Sunday, September 30, 2012

While You Were Sleeping HB 6204 was filed by Representative Mike Fortner

Synopsis As Introduced
Amends the Budget Stabilization Act. Makes changes concerning transfers from the General Revenue Fund to the Pension Stabilization Fund. Amends the General Assembly, State Employees, State Universities, Downstate Teachers, and Judges Articles of the Illinois Pension Code. Requires each State-funded retirement system that does not already have a self-managed plan to establish and maintain one. Authorizes participants to irrevocably elect to participate in such a plan. Provides that, for the purpose of calculating traditional benefit package benefits and contributions, the annual salary of a participant may not, except under certain circumstances, exceed certain limits. Requires participation in the self-managed plan to the extent that a participant's salary exceeds the salary cap. Revises the schedule of contributions for participants. Shifts a portion of the employer contributions for downstate teachers and university employees from the State to the actual employer. Authorizes the boards of trustees of each of these retirement systems to triennially recalculate the normal cost of benefit plans that they offer. Defines "traditional benefit package" and "self-managed plan". Changes the formula for calculating the minimum required State contribution to these systems. Provides that the State is contractually obligated to pay the annual required State contribution to these retirement systems. Contains provisions requiring these retirement systems to bring a mandamus action to compel payment of the required State contribution. Amends the State Mandates Act to require implementation without reimbursement. Effective immediately.
July 19, 2012

The assumptions about defined-contribution plans (or self-managed plans) include the view that they were considered supplemental to an employee’s defined-benefit plan (or Social Security). They were not meant to replace a defined-benefit plan because of their lack of guaranteed, lifetime income for the retiree and the presumption that a retiree could make sound professional, investments choices that would sustain his or her longevity and inflationary risks. [Since their inception,] the private sector’s self-managed plans “have not produced encouraging outcomes... Reliance on a 401(k)-type defined-contribution plan as the sole employer pension will leave public sector workers with insufficient resources to ensure a secure retirement… [Furthermore,] a shift from defined-benefit to defined-contribution [or self-managed] plans is not a panacea for the sponsor. It will not eliminate the current unfunded liabilities associated with defined-benefit plans; it will not reduce costs, and it will not lead to higher returns” (Alicia H. Munnell, Director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College).

More Commentaries on Self-Managed Plans:
Reasons Why a Defined-Benefit Pension Plan Is Preferable to a Defined-Contribution Savings (or Self-Managed) Plan:
Information Regarding the Effects of a Defined-Contribution Plan on the Teachers’ Defined-Benefit Plan:
Information Regarding a Hybrid Pension Plan vs. a Defined-Benefit Plan:

Saturday, September 29, 2012

While You Were Sleeping: HB 6209 & HB 6210 were filed by Representative Elaine Nekritz

HB 6209 Synopsis As Introduced

Amends the General Provision, General Assembly, State Employee, State Universities, and Downstate Teachers Articles of the Illinois Pension Code. Provides that Tier I employees and Tier I retirees must make an irrevocable election either: (1) to accept changes in eligibility for, and the amount of, automatic annual increases in retirement annuity or (2) to avoid those changes. Provides that a person who elects the first choice may have any future increases in income included as compensation and is entitled to certain healthcare benefits. Provides that a person who elects the second choice forgoes those benefits. Prohibits departments from offering to a person who elects the second choice any future increase in income in a form that would constitute compensation. Requires the System to provide information describing the consequences of making the election. Provides that, for an employee who first becomes a participant on or after the effective date of the amendatory Act, "compensation" does not include any payments for travel vouchers that are submitted late. Defines "future increase in income", "Tier I employee", and "Tier I retiree". Amends the State Finance Act. To the list of standardized items of appropriation, adds "State retirement contribution for annual normal cost" and "State retirement contribution for unfunded accrued liability". Defines those terms. Amends the Governor's Office of Management and Budget Act. Adds those terms to a list of classifications to be used in statements and estimates of expenditures submitted to the Office in connection with the preparation of a State budget. Amends the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act and other Acts to make related changes. Makes other changes. Effective immediately.
HB 6210 has an identical synopsis, except it does not include the Illinois General Assembly and State Employees.
August 3, 2012


As stated by John Stevens, Legal Consultant for the “We Are One” Labor Coalition, “to take away the Cost-of-Living Adjustment for retirees is not a free and fair choice. It is a coercive choice under duress.” In other words, duress (or coercion) is a vitiating factor. Legislators of the State of Illinois are breaching a contract by forcing public employees to make a choice to diminish their originally-vested guarantee. They are breaking an enforceable promise, one that is bilateral and emphasizes an agreement between the State of Illinois and its public employees as to their future rights and benefits. To impair the obligation of a contract is to lessen its value. "Any law which changes the intention and legal effect of the original parties, giving to one a greater and to the other a less interest or benefit in the contract, impairs its obligation" (115 A. 484, 486). State statutes which do so are prohibited by Article 1, Section 10 of the United States Constitution.

Regarding the diminishment of the COLA, this pension reform bill offers public employees no ethical and lawful alternatives except to consent to the General Assembly's demands by choosing between two illicit choices; second, this is unlawful because of the illegitimacy of the General Assembly's advantageous attempt to renegotiate a constitutionally-guaranteed contract; third, it is unlawful to induce undue pressure upon public employees to make an unfair choice; fourth, this is an unjust financial enhancement for the General Assembly because it is a breach of contract for public employees to receive less than what the original vested right and benefit guaranteed, and it is also a blatant exploitation of influence to obtain an unwarranted advantage.

"The notion that, whenever a privilege or benefit might be withheld altogether, it may be withheld on whatever conditions government chooses to impose, has been repeatedly repudiated since the mid-20th century... Unconstitutional conditions – those that make enjoyment of a benefit contingent on sacrifice of an independent constitutional right – are invalid..." (Tribe, Laurence. American Constitutional Law. New York: The Foundation Press, Inc., 1988).

