My Day with the PTA

This is going to be one of those long ones, so get yourself a cup of coffee or hot tea and get comfortable.

Because of my interest in education and legislation, I volunteered to be the PTA Legislative chair at my daughter’s school. That was almost two years ago. I followed what was going on and reported back to the membership. That was easy. I do remember that the Seattle Council Legislative VP, Heidi Bennett, seemed a tad bit over the top about Race to the Top but at the time I thought that was her personal view. She did seem to be pushing it a bit too much after a while but again, I couldn’t imagine that this had anything to do with the PTA but possibly another organization that she might have been a part of like the Alliance for Education or the imaginary Our Schools’ Coalition. I had no idea that she was following an edict by way of the PTA, not until Friday, October 8, 2010 when I participated in the statewide PTA Legislative Assembly. Being a legislative chair for our school, I attended this meeting.

I got to the Marriott at SeaTac on Friday just in time to sit in on the “Issue Education Session” described as Issue 3: New Model for Teacher Compensation. Below is a description of the issue as provided by the PTA. It says:

Issue Statement:

The Washington State PTA shall initiate and/or support legislation or policies that lead to a new research-based state teacher compensation model that emphasizes rewarding teacher effectiveness in improving student learning.

Before I go on, let me give you a little background about one of my motivations for going. I wanted to be able to speak to the issue of performance pay and seniority, two issues that were on the PTA agenda. I had sat in on a couple of Seattle Council PTSA meetings, these are the citywide meetings, and said my piece about how the PTA shouldn’t get involved in backing the edicts of the Race to the Top agenda. The SCPTSA President said that there was a time and opportunity to make a difference at the Legislative Assembly so I was looking forward to having the opportunity to have a real debate on the issues and maybe make a difference.

The meeting started and a person who I assumed was the leader for this session, was in the front and the first thing she said was “Did anyone here see Superman!?” Uh oh, this was not starting out well. She started to gush that the movie was so “heart wrenching” and that it brought tears to her eyes. Then she held up what I imagined was going to be our required reading for the day. “Has anyone seen this?” and she waved a Time magazine with a school bus on it, Well, at least it wasn’t the one with Michelle Rhee on the cover with her broom stick. For that I was relieved, but only momentarily. On the cover it said “What Makes A School Great?” And below  that, “It all starts with the teachers” and the last line, “Why is it so hard to find good ones”. And the cover story? “Waiting for Superman: A Call to Action for Our Schools”

At this point I knew it was going to be a rather long day.

There were two parents in the front and I assumed that they were going to provide both sides of the issue (Right? This was to be a day of sharing, debate and exchanging ideas.) But boy was I wrong. It was all about how “old” teachers had seniority and there were all these new young teachers who didn’t have seniority and they were so good but they might be fired unless …unless we drop “tenure”, a word that they erroneously used interchangeably with the term “seniority” over the course of the day. And then one of the parents said that they had all the reports and data on everything that they were talking about right here. The parent kept raising her notebook and pointing to it. I assumed that’s where the data was.

Then the leader, the one with all of the data, said that education doesn’t matter when it comes to a teacher’s “effectiveness”. She went on to say that having a masters’ degree didn’t mean anything and most of the time, when a teacher gets additional training or a degree, it’s in something else that has nothing to do with the subject that they are teaching. I couldn’t believe what this woman was saying. I would say that all of us in that room thought that education was important, but not for teachers?

I had to raise my hand at that point and ask just that question. How can you say that getting additional education is not important to developing as a professional when you seem to value education, at least for your child?

Well, it’s not that. It’s the kind of education that our teachers are getting. They take classes in subjects that don’t have anything to do with the subject that they are teaching. So what’s wrong with having a well-rounded education? I asked.  Well, not if it’s in basket weaving. I kid you not, that’s what one of the other parents said, one of the parents who was to be monitoring the meeting piped in and said that. OK, now I knew that this was going to be a very long day.

Then they got to teacher compensation. They actually called it merit pay.

