Education Studies: Who Would Know? Redux

I received a couple of private responses to a post entitled Education Studies: Who Would Know? after it appeared on DirigoBlue.  Really, I do understand that I could contact someone at the Maine Department of Education and maybe get the information.  But that’s not the point.  It’s not the public’s responsibility to search out such information; it’s the government’s obligation to make sure the data is accurately posted as soon as possible so citizens from the entire state can see it.  Even something as basic as who was appointed to these various stakeholder groups, task forces, work groups and study groups is not available and there’s no logical reason that I can come up with to explain why not.

That being said, I was banned* earlier this year from posting at the Department of Education’s Newsroom site so whether or not my request from information would be favorably received is open to question. If the ban has since been lifted I don’t know because I haven’t checked recently; it’s not important.  If the DoE asks for public input, but then chooses which comments it wants to “hear” via public posting, that’s its decision.  I have other avenues to make my views known if I choose. I can only hope that other people who are cynical about so-called education reform in Maine (and elsewhere) choose to make their views known via other venues, as well.

*I use the word “banned” because any comments I made in the applicable box were put on hold indefinitely with the statement “awaiting moderation“.   I can only assume the term moderation in this context meant “to check on before posting” rather than “to weaken the content” since I never heard from the Department asking me to tone down whatever I had written.  Given that another commenter identified other educators in the state of being less than “professionally courageous” and the Commissioner himself accused Maine schools of allowing students to graduate for merely having sat through classes, I fail to see how anything I wrote could have been much worse.

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New Teacher Evaluation Process for Maine

A, by circumstances beyond my control, very short legislative history of teacher evaluations in Maine:

 Until the Spring of 2010, Maine teachers could not legally be evaluated using student assessments. The previous law read: “The student assessment program is separate from local practices and procedures regarding supervision and evaluation of a teacher for retention by a school administrative unit.” [20-A MRSA 6204(3), now repealed].

When the federal Race to the Top was adopted, there was significant debate over various state-level educational policies that stood in the way of Maine getting any of the RttT money.  One of those was Maine’s prohibition against linking teacher evaluations with student test data.  LD 1799 was introduced in order to eliminate that prohibition.  You can read some of now-Commissioner of Education Steve Bowen’s thoughts about then-LD 1799 here.

Despite their professed opposition to the bill …

LD 1799 proposed the removal of a 25 year old firewall between teacher evaluations and student testing. MEA opposed it, saying that it was sound public policy and that the legislature would be breaking a promise made to teachers with the introduction of the Maine Educational Assessments.

… the Maine Education Association proposed a solution that allowed the prohibition to be eliminated: create a stakeholder group to “review” teacher evaluation models that had been “established” by the Maine Department of Education.  Since the MEA was part of that stakeholder group, I expect they thought they could control the process sufficiently to keep student test data out of the evaluation models.  Given that the two MEA representatives were outnumbered by the eight members of the group who belonged to various administrators’ professional associations, though, I wondered how that could work.  Since MEA proposed that group composition, they were in no position to gripe.

Anyway, in the current legislative session – no surprise – the inevitable happened: the terms of the old LD 1799 were changed by the language of the new LD 391 (soon to be part of 20-A MRSA 13802). Most of the old (relatively-speaking) language was kept, but a few major changes were made:

  • the word “develop” became “propose”;
  • the Department of Education is no longer able to “adopt” but could only “put forth” an evaluation model;
  • the July 2011 deadline for that the evaluation model being written was eliminated; and, last but certainly not least,
  • this language was included: “Nothing in this section prevents a school administrative unit from developing and adopting its own models for teacher and principal evaluation.”

Uh-huh.

So, in the space of one year – at the initiation of the union that supposedly protects teachers against arbitrary employer actions  – the 26-year old Maine law that prohibited student test data from being used in teacher evaluations was eliminated and the ability of school boards/committees across the state to implement whatever teacher evaluation processes they want is soon to be in place (90 days after the end of the legislative session, so around the beginning of the 2011-12 school year).

As far as I know, MEA has yet to say a word about this conundrum. So, here’s my two-cents worth.

Dear MEA local affiliate Presidents and Negotiators, these are the two terms you need to know, understand and employ:

  • Meet and Consult
  • Impact Bargain

If you don’t know what those mean or how to make them work, NOW is the time to learn.  You can check my previous blog posts for the Meet and Consult legal requirements.  I’ll be discussing “impact bargaining” in the weeks to come.  You should also check with your region’s UniServ Director for any recommendations MEA may develop about this difficult and touchy subject.