Friday, September 28, 2012

While You Were Sleeping: Senator Kyle McCarter Proposed Senate Bill 3932

Senator Kyle McCarter unveiled new hybrid pension reform plan: Comprehensive answer to pension crisis

Springfield, IL. – With progress on wide-ranging solution for Illinois’ massive public pension debt crisis stalling out, State Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) offered his own proposal on August 17, a special session day for the General Assembly.

McCarter said it’s a hybrid plan that offers a comprehensive approach affecting all five public pension systems, not just one or two systems that previously announced legislation included. In fact, some of the reforms approved at the end of the spring legislative session, May 31, have lost legislative support.

“My plan, in Senate Bill 3932, incorporates across-the-board improvements, more than any other proposal that has been discussed up to this point, and I invite the interested parties to work together to make it better,” said McCarter. “The legislation currently on the table, which is limited in scope, is simply not sufficient to properly address our growing pension crisis.”

Recent assessments put Illinois’ public pension debt at a staggering $83 billion, but Sen. McCarter said new rules that are to take effect in 2014 requires tougher assessment standards and under those pending rules, the true extent of Illinois’ public pension could top $120 billion.

“We are well past the point of further delay,” said McCarter. “My reform plan is pro-taxpayer; it relieves the next generation of the expensive pension burdens that have been placed on them by poor decisions in recent and past years, and it brings new ideas to what so far has been an imperfect pension debate.”

Under McCarter’s plan, all five public pension systems would be reformed. It leaves no category of state employee out of the reform. Estimated savings, based on a Senate GOP staff review, are projected to be from $125 to $150 billion over the next 30 years.

Provisions in the McCarter proposal include –

1) Benefit changes apply to all five state pension systems (JRS, GARS, SERS, SURS, TRS):
• Age 62 retirement age standard across all 5 state pension systems.
**For those SERS alternative formula workers in public safety classifications (Illinois Department of Corrections and Illinois State Police) may retire at age 55 but must pay for the 7 years of service up to age 62. Payment would be calculated and processed by SERS.
• Suspends Cost-of-Living Adjustments until the pension systems are 85% funded.
• If system(s) attain 85% level on Jan 1, Tier 2 COLA applies that given year to retirees.
• $110,000 pensionable salary cap – similar to the maximum allowed under Social Security ($100,000).
• All current Defined-Benefit (DB) participants’ benefits would be frozen at the effective date of the bill. Participants would then participate in a 401k plan going forward. Employee contribution 6% and employer contribution is 6% in the new 401k plan. The “freeze” and shift to Defined Compensation
• (DC) plan applies to Tier 1, Tier 2, and new hires. Each state pension system would set up its own DC plan.
• Increased employee pension contribution would be 6% on the DC side. Current DB employee contribution rates remain the same and go to the participant’s DB benefit.
• Newly-elected General Assembly members after 2012: no more GA pension system. New members go into the Defined-Compensation plan. Current Tier 1/Tier 2 members would participate in a new DC plan going forward. Current Tier 1/Tier 2 members would have their existing Defined-Benefit credit rolled into the DC plan. No required employer contribution in the General Assembly Retirement System DC plan. Plan would be set up by the General Assembly Retirement System (GARS).

2) TRS “Normal Cost” Shift to local school districts:
• 10 yr. phase-in.
• Years 1 and 2 would be ½% shift; years 3-10 would be 1% shift until the employer covers normal cost.
• No more local school district pension “pick up.”
• This can happen without a property tax hike if schools are allowed to lower the cost of operations.

3) Education Mandate Relief (K-12):
• Provide school district mandate flexibility-- language from HB 4711 filed in the 96th GA.
• Change Illinois law to meet the special education federal minimum; don’t go beyond it.
• Fully fund mandated categorical at Fiscal Year 2010 levels-- this funding is tied to cost shift. If no funding in given year, the cost shift stops.
• Repeal driver’s education mandate (See SFA#1 to SB 3022).

4) Education Outsourcing & other revisions (K-12):
• Competitive bidding process for all outsourced services for K-12 downstate/suburban school districts.
• Repeal P.A. 95-0241 – third party contracting notices.
• Allow districts to opt-out of Prevailing Wage and Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s) by vote of the local school board (See SB 2880 and SB 2881).

“This is a comprehensive plan but if we’re serious about reforming pensions, and I believe Illinois taxpayers who pay the bills want us to be serious, we need to act in a comprehensive way,” said McCarter. “This is sacrifice but it is also fiscally responsible; it’s fair, and it's common sense…

“Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired” (Article XIII, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution).
“The Pension Clause not only makes a public employee’s participation in a pension system an enforceable contractual relationship, but also constitutionally protects the pension benefit rights contained in the Illinois Pension Code when an employee joins a pension system... While the Clause bars the General Assembly from adversely changing the benefit rights of current employees via unilateral action, these rights are “contractual” in nature and may be modified through contractual principles. In sum, while welching on public pension promises is not an option for Illinois as some legal and civic commentators have suggested, legitimate contract principles provide a solution to mitigate this crisis” (Eric M. Madiar is the Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton and Parliamentarian of the Illinois Senate. B.A. Truman State University; J.D. Chicago-Kent College of Law).