The first question that the leader with the notebook asked was, “Why is it that we can’t retain our good teachers?” I thought, I haven’t seen them leaving in droves recently although at this point I wouldn’t blame them for finding the closest exit. Then she went on, “We still don’t see scores going up.” That was true. “We need to send a message to our legislature”, OK “We have to raise the bar of rigor…we have to reward” the teachers I assume.

My hand went up again because I knew where this was going. “If you are referring to merit pay, there are studies and reports, two in particular, that show that merit pay doesn’t affect student performance.” I named the EPI report and the Vanderbilt study. I went on to say that in Texas, where they had merit pay for three years, it was not effective in raising test scores so they abandoned the idea. I also brought up Chicago where Arne Duncan was CEO for four years before becoming secretary of education. Test scores hadn’t budged there or in New York where they had actually plummeted and all things RTTT were in effect in both of those cities.

Another parent who is part of the Seattle Council PTSA said that where she works and in fact in many corporations, there is merit pay.

I answered with the question, but is the corporate model appropriate in terms of education? Aren’t both of these institutions different? People were getting a little flustered with me at this point. I was asking too many questions and challenging what for them had become the acceptable way of thinking. It was apparent that they were not ready for this line of questioning and had not expected this to happen. We were just supposed to drink our coffee, sit and listen. Apparently there was not much room or time for debate.

We were not here to question. We were here to vote for a platform that had been previously decided on and that was that.

I began to wonder where these platforms came from. They were right out of the RTTT play book. These folks didn’t come up with this on their own.

The time for conversation in our session was limited and the two leaders had to come up with a resolution of some sort at the end of the session. Why? I don’t know.

They were running out of time and so the other parent standing at the front said, “Do we all agree that things need to be improved?” Some people nodded their heads, “That things need to change?” Another nodding of heads, “Then voting for this is voting for change!” Wow, end of story. Just like that. We want change so vote for this. Well, that’s one way of doing it.

So, the real reason for these “Education Sessions” was to provide reasons to vote for their platform, basically market it. No questions were expected, no opposing sides represented. There was not to be any debate but only a presentation. I had just spent an hour listening to an infomercial for RTTT.

I was truly let down.

Out of curiosity, I went up to the leader with the notebook, the one with all of the data in it, and asked her what studies she was referring to. She showed me a copy of an NCTQ report, (see: The Lines of Influence), a report done by CRPE and a paper titled The Caldwell Report. The NCTQ report, bought and paid for by Bill Gates and a report done by CRPE, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a foundation funded by Bill Gates to provide all with the NCTQ Report and all things charter schools . And the Caldwell Report? I had never heard of it. I called on my best data gatherers by cell and asked them if they had come across the report and both said “No”.

I goggled it later and came up with all sorts of entries but nothing pertaining to teachers, teaching or merit pay. If someone else can find a report relevant to teaching or education referred to as the Caldwell Report, please let me know.

And where were all of the teachers in this “Education Session”? This was the PTA, the Parents and Teachers Association. Had we thrown them out with the bathwater too? There was someone in the “Education Session” who said she was a teacher. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from her about student testing and merit pay and how it was all such a great idea. She was young so I was giving her the benefit of the doubt. As it came up later during the general assembly, she was a Teach for America teacher and during her two minutes said “Rhee did some good things while she was in DC”, like fire 271 teachers and replace them with Teach for America recruits? A ringer? Possibly.

After the “Education Session” was a presentation in the ballroom to be given by the senior Bill Gates. You just can’t seem to get away from those folks these days. I decided to take a break and not hear about how we should all vote for Bill 1098 basically to pay for all of this ed reform that they are pushing. Bill Gates, Sr. wants to make sure that the Gates Foundation doesn’t have to keep forking over the dollars to maintain their idea of education.

Then, finally, an Education Session with someone who made sense. A wonderful woman, Adie Simmons, Director of the Education Ombudsman, spoke to us about the Achievement Gap, which she referred to as the “Opportunity Gap”. What was interesting about this Education Session is that for all of the hoopla and hand wringing about test scores and the achievement gap that I was hearing about in the building that day, this room was fairly quiet and empty. Oh well, everyone else had it all figured out anyway. All it would take is merit pay and no seniority for teachers.

