Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Should Teachers Be Consulted in School Budget Discussion?

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 12. While many school districts across the State, including Tredyffrin-Easttown, are facing multi-million dollar budget deficits, this editorial explores the problem from a different angle; through the eyes of a teacher.

There has been much discussion on Community Matters about our school district budget problems. Question, do you think that we (the school board, administration, parents, and taxpayers) give adequate attention to the opinions of those most affected in this process . . . the teachers? Do you think the teacher’s voice is disregarded (or minimized) in budget discussions? Or, is it the teacher unions that are quieting the teacher voices?

If you did not see the editorial, please read it and weigh in on this discussion.

Our least-consulted experts on education
. . . Teachers are rarely given a say on school policy
By Christopher Paslay, a Philadelphia schoolteacher and the author of “The Village Proposal,” to be published this fall.

The Philadelphia School District is facing a projected $430 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year. As a result, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has asked her administrators to prepare contingency plans for a massive budget cut. There will undoubtedly be a significant impact on students and staff in the city’s schools.

To soften this impact, administrators could ask teachers what support they need in classrooms and what they can do without. Teachers are ultimately held accountable for student learning, so it would make sense if they were consulted on the budget overhaul.

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to matters of budget and education policy, the opinions of schoolteachers aren’t given much credence. In the 21st century, public educators are paid to perform, not talk.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan exhibited this attitude last year in a speech to students at Columbia University. “In our new era of accountability,” Duncan said, “it is not enough for a teacher to say, ‘I taught it, but the students didn’t learn it.’ As [Stanford education professor] Linda Darling-Hammond has pointed out, that is akin to saying, ‘The operation was a success, but the patient died.’ ”

Like a surgeon?
The analogy comparing schoolteachers to surgeons is an interesting one. Surgeons are regarded as experts and treated as specialists. During surgery, they are provided with a complex system of support so they can focus on their area of expertise.

Teachers, on the other hand, are treated as jacks of all trades. They teach, but they also discipline, police, and parent. They write and grade lessons, but they also make phone calls and photocopies. They calculate report-card grades and compose syllabi, but they also chaperone dances, monitor hallways, and break up fights.

Teachers are basically responsible for everything that needs to be done to allow their students to learn. Their instruction is highly scrutinized and held to rigorous standards, but they are not treated as instructional specialists.

Imagine if a surgeon were expected to administer anesthesia, monitor vital signs, and give blood transfusions during a surgery. Imagine if he were required to make all the phone calls to patients to remind them not to eat for 12 hours before the operation. Imagine if he were responsible for maintaining order in the waiting area. How might this affect his performance?

But we regard surgeons as highly skilled, and we respect their opinions. We regard teachers, on the other hand, as educational grunts. Their insights about their own profession are often dismissed by education leaders as uninformed.

Data and power

Education is one of the few professions in America in which policies are written and decisions are made by governing bodies outside the field. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers all govern themselves. Their panels and boards of directors are made up of other doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The same holds true for counselors, carpenters, and electricians. Even professors and researchers are subject to peer review.

Not teachers, though. Politicians make the decisions when it comes to education in K-12 schools. So do researchers, think tanks, and lobbyists. Does it matter that most of these people have little to no experience teaching in a K-12 classroom? No, because they have the data and the power.

And what do the teachers have to offer? Just experience. Just thousands of hours of trial and error, of dealing with children, parents, curriculum, and content. That’s all the teachers bring to the table. Unfortunately, these contributions aren’t “data-driven,” and they lack political backing. As a result, they aren’t accorded much value.

But if education leaders are going to demand that teachers perform with the precision of surgeons, then teachers should be treated as specialists. Their experience and expertise should be used to reform policy and set budgets so they can get the educational support they need to help children succeed.

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  1. Every single administrator was a teacher first. The Superintendent of Schools — the CEO of the District — has taught and been a principal at virtually every level. JP is right here. The PSEA and its associated resources essentially control every variable of school life.

