Monday, May 13, 2013

Portland Public Schools Targets Teachers

By Portland Teacher (writing anonymously out of fear of reprisal)

Just months after angry parents, students, and teachers forced Portland Public Schools (PPS) officials to back down from closing several neighborhood schools, PPS has found a new target: teachers. 

Negotiations between the school district and Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) began this month with such enormous differences between their two proposals, that the local media is already raising the possibility of a strike next year.

Given the widespread attacks on teachers nationwide, the decimation of the public school system in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit, and the relative success of union-bashing in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, PPS evidently believes now is the time to seize as much control as it can.

District officials recently appropriated the language of the Chicago Teachers’ strike in an Orwellian letter to the community that claimed their proposal was “updating” the teachers’ contract to give “our students the education they deserve.” In particular they point out that their proposal removes work rules that “have prevented many high school students from taking eight classes.” This letter reveals that until parents pressured the district in recent weeks to add teaching positions in order to provide a full eight classes to students, the district originally hoped to simply force high school teachers to teach another class. Their contract offer would allow this because it eliminates all restrictions on teacher workload in the contract—including the limit of 180 students per high school teacher negotiated last year.

But how is eliminating a cap on the number of students in a teacher’s classes supposed to benefit kids? Do the math.  If, say, a history teacher assigns an essay to all of her 180 students and devotes just five minutes to reading and commenting on each of these—an impossible task, in itself—this would take exactly 15 hours of outside-of-class time. Or, say, a science teacher wants to spend 10 minutes talking to each student’s parent about how to best serve a child’s needs. At the 180-student limit, that the district hopes to eliminate, this would add an extra 30-hour workweek for that teacher.

And while the district hopes to erase parts of the contract that put any restraints on the amount of unpaid labor teachers do outside of the school day, they also want to increase the “official” teacher workday and reduce the time teachers have to get non-instructional work accomplished during that day. With language that could have been written in the 19th century, the district’s proposal increases the official teacher workday from 7.5 hours to “generally” 8 hours. At the same time their offer cuts high school teacher planning and preparation time from 90 minutes to 60 minutes per day, a reduction of 2.5 hours per week. Does the district really believe that the education Portland students deserve is one where their teachers have little time to plan engaging curriculum, give students meaningful feedback, and develop individual relationships with them?

The Portland Association of Teachers’ proposal, on the other hand, recognizes that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. PAT’s contract proposal asks the district to reduce class size and caseload over the next few years setting goals for 2018 that are based on national research. The proposal also calls on the district to “work with the Association, parent groups, student groups, business groups, City, County, Metro, and State elected officials to secure adequate funding to achieve these goals.”

Another part of the district’s offer the community should be concerned about is the removal of language that prevents teacher evaluations from being based on students’ standardized test scores. How can the school district claim to be fighting for the “education our students deserve,” while increasing the emphasis on flawed high-stakes tests? In fact, Portland students have recently launched a campaign to protest high-stakes standardized tests. Does the district think these students don’t understand what kind of education they deserve? In contrast, PAT’s proposal asserts that “standardized tests shall only be used in a manner supported by the test methodology and testing frequency” and that “standardized tests should only be one tool used for assessing student learning and growth.” 

The school district will also likely try to paint the union as self-interested because PAT is asking for cost-of-living raises that keep up with inflation. In its offer, the district wants a four-year wage freeze and a cap on district contributions to health insurance so all future costs pass directly on to educators. But is the education Portland students deserve one where their teachers find it hard to focus on teaching because they are worried about paying their bills?

The truth is that PPS’s initial contract offer is more about union busting than it is about providing students a quality education. This is why their proposal excludes temporary employees from the union, eradicates the role seniority plays in determining layoffs, gets rid of union members’ ability to grieve evaluations while removing restrictions on when principals must complete those evaluations, and eliminates the ability of the union to grieve discriminatory practices based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, and political activity.  In fact, the district’s initial offer deletes more than 30 pages from the teachers’ contract. According to the PAT, PPS’s proposal includes over 70 take-backs.  At a recent bargaining session, district spokesperson Brock Logan was clear about their intention to use the erasure of PAT contract language to vastly expand management’s rights while stomping on teachers’. According to Logan, “If the contract doesn’t specify it, management can do whatever they want.”

Fortunately, PAT is standing strong and genuinely attempting to advocate on behalf of students and parents in addition to teachers. As Susan Nielsen, writes in the Oregonian, “Their proposal reads less like a standard contract than an education manifesto written by your favorite teacher. We want smaller class sizes, the union says in a six-page preamble. We want more electives for kids! We want every child to have access to a full curriculum that includes music, art, PE, world languages and staffed libraries. We want less time spent on endless standardized testing and more time spent developing the whole child.”

The PAT preamble titled “The Schools Portland Students Deserve,” is an intentional effort to incorporate the inspiring example of the recent Chicago Teachers’ Union fight into the union’s bargaining proposal. The preamble attempts to codify the spirit of the recent school closure fight into the teachers’ contract demanding “priority shall be placed on maintaining enrollment in neighborhood schools instead of school closure” and that “a school closure due to under-enrollment is a last resort and shall only be done in the most extreme circumstances.” 

In one of the boldest sections of the preamble, PAT flips the script on “accountability” in education by demanding that administrators, not just teachers, be held accountable. They ask for “creating a mentoring/feedback program for administrators” that includes “feedback surveys from students, parents, professional educators and mentor administrators.”

The preamble also calls for a coalition of parents, students, and other supporters of public education to push back against reforms that limit curriculum and wrap-around services and to work to find new sources of revenue that restore electives and services and lower class sizes.

Such a coalition will be needed now if there is any hope that the union’s vision of the schools Portland students deserve wins out over the district’s. Just last year three Oregon Education Association locals—two just east of Portland, were forced to strike by districts that used the economic crisis as an excuse to decimate teacher contracts.  If those struggles are any indication of the battle ahead, the PAT will need all the support it can get. Representing nearly 3,000 teachers, the PAT is the largest teacher local in Oregon and its fate will determine the tide of education reform in the region.

3 comments:

  1. As a district parent, the district's approach in its letter to the community a few months ago and it's bargaining tactics are dismaying. It's crowing about giving students choices of classes, but what about the quality of instruction? Teachers are overburdened already. PPS cannot sweep any more under the rug, it's crammed in there already.

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  2. Another thing: does the district want its teachers to merely monitor students, like baby sitters, or EDUCATE them, as they are trained to do?

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  3. This is good stuff, but the primary reason our schools are failing is not even addressed.

    Instead of allowing teachers to select curriculum and texts, school boards refuse to let teachers teach and insist on allowing untrained board members to make these critical decisions.

    It is time we allow trained professionals to deal with teaching and learning in our schools. These skills, requiring advanced degrees specific to education, are not something board members (the head of the local hardware store, accountants, businessmen and women, etc.) are capable of doing. Our failing schools are proof enough.

    And the economic machinations, perambulations, and dictates by the administration in the above discussion do nothing about putting teachers
    back in charge. And it is about time.

    in solidarity and with best regards, Tim, a retired teacher

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