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Relief, but not much: How forecasted surplus will affect schools

classroom desks


There will be a quiz.

Today, I offer you a news nugget that’s brief but important, followed by a handful of links to items Learning Curve is prepared to decree required reading. I expect you to click through, and there will be a quiz.

But first: Does news that a second state surplus was forecast last week mean that schools can start recalling laid off teachers, whittling class sizes down to something smaller than a college freshman English lecture section and stop asking parents to supply basics like copier paper and Kleenex?

No, and the very fact that you would ask petrifies some education policy types who are afraid that the public will mistake the anticipated wee uptick in funding for a windfall and take the heat off of Minnesota’s math-impaired lawmakers to come up with some long-term solutions.

“The worst thing that could happen is that people will think it’s new money,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. There will be some cash flow relief for some districts, but not much and nothing more, he emphasized.

Minnesota lawmakers have used school funding shifts for so many years now that even the most egg-headed among us have lost track of what happens when it’s actually possible to start repaying the shift, so a primer is probably in order.

First $5 million goes to reserve fund

Last November, an $868 million surplus was forecast and was used to replenish the state’s cash flow account and budget reserve. That still left the reserve fund below its statutory minimum of $653 million, so the first $5 million of February’s projected $323 million surplus goes to top it off.

The rest goes directly to school districts, beginning March 15. Alas, it’s going to be the equivalent of you or me having another $25 to send to VISA on a regular basis: Nice, sure, but no way to put food on the table.

The bump means districts will begin receiving 64.3 percent [PDF] of their monthly state aid payments instead of the 60 they’re been receiving since last year’s shutdown-ending deal to balance the state budget by withholding 40 percent of school funding. Most districts will simply send this money on to their creditors.

To put this further in perspective: Districts are still being asked to do with a shift that’s 5.7 percent bigger than the 70-30 shifts that they saw in the latter years of the Pawlenty administration.

Update: House GOP leaders today are expected to announce a proposal to use $430 million from the reserve fund to accellerate paying back the shift. Education Finance Committee Chair Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, told Minnesota Public Radio it makes financial sense to use cash on hand instead of forcing districts to continue to borrow. Staff analysts said they are concerned the move could force the state to engage in short-term borrowing, while DFLers said they wished leadership would instead seek a way of repaying the entire $2.4 billion holdback.

Required reading

And now I turn the rest of this post over to provocative journalism from others. Like this riveting cautionary tale from the Washington Post story about a teacher whose May 2011 performance evaluation was so sparkling her peers were urged to watch and learn.

“Two months later, she was fired.

“[Sarah] Wysocki, 31, was let go because the reading and math scores of her students didn’t grow as predicted. Her undoing was 'value-added,' a complex statistical tool used to measure a teacher’s direct contribution to test results. The District and at least 25 states, under prodding from the Obama administration, have adopted or are developing value-added systems to assess teachers.”

Just in case you missed it: Minnesota is one of those 25 states.

Confessions of a 'bad' teacher

A similar story, constructed around a host of horror stories, appeared in Monday’s New York Times. On Saturday, the same paper published an equally compelling first-person story entitled “Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher.”

"... On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching 'unsatisfactory,' checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an 'A' rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.

"... Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my 'bad' teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job."

Minnesota is also one of the states where lawmakers are considering dramatic changes to the way in which teacher seniority factors into layoffs, and I would be remiss if I didn’t thus also steer you to an op-ed from Tuesday’s Star Tribune not about evaluation per se but about an equally controversial extension: Using the data to make personnel decisions.

It’s a first-person account of a meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton and a critique of the mainstream DFL’s response to a proposal to end “last-in, first-out,” or LIFO, penned by self-described bleeding heart Lynnell Mickelsen – who is both a very funny writer and the founder of a group of parents and community activists who would like teacher contract reform in Minneapolis.

(Agree with her or not, you have to acknowledge that Mickelsen has done the unprecedented by working both the Book of Revelations and the term “lady parts” into a commentary on education reform.)

Job satisfaction is low

If you’ve paused and clicked on any of these, this last item will come as no surprise: Education Week yesterday reported that teacher job satisfaction is lower than it has been at any point in the last two decades.

Just 44 percent of teachers surveyed are “very satisfied” with their jobs, down from 59 percent in 2009. Nearly a third are likely to leave the profession in the next five years.

“The report highlights a variety of other factors associated with low job satisfaction as well. For instance, teachers with low job satisfaction are less likely than those with high job satisfaction to say they receive adequate professional development from their school or district. Less satisfied teachers are also more likely to say their schools have experienced layoffs, reductions in programs such as art or music, reductions in health or social services for students, and increases in class sizes.

“The ‘correlation between job satisfaction and these factors suggests that the current economic climate may be contributing to the decrease in professional satisfaction,’ the report states.”

Which brings this post tidily back to where it started, doesn’t it?


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Comments (6)

I Predict our Republican "Friends" in the Legislature

Will reveal their true colors regarding their deep desire to dismantle and destroy the public education system and teacher's unions by seeking to divert the legally-required portion of this "surplus" away from the schools and toward creating a "better business climate,..."

which, as we all know, is just their dog whistle phrase for further enriching the already fabulously wealthy (and deepening the support of their sycophantic, "I'm gonna be rich someday" wannabes),...

and further advancing their long-term project of extracting from the middle class (what's left of them) their income, their assets, their property, their access to healthcare, and any hope they ever had of a comfortable retirement.

Of course the benefits in the average teacher's contract stand firmly against that project, so they simply MUST be wiped out.

