To Stem the Tyrannous Tide, We Need More Educators in Indiana Government: My Platform, Were I to Run

We stand on the cusp of a colossal disaster. A critical teacher shortage is getting worse by the hour. This crisis shows absolutely no signs slowing down. New teachers looking for jobs will have no problem finding them. That may sound like a good thing, but it isn’t. We don’t have enough teachers to fill all the vacancies. It’s a red hot job-seekers market with far too few job-seekers. As a result, new teachers are leaving schools in high poverty, crime, and trauma districts because they know they will be able to find jobs in what they see as “greener pastures” or because they just see no future in a career as a teacher, so they jump ship to a new profession. I teach in a large urban middle school in a district with a lot of challenges. Frankly, we work our tails off and provide all the latest best practice instruction, we work with our many trauma-affected students to help them cope and build the life skills they need to overcome their internal struggles, we parent the un-parented, we feed the unfed, we clothe the unclothed, we shelter the unsheltered. In short, we are as much missionaries as teachers. We do what we have to do, but the simple math of this equation adds up to the sobering fact that we are always on the brink of being labeled a “failing” school. Many of our teachers work small miracles with our kids on a daily basis but continually fight a Sisyphean battle just to earn the label “effective” to qualify for a pittance of a stipend raise in pay. Many fine teachers in my school and lots of others like us go year after year without a raise in pay whatsoever. It didn’t used to be like this, but the supermajority Indiana legislature has made it this way. Not very many years ago, I was the junior member of the 8 member social studies department in my school. With retirements, I became the senior member almost overnight. For quite a few years, our social studies department was the most stable in our building with very little turnover. Part of the reason for that is that social studies teachers have a more difficult time changing jobs than a lot of other subjects because we aren’t in very high demand. But now, because of Indiana’s education policies, even our department is beginning to feel the stress of the teacher shortage. Our two newest members have both accepted other jobs, leaving us with a 25% vacancy in our department that, as of this time, we have yet to fill. Unless things change, and fast, this is going to be the norm all over the state.

How can we begin to change this? Let me submit that we need a bunch of teachers to run for state office. Having education outsiders creating education policy has gotten us into a huge mess. We need people who have been in the trenches on the front lines of education to play a vital role in the creation and implementation of new education policy. I have been approached by a lot of people through responses to my writing that I should run for office. I’m not sure that’s a smart move for me, but I am mulling the idea over. I have been thinking about what my platform would be were I to ever decide to run. I’d like to share my thoughts with you. Whether I ever decide to run for office or not, perhaps some teachers out there who read this will be inspired to do so. It doesn’t really matter whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or other; when it comes to education policies, teachers know best what changes need to be made. We should take hold of the power to make those changes.

Step 1:

Freeze Teacher Accountability To ILEARN Test Results Until a Totally New System Can Be Put in Place

When the test you are holding teachers accountable to is failed by more than half of all Indiana students, there is a big problem…and it’s not with teachers. Any teacher can tell you that if most students fail miserably on any item on a test, there is likely a problem with the test. I’m not allowed to go into any detail about what’s on ILEARN (that should be a huge red flag, right there), but I can tell you with complete certainty that there are a lot of problems with the test. There are issues about what content is tested and how that information is kept a complete secret from the teachers being held accountable for teaching that mystery content. There are issues with the way questions are worded. There are issues with the way student work is assessed by the people who grade them. There are issues with the mechanics and logistics of how the test is administered. In short, the whole thing is a nightmare. Teacher pay should not be tied to such a nightmare in any way.

Step 2:

Reinstate the graduated pay scale for all teachers

The quickest way to stem the mass exodus of newer teachers from high poverty, crime, and trauma schools which so desperately need them is to assure them a steady increase in salary for each year of service. It’s a lot easier to stick with a challenging situation when you know your compensation will eventually bring you up to a livable wage. When the graduated pay scales were take away from us, it created a large income gap between experienced teachers and newer teachers. In many schools, those newer teachers have no hope of ever closing that gap under the current system. This is a critical problem that needs to be addressed now.