Why We Should Vote “NO” on the Proposed House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 49 (HJRCA 49)

Most likely, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago (Illinois Is Broke), the Chicago Tribune, and their ilk will be spending exorbitant amounts of money to deceive the public regarding the purpose of House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 49 (HJRCA 49) this fall. They will tell the public that the amendment’s purpose is to eliminate abuse of the public pension systems.
Will they tell the public that the few abusers of the public pension systems were not teachers, firemen, policemen and other state employees, but rather lobbyists, administrators, and legislators' cronies; that the abuse of the systems is less than one-tenth of a percent; that these few abuses of the system are not representative of the whole of which they constitute? No they won’t.
The Civic Committee, the Chicago Tribune, et al. will not tell the public that their purpose is to fallaciously instigate a belief that these few abuses are relevant to the State’s perpetuated debt and revenue problems; that their articles and advertisements are for the purpose of stoking the blind and misinformed anger of the people of Illinois, and that the Illinois General Assembly is the essential cause of the State’s chronic budget problems today.
Moreover, the Civic Committee and the Chicago Tribune will not tell the public that their articles and advertisements for HJRCA 49 are a diversionary attempt to shift the blame for the State’s irresponsibility and incompetence to the public employees’ constitutionally-guaranteed pension plan; that public employees’ money for their pension plans have been stolen for decades to pay for services in Illinois; that all citizens have benefitted by the theft of the public employees’ pension systems throughout the State of Illinois.

Why else should we vote “NO” on this proposed amendment to the State Constitution besides the above-mentioned deceptions and thievery?
·          “HJRCA 49 does not reduce the state systems’ current $83 billion unfunded liability;

·         “HJRCA 49 fails to address the real fiscal issue caused by the state’s outsized pension debt—how to amortize the $83 billion debt owed to the five state-sponsored retirement systems in a feasible way;

·         “Implementing a Constitutional Amendment that hinders the ability of legislators to institute benefit increases would make it nearly impossible to rectify the problems associated with the reduced benefit tier that lawmakers created in 2010 [with SB 1946];

·         “The uncertainty surrounding language used in HJRCA 49 is of extra concern because once passed, changing any aspect of it would require yet another Constitutional amendment. Given that there are nearly 7,000 local governments in Illinois, the impact of the supermajority-voting requirement could be costly in both the amount of time legislators will have to spend on pension benefit analysis” (Center for Tax and Budget Accountability);

·         Most significantly, as stated by the State Universities Annuitants Association (SUAA), HJRCA 49 “would grant unprecedented powers to government that will undermine protections contained in the pension protection clause [Article XIII, Section 5] and eliminate the uniform laws that now exist for [all] state employee benefits and obligations in the Illinois Pension Code” (Letter from SUAA, April 25, 2012).

Public employees have rights that must be protected like everyone else. They are promised certain retirement benefits. They have paid faithfully into their pension plan; they expect and plan their lives based upon these promises. Most teachers are not eligible for Social Security, and those who are will receive a pittance.

“The very idea that [the state can] hold [public employees’ lives], or the means of [their] living, or any material right essential to the enjoyment of life, at the mere will of another [is] intolerable in any country where freedom prevails” (John Locke, Two Treatises of Government). No justice is accomplished when subordinating or diminishing public employees’ rights through an amendment on account of decades of legislators’ negligence, irresponsibility and corruption.

What is at stake is not a potential adjudication of conflicting claims that public employees will have against policymakers who want unfair changes to public employees’ benefits and rights, but to respect the public employees’ contractual and constitutional promises because they are legitimate rights and moral concerns not only for public employees, but for every citizen in Illinois: for any unwarranted acts of cheating a person’s guaranteed rights and benefits will violate interests in morality and ethics and the basic legal principles of both the State and United States Constitutions that protect every one of us.

For more information, please read: House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 49… and Illinois Pension Reform Is without Legal and Moral Justification

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Unfunded Pension Liability and the “Pension Ramp” from Center for Tax and Budget Accountability

“The 50-Year Funding Plan: the state attempted to address its unfunded pension liability in 1994, pursuant to a change in Illinois law created under Public Act 88-0593, which became commonly known as the ‘Pension Ramp.’ Intended to force increased allocations to the pension over time, this reform established a time frame during which Illinois was required to fund the current pension contribution the state owed for existing employees (the ‘Normal Cost’), plus make up unpaid contributions and the return thereon for prior employees, amortized over 50 years with a target of funding 90% of total actuarial liabilities by 2045.

“Given that the total unfunded liability had grown so large [because of legislators’ incompetence and irresponsibility], the legislation created a framework that established a 15-year-ramp period, during which the newly mandated contributions Illinois had to make for current and past employees increased in gradual increments. Since these makeup payments increased annually, they became known as the ‘Pension Ramp’; that is, they ‘ramp-up’ over time.

“The ‘Pension Ramp’ became operative in Fiscal Year 1996. Under the plan, if Illinois satisfied its obligations under the ‘Pension Ramp,’ the state's pension systems would have achieved a Funded Ratio of 90% by the year 2045. The initial 15-year ‘ramp-up’ period was designed to allow Illinois to adapt to its increased financial obligations, because there simply was not enough revenue to move immediately to the appropriate level percentage of payroll to fund the pensions systems or to amortize the liability over a shorter period.

“Since it passed, Illinois funded the ‘Pension Ramp’ as required every year, except FY2006 through 2007. However, the annual increases in the required contribution under the intended ‘Pension Ramp’ vastly outpace natural growth in the state's tax revenue. This reality, coupled with the constitutional requirement that Illinois balance the budget, meant the state would have to cut spending significantly on services to fund the ‘Pension Ramp,’ particularly in out years. The net result, Illinois' fiscal system simply could not accommodate the significant contribution increases contemplated under the ‘Pension Ramp.’ The first major threat to the ‘Pension Ramp’ was averted with the sale of $10 billion of pension obligation bonds. Then, reverting to past poor fiscal practices, the state significantly underfunded pensions in FY2006 and FY2007, to maintain, and in some cases expand, services” (the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability).

According to Amanda Kass, Research and Policy Specialist for Pensions and Local Government of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (April 2012): “the issue is that Illinois lawmakers designed a system – the way the employer cost is calculated (what the state pays) – [that is] inconsistent with rules set by the Government Accounting Standards Board (the rules are non-binding and are for reporting; public retirement systems can fund themselves however they so choose). 

