the answer to all of the challenges in education today. Delaware needs to improve its regulation of charters to ensure the responsible growth of such schools within the traditional public school system.


Friday, November 13, 2009

New RTTT Guidelines Complete

The final federal guidelines for Race To The Top (RTTT) have been released. RTTT is a $4.3 billion competitive grant program designed to bring about education reforms and innovation that impact student achievement. Given the amount of money at stake and the scarcity of resources in the recession, every state, including Delaware will be competing hard to win a grant.

Four areas must be addressed in the grant application: Standards and Assessments, Data Systems to Support Instruction, Great Teachers and Leaders, and Turning Around Struggling Schools.

A draft of the guidelines were open for public comment. More than 1,600 such comments were received including those of the National Education Association. Meanwhile at the state level in Delaware, the Department of Education is busy putting together a strategic plan that compliments the federal RTTT. DSEA has given Secretary Lowery a position paper on RTTT in an effort to influence the DOE plan.

Some of the key areas of the just released guidelines that were closely watched by NEA are as follows:
*States must not have any barriers to linking student achievement or growth to teachers and principals. Delaware has no such barrier. NEA was against this linking of student achievement to specific educators.
*The new language for defining highly effective teachers requires multiple measures, provided student growth is a significant measure. This is a positive change from a direction of having student achievement measured by standardized tests as the primary component of evaluations. In Delaware, student achievement is only one of five equally weighted components of teacher evaluation.
*The new regulations state that teacher and principal evaluation systems should be designed and developed with teacher and principal involvement.
*Definitions of student achievement have been expanded to include other measures beyond a single test.
*According to the guidelines, states should not have laws adverse to charter schools, but state laws should monitor charter authorizers and should monitor charter student populations for comparison to public school populations.

Stay tuned for much more on RTTT.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

US House Health Care Bill

As promised, here is a quick look at the US House version of health care reform. Please keep in mind that the Senate will pass a version and then the two bills will go to a conference committee to be reconciled and back to both chambers for a vote on final passage. In other words, what you see today is a long way from law.

Some Key Points of the Legislation with Comment:

Health Insurance Exchange
This refers to a "marketplace" that allows for comparison shopping among insurance providers. The exchange would also administer the affordability credits provided in the legislation.

Public Insurance Option
Within the health insurance exchange would be an option to purchase a public plan in areas where just one or two carriers dominate the market. This is a much watered down version of the public option than originally discussed. The first version of a public option would have been offered anywhere in the nation, not just in the areas with few insurers. The first version would have provided insurance for a massive group of around 129 million Americans. The current version allows for about 6 million Americans to buy a public plan.
This area is of major concern because a comprehensive public option was our best hope of controlling health care cost inflation. When a plan has 129 million consumers, it can dictate to the market what it will and will not pay for various procedures and drugs. A plan with 6 million is not likely to have much market leverage. Moreover, a small public option could simply turn into a high risk pool which will eventually price itself out of existence.

Guaranteed Coverage and other Insurance Reforms
This is probably the best part of the bill. Insurance companies would no longer be allowed to exclude people from coverage for pre-existing conditions. Equally important, insurers would no longer be able to base premiums on health status, but only on age, geography, and family size.

Sliding Scale Affordability Credits
These are credits to help low and moderate income individuals and families purchase insurance. Medicaid will still exist for very low income people and the credits will start just above that level and continue up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($43K for an individual and $88K for a family of four).
One negative aspect of this program is that federal tax dollars (public) will flow to (private) for-profit insurance companies. This is not what happens with Medicaid for example, because Medicaid is the insurer and directly pays the health providers without the middlemen of the insurance industry taking a cut. This is why Medicaid has an administrative cost of about 2 or 3 cents for every dollar of heath care delivered as opposed to private insurers whose overhead is around 25 cents to 27 cents for every dollar of care delivered.

Expands Medicaid
Individuals and families with incomes at or below 133% of the federal poverty level will be covered. The expansion will be fully federally financed to avoid stressing state budgets.

Improves Medicare
The current "donut hole" in the Part D drug program will be eliminated helping seniors with their prescription drug costs. Cost sharing for preventive services has been eliminated. Physician payments have been improved. Also, improvements in the delivery system have been made.

Individual Responsibility
Once all reforms and affordability credits are in place, individuals must obtain health insurance. Failure to buy insurance will result in a penalty of 2.5% of adjusted gross income.
This is very controversial. Private, for-profit insurance companies will now reap billions from all Americans forced to buy their products. Without cost controls, what is to stop the insurance industry from charging exorbitant rates?

Employer Responsibility
Employers will chose between providing coverage for employees or paying 8% of their payroll into a health fund. Small businesses with payrolls under $500,000 are exempt from the requirement. Above $500k, businesses begin to pay on a sliding scale that maxes with the 8% for those over $750k in payroll.

In conclusion, this legislation still needs work, and it is a long, long, way from being a truly progressive health care reform bill.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Federal Health Legislation Moves Forward

Legislation for a national health care plan moved forward last Saturday night
(11/7/09)when the US House passed their version of reform.

Why is DSEA closely watching the national health care debate? We are hoping for meaningful reform of health care because our health benefits are in a precarious situation. Last year, education employees' health care premium increased 50%. With health care inflation running close to 9% a year, the increase may not be the last one we will experience. Moreover, because of new federal regulation, states must now account for the projected health costs of their retirees in something called, Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB). Delaware's OPEB liability is now over $5 billion. If the state ever gets truly serious about funding OPEB, we could see less money for everything else, in an age when there is already less money for everything else.

This blog will give an analysis of the House health bill tomorrow.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pygmalion Today

The October 28, 2009 edition of "Education Week" has an interesting article by Joanne Yatvin titled "Rediscovering the 'Pygmalion Effect' in American Schools". Yatvin is a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, and a former school principal.

The article recalls research from more than 40 years ago on the impact of teacher expectations on student performance. As you may recall "Pygmalion" is a Greek myth about a sculptor who creates a statue of his ideal woman. Pygmalion treats his creation like a real person and gives her the name, "Galatea". Eventually, Galatea comes to life and "happily ever after" follows. Researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson chose to call their book, "Pygmalion in the Classroom".

In the experiment teachers were told a new test had been developed that could predict which students would show an academic spurt in performance. Teachers were given the names of the students that were soon to blossom. In truth, the group of predicted achievers were a randomly selected group. This group of students was tested at the end of a year and again two years later. The students showed significant intellectual and academic performance gains in both years.

Subsequent research confirmed that an educator's expectations concerning a student has a positive impact on his/her achievement.

However, Joanne Yatvin contends this positive concept has been corrupted in the current environment: "The discrepancy between the Pygmalion researchers' concept of high expectations and that of today's reformers stems from the multiple meanings of the word 'expectation'. To the researchers, it meant the power of belief to influence the behavior of others. To the reformers, it means the power of authority to exact compliance from underlings."

The abuse of "expectations" has negatively changed the entire school environment according to Yatvin. "Schools are meant to be wellsprings of vigor, interest, exploration, growth, and illumination. Rigor, the word so often used by reformers to describe what schools should emphasize, is more properly the companion of harshness, inflexibility, and oppression. It is time to change the current conception of high expectations back to its original meaning."

