A few days after the Cleveland school board voted to lay off 643 teachers, I stopped in to see Terrance Menefee, principal of Valley View Boys Leadership Academy. The school, nestled into a corner of West Park and surrounded by working-class single-family homes, educates 195 boys, pre-K to fifth grade. The boys give visitors high fives and impromptu classroom tours. They greet the principal in unison. They run when no one is looking, but they slow on a dime when an adult gives them the eye.
As Menefee walked me around the school, he explained the benefits of a school focused only on boys ("We get them up out of their chairs as much as we can. When a teacher wants to call on a child, he can throw him a ball. That keeps all the boys paying attention.") The tour felt a lot like others I've taken in schools, until we got to Craig Kitson's classroom.
Kitson greeted us in the earnest manner of an engaged young teacher, eagerly telling his principal how his students are progressing. We stepped back into the hallway, Kitson closed the door, and Menefee lingered for a moment.
"Craig was on the list," Menefee said, meaning the layoff list. "He's one of my best teachers. He's new and he's young, but he's dedicated and brings all sorts of innovative ideas that other teachers learn from."
I asked Menefee how many teachers he will lose to these layoffs.
Menefee only has 17 teachers.
Valley View is one of the district's 14 New and Innovative Schools — the science-focused academies and single-gender public schools you may have heard about. As principal of an Innovative School, Menefee can interview and hire his own staff, not manage with whomever the central office assigns. Menefee hand-picked Kitson and his other teachers because he believed they were well-suited for boys' education.
But when layoffs come, state law requires that the district's last-hired teachers are the first to go. This system is brutal on new schools like Valley View with young but highly motivated teams. In August, all but six of Menefee's teachers may be replaced with teachers from other schools. He doesn't expect any of his new recruits to have training in all-boys education.
What's happening at Valley View is happening in public schools throughout Ohio right now. Ambitious, successful school programs run into budget cuts, layoffs and labor-management dialogue focused on work rules instead of students.
Into the middle of that struggle comes Senate Bill 5, the new state law that curtails collective bargaining for public employees. It's the target of a well-organized opposition campaign and may go to a statewide referendum in November.
Menefee is the kind of school leader the law is meant to serve. The law ends the last-hired, first-fired rule. It also changes how teachers will be compensated. He understands its theoretical benefits.
"Would I like to keep Mr. Kitson and lay off someone else instead? Yes," he tells me. But he's conflicted. "I come from a Teamster family, a UAW family; my mom's a teacher, and I don't like the vilification of teachers that's happened over the last 20 years. This law is about money and politics."
I'd say he's right. The Republican-sponsored law seems designed to shrink union budgets, dues and membership rolls, which means less money for activism that supports Democrats and Democratic causes.
If SB 5 is on November's ballot, I'll vote against it. I agree that teacher unions have spent too much energy perpetuating mediocrity instead of focusing on good teaching. But this law goes too far, and it was imposed through a process that speaks more to the arrogance of its advocates than to their desire to see success in public education.
Still, my vote won't do anything to make public schools better. Whether SB 5 is repealed or not, Menefee and all principals will still face the same challenge — getting more of the best teachers.
I used to be a public school teacher. I went into teaching to make a difference in the lives of urban students.
I got pretty good at it. Students sought out my classes. Some of them credit me with helping them decide to become the first in their families to go to college. It was a gratifying job, and the work was endless. Grading one class's essays would consume an entire weekend. There was always more work I could've done: a better lesson plan, a student who could've used extra help, a parent to call.
I worked harder than I ever had or have. But my pay was never tied to how hard I worked or my students' success. My raises were virtually automatic. Sure, an administrator evaluated me every year, but the evaluations had no teeth. I could have been rated unsatisfactory and still received a raise.
I've been thinking about it again in light of SB 5. Despite my feelings about the law, I think it may have created a chance to improve schools.
SB 5 and Gov. John Kasich's budget deal will radically change how teachers get paid. Raises will be based on performance evaluations, peer review (where it's in place), value-added measures (which measure growth in students' test scores rather than just the score itself) and any other criteria established by a local school board.
Many educators complain these requirements are vague. That's not a problem, though. It's an opportunity.
Teachers, administrators, school boards and anyone who cares about their community's schools should help define this reform before it's done for them, or to them. They should start conversations about what great teaching really looks like, about classrooms where every student is engaged and focused, seeking the next challenge because they know how satisfying it is to learn something new.
After I left teaching, I co-wrote a book about the lives of teachers and how the profession might be transformed to attract and keep better teachers. (That book has become a documentary, American Teacher, which premiered in May.) My co-authors, Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers, and I came to a simple conclusion, and here's the upshot: There's a way to do this.
Innovative schools and districts are finding ways to define great teaching and pay teachers handsomely for producing it in classrooms. But as successful as districts in Denver or Helena, Mont., might be, or as enticing as it might be to emulate New York City's Equity Project, where teachers start at $125,000 a year, the smart money would look at countries that are eating our lunch on every educational comparison.
In Singapore, South Korea and Finland, teaching forces come from the top third of college graduates. Schools offer salaries competitive with other top professions, such as law and medicine. They often pay for teacher training, which is rigorous.
Last year, researchers at the consulting firm McKinsey proposed starting teachers at salaries closer to what they might make elsewhere — $65,000 a year — and allowing them to earn as much as $150,000 later in their careers. It would cost more than we're currently spending, though not nearly as much as you might expect, and not nearly as much as we pay as a society for having a poorly educated workforce. Besides, there are creative ways to offset those higher costs. And if budget cuts mean fewer teachers in classrooms, the quality of those teachers becomes even more important.
But in Ohio, these ideas aren't a part of the conversation. They should be.
Our challenge is to build a system that rewards effective teaching and gives teachers a way to measure their own success.
If SB 5 is not repealed, it should be fixed and improved. We could change the weight of test scores, make room for teachers' self-evaluations and peer evaluations, and take teaching context into account — the number of special education students, or students who qualify for free lunch. The law envisions creating a career ladder to recognizes veteran teachers' expertise and show rookie teachers how their job might grow over a career. Great idea. Teachers ought to design the career ladder themselves.
And if we're going to remake the profession, let's remake it into something more attractive. Yes, we should tie teacher pay to educational success, but we should also tie it to the explicit goal of attracting the smartest and most creative college graduates to the profession.
Opportunities often don't arrive looking the way we expect or want them to. Sometimes they look and feel like a kick in the teeth. But there is a real opportunity here. It would be a shame to squander it.