School & District Management Opinion

Teach Plus: Astroturf In Indiana?

By Anthony Cody — July 16, 2011 3 min read
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On Thursday I shared an interview with education historian Diane Ravitch on the controversy surrounding the video of Jonah Edelman, CEO of the non-profit advocacy group Stand For Children. She discussed how a number of supposedly grassroots groups like this have cropped up and had a significant impact on education policy. She listed several groups, including one called Teach Plus.

I did a bit of digging to find out more about the role Teach Plus played supporting Senate Bill 1, passed this spring in Indiana. I found out that Stand For Children was responsible for active support of the law, including sponsoring polls that showed public support for the idea of basing teacher pay and layoffs primarily on “student academic growth.”

So there is the big footprint of Jonah Edelman’s Stand For Children. But what was the role of Teach Plus? In this New York Times article in May, Behind Grass-Roots (sic) Advocacy, Bill Gates the story leads off by describing how teachers were organized by Teach Plus to testify before the Indiana state legislature in favor of Senate Bill 1.

I want to take a close look at the role of Teach Plus, which was influential in changing state laws regarding the way teachers are evaluated and the way they are laid off. An April press release from Teach Plus states,

We are pleased to announce that SB 1, an omnibus teacher quality reform package, has become law in Indiana. It transforms teacher evaluation and licensure, adds new teacher leadership roles in the evaluation process, and requires performance--rather than seniority--as the basis of teacher layoff decisions.

The release goes on to say:

Teach Plus Policy Fellows were first to draw attention to the problem of seniority-based layoffs more than a year ago. Their advocacy led to the formation of a task force on layoffs and, ultimately, a change to the Indianapolis Public Schools teachers' contract. The contract provision--adopted in spring, 2010--introduced performance into the decision-making process when staff reductions take place. The new provision has saved the jobs of large numbers of high-performing young teachers this spring, but it only applied to teachers in the first five years of their careers. The new law requires that all layoff decisions will be made in the best interest of students.

So this was the impact of Teach Plus. Let’s take a closer look at the policy brief the group prepared, The Domino Effect, which was the basis for this lobbying.

The brief begins by laying out the problem. State policy calls for the “transformation” of schools that have been designated as failures, and this means the dismissal of up to half of the teachers at these schools. Teach Plus is generally supportive of this approach, stating:

The focus of this policy is right: ensuring that the best teachers are in the schools that need them the most. Implicit in the strategy of changing the staff is the assumption that teachers bear some--though not all--responsibility for the learning that occurs or does not occur in a building. Indeed, research shows that teachers are the most important school-based variable in student achievement

But this means LOTS of teachers will be fired.

New management in a takeover has the option to dismiss many more teachers--as many as the entire staff. Simple math reveals a stunning picture: A quarter of all IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools) secondary teachers will likely lose their current jobs as state intervention takes effect.

Teach Plus does not question the wisdom of such a disruptive and draconian approach to school reform. The policy brief does not point out the lack of success this approach has had in Chicago, or anywhere else in the country. The key recommendation of the policy brief is this:

Teachers dismissed from takeover schools should not have guaranteed jobs in schools that remain a part of IPS. Teachers who have been displaced should be required to apply for vacant positions in other schools. Displaced teachers should only be able to apply for vacant positions and not positions currently held by other teachers. Teachers with more seniority should not have the right to bump less senior teachers out of their positions. Without a change to the current state laws, IPS will be required to keep the most senior teachers, regardless of their performance.

The intent of this is made clear in the brief’s conclusion:

The domino effect that stands to push hundreds of promising young teachers out of their current positions will inevitably spiral to negatively impact students and their communities.

The problem they are attempting to solve is that many young teachers will likely be swept away as these draconian school “transformations” occur.

The law, Senate Bill 1, eliminates an advisory board of the division of professional standards, and states the following:

A school corporation shall implement the plan beginning with the 2012-2013 school year.
(b) A plan must include the following components:
(1) Performance evaluations for all certificated employees, conducted at least annually.
(2) Objective measures of student achievement and growth to significantly inform the evaluation. The objective measures must include:
(A) student assessment results for certificated employees whose responsibilities include instruction in subjects measured in statewide assessments; and
(B) methods for assessing student growth for certificated employees who do not teach in areas measured by statewide assessments.

I have several problems with this. First, we have a heavily funded group bringing forward teachers to reinforce their policy perspective. This creates the appearance of widespread support for practices which are highly controversial within our profession.

Second, Teach Plus has embraced the practice of widespread staff firings as a wise strategy for school improvement. Experience and research do not show this to be effective. On the contrary, this takes our most challenged schools and subjects them to further trauma and disruption, to no good end.

Third, Teach Plus has attempted to create policy that would shield “promising young teachers” from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators - not just test scores - increases as teachers gain experience. Why should we embrace policies that favor “promising young teachers,” many of whom may be interns who have only a two-year long commitment to the classroom, over more experienced teachers?

Fourth, the law that resulted from this lobbying by Stand For Children and Teach Plus mandates that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation, and does away with the professional advisory board that informs the legislature about these issues.

This is what has been done by these groups in the state of Indiana. I do not believe this serves the interests of the children of Indiana, or has the effect of improving the teaching profession. I think teachers and parents need to organize OURSELVES to speak up on these issues, because otherwise we have groups such as these representing themselves as our voice in the policy arena.

What do you think of Senate Bill 1 in Indiana, and the role of Stand For Children and Teach Plus?

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