Best,

Nancy

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Sitting on the Dock of the Bay …

A May 9th post entitled “Setting high standards, and sticking to them” by Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen at the Maine Department of Education Newsroom prompted me to reply there.  However, the webpage advises: LEAVE A REPLY WITH YOUR COMMENTS. WE’LL SHARE THEM IN FUTURE POSTS.  Not being content with that, I’m using my own virtual space to post the thoughts I did there:

It is worrisome that Mr. Bowen and the Maine DoE continue to recite the tired old adage, “.. students [shouldn’t be] considered proficient in English simply because they’ve sat through four years of high school English classes.”

Two problems:

•  “Proficiency” is too high a standard. Very few people in any field are experts at it. Why we would expect students to master every possible subject has not been explained.

•  Proficiency based on 4 years of “sitting in a classroom”. I would hope you would be thinking more highly of Maine’s teachers than that. No teacher gives a passing grade to a student who has merely SAT in the classroom. Teachers provide lessons, instruction, assessments, tutoring, strategies, opportunities for collaborative learning and more. If a student does not achieve at least some demonstrable amount of learning, s/he is not passed on to the next grade or class. There are occasional instances of principals and/or superintendents who override a teacher’s grade for any of a variety of reasons, but they are few and far between.

Standards-based learning sounds wonderful. But I have not yet seen an example of it working in a comprehensive, statewide public education system. I hope Maine does not go down the road of implementing an unproven strategy before it is ready.”

The Maine DoE News later tweeted “Nice explainer about proficiency-based (aka standards-based) diploma from our partners @newenglandssc http://bit.ly/lzofkT.  The referenced document is a one-page hand-out from the New England Secondary School Consortium which creates the impression that most teaching and learning is purely linear, rather than random, networked, messy and subjective.  Mr. Bowen’s own post explains that in a standards-based system, “…students would only advance to the next level once they’ve met the standard, or demonstrated they’re proficient in a particular skill.”

Whether or not Maine implements a standards-based diploma in the near future (the idea has been around since 1997 when the Learning Results were first published), my primary concern with Mr. Bowen’s comments has to do with this idea that all kids just sit through classes (doing their nails? sleeping? tweeting?), get promoted and graduate from high school – without putting in a lick of work or learning a darned thing.  It’s not true.

Yes, I’m sure a few students manage to get through school without doing a whole lot of anything.  Almost every teacher can tell you a story about the kid whose parents complained about the work being too hard and how poor Johnny can’t get a fair shake from bad old Mr./Ms. WhatsIt and so the principal sighs, “Just give him a 70 and let’s move on”.

Many teachers will also have tales of students who couldn’t put together a grammatically-correct sentence while in the classroom but miraculously produce 25-page research papers of such depth and scope as to take your breath away when at home (where Mom and Dad just happen to be).  But those cases are unusual (I hope).

The reality is that most teachers work very hard to engage their students every day for 175 (or more) days per year.  Most students respect those teachers and also put in a full year’s work to learn what’s important.  Yes, they get grades.  Yes, they get a credit for the class.  But to say that they aren’t proficient (or, preferably, competent) because of that is detrimental and demeaning to the Maine public education system for which Mr. Bowen is now responsible.

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Retirement Concerns for Maine Educators

A Bangor Daily News article last week pointed out what at least one Maine school superintendent is doing in response to Maine Governor Paul LePage’s proposals around teacher and state employee retirement.  Dr. O’Neill is being proactive and making the best deal he can for himself given the current, uncertain, state of affairs.

Many Collective Bargaining Agreements contain a deadline – some already past – about educators notifying the school system of their retirement so as to collect the equivalent of up to 30 days unused sick leave to be put toward their final earnings calculations [5 MRSA 17006(13)(B)].

Given the Governor’s proposals, the question local Associations – who represent large numbers of active teachers and other school professionals around Maine, but not superintendents – in the immediacy should be: what can we do, via the collective bargaining process, to protect our members?

When I put this very basic question out there via the Save Our Retirement group on Facebook, the following exchange occurred:

Me: I can only hope that MEA has already provided advice to local Associations on this matter so their members will be as protected as possible given the situation. I hope, but doubt.

[Member]: Nancy, haven’t heard a thing.

Blakney: Given that there is no rehiring plan as of yet (Sawin [Millett, Maine’s Commissioner of Department of Administrative & Financial Services] said last Friday they hadn’t yet come up with a plan and got laughed at) from the LePage admin, it would be difficult to provide guidance.

