Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Defining Crisis of Weast's Era: Teachers, Salaries, and Workload

By Eric Luedtke.

For those of you on a time crunch, here’s the summary: Teachers are essential to student success. Teachers are probably losing most if not all of their scheduled cost of living adjustment. This could lead to the loss of good teachers in the school system. To offset the loss of the COLA, the school system needs to start being serious about streamlining the work of teachers so they can spend their time serving students rather than in makework or unnecessary tasks.

Crises are defining moments for leaders in the public sphere. Lincoln wouldn't have been Lincoln without the Civil War, Washington would have remained a little known veteran of the French and Indian War if no shots had been fired on Lexington Green, and FDR's greatness was brought to light in his response to the dual crises of the Great Depression and World War Two. Today's history lesson ends there, so don't run off yet, because there is a point to this in the here and now.

There's a local application of the crisis rule that we're beginning to see play out in our own community, in the schools whose success has been so central to Montgomery County's prosperity over the last few decades. For nearly a decade, MCPS has been in what can only be called the Weast Era. It's been an era of relatively rapid changes and reforms, an era where the system refocused itself around priorities like closing the achievement gap, doing a better job addressing the needs of students with special needs and English language learners, and crafting an elite instructional workforce to help meet those goals. It’s been a very successful era, but now, for the first time in more than a decade, forces outside our local control are threatening that success. How Dr. Weast, the Board of Education, and the County Council respond will quite possibly define their careers as public servants.

The Weast Era has coincided with a long period of economic prosperity, with the exception of the slowdown after 9/11. Consistent and sustainable funding is essential to the success of a school system, so these have been good years for MCPS. When the money is easy to come by, it's relatively easy to drive reform in schools. The dollars Dr. Weast secured through a decade of prosperity have paid for the full implementation of all-day kindergarten, major class size reductions in elementary schools, and a variety of reforms-in-progress in middle and high schools. He has also, in conjunction with the board of education and the unions, developed a salary and benefit package aimed at making sure the best educators work in Montgomery County. This is partially a competitive necessity - we're surrounded by other high-paying jurisdictions - and partially a way to offset falling morale due to increasing workload.

Weast himself acknowledges that he and the leadership of the school system ask a lot of their employees, and that the impressive salary increases over the last few years are designed to offset that. As his reforms have been put in place, the professionals who implement them have been asked to work harder and harder every year. We've learned new ways of using data to drive decision making at the classroom, school, and system level. We've mastered new technology in the classroom and system-wide. We've found new methods for communicating with parents. We've retooled the school system to allow students with special needs more access to mainstream settings. But one thing has not changed - the amount of time we have to get all of this done. The school day and work day are unchanged from when I was a student in MCPS, under Dr. Weast’s predecessor.

There has been some grumbling, to be sure, though the vast majority of staff have accepted the reforms and come to value many of the changes. But grumbling was never the concern. The concern has always been the effect of this on staff retention. To provide a good education, we need good teachers. If increased workload started driving good teachers out of the system, the reforms would be useless. So the school system leadership under Weast made a calculation – pay high salaries to teachers to keep them in the classroom. It’s helped to keep good teachers in the classroom through ten years of aggressive, sometimes disruptive reforms.

But large salary increases no longer seem to be a possibility. The school system unions have gone back to the bargaining table in the hope of trying to solve MCPS’ budget problems before they get out of hand. This will almost certainly entail a partial or full loss of the 5% cost of living adjustment scheduled for the next school year. That’s money that was already promised to teachers that they now won’t get.

This loss will be a blow to morale. It will start some teachers looking for jobs in other places, like in the federal government where many employees are still getting a 5% COLA. Unless he wants to watch his reforms unravel around his ears, Dr. Weast is going to have to do something about that.

The only solution is to take a serious look at workload. There isn’t money for improvements in salaries or benefits. And there isn’t money for the sort of big-picture workload reductions many teachers would like to see, like smaller class sizes. But there are low or no cost steps the system could take that will have profound effect on the workload of teachers, while not in any way hurting the education of students. In fact, done right, streamlining the work of our educators may make them better able to serve students.

Step one is making attention to workload as central a part of the system’s operation as attention to money. Any time required by a new initiative needs to be offset by time or workload reductions in some other area. And any central office bureaucrats whose actions affect the work of direct service providers need to take a serious look at how their actions may impact workload.

Beyond that commitment, low or no-cost impact on workload will only come through a series of small, incremental improvements. E-mail has rendered many whole-staff meetings obsolete, so those can be reduced. Advances in file-sharing networks would make it possible for the school system to allow teachers to share lessons and materials electronically, if they would only make such a space available and drop the condescending insistence that every lesson a teacher writes needs to be vetted by central office staff. There needs to be a serious analysis of paperwork to eliminate those things which are little more than busywork for frontline educators whose time is better spent serving children. And the system needs to stop doing an end run around contract by allowing some schools on block schedules to force teachers to teach 6 classes instead of five – it only stresses teachers and reduces their ability to serve students. If the system is really committed to eight-period blocks, they need to pay the marginally more expensive cost of 5/8 schedules and give teachers the time to plan collaboratively and participate in teacher-driven professional development.

This recession will be Dr. Weast’s defining test as a leader in MCPS. On the one hand, there is the possibility that loss of salaries will lead to loss of good teachers and the system will start to slide backwards. On the other, there is the possibility that by changing tactics, the system will be able to continue to attract and retain exceptional educators, and maintain its path down the road to success for all students. For the sake of Montgomery County’s children, I hope that Dr. Weast and the other leaders of the school system will pass the test.

Eric Luedtke is a teacher at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School and a member of the board of the Montgomery County Education Association.