The Ombudsman Office had real data or as I like to call it, information, about how our students are doing now in the state of Washington. She showed that test scores over the last ten years have trended downwards. She asked us why we thought that was. This wasn’t a lead in to another infomercial, she was really trying to come up with some answers herself. No one else said anything so I mentioned less class time with teachers due to budget cuts over the years, more parents working and not being able to spend enough time to help with homework. Larger homework loads because the teachers do not have the time to cover all of the information in class making it the responsibility of the students to teach themselves and the pressure by the schools to meet graduation rate quotas therefore pushing students along without being prepared for the next grade. Nothing was ever mentioned about “teacher quality   or “teacher effectiveness”. How refreshing, an entire hour without hearing those two phrases.

Ms.  Simmons told us of the services that the office provides. She referred to the Ombudsman as a “third party”. She said “We help resolve problems, conflict and disputes between parents and schools that affect student learning”. This can range from language barriers to transportation. She said that they were an advocate for the child. Ms. Simmons also stated that many of students they advocated for  were in special education programs and there was an increasing amount of bullying that was happening particularly towards students who were ELL or in special education. She said that there was a lack of civility these days and that was reflected in the behavior of young people. Indeed.

The Ombudsman Office also contracts with Language Line which is an amazing service. You just call, tell them your language and there is instant availability to someone who can speak to you.

The most amazing part is that there are only five people in the office of the Ombudsman and they successfully handle cases throughout the state of Washington every day. Bravo to them!

Unfortunately that hour was over too quickly. It was time for lunch and then  the general assembly meeting.

The General Assembly Meeting

In the ballroom where the meeting was to take place, I found my spot with my region, the Seattle area. I settled in and started looking around.

Mostly women, a few men. There were two African Americans in our Seattle group and I was one of them. So much for diversity. In the general population, I saw maybe 3 or 4 African-Americans out of an audience of about 300. Not exactly a crowd that was representative of our state.

This meeting started at 8:00 AM on a Friday morning and went to about 10:00 PM that night so that eliminated a lot of parents who were either working, needed to be with their children or couldn’t afford childcare for that length of time. It was a vacation day for the Seattle public schools.

The meeting began and there was some mention made about the Common Core State Standards, you know, the standards that Bill Gates is paying  four states so far to apply for at the tune of $1M.

The state president of the PTA, Scott Allen, spoke about how we had so much to be proud of like Bill 2271 that will fund education reform. That was a “big win” for us according to our president. Mr. Allen went on to say that we did that by networking not only with the legislators but with other policy makers like our city council members. He said that the PTA is considered a “trusted source” in our state, that the PTA is a go-to source for policy makers. Is that why Vicki Phillips, the Director of Education with the Gates Foundation thinks that our national president, Byron Garrett, is the cat’s meow? Because we are tooting their horn for them?

In her speech to the National PTA, Ms. Philips stated, “I hope you’re as proud to call Byron your leader as we at the Gates Foundation are to call him a partner”. Later in her speech she says “So we know master’s degrees have almost no value. We know certifications don’t make a difference. We know that after three years, seniority doesn’t really matter.” Wow, that’s what I had been hearing all day.

It was all starting to fall into place. So much for the PTA being an advocate for my child, they had become advocates for the Gates and the Broads and the hedge fund millionaires. They had sold our children out for a few shekels, high stakes testing, merit pay, union busting, and charter schools. That was all part of the package. Gates had provided the PTA with all of the “research” material that they would need to sell their ideas. The deed was done and the troops, or rather the Stepford Wives, would be marching forward into the offices of the state legislators and other policy makers waving their notebooks filled with data.

Oh yeah, about that data. After our last Education Session, we were to go to our groups in terms of the issues that we wanted to support. Unlike past years’ legislative assemblies, there would be “debate” between those who supported each issue and those who didn’t. That sounded great! Finally, I could present another side of the issue.

I sat in the room where the supporters of Issue number 3, “New Models for Teacher Compensation” were gathering. I wasn’t sure if I was to be there or not but decided to stay and just be quiet because this was their time to get organized.

