The head of the Idaho Education Association (IEA), a voluntary teachers’ union, is not thrilled with many facets of a public schools reform package proposed last week by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.
But Sherri Wood, executive director of the IEA, also says there is some good in the proposal.
The package calls for cutting at least 700 teaching positions through attrition, investing $50 million throughout the next five year on technological upgrades for classrooms – including spending $7 million annually on laptops for ninth graders, – replacing teacher tenure with two-year rolling contracts, and requiring that educator contract negotiations be held in public meetings. The plan also seeks to restrict contract negotiations to pay and benefits for educators, and not any discussions of work conditions or requirements.
Fudging the numbers?
Luna said the reduction of the 700 teaching positions through the next five years will fund the entire reform package, but will also mean an increase in classroom sizes, adding that most classes will only see an additional 1.6 students. Idaho averages about 18.2 children per classroom, a number that will jump to 19.8 if the reform package clears the Legislature.
Wood thinks the superintendent might be fudging the numbers because of how the state determines student-to-teachers ratios. To get the figure, she explained, the Idaho Department of Education takes the total number of students in a given school and divides it by the number of employees certified as educators in that school, even if some employees don’t have direct student contact or might be special education teachers with very small class sizes.
But even if the figure Luna gave for the increase in class sizes is correct, Wood feels it’s still detrimental to students. “I don’t believe that it will only be two students, but two more is too many,” she said.
Wood says that the increase in the student-to-teacher ratios will ultimately hurt Idaho school kids because students will get less of their teacher’s time in class. That one-on-one contact time, she explained, can be critical to even the smartest students who might be struggling with a specific concept or idea.
Luna argued in his presentation of the plan before lawmakers that no research study ever determined that class sizes are correlated with student performance. Wood says no study is needed to figure out the negative correlation. “Whether you can find valid research or not, it is just common sense that the fewer [students] you have, the easier it is to deal with,” Wood said.
Elimination of tenure
The media has, says Wood, a misconceived notion about what tenure really means. It is not, she says, a lifetime work contract with school districts, but instead a protection for teachers from the politics of schools and districts. It does not guarantee bad teachers infinite employment, but only due process for educators. “There is a process for that and if the administrator follows the process, it happens,” said Wood.
The Luna plan will, according to the superintendent, bring more accountability to schools and districts by engaging parents and having them be a part of teacher evaluations. Accountability is fine, says Wood, but it should be spread throughout the entire Gem State. “I never heard a teacher say ‘I don’t want to be held accountable,’” explained Wood. “What I heard them say is that, ‘accountability is great, but we want everyone who plays in this game to be held accountable.’” State policy leaders and lawmakers, Wood said, must also be held to account for Idaho’s education system.
Part of Luna’s package is to force teachers and school boards to negotiate educator contracts in public meetings. Wood says she has no problem with that idea. “I think it’s great,” said Wood, adding that her sentiment has surprised some. “The media is very shocked by that.” Open negotiations will help bring more civility to the process, which she says can sometimes get out of hand.
Idaho public schools in 10 years
If the reforms Luna wants are approved this year and implemented through the next five, Wood says, Idaho public schools might not be any further ahead in 10 years, at least educationally speaking. “I’m not sure what was laid-out to us Wednesday by Luna is the end-all, be-all of education reform,” said Wood. The IEA feels that Luna should also look at integrating lesson plans and break down walls among various school departments – meaning the geography, math, and science departments would collaborate on curriculum – to more effectively educate pupils.