On #ED25 and Tenure

For those of you who’ve known me longer than about the last 37 seconds, you know I’ve been critical in recent years of the whole “education reform” movement, which seeks to define the education profession by our students’ ability to perform well on standardized tests and then take action against schools and educators based on this “results-driven” ideology.

I’ve taken many jabs at education reform groups in Delaware, such as the Rodel Foundation, the Vision Coalition, as well as public bodies like the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which have preferred to sidle up to these flavor-of-the-week #edreformers. I don’t feel these groups have the best interests of our students in mind, but not out of any malicious intent. I truly believe they feel what they’re doing is what’s best for our students. However, their very myopic, corporate-driven worldview clashes almost wholly with the experiences the educators in our public school system are faced with on a daily basis.

Recently, the Vision Coalition announced a new initiative, #ED25, which is short for Vision 2025. I’ve made jokes in the past pointing to the fact that in the past few years we’ve gone from Vision 2012 to Vision 2015 to — very briefly and comically — Vision 2020 and now Vision 2025. The #edreformers are sensing that they, perhaps, don’t have the ingredients to get the outcomes they’re demanding, so they’ve opted to — again — move the goal posts a decade down the road when it’s very likely a majority of the stakeholders will have moved on to other activities and therefore absolved themselves of any accountability to the movement they built.

Yes, I’ve been critical. And I was going in to today’s #ED25 Community Conversation with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ve found past Vision and Rodel events to be very scripted and light on key stakeholder participation. By “key stakeholder” I’m referring to parents and teachers. However, today was different, perhaps because the forum was held in the middle of summer when teachers are on their break. The number of teachers who were there and who SPOKE OUT was phenomenal. So great a job they did representing our profession, that I didn’t even feel the need to open my big fat mouth. And, for those who know me, this is a rarity.

One teacher in particular — a librarian from Christina School District — spoke eloquently to the crowd demanding they visit our public schools, saying until they have, that forums like this are like looking down from the clouds with very little perspective. As the event closed, I introduced myself to her and we had a great conversation about teachers finally rising up and responding to the #edreformers who are so casually and wrongly defining our profession for us. She agreed it’s time we need to go on the offense and put OUR message out there to advocate not only for our profession, but for the children we represent 180 days out of the year.

As we finished, this woman was approached by WDEL Reporter Amy Cherry, who wanted to interview her. She was hesitant. She told Amy that she didn’t want to speak up “for fear of losing her job.” Hold the phone. Hold the phone one damn minute. What? I walked right up and interjected and said “You get on that microphone. You need to be heard. What you said today was too valuable. I know your local association president. I know your school board. I know your superintendent. You aren’t going to lose your job for saying what needs to be said.”

And this, my friends, is why we need due process for our educators. This is why the Vergara decision out of California was so poorly decided. Our educators have a voice. This woman was not alone. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told by members in Red Clay “I don’t want to speak up because I fear I may lose my job.”

This is one of the reasons why we’re in the position we’re in. Teachers have allowed those with questionable interests to define the work we do. Too afraid to “rock the boat” and speak out, teachers have just gone along to get along. To do the work they’ve chosen and want to do with their students. To not cause a fuss. To just do their work.

Tenure is a hot topic these days. However, it’s now up to us to wrest from the hands of the reformers their deformed definition of tenure and to get the real definition out there: “Tenure” is due-process rights for teachers who’ve successfully passed a probationary period of teaching (in Delaware that period is three years). “Tenure” affords these teachers a process that includes a fair hearing before the school board before their employment can be terminated. In my (relatively short) experience, tenure has protected far more great teachers who’ve been disciplined because of speaking out than it has “bad teachers” who are plaguing our education system.

Without tenure, would we have been able to rally as many teachers as we did last year to appeal to the school board to slow down the vote on Red Clay’s plans for inclusion? Honestly…would we have? Teachers who were coming out in droves to ADVOCATE for their ELL and students with special needs. Tenure protected their right to speak free from retaliation and potential termination.

