Saturday, March 13, 2010

Union Bashing

I have always respected Crain's Cleveland Business, the weekly business publication for NorthEast Ohio, so much in fact, I even have a subscription to their daily email newsletter.
However, today I read a post on Crain's blog by editor Brian Tucker that really got me riled. At first I growled, then I reread it and cursed. After reading it yet again, I needed to respond, so I started writing... and writing... and writing.
When I finished writing I was still so annoyed that I published my comment before adding my signature. My efforts are published on their site anonymously, but I do not want to hide behind my computer screen, so I will repost the offending editorial and my response here:

Now that's the ticket
"Its good that the Cleveland school board didn't buy into a counterproposal by some teachers from the underperforming East High School that Superintendent Gene Sanders wants to close.

While it might be intriguing to have half the building be a charter school and the other a community center, that concept would never work with a unionized teaching staff.

There are plenty of examples of bad charter schools, and our community and state should close them as fast as possible. But the good ones, such as Cleveland's E-Prep, succeed in large part because the teachers aren't unionized.

The teachers are there because they're driven to succeed as educators. They don't balk at the longer school days and years. And if they don't do a good job, they are replaced — quickly — by empowered administrators.

Plenty has been written about how it is next to impossible to remove a teacher in a unionized setting. That's good for the union and especially good for the mediocre-to-average teachers; but it's horrible for students, parents and our community as a whole."

Mr. Tucker, I take issue with your pronouncement that unions are a primary impediment to a school’s success, as well as the implication that the elimination of the teacher’s union would improve education in the city of Cleveland.

When I was a student, I was taught two very important lessons. The first by my science teacher, Sr. Immaculata, ”Do your research”. The next from my geometry teacher, Sister Clarissa, “You need to apply logic if you want to find the best answer”.

I would like to start with a bit of logic.

If the presence of a teacher’s union in a school will inhibit a school’s success, than it would follow that most unionized schools would be failing schools. Yet, right here in Cuyahoga County we have some of the top ranked schools in the United States, staffed by union teachers, ie. Chagrin Falls, Solon, Bay Village, Cuyahoga Falls, and even the Cleveland School of the Arts (surprisingly, staffed by members of the CTU). Therefore, one can infer that teacher's unions don’t create failure.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the actual differences between successful schools and failing schools.

All but one of the schools mentioned above are suburban schools where a majority of students come from families with above average incomes. Studies have shown that a greater percentage of children who come from a higher socioeconomic background will achieve academic success at significantly higher levels than children living in poverty, which explains why Chagrin Falls, Solon, etc., have a much better success rate than CMSD’s East or South High Schools. Yet, The Cleveland School of the Arts, John Hay High School, and E-Prep have student bodies whose families represent the opposite end of the economic demographic. Having eliminated unions and family finance as the cause of school failure, what other differences are there?

This is where we have to do some research.

How are students admitted?
At E-prep, students AND parents must attend a mandatory open house, parent orientation, and student orientation. At CSA, students must participate in a 2-3 hour audition with a parent, and submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher in their selected discipline. At John Hay, students must have a 3.0 GPA to apply, and submit 4 evaluation forms from current teachers. At East High and South High students register by showing up, walking up to the counter at the main office with an adult, and filling out as much of the paper work as they can.

E-prep maintains a zero-tolerance policy regarding their student code of conduct. The consequence for non-compliance is dismissal. Students who cannot maintain good grades or have problems with behavior at CSA and John Hay will be transferred back to the student’s home school, which might be East or even South High School. What happens to students who misbehave at East, South, Lincoln West, or any other CMSD neighborhood school? Consequences range from detentions to 1-10 day suspensions for most conduct issues. Really serious incidents (meaning behavior that would be classified as criminal in the adult realm) are referred to a disciplinary board for an expulsion hearing. Expulsions are typically more than 10 days, not to exceed 80 days. Only a very few offenses are eligible for permanent expulsion: murder, attempted murder, drug trafficking, and rape.

Given these facts, one could reasonably conclude that the key to effective schools in low income neighborhoods would be mandated parental involvement, careful screening of prospective students, and strictly enforced codes of conduct, including low to zero tolerance for infractions.

Doomed to failure are the schools which, by law, must educate all children, including the sociopaths, addicts, gangbangers, those suffering from serious (and not so serious) mental illnesses, as well as the kids who have been raised by television, or whose parents are completely uncaring, absent, or mentally incompetent. These are the kids who can’t get into the specialized magnet schools or the outstanding charter schools. There is no ROI for the taxpayers to give kids like these the extra help they need. These are the children who, despite the federal mandate, have been left behind. For many of them, what lies ahead is a future in the justice system. While we close down schools, this country continues to build prisons, and those are funded without voting on a levy.