Joyce Blakney is the Treasurer of the Maine Education Association.  I completely disagree with her that it is “difficult to provide guidance” in this situation.  Certainly it would not be possible to solve address every concern, but not provide guidance? Come on.

So, recognizing that I am simply a retired kibbitzer, here’s my thought on possible language that could be negotiated between local Associations and school board/committees that would – at least – give teachers and other school professionals as much as time as possible to make such an important and personal decision as retiring, particularly when they may not be ready to do so under normal circumstances:

ADDENDUM to the COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT:

Despite any contract language to the contrary, for the 2010-2011 school year any bargaining unit member considering retirement must submit a Letter of Intent to Retire to the Superintendent of Schools and School Board/Committee no later than the final day of the school year.

The unit member will provide written notification to the Office of the Superintendent of his/her final decision to retire, or not to retire, within seven days of the Governor’s signature on whatever bill that makes changes to the current Maine Public Employees Retirement System language for teachers in the State of Maine [5 MRSA 17001, et seq].

All other benefits of the collective bargaining agreement will apply to a bargaining unit member who chooses to retire under the provisions of this agreement.

Obviously, there are lots of tweaks that could be made to this, but the basic concept should provide some breathing room for teachers and other professionals so long as it is in place sooner rather than later.  Any member or local Association leader thinking about this, please contact your area’s UniServ Director for further information.

Footnote: MEA’s lobbyist, Steve Crouse, was a member of the Unified Retirement Plan Task Force that issued a report just about a year ago.  According to the Executive Summary, “The purpose of this report is to respond to the reporting requirement of Maine State Resolve 111, “To Reform Public Retirement Benefits and Eliminate Social Security Offsets” passed in May, 2009, by the 124th Legislature. The reason for the legislation is to design a unified pension and health benefit plan for all state employees and teachers who are first employed after December 31, 2010 with no prior creditable service.” Clearly the issue of pension reform – and therefore potential impacts – is not a surprise to anyone, particularly MEA.

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Meet and Consult, Part II

You may remember the following scenario in relation to the question of “What is Meet and Consult”?

A newly-hired elementary school (300 kids, 15 classroom teachers and 5 others) principal wants to institute a different math/science curriculum.  She talks it over with the superintendent who says, “Makes sense to me; go ahead and take a look at options.” Over coffee a few days later, she mentions her idea to two teachers.  She then orders a complete set of new textbooks with related audiovisuals, computer programs and more for all the classrooms based on her experiences with it at her previous school.  The materials arrive in early June and she proudly announces at the final staff meeting of the year, “You’re going to love this system; we’ll all need to get on board with the new curriculum next year.  It will take some time to get used to it, but we’ll work together to iron out any bugs.”

I also posted the M&C requirements as laid out in the 1982 MLRB case, Southern Aroostook:

The purpose of the meet and consult obligation is to ensure that school committees consider their employees’ comments and concerns before implementing or changing educational policy.  The duty to meet and consult thus is a mechanism  for insuring employee input in non-negotiable policy areas, designed to further the Act’s purpose of improving the relationship between school committees and their employees.  Several elements are necessary to carry out the purpose of the meet and consult obligation:

1.  Notice that a change in educational policy is planned must be given to the bargaining agent, so that it can timely invoke the meet and consult process if employees wish to comment on the changes;

2.  Pertinent information about the planned change must be provided so that the bargaining agent and employees can understand the change and make constructive comments about it.

3.   Actual meeting and consulting at reasonable times and places about the planned change must occur upon receipt of a ten day notice or other request to meet and consult by the bargaining agent.  A school committee is obligated to come to meet and consult sessions with an open mind, to discuss the planned change openly and honestly, and to listen to the employees’ suggestions and concerns.

4.  Mature consideration must be given to the employees’ input before the change is implemented, and if any of the employees’ comments or concerns are meritorious, the school committee must decide in good faith whether they can be accommodated.

So, let’s think about the scenario and run it through the requirements:

First, is the matter one of “educational policy”? Yes.  Curriculum is clearly a matter for the school committee/board; it is not directly negotiable.

SIDEBAR: how did the principal manage to make a change in a matter of educational policy without the board/committee being involved? It happens all the time. School boards/committees typically meet monthly, sometimes biweekly, for about 2-3 hours.  They leave most day-to-day issues to the superintendent and administrative staff.  After a while, no one blinks an eye when new routines are implemented, or textbooks bought, or schedules changed without the school board/committee having any idea.