“The way GASB specifies that systems should be funded is generally referred to as the ARC (annual required contribution). According to GASB, the employer’s ARC should be the normal cost (which is calculated using the cost method) plus an amount to amortize an unfunded liability over 30 years. The 30-year time period is an open system: [in other words] those 30 years don’t count down. In systems in which there is no unfunded liability, the employer’s ARC would just be the normal cost. [It is important to note that] in Illinois, what the state has historically paid was less than the employer’s ARC (as calculated according to GASB rules).

“[To reiterate,] there were years like 2006 and 2007 in which lawmakers passed legislation that lowered the contributions for those years to an amount that was below the pension ramp (those amounts were already less than the employer’s ARC).  In addition to a revenue problem, the pension ramp was designed in such a way that it’s unfeasible. Even if Illinois’ revenue issue was addressed, the pension ramp would still likely be an issue” (the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability). 

The current “Pension Ramp” does not work for the five public pension systems. The “Ramp” entails larger payments today as a result of the 1995 funding law – Public Act 88-0593 – to pay the pensions systems what the state owes. There needs to be a required annual payment from the state to the pension systems; the debt needs to be amortized for a longer frame of time (a flat payment) just like a home loan that is amortized; though the initial payment will be more painful in the beginning, over the long term it will become a reduced cost and a smaller percentage of the overall Illinois budget as it is paid off throughout the years.

“Given that the current repayment schedule is a complete legal fiction - a creature of statute that doesn't have any actuarial basis - making this change is relatively easy. Simply re-amortizing $85 billion of the unfunded liability into flat, annual debt payments of around $6.9 billion each through 2057 does the trick. After inflation, this new, flat, annual payment structure creates a financial obligation for the state that decreases in real terms over time, in place of the dramatically increasing structure under current law. Moreover, because some principal would be front- rather than back-loaded, this re-amortization would cost taxpayers $35 billion less than current law” (Ralph Martire, Executive Director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability).

The State of Illinois has a pension debt problem; the State of Illinois also has a revenue problem. Pension reform will not address either one of these serious problems prolonged and disseminated by the Illinois General Assembly and its Big Business partners. Pension reform is an attack on the Illinois Constitution and the state’s public employees. Pension reform will also adversely affect the economy of the entire state and, thus, its citizenry.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Aftermath of the CTU Strike by Karen Lewis and Randi Weingarten

After more than a decade of top-down dictates, disruptive school closures, disregard of teachers’ and parents’ input, testing that squeezes out teaching, and cuts to the arts, physical education and libraries, educators in Chicago said “enough is enough.” With strong support from parents and many in the community, teachers challenged a flawed vision of education reform that has not helped schoolchildren in Chicago or around the country. It took a seven-day strike—something no one does without cause—but with it educators in Chicago have changed the conversation about education reform.

These years of dictates imposed upon teachers left children in Chicago without the rich curriculum, facilities and social services they need. On picket lines, with their handmade signs, teachers provided first-person accounts of the challenges confronting students and educators. They made it impossible to turn a blind eye to the unacceptable conditions in many of the city’s public schools.

Teachers and parents were united in the frustration that led to the strike. Nearly nine out of 10 students in Chicago Public Schools live in poverty, a shameful fact that so-called reformers too often ignore, yet most schools lack even one full-time nurse or social worker. The district has made cuts where it shouldn’t (in art, music, physical education and libraries) but hasn’t cut where it should (class sizes and excessive standardized testing and test prep). The tentative agreement reached in Chicago aims to address all these issues.

Chicago’s teachers see this as an opportunity to move past the random acts of “reform” that have failed to move the needle and toward actual systemic school improvement. The tentative agreement focuses on improving quality so that every public school in Chicago is a place where parents want to send their children and educators want to teach.

Its key tenets:

First, use time wisely. The proposed contract lengthens the school day and year. A key demand by educators during the strike was that the district focuses not just on instituting a longer school day, but on making it a better school day. Additional seat time doesn’t constitute a good education. A well-rounded and rich curriculum, regular opportunities for teachers to plan and confer with colleagues, and time to engage students through discussions, group work and project-based learning—all these contribute to a high-quality education, and these should be priorities going forward.

Second, get evaluation right and don’t fixate on testing. Effective school systems use data to inform instruction, not as a “scarlet number” that does nothing to improve teaching and learning. One placard seen on Chicago’s picket lines captured the sentiment of countless educators: “I want to teach to the student, not to the test.” If implemented correctly, evaluations can help Chicago promote the continuous development of teachers’ skills and of students’ intellectual abilities (and not just their test-taking skills).

Third, fix—don’t close—struggling schools. Chicago’s teachers echoed the concerns of numerous parents and civil rights groups that the closing of struggling schools creates turmoil and instability but doesn’t improve achievement. Low-performing schools improve not only by instituting changes to academics and enrichment, but also by becoming centers of their communities.

Schools that provide wraparound services—medical and mental-health services, mentoring, enrichment programs and social services—create an environment in which kids are better able to learn and teachers can focus more on instruction, knowing their students’ needs are being met. Chicago, with an 87% child-poverty rate, should make these effective—and cost-effective—approaches broadly available.

Fourth, morale matters. Teachers who work with students in some of the most difficult environments deserve support and respect. Yet they often pay for their dedication by enduring daily denigration for not single-handedly overcoming society’s shortcomings. These indignities and lack of trust risk making a great profession an impossible one.

In a period when many officials have sought to strip workers of any contractual rights or even a collective voice, the Chicago teachers strike showed that collective action is a powerful force for change and that collective bargaining is an effective tool to strengthen public schools. Chicago’s public-school teachers—backed by countless educators across the country—changed the conversation from the blaming and shaming of teachers to the promotion of strategies that parents and teachers believe are necessary to help children succeed.