As this blog has often lamented, in the pursuit of accountability we are killing off all that is creative, good, and enjoyable about educating and being educated. Or as William Wordsworth said, "Our meddling intellect mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things. We murder to disect."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dubious Need for more STEM Graduates

Educators, as well as policy makers all over the United States should come to know the names, and work of two research professors: Hal Salzman is a professor of public policy from Rutgers. Dr.Lindsay Lowell is from Georgetown University and the Director of Policy Studies for the Institute of International Migration.

For the last couple of years these two professors have been wrestling with an assumption driving US education policy. It goes something like this: US high-tech corporations are not able to find enough science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates to supply their employment needs. This forces corporations to move jobs offshore or to utilize the Guest Worker Program to bring in foreign STEM workers.

Salzman and Lowell decided to do something US policy makers did not do. They decided not to trust anecdotes as evidence. The academics began researching the supply of STEM graduates. After a couple of studies on the issue, the researches decided to use longitudinal data sets covering a 30 year period of time to determine what has really been happening with STEM. Today, this report has become public and provides support for the previous research from the pair.

I will save you from a 53 page read of "Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline" (Also the previous paper by the authors,"Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality and Workforce Demand") with some key points from all the work:

*US colleges and universities are still graduating as many STEM as they were in the 1970s.
*Supply is not the problem. US universities have graduated about three times more STEM than were employed in the science fields.
*There is a trend of the top quintile of STEM to choose other fields, possibly because pay and other employment conditions are no longer competitive.
* To reiterate with a quote from Dr. Lowell, "...there is no evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs."

Unfortunately, this modest common sense conclusion, now backed by significant research may not make headlines, let alone policy changes; but it should. Think about it...we have based an significant part of our national education policy off erroneous assumption.

We assumed that corporations could not get enough quality STEM graduates. We assumed they went offshore in pursuit of ability. More irritating and insulting was the assumption that not only was there a STEM shortage, but that the shortage was due to poor public schools and poor teachers.

It now appears that US corporations have once again taken the nation down the wrong path. There is no STEM shortage. US corporations pursued cheap STEM workers offshore the same way a generation earlier they pursued cheap manufacturing workers offshore.

Teachers are not responsible for workers failing to be "globally competitive". Corporations are making a choice not to employee US graduates that has little to do with their education.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

STEM Study

I had the privilege to be on a conference call today previewing new research out of Rutgers. The two primary researchers are professors Hal Salzman and Lindsay Lowell. The study is a 30 year longitudinal look at science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates. The research looks at what happens to the graduates. Do they enter STEM career fields?

The conventional "wisdom" has been that the United States does not graduate enough qualified STEM people and this forces corporations to go offshore for employees. Many powerful interests then take this assumption another step forward and blame educators for not preparing children to enter college with STEM majors and careers in mind. US educators are not producing globally competitive students under this scenario.

The report is under embargoed until tomorrow. I will write a follow up blog giving details of the findings on Wednesday. Suffice it to say that once again educators have been blamed for a situation not of their making. Furthermore, we have education policy being made on anecdotal evidence that does not stand up to deep dive analysis.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mark Your Calendar

It's not too early to mark your calendars for State Representative John Kowalko's fundraiser. Kowalko will have a fundraiser ($25 suggested contribution)on Friday, November 13th, 6:00PM at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark (Wila Road).

John Kowalko is a special friend to educators. Last year, Representative John Kowalko was the first elected representative to begin the discussion of substantial, and sustainable revenue. He believes that a strong public sector, of which public education is at the heart, is essential to a 21st Century economy. This conviction led him to take a firm and out front stand with educators and other state employees against the salary cut.

John Kowalko is passionate on issues such as education, the economy and the environment, but he never sacrifices thoughtfulness in the heat of debate. We look forward to having such a quality ally at our side in the next legislative session.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Update on STD and Health Insurance

This post is an update on the Short Term Disability situation as it pertains to health insurance.

At today's State Employee Benefit Committee meeting we received important clarification about health benefits and short term disability. We discussed in the last post the potential for people waiting through the extended elimination period (60 days)for their short term disability might also lose their health insurance (state share). An eligibility rule for the state health fund says that employees who are on an unpaid leave for a month will not receive the state share of the health benefit.

The scenario is not quite as bad as we feared. If an employee has short term disability pending, then they will not suffer the automatic cancelation of state share stated in rule 5.11. Rule 5.13b allows health coverage (state share) to continue while the status is pending. However, if the short term disability is denied, then the employee would owe the cost of that coverage back to the state.

Thank heaven for small miracles.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Two of Many Considerations

Several of the staff here at DSEA are sifting through Race To The Top guidelines and the related Delaware Department of Education Strategic Plan. We are trying to define DSEA positions so that initiatives that follow will be of benefit, not burden to students and educators.

In the middle of this task it occurred to me that the foundation for much of what is labeled reform, is very unstable indeed. In this post, I will only touch on two shaky pillars; one that US education is an unmitigated failure and two that the root cause of the failure is bad teachers, somehow functioning in a vacuum from society at large.

First, the very idea that American education is failing is subjective. Upon what is success or failure measured, a standardized test score? It is ironic that many of today's decision makers were probably never tested beyond something like the Iowa Basic in their school days. However, today, the standardized test is king. I should say, remains king, even after national politicians spent last campaign season agreeing with educators that the tests are of dubious value.

Also, efforts to substantiate the idea of failed US schools have included numerous articles comparing American math and science scores to other nations. Only math and science are examined because that's now the only part of education that matters (according to the non-educators who play the tune to which we all dance). In any case, these comparisons are not so much studies looking at similar students with similar variables as they are simplistic listing of scores of same aged students. In short, when the rest of the world has the same inclusiveness in education as the US, perhaps something approaching an "apples to apples" comparison might take place. Until that time, it is just more emotionalism to drive an agenda.

If one buys the story that US education is terrible, then the next item for one to purchase is that teachers are responsible for the failure. No other profession accepts the sole responsibility for client outcome, but educators are expected to do so. For example, try not paying your gym trainer if you fail to lose weight.

Reasonable arguments expounding upon the variables outside of the control of educators that might impact student performance could fill enough pages for a doctoral dissertation. For the sake of a simple blog, and even simpler blogger, let us look at one, the current socio-economic environment of children.

The socio-economic environment of children is very stressed in our current era. There is little acknowledgment of the economic environment in which children are educated.

The coming year of 2010 will find 26.6% of all American children living in poverty, according the Economic Policy Institute.

Food security is a US Department of Agriculture assessment which means that everyone in a household has access to enough food for an active and healthy life. The last year for which USDA food security figures are available is 2007, before the economic downturn. We know that in 2007 13 million households were food insecure. According to the USDA in 2007 16% of all the US households with children experienced food insecurity.

Furthermore, the health care crisis of which so much has been publicized also impacts children. According to Kids Count in Delaware, using a three year average, more than 10% of our children are without health insurance.

Put all of this together and many children face formidable odds against learning regardless of the intention, skill, training, or technique of the teacher. Kids who are hungry, sick, with parents working multiple jobs, with dubious housing, and with the family stress of poverty, are going to have problems in school.