Back to the Southern Aroostook requirements:

1a. Notice (by the school committee) that a change in educational policy is planned must be given to the bargaining agent:

  1. Nope.
  2. Even if the Association President had been one of the two teachers, a mention over coffee is hardly “notice” in the formal collective bargaining sense of the word.

1b. The bargaining agent [must have time to] invoke the meet and consult process if employees wish to comment on the changes.

  1. Again, no. The bargaining agent (Association) didn’t know, so they couldn’t do anything.
  2. Even if they had figured it out, they can’t meet and consult with the Principal (or even the superintendent), only the school board/committee.
  3. And, even if they had figured it out and asked to meet and consult with the school board/committee, the response would most likely have been, “What the heck are you talking about?” or a variation thereof.

I’m sure you get my drift – the M&C process doesn’t work with a relatively informal change, no matter how important – so let’s not go any further into the requirements as they apply to this scenario, but rather think about what might have happened had this been a Committee/Board level policy.

The first thing to remember is that the Association and the Board/Committee would not have been negotiating the IMPACT of the policy change on the teachers; that’s another post entirely.  They would have been talking about whether or not:

  • the policy made sense in this school
  • it was good for students
  • it would help increase student learning
  • it would benefit all students equally
  • and other considerations of this sort

Had the bargaining agent (Association) had the opportunity to talk with teachers, they might have found that some teachers might have:

  • had experience (good or bad) with the proposed system
  • had experience (good or bad) with other curriculum systems
  • preferred to do more research before making a decision
  • thought the current system was working just fine
  • been worried that the proposed system would be too difficult for their special education students, or not challenging enough for the gifted ones.

The Association could then have met with the school committee/board and raised these points.  They might even have proposed an alternative which the school committee/board could have adopted in place of the principal’s plan.

It’s those sorts of issues that the MLRB had in mind when it said the purpose of the meet and consult process was … improving the relationship between school committees and their employees.

So, next time, we’ll go back to the teacher evaluation bill (LD 391) and think about the meet and consult process in that context.

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Meet and Consult, Part I

I listened on Monday to some of the Maine Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs hearing on LD 391: An Act Concerning Models for Teacher and Principal Evaluations.

At one point, Roger Shaw of SAD #42 in Mars Hill, speaking in favor of the bill on behalf of the Maine School Superintendents’ Association, said that it would be important for local Associations and school boards to “meet and consult” over the issue of teacher evaluations should the bill pass.

The purpose of this post is not to comment on the relative merits of LD 391, but rather to explain what the process to which Mr. Shaw referred is all about.

Going back, as we often do, to the statute that permits Maine teachers to negotiate with their employers, 26 MRSA §965, we see the phrase “meet and consult” in part C:

1. Negotiations.  It is the obligation of the public employer and the bargaining agent to bargain collectively. “Collective bargaining” means, for the purposes of this chapter, their mutual obligation:

C. To confer and negotiate in good faith with respect to wages, hours, working conditions and contract grievance arbitration, except that by such obligation neither party may be compelled to agree to a proposal or be required to make a concession and except that public employers of teachers shall meet and consult but not negotiate with respect to educational policies; for the purpose of this paragraph, educational policies may not include wages, hours, working conditions or contract grievance arbitration;

OK, so the obvious question is: what does it mean to “meet and consult but not negotiate”?

First, remember that anything that is negotiated between the parties to a collective bargaining agreement is binding on the parties. So, if teachers and school systems agree on a salary scale, for example, and the school system refuses to pay those amounts, the employees can go to an arbitrator and ask that person to order the school system to do what it agreed to do.  If the school system refuses to abide by the arbitrator’s decision, the matter can be pressed in court.

Since the subsection above says that public employers of teachers many not negotiate about educational policies, the clear implication is that the “meet and consult” (M&C) process is not binding on the parties.

If the process isn’t binding, what good is it? Well, the Maine Labor Relations Board took a look at that question back in 1982 with a case out of the Southern Aroostook Community School District (CSD 9) in Dyer Brook/Island Falls.

The facts of the case are complicated, but the part of the decision that explains the meet and consult process is relatively brief and – wonder of wonders! – concise:

The purpose of the meet and consult obligation is to ensure that school committees consider their employees’ comments and concerns before implementing or changing educational policy.  The duty to meet and consult thus is a mechanism  for insuring employee input in non-negotiable policy areas, designed to further the Act’s purpose of improving the relationship between school committees and their employees.  Several elements are necessary to carry out the purpose of the meet and consult obligation:

1.  Notice that a change in educational policy is planned must be given to the bargaining agent, so that it can timely invoke the meet and consult process if employees wish to comment on the changes;

2.  Pertinent information about the planned change must be provided so that the bargaining agent and employees can understand the change and make constructive comments about it.

