Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Tenure, LIFO, and Paying for Years of Service

WARNING: Serious teacher post ahead.

There's been a lot of talk lately about reforming (or even getting rid of) tenure in the public school system. Critics say it makes it virtually impossible for districts to fire bad teachers. Another argument is that it grants teachers more job protection than anyone else in our economy. Less talked about are the related issues of LIFO* (last in, first out) and basing teachers' salaries on their years of service. In Michigan, and in many other places across the nation, all of these under attack.

I'm not going to trot out all the usual defenses of these practices. What I will do is offer a glimpse of what would happen if they disappeared.

What critics will say is that teachers should be treated like any other employee. They should be rewarded for good performance and penalized when they're ineffective. No one wants a great teacher laid off just because she's young. Teacher pay should be based on effectiveness, not seniority. These sound like reasonable arguments. But in actual practice, tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on years of service provide certainty to districts and consistency to communities.

Changing the current system will lead to unintended consequences. The legislature would essentially be turning every teacher in the state into free agents. Without the job protection tenure affords (granted after four years in Michigan), teachers just starting out their careers (unmarried, mobile, embracing change) could hop from district to district looking for the right fit. Without the incentive of future tenure and the yearly pay raises, there would be no reason to stay, especially for the best teachers.

If you tie teacher pay to effectiveness rather than seniority, there is nothing to keep a great teacher from leaving and looking for a better deal. Most veteran teachers I know don't even consider leaving after seven or eight years because of the hit their salaries would take when they changed districts. And which teachers would be most likely to take advantage of this new freedom? The very best ones. If you're a great teacher, why would you stay in your school if another school is willing to pay you more? And just where do you think our very best teachers would eventually end up? In the poorest districts, where they're needed most but the work would be harder and the pay less? Or in the districts who could pay them the most but probably need them the least?

Tenure, LIFO, and paying teachers based on seniority might be unpalatable, but no one can argue that it doesn't provide districts with a high degree of certainty from year to year. Right now, as districts figure out their budgets, one thing they do not have to worry about is losing half of their veteran teachers to better paying districts. And communities can count on which teachers are going to be there for their kids in the fall.

Personal Aside: I should say that as a male teacher in elementary education, these proposed changes don't terrify me. Quite the opposite. Believe me, I'd like a little more leverage. In the system described above, good teachers would be in very high demand (especially if the state actually started awarding schools for high performance) and the school system would more closely reflect the marketplace in that those teachers in the highest demand would command the highest salaries. There are very few men teaching in today's elementary schools (9 percent of teachers, actually). Given the high number of children being raised without a father at home, I think that might work to my advantage.

Another Criticism of the Criticism: Right now, schools have a much higher incentive to cut costs than they do to provide a great education. If that remains the case, it's hard to see how getting rid of tenure is going to ensure the best teachers remain in the classroom. My suspicion is that without the impediment of tenure, school districts will simply lay off the teachers who cost them the most, regardless of their effectiveness.

*"Last in, first out" is the practice school districts use for laying off teachers. Simply stated, those teachers who were hired most recently get laid off first when cuts to staff are made. Veteran teachers have virtually no fear of losing their job due to staffing cuts.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Fable, Retold

One day the animals were bored and so they decided to stage a contest. Zebra said, "I say we have a contest to see who has the most stripes!" Cow said, "I think we should battle to see who can produce the most milk!" Flamingo said, "I think we should hold a contest to see who looks best standing on one leg." And Raccoon said, "I think we should all dress up, and whichever one of us looks most like the Hamburglar should win!"

The other animals all hissed or mooed or growled or quacked or cawed or roared or whinnied get the picture.

But then Cheetah strolled into the clearing and purred, "I say we race to see who is fastest."

Now Cheetah was widely regarded as the most arrogant of the animals (except for Lion, but he was always asleep) and all the other animals talked behind his back and spoke openly about their desire to knock him from his self-appointed pedestal. However, most of the animals were clever enough to realize that they stood no chance in a race against Cheetah.

"I'll do it!" proclaimed Human, who never lacked for unwarranted confidence.
"I'll do it!" blurted Hare, who wanted to make amends for that lackluster performance against the Tortoise.
"Fine. I'll do it," snapped Tortoise, after Crocodile and Chameleon goaded him into defending his title.

And so the field was set. On the appointed day, Human, Hare, Tortoise, and Cheetah all lined up at the starting line. Human thought, "I'll use my superior intellect to win." Hare thought, "I won't make the mistake of taking a nap in the middle of this race." Tortoise hoped the others would somehow disqualify themselves. And Cheetah told himself over and over, "I'm the fastest animal in the kingdom. Nobody is as fast as me. I'm awesome. I'm unbelievable. I'm so fast, I make light jealous!"