It is a powerful example of solution-driven unionism and a reminder that when people come together to deal with matters affecting education, those who work in the schools need to be heard. When they are, students, parents and communities are better for it.

Ms. Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Ms. Weingarten is president of the CTU’s national union, the American Federation of Teachers.


Friday, September 21, 2012

I Ruined Everything (& Why It Was More Work Than You Thought)... by Brandi Martin

Dear twitter users boiling with anger about forced subsidization of unionized teachers:

I've taught art for seventeen years. I've complained about certain things at work, but I've never regretted my profession. We all knew what we were signing up for when we chose our jobs; I knew I wouldn't get rich, but I knew I'd have summers off, and a steady paycheck. So did you, actually. The summer thing is an antiquated agrarian anachronism, (read, not new), so please don't act outraged at this fresh new insult. If you became a banker or waitress or IT guy or whatever job you have that doesn't seem to mind your constant vigilance of pro-union tweets, you knew it had two weeks’ vacation a year. You knew the salary, and the risks of advancement. When i started teaching in 1993 my contract said $20,000. I thought that sounded AMAZING. I thought a bulldozer with a haystack of twenty thousand dollar bills was going to pull up and dump them all over me. When i started getting paid I had to take a weekend job at Carmen's Pizza taking phone orders for delivery so I could pay my bills. But I had no complaint.

To earn this $20k I taught art on a cart to 850 kids at 3 different schools every week. Almost every kid was on free lunch. My budget was $1.50 per child per year. This is *actually* possible. My classes applauded when I entered the room every single time! I took up Spanish lessons again at my own expense, so that I could say "Quieres papel amarillo, o azul? Doblalo, y desdoblalo. Ok, cortalo. Bueno!" So that the new kid off the boat (so to speak) wasn't terrified that he or she had to talk to the gringa teacher. We made puppets, paper mache, tissue snowflakes, and lots of chalk and tempera paintings. I loved going to work every day. I loved festooning each little school with the happy art. I enjoyed telling wide-eyed kids I actually lived in the dark, mouse-poopy art closet down the hall. I worked in the lowest paying district in a 300 mile radius, but I didn't care. I felt needed, and I knew I was making some little soul's morning, every time I went to work.

I feel less and less that way when I read angry tweets and newspaper comments about my profession. Maybe I shouldn't read what angry tax paying trolls write and say on the internet, but I'm so appalled I keep checking to see if it's still there. I'm told I'm ungrateful. I read that I am greedy, or a tool of greedy union bosses. I am a selfish "son of a bitch," one guy informed me, when I was trying to explain the details and the facts of current legislation. I read that everyone's life is going down the toilet, because I am breaking their backs. I have ruined everything. Everything is ruined.

Please know it did not feel like ruining everything. It felt like sitting in a tiny plastic chair at a tiny table, cajoling an autistic preschooler into brushing watercolor across a white wax face i had pre drawn, then watching him laugh at the big reveal. It felt like receiving a drawing as a gift from a talented little boy who drew like an adult, but suffered crippling arthritis in his hands and for whom i had arranged free classes at SAIC. It felt like crossing a name off a roster because she and her grandmother had been raped and killed in their house near the school. It felt like a million little notes shoved into my hands and pockets from eager little people who only came up to my waist. It felt like tamales from mothers who could not speak much English but beamed widely as they handed the foil package over.

Now at the high school level it feels like alarmed inquiries following my every absence, it feels like a crowd around my desk, like emails during the evenings and weekends. It feels like a 6'2 kid standing up from his computer animation to announce loudly "I AM AN ARTIST." It feels like kids who come back during their lunches and study halls, spending half the day in my room, and sometimes come to school only for my class: this according to parents. It feels like emails and letters, even years later, saying I was the best teacher they ever had. It feels like all my letters of recommendation, begging for college admission or a scholarship for another fine young person. It feels like trust, or just relief that I listen.

So guess what? I am rich, you miserable, bitter harpies. But you have it all wrong. Just because your job sucks and you can't wait to get out of there every day doesn't mean that's how I feel making my living. It's a shame, but it's a world of your own making. If you loved your job, I doubt you'd be investing this kind of time degrading mine. In contrast, I enjoy the luxurious power of changing kids' minds about school *every day*, even on eight-year-old computers that run on my sheer will alone.

So do it. Reduce my pension. Make me poor, since I don't qualify for Social Security. Make my medicine unaffordable. Make my raise contingent upon proof that my art lessons somehow improved state math scores. Continue firing at my feet to see how long you can make me dance. It still won't change the fact that life did not work out as you planned, and you're now a bitter little turd. AND I will STILL… love my job, because I am rocking this for all the right reasons. After you take every tool and incentive and support away from me, and millions like me, you won't suddenly have anything great that you don't already have. And then you will be terribly disappointed to find out that this isn't a scam after all. Whether decorated or destroyed, inside every school we run on something you can't legislate, isolate, measure or destroy. Much to your inarticulate all-caps despair.

It's love, dumbass. If you'd bother to volunteer at the little school down the street you could have a sample. I won't even tell the kids what you wrote about their teacher.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Being a Teacher by Richard Sasso

Let me begin with a simple statement: Unless you have been a teacher for several years in the American K-12 system, you will not understand the demands and difficulties of the teaching profession.
Teachers consistently find themselves on the receiving end of countless “reforms” by “non-educators”: from Bill Gates to their next-door neighbor (who probably resents teachers’ tenure, their public pensions and their summers).  Incidentally, teachers are not paid for their time off.

Some reform movements are indirect attacks on the teaching profession. Consider Teach for America. Can someone teach effectively after having attended a ten-or-twelve week training session by a corporate sponsor? Why don’t we have programs like “Become a Doctor or Nurse and Diagnose for America,” “Fly Commercial Airlines for America,” “Extinguish a Fire for America,” or “Litigate” for America? Of course, no one would want the services of a doctor, an airline pilot, fireman or a lawyer who is trained in only 12 weeks. Why should it be acceptable to allow children to be taught by a non-professional impersonator?