3.   Actual meeting and consulting at reasonable times and places about the planned change must occur upon receipt of a ten day notice or other request to meet and consult by the bargaining agent.  A school committee is obligated to come to meet and consult sessions with an open mind, to discuss the planned change openly and honestly, and to listen to the employees’ suggestions and concerns.

4.  Mature consideration must be given to the employees’ input before the change is implemented, and if any of the employees’ comments or concerns are meritorious, the school committee must decide in good faith whether they can be accommodated.

Once a school committee has satisfied these elements of the duty to meet and consult, it is free to implement or change the educational policy matter.

Before we go on to Part II of this discussion, please consider the following scenario:

A newly-hired elementary school (300 kids, 15 classroom teachers and 5 others) principal wants to institute a different math/science curriculum.  She talks it over with the superintendent who says, “Makes sense to me; go ahead and take a look at options.” Over coffee a few days later, she mentions her idea to two teachers.  She then orders a complete set of new textbooks with related audiovisuals, computer programs and more for all the classrooms based on her experiences with it at her previous school.  The materials arrive in early June and she proudly announces at the final staff meeting of the year, “You’re going to love this system; we’ll all need to get on board with the new curriculum next year.  It will take some time to get used to it, but we’ll work together to iron out any bugs.”

Questions:

  1. Was the adopting this curriculum a matter of educational policy?
  2. If so, were the M&C processes laid out in Southern Aroostook followed?

Next time: M&C – how it really works.

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Labor Management Collaboration in Maine

You may know that a U.S. Department of Education Conference on Labor Management Collaboration is happening today in Denver.

Three Maine school systems (Regional School Unit 12, SAD 74 and SAD 61) and the local Associations there are attending. What involvement the Maine Education Association, of which the three locals are affiliates, has in the Conference is unknown (at least by me).

According to the Conference’s Opening Message, this is what the participants can expect from the initiative:

…to take a fresh look at how we improve and strengthen labor-management relationships, policies, and agreements with the goal of improving instruction and student achievement, and how we hold ourselves and each other responsible and accountable for achieving these goals. You have agreed to revisit both what underlies a successful labor-management relationship and the myriad of issues that affect it, including:

  • transparency [not sure what this means in this context]
  • hiring [in Maine, local Associations are not involved in hiring decisions]
  • retention [in Maine, local Associations can negotiate Reduction in Force and dismissal processes, but not the decision to retain or dismiss a teacher]
  • equity [not sure what this means in this context]
  • compensation [In Maine, local Associations can negotiate salaries; whether or not they can negotiate tying those salaries to student performance is unclear.]
  • instruction [in Maine, this is “educational policy” and generally can not be negotiated or enforced through the grievance process]
  • [content of] professional development [in Maine, this is “educational policy” and generally can not be negotiated or enforced through the grievance process], and
  • [teacher] evaluation [in Maine, this is “educational policy” and generally can not be negotiated or enforced through the grievance process]

Although I expect the U.S. DoE and other sponsoring organizations believe that they are doing the right thing nationally, Maine law is not supportive of the initiative at this time.

The legal relationship between Maine school boards and local Associations is spelled out by 26 MRSA 965(C)(1).   Any “labor-management relationship” that exists is therefore guided by that statute and the cases that have been decided under it. The relationship is such that – good intentions aside – if a subject has not been negotiated (and in writing as part a collective bargaining agreement except for some matters of past practice), there is little to bind the parties to the agreement.

Since, most of the topics listed above are not bargainable under Maine case law, the school board has the power and authority to renege on any agreement reached in (or based on the experience of) Denver.  Should an affected Association believe the agreement was violated, they could bring a grievance, but it is likely that the school board’s lawyer would successfully argue that the matter is not arbitrable because it is “educational policy”.

“SAD 74 Superintendent Ken Coville said he hopes to learn about the specifics of tying measures of academic progress to teacher compensation, especially as part of a collective bargaining agreement.”

And

“Lester Sheaffer, vice chairman of the RSU 12 board, said he’s hoping for tips on working academic performance-based bonuses and raises into contract negotiations.”

Clearly the gentlemen making the two statements above are looking to the conference for very specific information which they intend to include in a new collective bargaining agreement.  What the individuals holding those positions in 5 or 10 years, assuming no change in the law, will be thinking is unknown.  And what the Conference participants from Maine will hear from their attorneys when they return from Denver is yet another matter.

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