With the California judge’s tossing of due process rights for educators, he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In every way, throwing out those rights will have a negative impact on schools and our children because teachers will be less inclined to speak up than they already are. By eliminating due process, we are hastening terminations in a profession that craves stability and investment from those who’ve chosen to enter it. Want to get rid of the bad teachers? There are processes in place to deal with them — it’s just following them that needs to be done with absolute fidelity.

In essence, the woman afraid to speak on camera today COULD very well be retaliated against and terminated if her employer feels her comments are out of line. Without tenure, her firing would be completely legal and there’d be no recourse. This. Is. Not. Right. Our society should fully value the contributions of our educators, both inside and outside the classroom.

Teachers — we’ve been quiet for too damn long. Every teacher in this state needs to stand up. When you’re at the Thanksgiving table and your crazy uncle starts spouting off on education today and “those damn teacher unions,” it’s your job to shoot down the bullshit as a representative of an ailing profession that needs as much support as it can get. When the governor visits your school and asks how things are going, BE HONEST. Don’t sugarcoat the shit when you have to return to a high school English class with 42 students. Tell him and the legislature to do their damn jobs and look at revising our school funding/class-size system.

Tenure is our right. Due process is our right. We’ve bargained for it. We’ve earned it. Our students have earned it. Keep speaking up, Christina Librarian. We need you. Your students need you.

DE Dept. of Ed. and State Board of Ed. Need to Check Themselves

It’s been an interesting summer break for me. Full-fledged “summer” with the soaring temps outside. Not so much of a “break,” though. And that’s ok. Keeping busy keeps me sharp and out of trouble.

Or so I thought.

Let’s back this train up quick, fast, and in a hurry.

About three weeks ago, the Delaware State Education Association sent a request to all local presidents asking for their assistance in writing letters to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education to protest three planned regulation changes regarding teacher evaluations. These regulation changes included:

  1. Reclassifying the “pre-observation form” as the “observation form” and allowing it to be used in conjunction with unannounced observations
  2. Allow for the use of “short observations” (a.k.a. Walkthroughs) as part of a performance evaluation
  3. Changing the summative rating of “Needs Improvement” from “Satisfactory” to “Unsatisfactory”.

A summary of our actions/letters can be found here. This was a whiz-bang effort coordinated by DSEA, as all letters had to be turned in to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education two weeks before its scheduled June meeting. I turned my letter around in about a day. It cannot be overstated the value of these letters. Collectively, they represent the voices of THOUSANDS of educators from around the State of Delaware calling into question these recommended regulation changes.

How this works is the Department of Education makes recommendations to the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. The unelected and unaccountable State Board then votes on changes at its monthly meeting. There is, of course, a public comment period before the meeting where submissions can be forwarded to the Board for inclusion.

So the unelected and unaccountable State Board receives the thoughtful letters from over a dozen local association presidents. Letters that explicitly spell out WHY we feel these regulation changes are not appropriate for our profession, which in the past decade has seen a rising tide of almost insurmountable bureaucratic BS on top of the day-to-day responsibilities of educating children. Honestly, I figured the local presidents had made a damn-strong case as to why these regulation changes were bad for the profession. Namely, the recommendation that “defines a summative rating of “Needs Improvement” to be considered an Unsatisfactory Evaluation,” which could prematurely hasten the termination process for some of our novice teachers, for whom a “Needs Improvement” has actually been a rating to provide appropriate development and support in the past.

I was shocked to learn last week that all three questionable regulation changes were voted for unanimously by the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. How could they have bypassed the considerate letters of concern representing so many thousand teacher voices? How? I had much to think about.

In the meantime, I’d scheduled myself to attend a State Board of Education Workshop in Dover to hear teacher evaluation framework goddess Charlotte Danielson speak. I’ve long admired Danielson’s work. Although her framework has been effectively bastardized by states across the country and applied in punitive manners — against her wishes — I’ve always enjoyed her candor and experience on the topic.

I went in to this meeting knowing what question I would ask. In effect, “Ms. Danielson, you have said that you don’t appreciate when your framework is used in a punitive manner. Well, in Delaware just last week, our State Board of Education voted on a regulation change related to how a teacher rated ‘Needs Improvement’ would be evaluated as ‘Unsatisfactory,’ which could hasten the termination of some of our youngest teachers. As someone who has shared concerns with using your framework in punitive ways, do you believe it’s right for our State Board of Education to have voted in this manner?”