It is much more convenient (and politically advantageous) to point the finger of blame at inner-city teacher's unions than to create the kind of specialized schools that will meet the needs of the growing numbers of damaged children that come from our poorest neighborhoods.

I started this blog back in 2004 in response to those people who were quick to criticize Cleveland teachers. As the economy declined, those numbers have grown. Every article I read about the schools on lately is followed by hateful commentary blaming the teachers for all the problems of the district, and often blaming unions in general for the entire economic crisis.

"Get rid of the unions!"
"Fire the teachers!"
"Scrap the schools!"
"Bulldoze the neighborhoods!"

When did so many Clevelanders become so calloused, so bitter, so angry?
What is happening to my city?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Imagining Innovative Education


Our young principal's face was serious as he addressed the group of department chairs gathered in the high school media center.

"2014 is the year that the district plans to open the new Max Hayes Career and Technical High School, and I have been told that the new school WILL NOT be a traditional high school. The district is looking to make this school a flagship of innovation in career and technical education, and anyone who wants to be a part of the new Max Hayes needs to begin rethinking how we educate high school students to work in the trades."

The expressions around the table ranged from bewildered to anxious; from suspicious, to thoughtful. Peering over her glasses, one district veteran spoke up, "What exactly do they mean by the term 'innovative'?"

"As I understand it," he answered, "they are looking for new approaches in everything. New curriculum, new collaborations, new scheduling, a new calendar... We can rethink anything and everything. For example, I'd like to use new technology to take attendance. We could have kids sign in with a fingerprint. The school will remain a comprehensive high school, but what if we could incorporate the academics into the trade classes? Or what if the trade students ran small businesses out of the school?"

"What a fabulous opportunity," I thought. Aloud I asked, "What are the non-negotiables? Are there legal constraints we need to keep in mind? You know things like OCEA?"

"The students will still have to pass the OGT."

For over a week now the possibilities swirled through my mind like the powdery snow lifted in the wind eddies just outside the doorway.
What would an innovative career tech school look like?

I imagine a green building, one that utilizes lots of new technology. I'm not talking about plopping a few solar panels on a rooftop. No, I would envision a building that not only incorporates the technology, but whose design shouts sustainability. The architecture should scream "GREEN".
Urban wind generators would be installed, like modern sculpture, on a green roof, whose vegetation becomes an outdoor classroom for botany lessons, and is maintained by students who might be learning the roofing trade or landscaping. Large solar panels would become canopies for covered walkways and bus shelters.

This new innovative school will not be a college preparatory program. This is career tech, and we are training the workforce of the twenty-first century. What will they need to know? What would an innovative high school look like for students who are NOT college bound?

I asked the question of my family and my friends. I even posted it on face book. The answers were remarkable:
"The school needs more than lip-service from local business. Develop working partnerships. Bring the professionals into the classrooms for workshops."

"(Teach the) restoration of horticulture, agriculture, manufacturing, CAD, IT and home economics curricula... probably more.
Learn to sew, grow, cook, plumb, build and repair mechanical things, use web tools."

"The future is about sustainability. Teach the students how to install and maintain solar panels, geothermal systems, and wind generators. Teach them how to work on electric cars, new diesel, and fuel cells. Have your neighbors at the Great Lakes Brewery teach them about engines that use recycled cooking oil, and how to run a zero waste business."

"Use the CNC mills and lathes to run production. Have a WIRENET partner outsource a small job to the students, and let them have the experience and satisfaction of manufacturing a real product."

"Let the building construction students rehab some of the thousands of abandoned houses in Cleveland."

"Make sure the students understand the business end of business. Use math classes to teach about finance, loans, interest, and credit. Teach them how to fill out purchase orders, write business letters, and correspond professionally. Teach courtesy."

"Do you know how many young people get fired from their first few jobs for not coming to work on time, or worse yet, not showing up at all... no notice... no phone call? Employers expect punctuality. A school that prepares kids for jobs needs to insist on attendance and punctuality."

"They could have the kids tear down all those school buildings that they want to close and recycle the materials before they rot."

"In the real world, companies drug test their employees. What if the students had to pass a drug test to work in the shops?"

"Don't just teach the kids a trade, teach them how to make money. Teach them how to market their skills. Teach them self-reliance."

"Make the new school a real showcase. Design it so that visitors can tour the building and observe the classes through windows that look down on the shop floors. Include a state of the art auditorium so you can bring in speakers, not just for the students, but also hold programs in the evening for the community. The suburbs open up their schools as community centers in the evening, why can't Cleveland do that for its residents? The community would support the schools if they were valuable, if they were accessible, to the whole community."

I would be interested to hear more ideas. Please post your thoughts and I'll make sure to pass them along to the people in charge of gathering community input. Will any of the real decision makers actually pay attention...? Well, one can always hope.