Another observation

Greg, I must say I admire the way you skillfully fit your primary narritive into any issue or topic, however are we to conclude that you don't find there to be a measure of dysfunction present here as well?

A couple of observations

Alas, [more than half a Billion dollars is] going to be the equivalent of you or me having another $25 to send to VISA on a regular basis.

Put in the proper context, that statement is quite breathtaking.

Regarding job satisfaction:

"..research examining the satisfaction of public and private
school teachers indicates that teaching in a private school is associated with greater
job satisfaction on average."


$12,000 per kid ($360,000 per classroom) just isn't enough to teach someone to read, write and do arithmetic anymore.

Indeed, it's not much relief

Sixty-four percent versus sixty percent is, as advertised, relief, but not much. Since school districts are being held hostage by the legislature, it’s equivalent to letting the prisoner-of-war lick the spoon used to prepare dinner for the prison camp’s officers. Not quite in the way that he intended, I don’t think, but like Mr. Swift, I, too, find it a little breathtaking that turning over $300 million to the state’s schools doesn’t really make a serious dent in the amount that’s owed them.

As for the “required reading” about “bad teachers,” maybe the greatest surprise is that, as Beth said, Lynnell Mickelsen is a very good, and very funny writer. I was impressed by the same combination of Biblical and anatomical references. But I can’t tell from Mickelsen’s op-ed just exactly what it is that she has in mind, and there are a couple of places where I simply can’t agree with her.

Since I was evaluated every year throughout my 30 years in the classroom, I’m both surprised and disappointed to see Minnesota rely exclusively on seniority to determine staffing, hiring and firing decisions, and that evaluations sometimes are years apart. On the other hand, what I’m reading between the lines of most of the rhetoric from Republicans and others opposed to tenure is not a modification of “seniority-only,” but an elimination of seniority (and tenure) altogether as a factor in those same staffing, hiring and firing decisions. If the first is stupid, so is the second.

As the “Confessions of a ‘bad’ teacher” implies, there’s no uniform system for evaluating teacher effectiveness. While there are perfectly good reasons for that, it tends to be skipped over lightly, as if it were unimportant. It’s *very* important.

Secondly – and this is an area where I part company with Ms. Mickelsen – teaching is *not* “like other professions.” Most professions work with tangible objects and ways of dealing with those objects that have been tested and found consistent over time. Much of what an engineer, a banker, a machinist, etc., does for a living can literally be quantified. What can be quantified about teaching is the trivial. What’s important – the interaction between teacher and student – can’t be quantified at all.

Third, I don’t know offhand of any other profession wherein experience is dismissed as unimportant with the regularity with which it’s dismissed by education critics. Yes, it’s true that, for some teachers, 10 years’ experience is more accurately 1 year’s experience repeated 10 times. For a lot of professionals in other fields, the same thing could be said, but saying it doesn’t carry that aura of the unacceptable that seems to accompany the same observation in education.

Unique among the professions, what’s being proposed is that teachers be evaluated, not on what *they* do in a classroom, but on what *other people* do, and even more bizarre, while the teacher’s job might hang in the balance of this odd scenario, there are no consequences whatsoever, good or bad, for what those *other* people do, or don’t do. What’s being proposed seems based on the assumption that both teacher and student behave and react as automatons – with a sort of automatic and rigid consistency that simply doesn’t happen in human affairs. A mountain of research has shown that human beings do not respond rationally or consistently. What engages a kid today will bore her tomorrow, and upset her the day after that.

Teaching, especially good teaching, is an art, not a science. A really good teacher is Rembrandt in the classroom, but even then, not every Rembrandt is a masterpiece, nor is every class taught by a really good teacher going to be a masterpiece. If you evaluate that teacher today, s/he’s a genius with 5th-graders, or high school juniors, or whatever group s/he’s teaching. Evaluate the same person, with the same kids, tomorrow, and the impression may well be very different. No teacher or student is “on” in equal measure for every class of every day of every year. It’s not the human condition.

I’m not at all surprised at the slump in teacher job satisfaction, and thanks to Mr. Swift for providing the link to the NCES report, though it’s nearly 15 years old. Mr. Swift, however, provided only part of the story in regard to job satisfaction for teachers:

“Private school teachers tend to be more satisfied than public school teachers and elementary school teachers tend to be more satisfied than secondary school teachers, but this relationship is not nearly as strong as the finding that teachers in any school setting who receive a great deal of parental support are more satisfied than teachers who do not.”

Anyone surprised by the importance of parental support hasn't been paying attention.

With all due respect...

"What can be quantified about teaching is the trivial."

That is pure bunkum.

What we’re talking about vis-à-vis public schools is not a nuanced difference in quality or performance, in most American cities, it’s wide spread, systematic, sledge hammer obvious failure.

When a high school graduate can't spell at a 5th grade competency, it is quantitatively obvious. So too with basic math.

I agree that teaching is part art. Inspiring kids takes an innate talent that probably can’t be learned. In that, “bad teachers” are not “bad” because they are incompetent, or feckless it’s just that they are not cut out for the job.

The present, union mandated system of evaluation, which, weak as it is, was itself fought vigorously, completely ignores *every* aspect of the teaching profession save seat time. It’s ridiculous.

We can get into the huge part parental neglect plays, but we can’t get to that until we deal with boulder in the lane first. The time for applying blue collar, trade labor union rules to the teaching profession has long since expired.

The NEA must reinvent itself into a true professional society ala the ABA, AMA, IEEE, ISA & etc. or it must disappear altogether.