None of this commentary is to say that educators are not willing to change, or that we don't welcome new ideas and the funding to experiment. However, we need a realistic definition of success and failure and we need to be conscious that the world of our children has changed, and not for the better.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Charter Regulation Needed

DSEA is likely to be back this year with legislation on regulation of charter schools. For 13 years charters have had an unregulated market in Delaware. In spite of receiving public money, the schools are immune from public scrutiny or governance.

If DSEA charter legislation returns this year, look for it to contain the following goals:

1. Only the Delaware Department of Education and the State Board of Education will have the authority to grant new charters.
This should perhaps be named the Red Clay clause. Under the previous board and superintendent, Red Clay sponsored charters. Moreover, Red Clay promoted and advocated for charters. Sometimes this was at the expense of Red Clay schools. For example, Charter School of Wilmington shares building space with Red Clay's own Cab Caloway. While Cab lacks the space to guarantee that their own middle school students will matriculate into the high school, Charter elbows for room while paying a whole one dollar of rent per year to the district.

2. A more thoughtful process for charter school authorization.
The state DOE and Board of Education would have to take an affirmative vote every year to allow charter applications for that year. The state would have to balance the best interests of the charter against the best interests of the community and the community's public schools. DOE would be charged with researching and writing an impact statement that looks at the proposed charter's effect on enrollment and finance of area public schools, demographics of children in the county, extent of redundancy of programs offered by the charter, and the affected districts' superintendents would have to file an opinion letter giving their impressions.

3. Added transparency of charter school information.
The DOE would need to post information about charters on their web site including, applications for new charters and the DOE decisions about those applications, all IRS 990 forms, and all charter school audits.

4. Regulated conduit bond funding for charter schools.
Community public schools have to bring proposals for needed construction and renovation money before the public in the referendum. Charter schools gain capital financing through issuing bonds in a process called "conduit bond funding". Once again, this has been unregulated. Capital financing should only come through the state, not some other public entity. Conduit bond financing should only be available for established charters after their first renewal, provided they are not on probation. There should be a Certificate of Need process in which again the opinion of superintendents in impacted districts will be solicited. The state Office of Management and Budget would do a financial review of the charter to determine fiscal stability.

Not one of these four goals is extreme. Not one of these goals if made into law will endanger established, effective charters.

The public is spending tax dollars on charter schools; dollars that would be going to community public schools. Thus, the public has the right to regulate and monitor charter schools.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Education and the Recession

We need to take a comprehensive look at the way we "do business" in this country. More accurately, we need to look at the way our economic system functions and the way it periodically malfunctions.

In particular I'm thinking of economic recessions. These "downturns" are portrayed as short-term and having no lasting effect on society. However, a new study by John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute says we better think again. "Economic Scarring: The Long-Term Impacts of the Recession" discusses rising unemployment, falling incomes, lack of health care, and general reduced economic activity, not from the perspective of next quarter's Dow Jones numbers, but from the next generation's prospects for success.

In looking long-term, much of the paper focuses on education and what recession does to that noble enterprise. First, early childhood education will suffer. Most pre-K activity is at the private expense of parents who will be less able to afford quality early childhood education. Moreover, any plans for publicly funded early childhood have certainly been placed on hold as states continue to stagger from falling revenues.

Second, childhood nutrition is negatively impacted by recession, and impedes cognitive abilities. The report cites research (Nord, et al 2008 "Household Food Security in the United States, 2007")that identified 13 million US households with 12.7 million children that experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity is the difficulty in providing enough food for all family members.

The list of recession related stresses on education continues with lack of access to health services such as pre-natal and early childhood care, dental and optometric care. In 2008 there were 46.3 million uninsured Americans and 7 million of those citizens were children (US Census 2009).

Recession obstacles to learning include reduced after-school and summertime activities and the significant factor of housing dislocations and homelessness.
Finally, families will delay or abandon hopes of sending children to college.

The whole picture of the recession style education is one of lasting effects. Failures in education now can lead to career challenges and reduced wages later. Finally, because social mobility issues are generational, we could be experiencing outcomes of the recession 50 years from now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Green Schools

The September/October issue of "Sierra", the magazine of the Sierra Club has an interesting piece on "green" colleges. This is the third annual ranking of the best "planet-preserving colleges and universities".

Sierra e-mails a lengthy questionnaire to hundreds of colleges and universities surveying eight areas: efficiency, energy, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, and administration.

I will spoil the surprise and give you the rankings:
1. University of Colorado at Boulder
2. University of Washington at Seattle
3. Middlebury College
4. University of Vermont
5. College of the Atlantic
6. Evergreen State College
7. University of California at Santa Cruz
8. University of California at Berkeley
9. University of California at Los Angeles
10. Oberlin College
11. Harvard University
12. University of New Hampshire
13. Arizona State University at Tempe
14. Yale University
15. University of Florida at Gainesville
16. Bates College
17. Willamette University
18. Warren Wilson College
19. Dickinson College
20. New York University

If your looking for a regional school, you should know that an honorable mention goes to University of Pennsylvania for giving 800 gallons of cooking grease annually to biodiesel makers. Also, their cafeterias use only biodegradable cups and packaging.

Sierra spoke to a number of admissions counselors who say that the a school's environmental policies are becoming frequent points of inquiry by prospective students. It goes without saying that means that K-12 educators must be making their students more socially conscious.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dancing Into the Future

By virtue of a wonderful website called TED at, I recently viewed a speech by Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson is one of the world's most innovative thinkers around issues such as human development, creativity, education, and the future.

Robinson noted that national public education systems did not exist before the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. Public education was originally founded to educate for the factories and thus what was valued most was that which was useful for work. In order of importance we had (have) math, language, humanities, and the arts. The latter two could be scuttled with no hesitation when time or money was an issue.

Robinson told an insightful story about a woman named Gillian Lynne. Gillian was of elementary school age in the 1930s. She had difficulty sitting still and paying attention. This obviously led to trouble for Gillian. Eventually Gillian's mother was persuaded to take the child to a doctor.

After an examination and interview with Gillian and her mother, the doctor asked to speak to the mother alone. Before escorting Gillian's mother outside, he turned on the radio at his desk for Gillian to listen to while the adults were outside.

The doctor took the mother into the hallway and then back to the office door to peek in on Gillian who was at once out of her chair and dancing.

The doctor said to the mother, "Gillian is not sick. She is a dancer."

Gillian Lynne went on to become one of the most successful choreographers in history. She is responsible for the choreography in most of the Andrew Loyd Webber productions including "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera".

Gillian would be more of a problem today than she was in the 1930s. Gillian would be a drag on standardized test scores, and of course dance is not math, it will not make us globally competitive.

The point of Robinson's speech and this rambling post is that we are still educating for the Industrial Revolution. We have thrown science into the mix with math and language to make us feel like we have modernized education, but we have not. In education we still dance to the tune played by powerful economic interests and kids who hear their own drummer are a still a problem. Complicating the entire situation is a drive by decision makers for accountability based on the same industrial notion of counting widgets.

The powerful interests have totally missed the mark. Their obsession is to prepare kids to be globally competitive. For kids like my son who just turned 13, they need to be more concerned about having a livable globe than being globally competitive.

We live on a finite planet with overwhelming challenges of population, climate change, water, food, and a world-wide economic system founded on the idea of infinite growth.