  2. I would have to ask if Andrea or JP actually read the article with a clear mind or have they pre-conceived ideas as to the teachers. First, the discussion was about BUDGET cuts – a subject near & dear to the hearts of TE residents. The question was — who better to know what impact a reduction in Aides will have in the quality of education — not just for the child requiring the aide but for the other 22 children in the classroom. This is just one of the projected budget reductions.
    It is a given that the Administration staff and the teaching staff are are on opposite sides of the table when it comes to these matters.
    The admin staff is measured on their ability to manage the budget — and in this discussion all the writer was attempting to suggest is that the folks in the field might be able to contribute to the discussion.
    Andrea — it has been almost 20 years since the Superintendent has been in the classroom — times have changed and the student makeup has changed over that time period. The large increases in special need students – while commendable – has in itself placed increased demands on the teachers. I am on record of suggesting that the Admin staff be required to psend one month a year in the classroom – not observing but actually teaching – planning – grading etc. on a 3 year cycle ( one year in elementary – one year in middle and one year at Conestoga).
    Your comment –
    “The PSEA and its associated resources essentially control every variable of school life.” is not true. The PSEA and the teaching staff have absolutely no control over the budget (except for negotiated contractual concerns). Items like infra-structure – colored paper – class sizes – aides – subscriptions – internet access – six day schedules, elimination of team rooms etc. are not controlled by these folks. One simple example of the silliness over expenses is the edict from West Valley Road that any small refrigerators and/or micro-waves (supplied by the staff by the way) must be disconnected to save electricity. I would love to know the impact of this intellectual ruling had on the electric bill.

    1. I have been a teacher in the district for 14 years, elementary level. There’s such a sense from some that the teachers are the enemies in this debate. We’re not! Many of us live in the school district and so are also taxpayers. Many of us have children in the district.An increase in property taxes is going to come out of our wallet just like any other taxpayer!

      Why shouldn’t the teachers be included in the budget discussions. Perhaps, we could offer some suggestions where there could be budget cuts that will not affect the quality of the education. We’re in the classrooms every day and have a better idea in some areas than the administration or the school board.

      1. TT – Awesome comment. One benefit to your perspective — you are a taxpayer in the township. By all means, you can speak directly on the topic. Go talk to your principal – contact your board member. Go for it. Does the TEEA encourage you to do so? Good luck!

    2. Teachers actually helped come up with the suggestion about unplugging appliances that can suck power over night as well as shutting down computers overnight. Through collaborative efforts with teachers who were passionate about greening the schools, the school district has saved tens of thousands of dollars yearly on electricity. This was discussed during a school board meeting last year.

      Also, teachers helped come up with other green ideas and shared them with PTOs. These include ways to reduce plastic water bottles, etc.

      This energy conservation discussion isn’t directly related to the budget, but it’s funny that your example of a dumb budget cut change actually originated from teachers working in collaboration with administrators and the student environmental club at CHS. I would think that this is actually an example of the system working. Teachers have been incredibly supportive of efforts to green the schools.

  3. I am quite convinced that teachers could be part of the solution. However, the problem is that the teachers can’t escape the union and by definition the union and school districts are antagonists.

    The article complains about politicians making the decisions. Who is it that funded those politicians and benefited from their actions?

    And it further takes issue with the fact that entities with data make decisions and set policies. Data is good, emotion is bad! The teachers do have data, too; it would be nice if they were able to bring it to the table in a collaborative way.

  4. Papadick
    Of course I read the article. Not only do I care about teachers, I have many in their ranks that are friends, here and across the country. Truthfully, I am more than respectful of teachers, and any teacher I ever negotiated with will tell you that I am very aware of the contribution they make. I believe my quote was “I’ll pay a great teacher as much as it takes to keep them, but I won’t pay a rotten teacher the same thing, and the union won’t allow me to differentiate.”

    So I would suggest, respectfully, that you are wrong about administrators being on the other side. They are NOT judged on how they manage the budget, which is why I am personally opposed to this grinding out 200 strategies for cutting the budget every year. I think the board should agree on the appropriate educational program and then pay for it. If they need to make cuts, I think the administration should be making them. The way they do it may be fascinating television, and is educating the public (so I don’t think it’s a waste of time), but I do think it is a waste of manpower for people devoted to education to spend so much time playing “what if” and having to pretend that they don’t have a stake in the decision. The people on the school board are not professional educators — they are oversight — but that’s a story for another day.
    Point is — I think that teachers are very well represented in the discussion. The admins are not on the other side. Ironically they are stuck in the middle, when in fact it should all be one team. No one knows better than administrators how times have changed, as they have been here through the change. What some more senior teachers may not realize is how TEACHERS have changed. They make a decent living with their salary and don’t want the extra duty pay. They are young and often have no appreciation for the fact that a pension is a big part of their compensation “package” — so they push for more in the paycheck so they can make as much as their friends in private industry who have to build their own 401k plans to have any hope of retiring. Senior teachers who came from a time when teachers didn’t make much still hold on to the pieces of compensation that meant the most — pension and benefits. They are at max and their raises won’t be much going forward, so they want to be sure they protect those two pieces. I content that the “other side” when you talk to teachers sometimes senior vs. newer teachers, or Primary vs. Secondary teachers. Have you ever read the contract and talked with 1st grade teachers who don’t have the planning time they believe the high school teachers have — or high school teachers who believe they have papers to grade that 1st grade teachers do not? It’s not even a delicate balance. It’s a clumsy one.
    So == unplugging the refrigerator? How much does that save the district? If it saves the district ANYTHING without jeopardizing the educational program, everyone should be on board. It’s the petty stuff like that, however, that ruins the dialogue. And please — the PSEA/teaching staff control the budget – as every other piece only comes into place once the staffing costs are set. “except for negotiated contract concerns” includes so many pieces that it defines the school day, the school year, the staff size, the free time, how teachers can be assigned, transferred, move across the schedule, what courses count and how much the district pays, sub pay….and on.
    It’s not easy. I worked closely with the administrators and the union. I can tell you that there aren’t any people more sensitive to the teacher’s life than the administrators in each building and especially at the TEAO. One of the reasons they did not want to leave the ESC was because it was so close to the high school and TE Middle, where cumulatively half of the district students are enrolled. They want to be near the kids. They walk the lunchrooms, observe teachers and classes, attend sports events, plays and more.
    We need to stop the fighting and look for a common goal.