That is not quite how the question came out, but that was the gist of it. So, I asked the question. And, you know something? It obviously pissed some folks off. Immediately after the question and NOT EVEN ALLOWING MS. DANIELSON TO RESPOND, one member of the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education assailed me as having not known what I was talking about. In front of a crowd of perhaps 50 people. I said “Sir, I have the regulation language right here.” Meanwhile, a Department of Education employee chided me “Mike, you’ve got it all wrong.” I said “Oh do I now?” In conversations I had with others AFTER the contentious meeting, it became clear to me that I did not have anything wrong.

The unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education member took offense that I had characterized his body in such a manner as to pervert the intent of Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teacher evaluation. He didn’t like that I called out his unelected and unaccountable body in a public manner. 

I stand by the comment I made.The unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education needs to check itself and start listening more to the teachers who work for the children of Delaware as opposed to the bureaucrats in the Townsend Building who have their own ed-reformy ideology that doesn’t square with best practice in our classrooms. Can’t take criticism from controversial, foolish votes you take on your unelected and unaccountable Board? Then find somewhere else to serve.

I think it’s high time the State Legislature look at the power the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education wields. And they also need to look at the cozy relationship between the Department of Education and the unelected and unaccountable State Board of Education. Time for some legislation clarifying their roles.


Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have had mixed success in Delaware. However, from my District’s perspective and the members my Association has surveyed, I’d say results have been downright negative. While many have felt they’ve been effective, many more have found them to be a burdensome waste of time that has continued to fill up teachers’ already full plates. Teachers throughout the state have lost valuable planning, personal, and instructional time to complete these required meetings.

And they’re set to go away this year.

Rumor has it the state is trying to force into Department of Education regulation the continuation of PLCs, which have been a requirement under the expiring Race to the Top grant. I’m not generally one to report on “rumor,” but I’ve heard this one from multiple reliable sources.

Let me put it like this, Department of Education: Teachers are bogged down with the seemingly endless requirements you place on us in the name of data! data! data! and bureaucratic largesse.

You want to continue with PLCs? Time to pay up.

About 8,000 teachers in Delaware.
90 minutes of PLC per week.
$27 per hour of Extra Pay for Extra Responsibility outside the school day.
40 weeks per school year.
My extremely rough estimate is $12,960,000.

Our time is valuable, too. We’ve lost our contractually obligated planning time. We’ve lost our personal time outside of the school day. Our students, at times, have lost valuable time with us so that we could attend these meetings during the school day.

Any changes in state code or regulation that seek to codify PLCs had better have a fiscal note attached. Anything less is an insult to the thousands of teachers who’ve had to work through this ineffectual edreform micromanagement known as PLCs.