The kind of change we need is beyond a smart invention for a technological fix. The dancer probably has as much chance of leading us to the light as the scientist.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Dose of Democracy

Charter schools could use a good dose of democracy. If one thinks about it, charters have a "get out of democracy free" card. The boards that oversee charters are not elected, but rather chosen by the people who founded/operate the school. Unions are strongly discouraged, so teachers are not empowered. Parental involvement varies from school to school. The Department of Education has no real policing powers over charters. Finally, charters have avoided, at least to date, further legislative oversight.

None of this makes for better education. In the recent past, charters were able to justify such actions as anti-unionism on their unique program that produced significant education outcomes. Research now shows that when students with similar demographics are compared charters do not out perform traditional public schools. So what will be the excuse to continue to operate charters like fiefdoms?

There is a place for charters in education just as there is a place for private schools. However, charters have less justification than private schools for insisting on complete autonomy. Charters take taxpayers' money. That should make them accountable. Public dollars should make them open to public scrutiny. That should make them have elected, not chosen boards. Charter construction funding should face referendum. Finally, public money should mean that charters cannot thwart the efforts of their employees to form unions. Education in general and charters in particular need more democracy, not less.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Caution With Consolidation

We will likely hear a lot of talk next legislative session (coming in January)about school district consolidation. Lawmakers will be on the hunt for money. Given that there was little enthusiasm for raising significant revenue last session, this session legislators will be even less keen on taxation with an election following. That means any idea that might have projected savings will be viable.

The consolidation of school districts must be about money, because there are no obvious education advantages to kids. School districts are wrapped up in communities, and thus identity, values, tradition and culture. It stands to reason that radical changes or the complete eradication of districts causes disruption in all of the above mentioned. That can't be good for kids and probably not for the all important, all holy, standardized test scores.

Getting back to economics, which appears to be the motive for consolidation, it is not clear that huge cost savings would result. First, DSEA will insist on the principle of "topping up". Nothing is more destructive to educator morale than having multiple people doing the same job with the same experience for significantly different salaries. Therefore, when districts are consolidated all salaries should be moved up to the top salary schedule among the group of consolidated districts (topping up). That action reduces much of the cost savings.

Delaware has experience with district consolidation. There was consolidation in the southern part of the state during the 1960s and '70s. In New Castle County, there was consolidation in the late 1970s as a result of court ordered desegregation. I don't know the experiences around those consolidations for good or bad. I would venture to say that most of the decision makers do not know these stories either, but we all should find out before passing legislation.

Also, the General Assembly studied district consolidation more than decade ago. It is unclear if the research resulted in a document. DSEA is attempting to locate and acquire the research if possible.

Caution is the word. With the best of intentions and the best of results, school district consolidation is still very disruptive to a lot of lives, most notably kid's lives. Therefore, let us not rush to judgement or action in the chase for cash.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Child Poverty and Our Lost Decade

This blog, directed at education employees has often dealt with economic justice issues, simply because those issues are so entwined with education and educators. Nothing brings that home like the new statistics on childhood poverty.

First, it should be noted that when we think of the poor, we should know that one in three people in poverty in the US is a child. Next, looking at children as their own group, be aware that one in four children in our country lives in poverty. In just one year, that's next year, 2010 we will have 26.6% of children in poverty.

The researchers at the Economic Policy Institute are calling the decade of 2000 to 2010 a lost decade because the child poverty rate rose an amazing 10.4% in those years.

In the midst of this devastation of our young are the clarion calls for educators to do more, raise the test scores, ground children in the basics at the same time we give them skills for the future, and while your at it make sure you all do something about youth drug use, violence, and promiscuity.

One does not need a doctorate in economics or sociology to understand that the increasing disparity in the distribution of wealth and skyrocketing child poverty rates makes education daunting.

Every child can learn, but the ones with hungry bellies, poor health, homes broken by the stresses of poverty, parents working several jobs, and no permanent residences, may just skew the numbers a bit. Ahhh, therein is the problem, they are numbers; low numbers on a standardized test...leading to numbers not adding up to Adequate Yearly Progress...leading to reduced pay in some foolish merit pay scheme...on and on. Of course kids are not just numbers and neither are the educators who work with them.

We need a war on poverty, not a war on educators and their unions.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Beat Them at Their Own Game

The Boston Teachers Union has been getting hammered by all the usuals, big business, the press, and politicians about the need to increase charter schools to get around union contracts. In this new breed of "reformers" the union is the number one obstacle to reform because obviously what is best is a top down administration with teachers having no power and little voice.

The Boston Teachers Union has decided to beat them at their own game by opening their own charter school, Boston Teachers Union School. The school features some changes from the standard union contract such as a school day that is 30 minutes longer and weekly two hour faculty meetings. However, the teachers are compensated for this extra time. (A novel concept, not alternative compensation, simply adequate compensation.)

The school will function without a principal as CEO, no principal as instructional leader, simply NO PRINCIPAL. Instead, there will be two lead teachers who will also teach themselves.

The charter school will be free to abstain from district programs. The teachers involved in Boston Teachers Union School believe this will allow them more time to actually teach and build real teacher student relationships. According to Richard Stutman, President of the teachers' union, "We want to bring back some of the joy of teaching."

Most likely with the return of the joy of teaching will come the return of the joy of learning for students. How many of our children today head to school with the same grim determination to make it through another day as their parents headed off to their office cubicle to make it through another day? Is this what it has come to, are we training our kids to put up with monotonous drudgery so that they will be better at monotonous drudgery as adults? Folks, that's not the fault of teachers, that's the fault of decision makers with an obsessive pursuit of accountability for a process almost impossible to quantify.

In any case, we must wish the Boston Teachers Union School a lot of luck. Certainly, there will be many others hoping they will fail and that the finger wagging can then begin. Of course if we wagged a finger at all the non-union charter failures, we would all be digitally impaired by now. Unfortunately, success or failure will continue to be judged by another standardized test of dubious merit.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Little Merit in Merit Pay

In the months ahead we should make a distinction between alternative compensation and merit pay tied to student performance.

Broadly defined, alternative compensation is any pay for education employees for something other than length of service. If we were to look at our salary schedules traditional compensation are the "steps" down, and alternative compensation are the "columns" to the side for education.

There can be many types of alternative compensation. Educators cannot be blamed for wanting to experiment with those types that improve both the profession and their bank accounts.

Along with innovation in compensation, there is the resurrection of a quite old idea, merit pay tied to student performance. That's right, in spite of what any "reformers" might tell you merit pay is nothing new or innovative. It has been around a long time. For more than a century merit pay has been tried, failed and then tried again, and again.

Merit pay simply does not improve student learning, even when using the dubious measurement of test scores. Reformers, consultants, and politicians like to throw around data to support the initiative of the day; however, in the merit pay initiative you will see no data, no scientific controlled studies demonstrating student improvement because they do not exist.

If Delaware goes to some type of merit pay it will not be because of the opportunity to improve learning, but because of the opportunity to snare Race To The Top dollars and appease business interests behind some of the education foundations. As Alfie Kohn said in the wonderful Education Week article, "The Folly of Merit Pay" (9/17/2003)"Equally controlling pay-for-performance plans are based more on neoclassical economic dogma than on an understanding of how things look from a teacher's perspective."