Most people do not realize the time and effort needed to prepare for just one class each day. High school teachers teach at least five classes, which entails two or three different courses. It is not like Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver, either. This isn’t to say that there is a lack of drama all of the time. Sometimes it is quite exhilarating; nevertheless, teachers also work at home preparing lessons, grading compositions and tests, and studying curricula without any fanfare.

Teaching requires more than knowledge of the material. An ex-teacher once told me managing a class was like “trying to keep twenty beach balls under water at once.” Self-control is not always an easy skill to grasp for adolescents. A teacher realizes that his or her strength and composure are what stands between a well-ordered classroom and the sudden eruption of entropy.

Many students are not driven by a desire to obtain knowledge and the mastery of skills; sometimes, they are simply “grade grubbing” – their goal is to get into a college or a university and receive a scholarship. It is sobering to recognize how often studious behavior masks a deeper cynicism. I can hardly blame them, though. Our system punishes and rewards them in highly-calibrated ways.
Indeed, even our best high schools explicitly take time away from teaching course content and dedicate many lessons during the year for standardized testing. The creators of homogeneous tests have become the unelected and unaccountable dictators of a lot of our schools’ curricula.

It is sad that fifty percent of teachers will leave the profession within their first five years. I have taught for ten years at an affluent school district in Illinois, and not one day has been easy. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for teachers working in poor inner-city neighborhoods without the resources we have. (If you are curious why Japan, Singapore, and Finland have such strong school systems, ask yourself how many blighted slums there are in each country. The correlation is not coincidental). Indeed, as Diane Ravitch has pointed out numerous times: Schools in affluent neighborhoods in America are doing as well as any in the world. That important fact is also lost in the debate.

None of this is to say that I hate being a teacher. I love being a teacher. It is to say that most of my fellow citizens have a lot to learn about the nature of what it is that teachers confront  every day. This is just "the tip of the [teaching] iceberg."

--Richard Sasso

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Chicago Teacher Strike Ends by Diane Ravitch

“No, it wasn’t greed or money. The compensation piece was more or less settled before the strike. Pundits and talk-show hosts who take home hundreds of thousands a year will express outrage that teachers–teachers!–might make $80,000. I ask you, who adds more social value–a first grade teacher in Chicago or a talk show host on national radio or TV?

“Why did they strike? After 17 years of reform and disrespect, they were fed up with the bullying. They were tired of the non-educators and politicians telling them how to teach and imposing their remedies. Reform after reform and children in Chicago still don’t have the rich curriculum, the facilities, and the social services they need.

“They were sick of the incessant school closings. They were sick of seeing charter schools open that get wildly uneven results yet are praised to the skies by Arne Duncan and now Rahm Emanuel. They knew that the charter schools are non-union and that the Mayor will use them to break the union.

“In the end, the union pitted itself against Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Chicago’s business and civic leadership, and the Race to the Top. It took on the most powerful forces in the city, and yes, even President Obama, who remained neutral.

“And by taking a stand, by uniting to resist the power elite, these teachers discovered they were strong. They had been downtrodden and disrespected, but no longer. They put on their red T-shirts and commanded the attention of the nation and the admiration of millions of teachers. Powerless no more, they showed that unity made them strong. 98% voted to authorize the strike, and 98% voted to end it…”

--Diane Ravitch

Important school issues are ‘off the table’ by JesseJackson

“…The big issues for these schools and for the teachers aren’t talked about because they are officially “off the table.” CTU teachers are most concerned about class size, about adequate facilities, about wraparound services from social workers to nurses, about well-rounded curricula including art and music and languages, about early childhood education that helps children come to school ready to learn.
“This isn’t fancy stuff. One concern is classrooms that reach temperatures of up to 98 degrees in summer; only 29 percent of schools are air-conditioned. Another is about textbooks for the first day of school. Many of Chicago’s elementary and middle schools have no safe place for recess, and few have age-appropriate playground equipment. There are 160 elementary schools without a library; 140 are in the poorer South Side of the city. Even though a staggering 80 percent of inner-city teen boys are exposed to violence, 675 schools share about 205 social workers. Schools often must choose between art and music, if they are lucky enough to have either…

“No one likes teachers’ strikes. But teachers are on the front line. In a time of spreading poverty and rising hunger, with harsh exploitation of the poor by landlords and payday lenders, poor children too often come to impoverished schools.

“Teachers take the rap for poor student performance without having the power to change what gets in the way of learning. Grading teachers on the basis of a machine-graded test cannot substitute for schools with playgrounds and social workers, classes with manageable numbers, or roofs that don’t leak. Poverty, inequality, violence, race and investment matter. They must be a part of any long-term solution.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mr. President: On Education, You Can’t Handle the Truth by Chris Goering

In November of 2008 and again in January of 2009, I have never been as proud to be an American as I was when you were elected and then subsequently sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Before those two great days, I had lost a lot of faith in our country and especially in its leadership under your predecessor. This small town Kansas boy turned English teacher sobbed tears of joy while sitting and watching your acceptance speech in my now home of Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was proud of you, sir; I had a bumper sticker and a yard sign. Unfortunately, four years later I have a more powerful memory of the day after your inauguration, January 20th, the day your friend Arne Duncan was sworn in as your Secretary of Education.

The truth about what you and your secretary have done to education, unless you reverse course immediately, most assuredly has cost you the votes of many teachers in this country, a demographic that should be strong in their support of you. This isn’t to say I like your opponent or think his education plan is any better—the fact your secretary’s name is being considered for retention if Romney were to win the election in November puts voters like me who care about public education in a no-win situation. Mr. Obama, while I hate to invoke words of yet another Hollywood star given the recent talking chair episode, about education, “you can’t handle the truth.” The education record that you’ve been touting around the country in recent weeks is nothing more than empty political rhetoric. Your education record is awful, perhaps the worst in the history of our country. And that’s saying something.