Email to Members of RCEA re: class-size waiver

RCEA Members:
As many of you know, Delaware State Code mandates that class sizes in grades K-3 be capped at no more than 22 students. For years, almost every school district has never met this part of state code. Meaning, class sizes have generally crept up over 22 students. It has become a regular practice for all school boards in the state to pass a waiver to this requirement. It’s become a routine. A district can’t make the class-size mandate? Pass a waiver.
Until now.
On Wednesday night, the Red Clay School Board met for its monthly meeting. On the agenda was the annual class-size-waiver vote. The Director of Elementary Schools gave a detailed, informative presentation on the waiver and listed the schools that didn’t meet the law’s requirements. Of our 14 elementary schools, only two met the class-size requirements outlined in state law. So, the District was asking the Board to grant it a waiver for those schools.
Discussion at the Board meeting was lively and engaging surrounding this issue. It’s clear we’ve reached a tipping point in how our schools are funded and how units (teachers) are used in schools. For years, the Board has held its nose while it’s passed this waiver. I say “held its nose” because I’ve never spoken to a Board member who’s LIKED passing the waiver. For years, we’ve seen these waivers pass in most districts with little action on the state level to bring about some change. For years we’ve continued to see our class sizes in K-3 hover above 22 students (sometimes hover way above 22 students). For years. For years. For years.
Well, on Wednesday night, the Board voted on the waiver and the motion failed to garner the four-vote majority needed for passage. The vote tied, 3-3, with one Board member absent. Many parents, educators, and community members in the audience cheered. It is my understanding that Red Clay is the first district in state history to say “No” to the class size waiver.
RCEA took no position on this waiver frankly, because, we’d become so accustomed to its annual passage and hadn’t even considered it at our last Rep Council meeting. Now, to be sure, we have always listened to the concerns teachers have brought to us regarding class sizes and have had great conversations with District on how we can progress in this area. Those conversations with District have often led to positive actions to help reduce class sizes in some instances well before the time of year when the waiver comes to the Board for a vote. Also, RCEA philosophically believes that smaller class sizes will achieve far greater student results, particularly in our highest-needs schools, where research shows that lowering class sizes to between 13-17 can have a very dramatic impact.
In the coming weeks you will be hearing more from RCEA on Actions that you can take to get the conversation started about class sizes and school funding issues. I’ve spoken personally with half-a-dozen legislators in Dover who are ready to tackle this issue. However, in order to gain any traction, we will need you. We will need your phone calls. We will need your letters. We will need you to show up to legislative events. We will need you at Board meetings. We will need you talking to your families and neighbors. We will need you to communicate that though the State’s 16.2 students to 1 teacher ratio SEEMS totally great, when put into practice it’s extremely challenging. You see, out of that ratio we also need to have schools staffed with ABSOLUTELY essential personnel like unified arts teachers, counselors, behavior specialists, psychologists, EDs, etc. These positions are CRITICAL to schools running smoothly, yet by their very nature they then increase the student-to-teacher ratio in our elementary homerooms.
There are still many questions to ask and answer about “what this vote means” for the educators and students in Red Clay. RCEA is working closely with District Administration, which is in turn working with the State Department of Education to figure out a path forward in the wake of the waiver vote’s failure. What we know, though, is that it’s clear people have had enough of the state and its underfunded class-size mandate. If the state is going to require classes be a certain size, then it’s time they find the funding and support what WE as educators know is best practice. And that is smaller, more manageable class sizes. The state can talk all it wants about “teacher effectiveness” and “teacher quality” and “Component V” and “rigor” and “data! data! data!,” but WE know what works. We live it every day. WE know our students. We greet them every morning. WE know our jobs. We do them all the time. It’s time the State supported us in what WE know is the right thing to do.
As I said to some people on Wednesday evening, we are entering uncharted territory with this vote. We may have some challenging conversations and actions ahead of us.
But then no one said our jobs were ever going to be easy.
All the best, have a great weekend, and please stay in touch!

The Data is In: White Flight is Real

I like to consider myself a “Reformed Blogger.” For five years, I authored and managed an interesting little slice of the Delaware blogosphere called Down with Absolutes! When I closed up shop in July 2009, my site had attracted more than 1.2 million hits, a fair amount of local media coverage, and a bizarre fascination of my site by the IP addresses located in Legislative Hall.

Not satisfied with how my professional life had been advancing — and realizing the site had been a liability to me for some time — I decided to move on. I got my teaching job and found a new life as a very active member of my union. I cherish both my job working with special needs students as well as my role as president of the Red Clay Education Association.

But sometimes I have the itch. The itch to whip out that old-style pugnacious Mike Matthews filled with a passion and muted rage that has been missing for so long. And today is one of those days.

Data. We bow down to the data gods in this state. Our Department of Education — under the leadership of Gov. Jack Markell — has an almost bizarrely fetishistic preoccupation with data. Data! Data! Data! We are data-driven! Our data drives our instruction! Data coaches! Data Day! Now, let me be the first to say I do love me some data. Teachers love data. They’ve been using it since time immemorial to drive the instruction in their classroom. However, this continued shoving of data talking points down our throats is not changing the fact that our schools are under-resourced and for too many, schools are filling the widening gaps caused by troubled home lives.