First thing from the leader with the notebook? “We’re not looking at studies or data” I am paraphrasing here, “This doesn’t have anything to do with data, anyone can show data one way or another.” Well, that was a change of tune from the morning session. Without going into the details, they got their list of items done and then it was my turn to see if anyone besides myself was interested in giving an opposing viewpoint.

Two other parents showed up and we worked out what we were going to say. We only had ten minutes total, I thought, for each viewpoint, two minutes each. I would start, then the other two parents would do their two minutes and then I would do a conclusion. Great! During dinner I put my thoughts together.

They were basically:

  • Basing a teacher’s performance on test scores causes many teachers to begin to teach to the test. The curriculum becomes dumbed down and the focus narrowed to what will be on the test and nothing more.
  • We need to first even the playing field for the teachers by addressing the other issues that are up for consideration during this session such as increasing literacy instruction, math and science education and ensuring that there is physical education in the schools as well as health programs, good breakfast and lunch programs, wrap-around services for the students in need  and smaller class sizes.
  • We need to get our teachers on board with whatever we recommend otherwise we will begin to pit the PTA against the teachers and we really don’t want that.
  • Let’s focus on putting our resources into other areas that directly support our students and teachers and not on trying to create a corporate model out of our public schools.

Well, that was the plan. There was more that I wanted to say but six minutes isn’t much time.

It was finally our big moment in the general assembly.

I went to the microphone, gave my two minutes, then another parent and the third parent, then I was back at the microphone to give the final four minutes, but wait! I wasn’t being called on. What was going on?! They kept calling on the other side because they had more people and as I found out standing there, I wouldn’t have a chance to speak again because I had already spoken. So even though we had time left over it went to the other side because they had more people who hadn’t spoken! So basically, the side with the most people gets the most time. That’s not a debate!!!

Needless to say, even though their arguments were pre-packaged ala NCTQ and some not even relevant, that platform got the vote by an overwhelming majority. So did the seniority plank, Issue 4: “Teacher Reduction in Force Policies”. Heidi Bennett, the Legislative Vice President of the Seattle Council PTSA said that the teacher’s contract should be “seniority free”.

Issue 1, which was “Following Up on Education Reform Efforts”, regarding the Race to the Top Bill 6696 and similar bills got the majority of votes. Afterwards I wondered how some of those parents from the small towns and rural areas of the state of Washington would be able to justify how they voted to approve closing a school, firing half of their schools staff or firing a principal if test scores do not meet a specified standard. Where would they be if that were to happen? Without a school? With Race to the Top funding worked out on the last go-round as about $71 per student that would certainly not be enough to pay for “turning a school around”. And what about finding new teachers to staff a school in a rural area or a small town? I suppose they could get Teach for America recruits with five weeks of training and little else to teach their children for at least two years before those recruits move on to their chosen professions.

Issue 2 “Fund Education First” got the majority vote. That’s the idea that education funding should come before anything including social or health services. Please explain the logic of that one to me. It doesn’t matter if a child has a place to live or food to eat or is sick, as long as there is a classroom for that child to be in, that‘s all that matters. And you want teachers to perform well and be “effective”? You have to give them and the child the support that they need first to succeed.

Literacy Instruction passed although one woman said that there was concern by her teacher that this would become standardized curriculum with no room allowed for the teacher to do what they think would work best for their students. Her concern is about “curriculum alignment”. Teachers will have to go “by the book” based on “Common Core Standards”, leaving little to no room to apply what might work for their class or for an individual student. And why is following a pre-packaged curriculum so important? Because the test given has to match the curriculum, right? It all has to line up so that we can get our test scores. This all comes down to that test score, that number that will determine a teacher’s livelihood, whether a school is closed or half of the staff fired, whether a school keeps its’ principal or not, it all comes down to that.

After the last vote I saw where it was all going. Everyone was in step, well, almost everyone. They were in step with our national president who was in step with our benefactor, Bill Gates.

Now on to Olympia, notebooks in hand.


Update October 14, 2010

Someone sent me a link to this article in the Seattle Times,

National PTA gets $1 million from Gates Foundation

The $1M is going to North Carolina, New Jersey, Florida and Georgia.

Well there you go! And Washington State is doing it for free.