Merit pay incentives start from the assumption that teachers are not giving 100% now. For some reason teachers are holding back effort, 10%, 20%, maybe more. If they are either bribed with more money or threatened with the loss of money, then they will give that extra effort and propel American students into a great college and on into middle class nirvana.

The education profession is self selecting as a group of people whose primary motivation is not money. Yet, there is all this effort to motivate them exclusively with money. Again quoting Alfie Kohn, "Pay people well, pay them fairly, and then do everything to help them forget about money."

More on all of this later.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ponderings On Reform

A two day conference of regional National Education Association affiliates was held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania this week to discuss alternative compensation and Race To The Top. The information gathered at this event will be very useful as debate around these issues moves forward.

In this post, I'll share just a few of the interesting comments from the conference:

Alternative compensation proposals that tie teacher pay directly to student performance go against models of compensation for other professionals. For example, a doctor's performance is not judged by outcomes because those outcomes have too many variables. The competency of a doctor is judged by his/her education and training, as well as his/her ability to follow established protocol and process.

The academic performance of students is being totally accredited to teachers while ignoring socio-economic realities. With only a little consideration we can see how this plays out. Children come to school without adequate health care, including dental care. There are some estimates that as many as one in five children are going to school with dental pain. Nutritional health is dubious for poor youth. In poor families, parental involvement with the academic life of the child may be minimal, not because of apathy but because of working multiple jobs to provide sustenance. Frequent moving is often a by-product of poverty, as are unsafe homes and neighborhoods. Whereas middle class families often engage in enriching hobbies or vacations with their children, this is not available for the poor. Our educators who have students with challenging backgrounds could probably greatly expand this list.

The use of alternative compensation and charter schools are dominant themes in the latest education reform push, but neither have supporting data that shows improved student academic performance.

In spite of acknowledgment by education experts that achievement tests are inadequate measures of learning, the tests continue to be the measure of our students, schools, and educators.

These are just a few of the ideas that surfaced at this conference. Much more will follow in future posts.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day

The Delaware State Education Association made their annual appearance in the Labor Day parade today. This event is always a positive experience and an opportunity for DSEA members to see themselves as part of a larger movement. The two themes of this year's parade were "health care for all" and "employee free choice". This blog has posted many times on the former, the latter needs a little explanation.

The Employee Free Choice Act is a proposal under consideration by Congress to make it easier for workers to organize themselves into unions. Under current law, workers must first sign Authorization Cards to be filed with a Petition for Election. Once the Petition for Election is filed, many employers engage in stalling techniques that can delay the election for unionization by months. In the meantime, professional anti-union campaigns are run against the employees with a good deal of intimidation and misinformation. This action often results in petitions being pulled or lost elections.

This is not the process followed by the rest of the developed world. The Employee Free Choice Act would move the US more toward the norm with an abbreviated process.

In other news, most of our members are aware that President Obama will address the students of the nation tomorrow with an inspirational message about applying themselves and staying in school. Not all of the US students will be given the opportunity to hear this message because some districts have bowed to pressure and are not allowing the speech to be shown.

This is an interesting development considering the fact that both Ronald Reagan and George Bush (the first) had similar addresses to school children. In fact Reagan's speech was in parts blatantly political. Of course, the people raising the objections have no sense of history, even when that history is contemporary history from only twenty years ago.

We are living in the age where some folks believe the President is a Kenyan Socialist. Speaking of contemporary history, the last time we had such foolishness being spread around the country, a misguided young man named Timothy McVey blew up the Oklahoma Federal Building killing many innocents that he had learned to hate through a haze of paranoia. God help us.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Greetings blog followers. The blogs have been a little light lately. I'm catching my breath. Things are sure to heat up after Labor Day, and so will the blog so stay tuned. Also, I am in the process of doing more analysis on the Race To The Top issues and will be posting on that in the next few days.

Please don't forget the Labor Day Parade. The last few years, DSEA has been showing solidarity with our sister unions in the AFL-CIO by walking in the parade. Last year we had about 75 members join us for a nice holiday walk. We hope to top 100 this year. It really is a lot of fun...really. Please meet up at 15th and King Streets in downtown Wilmington between 9:00AM and 9:30Am for the line up. The parade starts on time at 10:00AM.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Watching Your Health Care

Welcome back to school all of you wonderful teachers, specialists, para-professionals, food service workers, secretaries, custodians, and of course students.

Health care continues as an important issue for educators in Delaware. The struggle to forge a national health plan is ongoing, as are the events around the struggle. Tonight at 6:30 PM, Health Care for America Now (HCAN)is showing the film, "Unnatural Causes" at the DSEA office in Newark (Rt 4 and Harmony Rd). Wednesday evening at 7:00PM Organizing For America (OFA) is holding a rally for health care on the Legislative Mall in Dover.

At the state level, many ideas continue to circulate that pose challenges to the integrity of our health plan. Previously, this blog has discussed the Government Performance Review report. At the risk of being redundant, you should be aware that the report recommends achieving savings of more than $13 million out of the health plan.

We are in favor of the health plan being managed well to deliver a good benefit in a cost effective manner. In that scenario, public employees and taxpayers both win.

However, we are not in favor of suggestions such as those in the Performance Review that would have employees paying more premium (after last year's 50% increase) with no other justification than the fact that employee health care is expensive.

Premiums in the state employee health plan should be based on an extensive and accurate claims history that allows an actuarial projection of future costs. Philosophy, national trends, or robbing Peter to pay Paul, should not enter into the discussion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

News Sad and Good

The sad news is that US Senator Edward Kennedy lost his fight with brain cancer and passed away late Tuesday night. So much will be said about the legacy of this political giant by mainstream media in the next few days, that this blog does not need to be your source. However, I will make two relevant comments. First, Kennedy's presence will be missed in three debates of interest to school employees and their union; health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, and reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Secondly, I hope that in the days ahead one thing is made clear about Kennedy; he respected everyone, including his adversaries. That's uncommon today in politics, the idea of being a gentleman, or lady, when in conflict.

In other news last night of a much different nature, Mark Holodick has been named superintendent of Brandywine School District. Mark has been serving Brandywine as principal of Concord High School. Speaking of people who always act like a gentleman, that would be Mark Holodick. As a union representative I sometimes encountered Mark Holodick in situations of opposition (grievances, negotiations), he was, and I'm sure will remain a fair and thoughtful administrator.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Something needs to be done about the State Employee Benefits Committee (SEBC). The SEBC controls the health benefits of teachers, school employees, and state workers. The SEBC is able to unilaterally set employee premiums, which is exactly what they did this year increasing employee monthly premiums 50%.

The SEBC is composed of seven members: The Director of the Office of Management and Budget, State Treasurer, Director of Health and Human Services, Insurance Commissioner, Controller General, Secretary of Finance, and (added this year) the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

None of the above mentioned members are direct representatives of the major stakeholders, the public employees.

The Delaware State Education Association believes that the SEBC must be expanded to include representatives of the insured. In coalition with other public employee groups we will propose legislation in the next session to increase the size of the SEBC by four and include representatives from DSEA, AFSCME, and the State Troopers, as well as a retired "at large".

Friday, August 21, 2009

School Time!

It's almost school time! For most districts, school starts next week.