You’ve said recently that Race to the Top is a great success. Truthfully, Race to the Top takes the worst aspects of the Bush administration’s education policies and gives them teeth and financial backing. In my now 13th year in education, I’ve witnessed those same policies destroy teaching and learning in the schools, turning children and teachers into automatons for standardized testing. As a teacher and teacher educator I often felt like I was sitting on a deck chair of the Titanic. While the Bush Administration steered us directly towards the iceberg of NCLB, Arne has managed to hit five more icebergs while claiming that the boat is at fault.

Let’s talk for a second about the neo-liberal agenda your leadership has encouraged. Privatizing education is the equivalent of the Bush era Wall Street policy, heavy with idea candy like free trade, open markets, and deregulation ended in disaster in 2008. A neoliberal education agenda, one in love with oversimplified metrics of progress like test scores, promises a bleak future. Mr. President, how could you? You’ve argued for four years that Wall Street needed more oversight to prevent the bailout situation you admirably faced in your first year as president. Your move in health care mirrored your perspective on Wall Street (I support both initiatives wholeheartedly, by the way). But who will save our schools once they crash like Wall Street? We are heading for an educational meltdown of Wall Street proportions, and I think you and your education secretary/agenda will and should be blamed for part of it, an offense that will land you and Arne in the same conversations that the country has had about Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and their role in torturing prisoners. Who will protect our children from the educational equivalents of Bain Capital, vultures hungry to buy schools and then shut them down for financial gain?

Current policy looks like educational waterboarding in the classrooms I visit. Strapping teachers and children to unrealistic standards and goals and repeatedly beating them upside the head with standardized tests that experts believe tell us next to nothing about what a child can actually do, is sustained torture with awful consequences for all of us, for our country’s future. When creativity is seined out of a curriculum by focusing on narrow standards (i.e., No Child Left Behind) who — a teacher, students, administrators — wants to do that? I’m afraid this approach is designed to create less informed populace, one that is easier to control.

You see sir, what is most disappointing to me as a member of your party, is the fact that the people who will really be hurt by school vouchers, semi-private charter schools, and your war on teachers (see tenure, tying test scores to pay, and tying teachers’ students’ test scores to teacher preparation), is not the millionaire and billionaire heirs of the Romney-like fortunes, it will be the people in this country you’ve said, over and over, you are here to protect. A neo-liberal education agenda will benefit the one percenters and the people resting somewhere between the 1 percent and upper middle class. The poor will be left out in the cold without a decent public school to attend and without any hope for upward mobility, educationally speaking.

If you know that what I’ve said here is right, and I think you do, I urge you to take the following actions immediately in hopes that you can save the election and more importantly, save American education. First, unceremoniously fire Arne Duncan with prejudice for subverting your vision of America through his department’s education policies. What didn’t work on Wall Street or in the health care industry surely won’t work in our classrooms. We need a great public education system. Go ahead and cut a wide swath through the education department and see who is pulling the strings. Act swiftly. Immediately stop Race to the Top. Our children and our future are not for sale. Immediately stop No Child Left Behind—the do-nothing congress of the last four years needs to pass an elementary and secondary education act and perhaps your remaining political chips could be spent on that.

Finally, I urge you to take swift action in pressing pause on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. While I don’t hate them for what they are, I do hate them for how they were handed to our country, through doublespeak and lies. Have you really looked deeply in the “evidence” that supports these standards? It is a joke and quite frankly, you should know better. Do you really think a single state would have adopted those standards if you hadn’t forced the states, in their financial time of desperation, to sign on to CCSS in order to be eligible for more money? And the fact that private philanthropic foundations (i.e., Gates Foundation) are driving these changes is more than a little off-putting.

No third grader needs to be tested for 34 days of a school year, something happening in schools around your country. The education crisis (bad schools, bad teachers, low achieving students) is largely manufactured, carefully and purposefully misconstrued by those large corporation-types who don’t want to support public education. You just had those same arguments with the health care power brokers so this shouldn’t surprise you. You must turn that same sort of attention to our nation’s schools. They are dying an increasingly quick, Jack Kevorkian-like death.

I shudder to think what sort of precedent your first term policies will lead to if you are not re-elected this November. If Mitt Romney wins this election, he’ll be pushing the school choice agenda as he addressed over and over in his acceptance of his party’s nomination. You see, school choice is another way of saying “privatize,” “de-regulate,” and eventually “defund” public education—this will have grave consequences for America and we need you to act swiftly, Mr. President, to stop this advancing agenda (one you’ve been at least complicit to up to this point).

I’m sorry to write this letter. I still swell with pride and emotion when I hear you speak and listen to your ideas about our country. You’ve given me a lot of hope, and I still have hope for you, but let’s be honest, your education record is not something you should be touting. While you have been saving our auto industry and pushing health care coverage for all Americans, the formative years of our nation’s youth has been abducted and held for ransom. It is not too late to make sure that educators who feel like I do (and I assure you they number in the tens of thousands) vote for you on Election Day. We are not likely to show up at the polls to vote against you, but the way things are going, the truth for us is that we feel like we replaced a rabid cat (Bush era education policy) with a rabid dog (your education policy) in 2008 and neither provides much hope.