      1. Andrea anonymous notwithstanding I think you add alot to the conversation and I have learned a lot from you.
        Keep the words and info flowing. thanks

  5. In essence, the teachers voice is displayed via the union. However, I would venture to say that by directly engaging a variety of teachers you may be able to get a better sense of what would be acceptable bargaining concepts. If you look for this info across different teachers who teach different subjects at different levels and who have varying years of service and education levels, you may get an interesting cross-section of answers, but you may find some common themes.

    The teachers will need to understand that their current pay schedule is not in line with the current economy. It was, perhaps. that way when the contract was created, but certainly not anymore. The district will need to understand that teacher salaries are not enough to make a mint, never has been. But the pension has always been in place to make it manageable for teachers to retire. As a district [board, administration, teachers and taxpayers] we will need to ride out this PSERS crisis until the economy turns around and hold the state accountable for ensuring that that money is protected against loss and economic climate.

    Although I am not completely in tune with this article, I think there is a lot to be taken out of it from the angle of the taxpayer. Value is not ONLY about the buck!

  6. Just as an FYI — the board cannot talk directly to a variety of teachers. That’s some form of unfair labor practice. take it from someone who wishes it were not true.

  7. Teachers compared to surgeons? When I can choose my teacher and hold them responsible for their performance then a comparison to a surgeon might have some merit.

    When a teacher is a member of a union that fights accountability, protect the status quo at all costs, pays every member the same regardless of performance and protects non-performing teachers I think the correct comparison is to the United Auto Workers.

    Teachers are good people, they work hard and they have valuable information. It’s just that the union prevents them from contributing as professional and being regarded as professionals.

  8. I’d have to refer you to the solicitor. I obviously had teacher conferences etc. It all depends on how the teacher feels about it.

  9. I have a question for the Board… How come we celebrate MLK Day as a day off but Presidents Day has been wiped off the calendar? I believe this to be true, last year and this.

    I would think that MLK would want the kids in school.. Maybe a day of teaching the kids what he stood for?

    And I wonder if MLK day was removed as a holiday, what the outcry would be? No one seems to care that the holiday celebrating arguably our two most important Presidents is “forgotten” Maybe a day of teaching about these men, to honor them on Presidents day. In keeping with my suggestion about MLK?

    I noticed in the Inquirer that there are high school basketball games on MLK day. But the kids can’t be in school?

  10. FF,
    What are you talking about? Both are federal holidays.

    In T/E, students have off on Feb. 21 for Presidents’ Day.

    How about checking the school calendar before spouting off?

    If you notice, neither January 17 nor February 21 are labeled as school holidays on it. NO SCHOOL , it simply notes on both.

    Equal treatment. . Both are federal holidays. And by the way, MLK Day was signed into law under your hero, President Ronald Reagan!

    1. Well kate, LAST year that wasn’t so. I will check but I will have to again before I spout off. Interesting coming from someone who majors in spouting off. But typically you took it the wrong way. Glad to hear you approve of something a Republican did., Stay warm

  11. The only reason either of those days would not be observed as a holiday would be because of too many snow days. This year the snow days get made up in June and April I think, but in other years, they may have wiped out Pres. Day.

    The day is pushed as a service day. I don’t know if the kids do it or not.

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