State aid, curriculum, technology, school boards. All are important factors in K-12 education; none educate a single child.
That task is of course in the hands of teachers. It follows that teachers are the most important employees in schools, and arguably the most important employees in the public sector. After all, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites send their kids to spend the bulk of their childhoods learning from these employees. It only makes sense for the public to treat teachers with respect. But, as Alan Borsuk argues convincingly in the Journal Sentinel Sunday, this is not always the case.
I have written numerous times about the increasing financial burdens placed on teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools and across the state. In general, districts offset some or all of last year’s 5.5% per-pupil reduction in revenue limits by increasing employee contributions to health and pension benefits. This means that teachers across the state received a cut to their take-home pay totally unrelated to their performance. It is easy to see why teachers felt they were being disrespected.
In one district, New Berlin, there appears to be some blowback. According to the Journal Sentinel, “50 of New Berlin’s 314 teachers have resigned or retired so far this year.” Even more interesting are the reasons why; notably absent from the list is the reduction in take-home pay:
“Based on interviews with more than a dozen employees, the resentment appears to stem from feelings that their input doesn’t matter, that the administration doesn’t communicate well with them, that they aren’t supported or appreciated by people in the district, and that changes meant to be good for kids are poorly executed and fail to improve teaching.”
Some seem inclined to dismiss what is happening in New Berlin as nothing more than whining from teachers upset about their weakened union (read the comments below the linked article at your peril). I am not so inclined, mainly because I asked myself this question:
What happens when you take a high-performing school district and replace a third of its teachers?
Take a look at the stats (from the Department of Public Instruction) on New Berlin public schools:
- The district’s four-year graduation rate is 95.5% (compared to 87.0% statewide).
- About 90% of New Berlin students score advanced or proficient on state tests in reading and math, well above state averages.
- The district’s average composite ACT score is 24.3 (compared to 22.0 statewide), and their ACT participation rate is 86% (compared to 60.4% statewide).
Cleary New Berlin teachers are doing something right. More impressively, performance indicators have remained high despite an upward trend in the percentage of economically disadvantaged students served by the district. In 2001 only 4.2% of New Berlin students qualified for free and reduced lunch, today 12.1% do.
It is difficult to see how the district will be able to continue its impressive track record when a considerable number of the employees actually educating students are gone. Schools are also likely to see substantial changes in their cultures because of the significant teacher turnover; that too is worrisome.
The next couple of years will reveal if the blowback in New Berlin negatively impacts student performance. I am hoping it does not, but logic suggests it will. As of now it is a cautionary tale on the need for mutual respect and collaboration between district administration and teachers. While elected board officials have every right to govern as they see fit, teachers, as New Berlin demonstrates, have every right to leave a district in favor of one that makes them feel respected and appreciated.
Personally, I prefer to have my children in front of a teacher that feels appreciated. I do not think it is a stretch to assume most Wisconsin parents feel the same way.