Your former (and hopefully future) supporter,

Goering's letter is from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers (the Economic Policy Institute)

By Richard Rothstein, Helen F. Ladd, Diane Ravitch, Eva L. Baker, Paul E. Barton, Linda Darling-Hammond, Edward Haertel, Robert L. Linn, Richard J. Shavelson, and Lorrie A. Shepard | August 27, 2010

Conclusions and Recommendations

“...We began by noting that some advocates of using student test scores for teacher evaluation believe that doing so will make it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers. However, because of the broad agreement by technical experts that student test scores alone are not a sufficiently reliable or valid indicator of teacher effectiveness, any school district that bases a teacher’s dismissal on her students’ test scores is likely to face the prospect of drawn-out and expensive arbitration and/or litigation in which experts will be called to testify, making the district unlikely to prevail. The problem that advocates had hoped to solve will remain, and could perhaps be exacerbated.

“There is simply no shortcut to the identification and removal of ineffective teachers. It must surely be done, but such actions will unlikely be successful if they are based on over-reliance on student test scores whose flaws can so easily provide the basis for successful challenges to any personnel action. Districts seeking to remove ineffective teachers must invest the time and resources in a comprehensive approach to evaluation that incorporates concrete steps for the improvement of teacher performance based on professional standards of instructional practice, and unambiguous evidence for dismissal, if improvements do not occur.

“Some policy makers, acknowledging the inability fairly to identify effective or ineffective teachers by their students’ test scores, have suggested that low test scores (or value-added estimates) should be a “trigger” that invites further investigation. Although this approach seems to allow for multiple means of evaluation, in reality 100% of the weight in the trigger is test scores. Thus, all the incentives to distort instruction will be preserved to avoid identification by the trigger, and other means of evaluation will enter the system only after it is too late to avoid these distortions.

“While those who evaluate teachers could take student test scores over time into account, they should be fully aware of their limitations, and such scores should be only one element among many considered in teacher profiles. Some states are now considering plans that would give as much as 50% of the weight in teacher evaluation and compensation decisions to scores on existing poor-quality tests of basic skills in math and reading. Based on the evidence we have reviewed above, we consider this unwise. If the quality, coverage, and design of standardized tests were to improve, some concerns would be addressed, but the serious problems of attribution and nonrandom assignment of students, as well as the practical problems described above, would still argue for serious limits on the use of test scores for teacher evaluation.

“Although some advocates argue that admittedly flawed value-added measures are preferred to existing cumbersome measures for identifying, remediating, or dismissing ineffective teachers, this argument creates a false dichotomy. It implies there are only two options for evaluating teachers—the ineffectual current system or the deeply flawed test-based system.

“Yet there are many alternatives that should be the subject of experiments. The Department of Education should actively encourage states to experiment with a range of approaches that differ in the ways in which they evaluate teacher practice and examine teachers’ contributions to student learning. These experiments should all be fully evaluated.

“There is no perfect way to evaluate teachers. However, progress has been made over the last two decades in developing standards-based evaluations of teaching practice, and research has found that the use of such evaluations by some districts has not only provided more useful evidence about teaching practice, but has also been associated with student achievement gains and has helped teachers improve their practice and effectiveness.61 Structured performance assessments of teachers like those offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the beginning teacher assessment systems in Connecticut and California have also been found to predict teacher’s effectiveness on value-added measures and to support teacher learning.62

“These systems for observing teachers’ classroom practice are based on professional teaching standards grounded in research on teaching and learning. They use systematic observation protocols with well-developed, research-based criteria to examine teaching, including observations or videotapes of classroom practice, teacher interviews, and artifacts such as lesson plans, assignments, and samples of student work. Quite often, these approaches incorporate several ways of looking at student learning over time in relation to the teacher’s instruction.

“Evaluation by competent supervisors and peers, employing such approaches, should form the foundation of teacher evaluation systems, with a supplemental role played by multiple measures of student learning gains that, where appropriate, should include test scores. Given the importance of teachers’ collective efforts to improve overall student achievement in a school, an additional component of documenting practice and outcomes should focus on the effectiveness of teacher participation in teams and the contributions they make to school-wide improvement, through work in curriculum development, sharing practices and materials, peer coaching and reciprocal observation, and collegial work with students.

“In some districts, peer assistance and review programs—using standards-based evaluations that incorporate evidence of student learning, supported by expert teachers who can offer intensive assistance, and panels of administrators and teachers that oversee personnel decisions—have been successful in coaching teachers, identifying teachers for intervention, providing them assistance, and efficiently counseling out those who do not improve.63 In others, comprehensive systems have been developed for examining teacher performance in concert with evidence about outcomes for purposes of personnel decision making and compensation.64

“Given the range of measures currently available for teacher evaluation, and the need for research about their effective implementation and consequences, legislatures should avoid imposing mandated solutions to the complex problem of identifying more and less effective teachers. School districts should be given freedom to experiment, and professional organizations should assume greater responsibility for developing standards of evaluation that districts can use. Such work, which must be performed by professional experts, should not be pre-empted by political institutions acting without evidence. The rule followed by any reformer of public schools should be: “First, do no harm.”

“As is the case in every profession that requires complex practice and judgments, precision and perfection in the evaluation of teachers will never be possible. Evaluators may find it useful to take student test score information into account in their evaluations of teachers, provided such information is embedded in a more comprehensive approach. What is now necessary is a comprehensive system that gives teachers the guidance and feedback, supportive leadership, and working conditions to improve their performance, and that permits schools to remove persistently ineffective teachers without distorting the entire instructional program by imposing a flawed system of standardized quantification of teacher quality.”

61.  Milanowski, Kimball, and White 2004.

62.  See for example, Bond et al. 2000; Cavaluzzo 2004; Goldhaber and Anthony 2004; Smith et al. 2005; Vandevoort, Amrein-Beardsley, and Berliner 2004; Wilson and Hallam 2006.

63.  Darling-Hammond 2009; Van Lier 2008.

64.  Denver’s Pro-comp system, Arizona’s Career Ladder, and the Teacher Advancement Program are illustrative. See for example, Solomon et al. 2007; Packard and Dereshiwsky 1991.

From the Economic Policy Institute: