Education cuts and teacher burnout
New education data from the National Assn. of State Budget Officers estimates cuts to K-12 spending could reach $2.5 billion this year. Nationally, they were slashed $1.8 billion in 2010. The news is even worse for higher education. Those budgets are expected to decrease by $5 billion this year; that's after they were down by $1.2 billion in 2010.
To compensate, most school districts limit or eliminate money for art and music programs, libraries, adult education and textbooks. Schools with high numbers of minority or low-income students are often hit hardest.
Teachers are also laid off, which places more strain on the teachers who remain. Ellie Herman, a teacher at a South Los Angeles high school, described the challenge she faces in Sunday's Op-Ed pages:
The class, one of five I teach each day, has 31 students, including two with learning disabilities, one who just moved here from Mexico, one with serious behavior problems, 10 who flunked this class last year and are repeating, seven who test below grade level, three who show up halfway through class every day, one who almost never comes. I need to reach all 31 of them, including the brainiac who's so bored she's reading "Lolita" under her desk.
In her article, she debunked the myth of the “extraordinary teacher,” who can manage classes of any size and still teach effectively, and shared how she manages to keep control:
I'm not sure what the breaking point is, but once you get much above 25 students, providing individual attention becomes difficult. To keep my English class of 31 under control, I have to rely on high-energy routines and structured group activities. In place of freewheeling discussion, I pepper the room with rapid-fire questions. To respond to their essays, I use a rubric emphasizing the four or five qualities I'm targeting for the whole class, and then write one or two short individualized sentences at the bottom of the page. With more than 150 students in my classes, I don't have enough time to spend more than five or 10 minutes on each essay.
Herman also offered a solution, but it’s one that seems unlikely to be heard anytime soon:
To teach each child in my classroom, I have to know each child in my classroom. We teachers need to bring not only our extraordinariness but our flawed and real and ordinary humanity to this job, which involves a complex and ever-changing web of relationships with children who often need more than we can give them.
Karin Klein, an editorial board member, also weighed in on the issue of teachers who are spread too thin. Using recent data from a UC Berkeley study, which presented high teacher turnover in Los Angeles charter schools, Klein wrote:
Over the years, I've met many impassioned teachers at charter schools, only to call them the next year and find they have left. The authors of the UC Berkeley study theorize that the teachers leave because of the extraordinary demands: long hours, intense involvement in students' complicated lives, continual searches for new ways to raise scores. Even the most steadfast supporters of the reform movement concede that the task of raising achievement among disadvantaged students is hard work.
It's not just charters either. New teachers in public schools, lacking seniority, are often assigned to the most challenging schools. Many leave quickly even if their intent was to work with the students who most need help. Others move to higher-achieving schools as soon as they've built up enough seniority.
What's the solution? The new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, John E. Deasy, has some suggestions for improvement, which he also shared in Sunday's Opinion pages. Along with a standardized evaluation system and a new way of granting tenure, he hopes to tackle compensation reform:
The most successful teachers and administrators should be rewarded with significant raises, and these raises must come early in their careers so as to encourage them to stay in education. Additional compensation should also be awarded to employees who successfully take on challenging assignments in underperforming schools. We should refocus our fiscal resources in this direction and stop awarding raises simply for additional degrees earned, years of service and salary-point credits. Raises should be granted for results.
Elect-to-work agreements. Such agreements spell out what is expected of a teacher who elects to work at a given school. They can require additional hours of preparation or other kinds of involvement in the school community. And they spell out what the philosophy of the school is. These are already being used in some schools, and I would like to see the contract guarantee that any school whose staff votes to have such an agreement would be allowed to. Teachers have the option of transferring out of a school rather than signing on to a philosophy and an instructional model in which they don't want to participate. But the agreements can be excellent ways of ensuring that the teachers at a given school are committed to its model of instruction.
Performance before seniority. As much as I wish we didn't ever have to lay off employees, the state budget crisis of the last several years has required staff cuts. When such cuts become necessary, we need a better way of making them.
Currently, seniority determines who gets laid off: It's last hired, first fired.
Instead, we should consider performance in making these difficult decisions.
Among the aspects that should be considered are evaluations, contributions to the school and community, special training, degrees earned and demonstrated success. Only if two staff members are performing equally well should seniority be used to determine who goes and who stays. Failure to consider a teacher's contributions and skills is demeaning. In addition to advocating for this change, nothing prohibits us from going to the state and seeking an exemption from its rules governing seniority. Seniority should be a tiebreaker, not a deal-breaker.
Photo: Students rush between class periods at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times