This school year has teachers and school employees returning to work with the imposition of 5 unpaid furlough days. (Pay will be reduced over 26 pays for the 5 days.) Many employees without a locally negotiated health stipend will see their health care costs go up 50%. Also, Short Term Disability has been changed to the point of being almost worthless. An ill employee must somehow survive 60 days without the disability pay. After 60 days, the STD pay of 75% of salary will begin. For school employees who accumulate sick days at 10 per year and who must fullfill the elimination period within the 10 month contract year; the STD provides little income protection for serious illness.

Additionally, there are decision makers with ideas for changing education that may not bode well for school employees. Unfortunately, some people believe that teacher rights and teacher input are obstacles to reform. In other words, what low performing schools really need are well intentioned dictators with well behaved employees. Moreover, pay for performance is a Juggernaut.

In spite of all of the above mentioned, teachers and support staff are enthusiastic about starting school. I hear it everywhere I go in the state; our people miss the kids, miss teaching, and are ready to get back to work. It speaks volumes to the commitment and undaunted spirit of educators in Delaware that morale remains high in the face of disrespect.

Dubious Zone

The Race to the Top/Innovation/Reform/Let's Grab all the ARRA Money We Can folks are on the move. The idea now being touted in Dover is creating something called a "Local Turnaround Zone" for schools in restructuring. A consulting firm called Mass Insight is circulating a document that promotes the zone idea. These zones could be within or across district lines. The zones, according to one Mass Insight document, will allegedly "...change traditional operating conditions that inhibit reform. The zones establish outside-the-system authorities inside the system, within a framework of strong support and guidance from the district and a lead turnaround partner."

Please, allow me to be Mr. Paranoid and paint an un-pretty picture: First, the "traditional operating conditions that inhibit reform" in some people's minds could mean collective bargaining agreements and the unions who enforce them.

Second, "outside-the-system authorities inside the system" sounds a lot like a private company that comes in runs the schools in the "zone". Sort of like an education Haliburton.

Third, "a lead turnaround partner" is a confusing term, at least to me the uninitiated. Could this partner be a foundation like Brode or some corporate entity with specific interests?

If I allow my cynical side to characterize a turnaround zone, I define it as a zone where teacher rights give way to some authority figure who will choose good teachers from bad, choose curriculum, determine work rules, hours of the school day, and days of the school year. The zone will not be a democracy. In short, the zone will be run by a CEO, after all that model has worked so well for our economy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

OPEB and National Health Care

Lately, this blog has commented a lot on the national health care debate. In part, that is because the parent organization of DSEA, the National Education Association is one of the major players promoting true reform. Also, the blog has made several arguments about how the current system undermines our economic bargaining because money that should be used for salaries is siphoned off for health care. Of course, for the DSEA members who do not have contracts covering their insurance contributions, no argument needs to be made as a 50% increase in monthly premiums becomes effective this summer.

With all that said, I discovered another reason why school employees and other state employees should want a national health program, OPEB.

Other Post Employment Benefits, known by the acronym OPEB is becoming a major state budget issue. In simplest terms, OPEB is health care for our retirees. Not only do some in state government not like paying for this benefit, but it is also becoming increasingly difficult to budget for retiree health care.

The Government Accounting Standards Board (starting in FY 2008) makes states reflect the full cost of retiree health care benefits earned by current employees on their financial statements. In other words a way of forcing the issue of health liability for the future.

Although the federal government does not mandate funding this liability, or even a funding strategy, states feel the need to address the obligation and begin putting money aside into OPEB trusts. Moreover, states have started to think about ways to reduce this liability. This usually means making a two tiered pension plan where new hires do not have post retirement health care. It also means schemes for placing current retirees in insurance pools separate from active employees. None of these scenarios are good for state employees.

A national health program eliminates the OPEB problem.

There are only 50 governors in the country. That makes them a pretty exclusive club and a powerful lobbying body. I hope our governor is talking to Senator Carper and Congressman Castle about supporting national health care.

Meanwhile, Senator Kaufman continues to roll along supporting issues for the common person, such as national health care, without arm-twisting.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Labor Day Event Coming Soon

The Delaware State Education Association has enjoyed a good working relationship with the rest of the Labor community for several years. A part of this goodwill is expressed every year by our participation in the annual Labor Day Parade. Each year the DSEA participation has grown.

This Labor Day, Monday, September 7th we want to make it the biggest DSEA appearance ever. After all, it has been a tough year and all the way through it we have enjoyed the support of our Labor partners. In a show of solidarity we would like DSEA members to walk with the rest of Delaware Labor in the parade.

Your colleagues who have participated in the past will tell you it is a great event. Hundreds of union members walk in the parade from many diverse occupations. Most of the Delaware politicians will also march. DSEA gives away apples and promotion items all along the route.

Please mark the event in your calendars now: Monday, September 7th at 10:00AM please gather at 15th and King streets in downtown Wilmington. Parking is available close to the gathering point. The nearest landmark is St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Also, for members or retirees who may not be up to the walk, there is seating available on the staging band wagon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vacation Time

My apologies to all the followers of this blog. Your humble writer is on vacation and trying to keep himself from drifting back into work.

However, I just had to thank the folks who turned out last night in Newark for the training on health care reform, especially the DSEA members.

It was a good turnout in spite of the heat of yesterday, and everyone, including me, trying to use vacation time before the Autumn onslaught.

The expertise supplied by Families USA staff was informative and timely. The event was sponsored by the Service Employees International Union's "Change that Works" campaign and hosted by the Unitarian Fellowship in Newark.

In spite of all the press about violent disruptions of health care town halls, this one went off without a hitch. It was "Delaware Nice", and I'm not going to complain about that.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Do Something Radical

I've just been reading through some of the materials from Race to the Top and/or Innovation Action Team.

My fear is that there are people involved in this so called reform who believe at the root of challenges facing education are teachers who lack intelligence, skill, and motivation and that they are protected in their mediocrity by their too powerful union.

These are the same people who will attempt to steer the conversation toward changing teacher termination law, eradicating tenure (mainly because they mis-interpret it to mean job security), loosening transfer language, rearranging the teaching day, eliminating seniority rights, linking evaluations directly to student performance, linking pay directly to student performance...

On the other hand consider that teachers have long desired to reform their own curriculum, professional development, school calendar, school day, service delivery to students with special needs, student performance monitoring, code of student discipline etc. They have attempted to do this through the collective bargaining process. In most cases, when the people who actually teach try to bargain these items, they are told by an attorney (Why do districts pay outside attorneys to negotiate?)that such issues are not subjects of mandatory bargaining and so will not be considered by the district.

If the reformers want to do a something really radical to shake up American education, they should broaden and strengthen collective bargaining rights. Give the people who actually teach and care for the kids more voice in the process, not less. Also, they could try weakening the power of superintendents and putting more power at the building level, but not just in the hands of the principal. Buildings could be run by democratically elected committees that include the principal, but not as a veto vote. Let's really, really, shake things up by asking kids what's working and not working about their school. Let's ask kids if they are happy going to school, and if they have anything even approaching a curiosity or love of learning.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Real Discussion on Health Care

The US Congress is currently on recess. This is traditionally a time when federal lawmakers return home to hear from constituents and be seen in all the right places. A common vehicle for hearing from constituents is the town hall meeting. These are usually moderately attended affairs where federal representatives can have policy conversations with common citizens; opportunities for more than soundbites.

However, this recess has been different in that town hall meetings across the nation have been hijacked by groups of loud protesters. This has particularly been true of meetings with the agenda to discuss health care reform. The activity is far from spontaneous, a number of health industry lobbying firms have sponsored advocacy groups to encourage and coordinate the disruptions. And "disruptions" is the accurate word. In most of these encounters the Congress Person and anyone else who wanted to speak has been shouted down. This isn't discourse, it is bully boy tactics.

By contrast, an opportunity for real learning and discussion around health care reform will be offered next week in Newark, Delaware.

On Monday, August 10th at 6:30PM in the Unitarian Fellowship, 420 Willa Road, Newark, DE 19711 a health care training will be offered by Kathleen Stoll, Deputy Director of Families USA.

Families USA has been a nationally recognized source of expertise and advocacy around health care for decades.

Why should a blog primarily devoted to the politics around education and education employees concern itself about health care? Why should the DSEA parent organization, the National Education Association be a key member of Health Care for America Now?

Here in Delaware, as in other parts of the country, health benefits for education employees are under attack. This year, employees had a 50% premium hike imposed on them. Even if your contract makes the school district pick up the premium, that is money that could be used for salaries. It is also subject to tough negotiations the next time your contract opens up. Moreover, if you follow this blog, you know that the state is likely to go after more employee health costs in the next budget.

In the United States we are spending 17% of Gross Domestic Product on health care.
Last year health care spending rose 6.9%, twice the inflation rate. It is predicted that health care spending will be 20% of GDP by 2017. No economy can withstand this type of onslaught for long.

In state budgets health care spending and education are always the two big ticket items. The more health care spending rises, the more pressure is put on the rest of the budget, particularly the next biggest cost, education.

Finally, educators deal with the health care crisis everyday. For example, one in three US children lack dental insurance. How many are coming to school everyday with discomfort? How much of your mission to teach is made more difficult by untreated medical problems?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Southern Race Goes to Booth

There is a clear winner in the Delaware 19th Senate District, and it is Joe Booth. Booth captured 4,335 votes to Mervine's 2,085, with Opaliski at 408 and Jones bringing up the rear at 56 votes.

Booth was in the race early and ran a flawless campaign. He had several positive factors going for him, retired policeman, former school board member, former mayor, and current state representative.

The Democrat, Mervine was plagued with Party dissension that stemmed from the candidate selection process. The Party Committee met and chose Eddie Parker after several votes. Mr. Parker was out of the race 48 hours later. Some believe he was pressured out of the running. The Party met again and chose Polly Adams Mervine, daughter of the late Thurmond Adams.

Also in the category of "interesting things about this race" the Libertarian and the Independent were not significant factors. About one if five District 19 voters are Independent. Moreover, Opaliski had name recognition in the community as a candidate. Both Opaliski and Jones had been very visible in the campaign. Conventional thinking would lead one to believe that Opaliski and Jones would draw votes from Booth's conservative voting block. It did not happen, proving once again that Sussex County has their own way.

Last night's result means, heaven help us, another special election to fill Joe Booth's vacant state representative seat in Georgetown.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Election Day Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Monday, August 3rd will be the special election for Senate District 19. The special election is the result of the death of Delaware icon, Senator Thurman Adams. The DSEA has recommended Polly Adams Mervine for election to this seat. She is the daughter of the late Senator Adams and a former Second Grade teacher from North Laurel Elementary.

If you're DSEA in Sussex County come out and help. If you're DSEA in Kent or New Castle wish your Southern colleagues good fortune.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Read Between the Lines

The Preliminary Delaware Government Performance Review is out. As a former state (not DE) policy guy I am dubious of these types of reports. Policy people who by discipline know how to look at long-term effects are often pushed aside by ideologues in these type of initiatives.

State employees including school employees should be concerned about the recommendations in the areas of health care and pension.

This direct quote from the report reflects an attitude we have seen from the SEBC: "Currently, state employees pay between 3.1% and 10.5% of the State's total premium costs depending on the plan and coverage level. National averages are closer to 15% for employee only coverage. The Delaware State Employees Benefits Committee (SEBC) has already approved the first phase of a plan to bring state employee contributions for health care costs closer to national averages."

First, our benefits are not out of line for other public employee groups. Public entities have long offered good benefits in lieu of salaries. In other words the skill level and education required for many public jobs were not competitive in salary with the private sector, so benefits were used as an enticement for public service.

Additionally, until recently, public employers wanted to be standard bearers for good employment practices. Apparently, there are some decision makers these days who want to join the race down. This last point is significant. In Delaware the state is the largest employer. All working people in Delaware should be concerned with what happens to state workers. The state will be a trend setter.

Finally, of note in this section is a reference to the SEBC initiating phase one of a plan to bring health benefits closer to the private sector national average. So, is that what the recent premium hike was, not a response to claims verses premium, but a plan to reduce benefits?

The report also goes after Double State Share health benefit: "The General Assembly will be asked to eliminate the Double State Share program to require employees and pensioners who are married and work for the State to pay the same employee contributions as other state employees."

If all of this is not enough to make your blood boil, you should also know that the pension section is not much better. "The state should consider creating a new tier of pension benefits for employees hired after a certain date."

Highlights (or low lights) of the new tier: Remove the early retirement provision; change the multiplier from 1.85% to 1.67%; eliminate $7,000 burial benefit; increase member contributions to 3% of salary; if less than 20 years service, the employee pays 100% of coverage.

In conclusion, if you are a DSEA member, support your union, pay your dues, contribute to PAC, care about one another, and hang on it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rage, Rage, Against the Darkness

When I was a policy guy in state government I was amazed and frustrated at how often law was made on ideology and anecdotal evidence. I fear that what is labeled as "education reform" will be lacking in research and heavy on opinion. For example, some policy makers are now discussing teacher tenure and they do not even know what it means.

The general public (including some of the "education reformers") believes tenure means that once at teacher reaches a certain year they are given unlimited job security and cannot be laid off or terminated.

Of course this is a huge problem. That's why we can't get rid of "bad" teachers. Well that, and the teachers' union.

Here is how tenure works in reality. In Delaware, a teacher must have three years teaching experience in the state. Two of the three years must be with your current employer. So for example, a teacher could have 20 years experience with a school district, but if the teacher quits and goes to another Delaware district, he/she would have to put in two years at the new district before tenured again.

Once one is tenured, one can still be "reduced in force" (i.e. laid off), and one can certainly be terminated. Tenure simply means that if the district moves to terminate a teacher's employment the teacher is given a hearing before the school board or a designated hearing officer. At that hearing the teacher has a right to representation. The district also has representation (a lawyer)and is supposed to show just cause for the termination.

In other words, tenure is due process for termination. It is the most basic of employment rights. Truly it is something that all workers should have and it is a sorry statement of American attitude that we think this is something extraordinary.

For almost 30 years private sector employees have seen their unions broken, their wages reduced, and their health care eliminated. We should take note of this and vow that we will not go gently into that good night.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Health Care Calls

Today, the National Education Association, including all her state affiliates are being asked to contact the US House of Representatives about the need to pass health care reform. The NEA belongs to a giant health care advocacy coalition called Health Care for America Now (HCAN). It is under the aegis of HCAN that the calls are being made. I have pasted the information below. Please call Congressman Castle and ask him to vote for health care for all:

Help us get 50,000 contacts to Congress today!