Step 3:

Create a panel of education professionals to overhaul and streamline the state content standards

Our state standards are pretty ridiculous. They are not worded in student-friendly language, they are clunky, and there are, in general, far too many of them. In my subject alone (8th grade US history) I have more than 50 content standards and another 16 literacy standards. When you take out all the testing days and other lost class time that inevitably happens each year, I have approximately 160 to 165 days to cover these. Add to that the fact that I’m not allowed to know exactly which standards will be covered on ILEARN. I’m not allowed to know! If you don’t think that’s insane, I don’t know what to tell you. Imagine teaching a class for a year and then having some stranger write your final test for you and you’re not allowed to see it first. That is madness.

Step 4:

Create a panel of education professionals to create and oversee a new tests in each content area.

This would include a pre-test to be given at the beginning of the school year to establish students’ baseline data of what they knew about the content to start the year and a post-test to be given at the end of the year to show how much each student improved and grew. Another critical piece of this step is to have those same panels of teachers oversee the grading of these tests, using a common rubric they helped to create. This is, in my opinion, the only equitable way to judge a teacher on what was actually taught in their classroom. If you want to tie performance bonuses to that kind of testing, I don’t think you’d get a lot of pushback from very many teachers. A pleasant side-effect of this policy would be the enormous monetary savings. The only money required would be to pay the members of the panel a reasonable stipend (perhaps in the neighborhood $5,000 each) and a modest stipend for those selected to grade the tests and collect the data. Compare that expense–not to mention the potential corruption–the $100 million now spent on big-money corporation supplied tests and I think you’ve got a win-win.

Step 5:

Create a teacher recruitment campaign, including incentives for great teachers to go where they are needed most

To borrow a line from The Godfather…how do you attract teachers to the schools that are currently hemorrhaging teachers left and right? You make them an offer they can’t refuse. I’ll give you and example using myself. First, let me say I’m already in a place I’m needed most, but, if I were feeling called to move to a different school, it would be next to impossible for me to do so. I’m just too expensive. I could possibly move to another district were I to take a big pay cut but, let’s be honest, that’s not an attractive option for anyone. We need creative minds who know the ins and outs of public education to put together a plan (after all of the previous steps are accomplished) to make teaching in Indiana attractive again. When I first started teaching two decades ago, Indiana was a pretty good place to teach. Over the last 15 years, bad policy has devastated our status as a teaching destination. When we have an average salary adjusted for inflation that has us making $10,000 per year LESS than we made 20 years ago–when our ranking in pay growth is dead last in the nation–who’s going to want to come and teach here? Things have got to change.

There are lots of other education issues that need to be addressed, but I believe that the proposals I listed above would have the most immediate impact in turning our problems around. Let’s start there and see where we need to go then.

But to have any chance of getting such changes made, we’ve got to have a significant teacher presence in our state government. We have a superintendent in Dr. Jennifer McCormick who, although she might have an “R” following her name, has been nonetheless a vocal supporter of teachers and a strong opponent of many of the education reforms our supermajority legislature has forced upon us. Dr. McCormick is proof that you don’t have to belong to a particular party to do what’s best for kids and teachers. But she will be leaving next year and her replacement will be handpicked by the governor and the supermajority if they are allowed to continue with their tyrannous agenda. Imagine what could happen if we put 20, 15, even a dozen professional educators into the seats of our representative government. We may not be able to stop the crisis, but I believe we could certainly slow it down and have great positive impact.

Who’s with me? Who’s going to step up and throw your hats into the ring?

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3 Replies to “To Stem the Tyrannous Tide, We Need More Educators in Indiana Government: My Platform, Were I to Run”

  1. Your point about the standards could also be expanded to explain why and how they got so unwieldy. Once upon a time, Indiana had some of the best written and highest-rated standards in the nation. Teachers worked with the DOE to develop them for each content area. (Some of my curriculum was used to create new journalism standards, for example.) They were concise, precise, and gave teachers latitude. Once the ALEC crew in the legislature sold Indiana out to the Common Core, the standards became ridiculous. (I spoke back and forth at length at that time with a nationally recognized education professor who lamented why in the world Indiana would have ever gotten away from the original standards the state had written. She told me, “It’s ridiculous. Your standards were revered by other states because they were so precise yet easily accessible to teachers.”) Then, when that failed and the state went back to writing its own, the authors were still bogged down by expectations to make them too much like the Common Core and to cover way to many items for each subject area.

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