But back to the data. Boy…do we have some data today!! The information is a little buried on the state Department of Education’s website, but it’s there if you search hard enough. First…some background. Newark Charter School is a charter school geographically located in the Christina School District. It’s a charter school in a school district with 60% low-income students. However, because of the school’s bizarre “five-mile radius” requirement (a large part of which is actually in Maryland), a good portion of low-income students in Christina are not eligible to attend: namely those poor city kids who’d have to be bussed out to such a far away school! Nevermind that those kids are already bussed to far-away schools Glasgow, Christiana, and Newark High Schools!

Last year, Newark Charter School — which had been a K-8 school — sought and was granted a modification to its charter. The school will now be K-12, with the 9th grade being the first to be phased in this year, the 2013-14 school year. When this was reported, all sorts of activists who are engaged on the issue of public education cried foul. They claimed this would draw students from the Christina School District who were perhaps more affluent. Resources would be taken from the traditional schools and put in Newark Charter. They claimed the high school most impacted — Newark High School — would see a great decline in white students.

Well, folks, we got the data. And it jibes pretty completely with what was said months ago. Last year, the percentage of white students entering Newark High School’s 9th grade class was 44%. This year, that number plummeted to 30%. Meanwhile, over at Newark Charter School, their 9th grade class is a whopping 69% white. Wow. That’s all I can say. A shift that dramatic could never be attributed to some off-year statistical anomaly. This is white flight, plain and simple. Wow. Wow. Wow.

I’m guessing a good portion of those students would have gone to Newark High School. However, as my good friend and blogger Pandora often says, why would you turn down what is, essentially, a free, “exclusive” private school education at a place like Newark Charter School?

This is all very planned. This is all very rehearsed. I’m going to break it to you: We continue to praise some of these high-performing charter schools as if there’s some magic going on inside them. No doubt, they are fine schools. However, they’re rigging the system. As we’re finding out as we delve deeper into the HB 90: Enrollment Preferences Task Force (and, to a lesser degree, the SB 147: District/Charter Collaboration Task Force), the schools have amazingly complex — and legally questionable — applications and enrollment practices that specifically allow them to exclude large portions of mostly minority and low-income students. In particular, at last week’s HB 90 meeting, emotions became flared by some representing charter schools when one state representative brilliantly went down a list of some of the most bizarre charter school application questions in Delaware.

I don’t know about you, but charter schools should be a representation of the school districts in which they’re located. A school like Charter School of Wilmington is located in Red Clay, a district with 50% low income students. However, CSW has a measly 1.6% low-income students. Newark Charter, in a district with 60% low-income, is only 13.5%. These charter schools are not representative of the districts in which they reside.

The data is in: White flight is real. Except this time, people aren’t fleeing the cities and moving to the suburbs. They’re pulling Johnny and Jane from their traditional neighborhood school for a bit of exclusivity. High-performing charter schools: They’re the new country clubs.

Now, whenever I have this discussion with someone who is a fan of charters, I always seem to have to qualify my words with this: I have no problem with charters. Charters can be a good thing when done properly and with the careful consideration of the overall education landscape. Hell, it was brought up in our SB 147 task force yesterday that even the ed-reformy BS’ers at the Gates Foundation say good charter school systems MUST be representative of the population as a whole. Low-income. ELL. Special education. The problem is that for too long, Delaware’s charter school laws have allowed these schools too much flexibility to game the system and advance their discriminatory admissions practices. The highest-performing charter schools are that way because they have exclusive means of accepting students. The mediocre charter schools are no better than the “average” traditional public schools. The really struggling charter schools lack either vision or financial/governance oversight and/or serve the same challenging student base that have left many traditional schools BEGGING for more resources for years.

All I’ve asked in years’ past was for this offensive comparison to stop. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when traditionals must take everyone. It is wrong to compare charters to traditionals when the charters can create applications and admissions systems that specifically exclude certain populations of students based on geography or test scores which then, by default, exclude certain socioeconomic groups. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Build all the charter schools you want. But the playing field needs to be even. Sadly, we had the potential to see some REAL charter school updates this past legislative session, but one Really Bad Bill drove the narrative and we’re simply left with More of the Same.