And they were off. Cheetah raced ahead of the pack, quickly disappearing over a rise. Human had hidden a pistol in his running shorts, but by the time he pulled it out and took aim, the Cheetah was out of range. He shot Hare instead. And Tortoise plodded along, inch after inch, as Human swore and Cheetah sped farther and farther away.

By the time Tortoise finally crawled over the finish line, Cheetah had already bought twelve rounds of drinks for the other animals to celebrate his victory. The animals seemed to have forgiven Cheetah his arrogance. Everybody loves a winner, especially when they buy the booze. Human was especially happy. He tried to hug Tortoise, but fell over instead.

"Congratulations," Tortoise said to Cheetah. "You are the fastest."

"I always knew I was," Cheetah said. "Slow and steady may have worked once, but it's a poor substitute for talent and confidence."


Thursday, May 19, 2011

What I Learned About Sneezing

In general, I don't care for research. This is why I will probably never write historical fiction. However, there are times when, in the course of writing a scene, I doubt myself and feel the need to go googling. I was researching the act of sneezing the other day with the aim of determining how badly you can injure yourself in the act. I had heard that your heart stops when you sneeze and for years this sounded completely reasonable to me. After all, if a sneeze can force you to shut your eyes when you're blazing down the expressway at 85, 65 then surely it can stop your ticker.

Turns out it can't. I know, I was a little bummed too.

So then I googled, "Can sneezing kill you?" because, let's face it, we're kind of fragile things, we humans.

Alas, sneezing rarely leads to death (although if you're sick and you sneeze on a really old person, there's a chance).

But don't be disheartened. Sneezing can jack you up in lots of other wonderful ways. Scientists estimate the speed of a sneeze (band name alert) at 650 mph. Not surprisingly, it's kind of stupid to try and hold this sort of force back. You can bust an eardrum, tear blood vessels, damage your sinuses, or even cause a brain hemorrhage. (Never realized stifling a sneeze and watching Joy Behar had so much in common.)

And even if you don't hold them back, sneezes can be strong enough to cause a whiplash effect, leading to pulled muscles, bitten tongues, and even broken teeth.

In short, sneezes are bad ass.

And occasionally, so is research.

Here's a video of a baby panda sneezing and scaring all hell out of its mother:

And in a "you-can't-make-this-sort-of-thing-up" blessing, here's a news article about a girl who can't stop sneezing, a condition called Paediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus, AKA...yep...PANDAS.



Thursday, May 12, 2011

Notes From Third Graders

Was given the following two notes today:

to: murphy
from: jimbo*

you are the best teacher of 3rd grade that I ever had in my life. you are so nice because you learn me great.

love: jimbo


Dear, Mr. Muphy

please don't make Cleopatra* get in trouble. She will get grounded for 5 years. Mr. Murphy please. Cleopatra is my best friend. I don't want her to get in trouble. Then she will tell everyone that you are a bad and mean teacher. Please. Then nobody will want to go to your class or they will sign their children out of this school and they will take their money back. Cleopatra means so much to me. What if you had a friend that you like and she/he meant so much to you?

From: Chrysanthemum*


Never a dull day.
*Names have been changed to keep me from losing my job.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Possibly the Best Title Ever

Credit to Anita for asking the question.

My response to that question was too long for the comments, and I haven't blogged anything except that self-congratulatory thing about my mad Twitter skillz in something resembling forever, so here you go.

The best title for a kids book has got to be:

How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy

Here's why:

1. You know what the book is about, which is a good thing.

2. The name Lamar leads one to believe that the main character is black, and, let's face it, this is still fairly unique in the kidlit arena. Unique is interesting.

3. Pranks are always fun to read about.

4. Questions: What exactly is a "bad prank" and how in the world does performing such a thing garner a trophy?

5. The use of the term "bubba-sized" is a good indication of the kind of voice we're going to be exposed to in the novel and it's a voice I'd like to hang out with for a while.

6. We know the ending (or at least, we can assume the ending has to do with winning the trophy) and now the reason to read is to find out how this seemingly inexplicable thing happens. This is one of my favorite story structures. TV shows use it all the time: The victim is seen lying on top of a high-rise in a pool of blood and then the story starts some time earlier and we watch to find out how such a thing happened. Love it.

7. There also seems to be a story of redemption buried in the title. A kid who performs "bad pranks" does not typically win anything, unless withering glares can be counted as winning. My guess: Lamar is a lovable troublemaker who finally comes out on top. And who doesn't love it when that happens?

Anyway, I haven't read it yet, but I will, just because of the title.