Call 1-877-264-HCAN (4226)*
The health care reform bill being voted on in the House this week will save you an average of $2,800 per year.1 That bill says those who make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year should help pay for reform by rolling back Bush's tax cuts by just 1%.

Can you call your Representative today and tell them to stand up for health care?
Here is a sample of what you can say:
• Press 1 to be connected to your Representative.
• Please be polite. Ask to talk with someone who can speak to the Representative’s position on health care.
I’m calling from Health Care for America Now to make sure that Rep. Castle knows that we need real health care reform in 2009.
The House health care bill, H.R. 3200, will provide quality, affordable health care for all with good benefits and affordable costs.
Health care can’t wait, please vote for H.R. 3200, America's Affordable Health Choices Act, before you leave for vacation.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Furlough Musings

I must say a big thank you to my readers for their patience. I was out of the blogsphere for a few days on vacation in Vermont. If you have been to Vermont, you understand why it is the perfect vacation spot for someone in my line of work. Not only is the state very rural and quiet, but cell phone signals and internet connections are very spotty. One is more or less forced not to work.
The 2009-10 School Year, dare I say it, is right around the corner. Allow me a few words about the furlough situation.

First, for school employees the loss of pay for the furlough will not begin until the new contract year. We have had a few questions from teachers wondering if their July pay checks will reflect 2.5% less (state portion). The answer is no. That is pay you are receiving for work in the 2008-09 School Year. The first paycheck to reflect reduced pay for furlough will be the first pay period check in the new school year.

Second, districts have not all reacted the same to the issue of the local portion of pay. In approximate terms, teachers receive about 70% of their pay from the state and about 30% from local funds. For education support professionals, the ratio of local to state funds varies from profession to profession and district to district. Therefore, with the five furlough days forced by the state, do school employees still get paid the local portion? It depends on the district. Some districts were quick to react and say 'you are not working those days, we are not paying'. Other districts acknowledge the furlough days were forced, and that they will not add insult to injury, and thus will pay the local portion of pay on those days. Still again, some districts are "buying back" a day or two of furlough so that they can provide some professional development.

Third, districts should be in discussion with local unions to reach concurrence on a plan to implement the furlough days. Those plans are due to be submitted by districts no later than July 31, 2009 to the Secretary of Education, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Controller General. This should truly be a cooperative situation. No district administration should be submitting a plan without the involvement of the local unions.

Finally, let us put the furlough situation in perspective. If faced with the choice of a straight pay cut verses furlough, furlough is preferable. With a pay cut you work just as long and hard with nothing in return. A furlough gives you an exchange of time for the money. In a furlough situation the salary schedules return to the Fiscal Year 2009 pay level. This is not to say that we will not have another fight over salary next year, but at least the discussion does not begin 2.5% in the hole. Furloughs have been a pain to administrate. Pay cuts would have been a cinch to implement. We want it to be difficult to take something away from education employees.

In conclusion, furloughs are not a good deal, they are simply a better deal than pay reduction without time in exchange. At the end of the day, money is being taken from you at a time when everyone from the President to Johnny's dad is saying you have to do more.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Southern Election Rapidly Approaching

Hey, supporters of the Delaware State Education Association, please don't forget that there is a special election is Sussex County on Monday, August 3rd. This is in Senate District 19, the seat now open because of the tragic death of Senator Thurman Adams.

DSEA has recommended Polly Adams Mervine for election in Senate 19. Ms Mervine is a former 2nd Grade teacher from North Laurel Elementary. She left the profession to raise her son and to care for a critically ill family member. However, she still thinks like an educator and understands the challenges and hopes of DSEA members.

This election is so close, and there is so much to do. If you are able to volunteer please do so.

DSEA has a very able staff person acting as point person for our activities in this campaign. Her name is Wendy Kupcha.

To volunteer, contact Wendy at or call her at (302) 734-5834.

Some organization have "paper endorsements", meaning that all a candidate gets for the endorsement is the paper saying so. DSEA is determined to have more than paper recommendations. DSEA recommendations come with resources behind them. Most importantly, we activate our membership to volunteer and vote. If you are a DSEA member reading this, please help us keep our fine reputation going. Volunteer.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


"Nominalization" is both a grammatical term and a communications term. In the most simple sense, it means taking a verb or adjective and converting it into a noun. For example, the verb "move" becomes "movement" and "careless" becomes "carelessness". In linguistics, nominalization is an altogether useful thing.

In communications the concept may become more troublesome. People who study Nuero-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which involves several disciplines including linguistics and psychology point out faults with nominalization. Some things should be considered ongoing processes without quantifiable ends. Once certain actions are nominalized the next natural reaction is to attempt to define and quantify the new noun. Then, a whole set of rules and dogma grow around the defining, measuring, and quantifying. For example, "loving" becomes "love" with more emphasis on the definition and the quantifying and the qualifying (How do I love thee...) than the practice.

So perhaps I have finally become impossibly and irretrievably lost in the weeds.

What happens when you nominalize "educating" into "education"?

As long as one is living, one is learning. Those who help learning along are in the process of educating and so are often called educators. Those who are being helped in the educating process are usually called students.

But what has been the impact on both educators and students once we embrace "education"? How do we define the "end product"? What does it mean to have received an "education"?

What do we want, and how do we know when we get it?

Monday, July 20, 2009

It Will Make Your Head Spin

Federal stimulus dollars, American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), are sure to produce opportunity and challenge for the education community. At the heart of the challenges is the fact that big business is a key player in virtually all so called reform movements, including the Coalition for Student Achievement which is the source for a key document being used in Delaware. I am referring to "Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success."

It is difficult to read this document without getting the idea that the writers believe the way to student achievement is to weaken teacher unions particularly in respect to the rights they bargain around job security, fair evaluations, seniority, and transfers. Moreover the authors, no doubt encouraged by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are charter school proponents. They advocate, "Aggressively close poor-performing schools and replace them with new high-performing schools."

The new improved high-performing (sounds like the same marketing used for deodorant) schools can be "public/private partnerships". Of course these new super duper institutions must "...have control over their staffing, budgets, and time. This may require revising local union agreements." Let us not forget that the new better than Coca Cola schools will need autonomy and "This will require states to free these schools from the majority of state codes and restrictive provisions in union contracts."

The quotes in this post are directly from the document described above. This would be a much longer post if I included every direct and indirect swipe at collective bargaining.

Shall I return to the beginning when I referenced the negative impact of big business in education reform. Essentially, they believe that the problem is the workers (teachers) have too much control of their own workplace (school) and policy (education). Also, the private sector is always better than the public sector so move to a charter system that has the best of both worlds, private control with public money.

In other words, the actual educators should have their power reduced so that a powerful top-down model can be imposed. Community public schools that democratically elect boards and answer to taxpayers for funding will be replaced by charters that take public money but choose their own boards and answer not at all to the public.

So chew on all that while you contemplate making us globally competitive, enhancing student learning, solving the youth drug, violence, and sex problem, all while doing it for 2.5% less pay.