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Alone With J

February 14, 2011

By J SWYGART
    Teachers at North Adams Community Schools have been working without a new collective bargaining agreement since previous one expired on July 31, 2010. Thanks to a so-called “status quo” provision of current state law, however, the terms of the previous, albeit expired, contract between the school district and the North Adams Teachers Association (NATA) will remain in effect until the next pact is negotiated and ratified.
    While not an idea situation, the law does provide some degree of protection and stability for local educators.
  But that could all change if a host of education reforms being pushed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett are ushered into law during the current session of the Indiana General Assembly.
    And that is no small point of concern for Brent Whitaker, veteran teacher at Bellmont High School and first-year president of NATA. Whitaker  is worried about the future of the teaching profession across Indiana in light of recommendations from the governor that include drastic limits on the right of teachers to bargain collectively, changes to the way teachers are evaluated and compensated, and a statewide push for more charter schools and school choice vouchers.
    Whitaker has been a teacher for 36 years — all at Bellmont High School. The respected chemistry and physics teacher was elected to assume the reins of the teachers’ association in June of last year, following the retirement of longtime association president Tom Brunstrup.
    While membership in the association (Whitaker  said the term “union” does not legally apply to the bargaining unit) is optional, he said between 50 and 75 percent of North Adams teachers have joined. Negotiations are currently under way on a new collective bargaining agreement, although the most recent session was cancelled “by the board of education’s team,” Whitaker said earlier this week.
    But right now all eyes are on Indianapolis as Republicans — which control both legislative houses as well as the executive branch — begin to line up behind Daniels’ education agenda.
    
Ending collective bargaining?
    Is collective bargaining for Indiana teachers something that can simply be legislated away?
    “Apparently,” said Whitaker.
    According to a recent missive issued by Bennett, collective bargaining agreements between school corporations and teachers’ unions “should focus on salary and wage-related benefits and should be innovative in recognizing performance through compensation.” 
    “To all of a sudden eliminate collective bargaining ... I don’t know where that leaves us,” said Whitaker. “My state employer is canceling a social contract with all its employees. Unpredictability is the most bothersome to most of us.”
    BHS teacher and association activist Randy Hisner added, “Teachers are concerned about their profession. We’d like to see bright, capable people come into our profession. But when they see this type of treatment, it’s hard to imagine” that college students would migrate toward a career in education.
    Among other changes proposed by state officials would be the elimination of the status quo provisions under which North Adams teachers are currently operating.
    Whitaker said such a change could have dramatic, and negative, effects on the rights of teachers.
    “We would, at that point, have no master contract,” said Whitaker. “And I’m not seeing any limits as to what schools could do. It would eliminate much of what we know as due process — the ability to challenge decisions of administrators. I could simply be fired at will.”
    Whitaker said teachers are alarmed and upset at the prospect “for a multitude of reasons.” He said there currently is a “general feeling of helplessness” among teachers statewide as new proposals circulate in the Indiana General Assembly.
    Whitaker believes that, rather than reducing the role of teachers in the public education process, the state would be better served by relying on their collective skills, expertise and passion.
    “We’re trying to convince our lawmakers that there is a better way. Teachers in Indiana have been trying to improve education — improve learning — for a long time. I think many of our problems can be resolved better if teachers are involved in the process, said Whitaker. “Right now they’re putting more power into the hands of a few, and I worry about the public policy issues.
    “But what I’m more concerned about — and this is an issue that no one seems to notice — is that the state seems to want to be the boss of everyone. There is an usurping of local control. And I wonder if local board of education members understand that loss of local control is happening.”

Teacher evaluations
tied to test scores?
    The current contract between North Adams teachers and the school corporation specifically states that any process used to rate teachers “shall not provide for any evaluation that is based in whole or in part on the Indiana Statewide Testing for Education Progress (ISTEP) and/or any other standardized achievement test scores.”
    But among the agenda being advanced by Daniels is a provision requiring schools to link student test scores and teacher performance.
    Bennett says rigorous evaluations will recognize excellent teachers while identifying those needing improvement. He said the department plans to set guidelines for evaluation procedures, but that local school corporations will decide what’s best for them.
    “Reliable, fair, accurate evaluations, which are informed by student achievement or growth data, should be used each year to assess teachers and administrators, recognize our best educators and identify those who need support for improvement,” a recent press release from Bennett said.
    But in Whitaker’s eyes, “the greatest weight in the IDOE recommendations (pertaining to teacher evaluations) would be toward standardized test scores” under the state’s recommendations.
    And that is problematic, said Hisner, “because not every subject (taught in schools) has a standardized test.”
    Whitaker said that while administrators at North Adams have not instructed educators to “teach to the test,” there has been at least subtle pressure to do so.
    “Everyone knows the situation,” he said.
    But Whitaker remains unconvinced that proficiency test scores are an accurate barometer of the effectiveness of teachers or the accumulated knowledge of students.
    “Instead of continuing to attempt to pound square pegs through round holes, we should be celebrating our differences and diversity and teaching styles,” he said.
    As an educator who throughout the course of his career has attempted to go the extra mile on behalf of his students, Whitaker  is concerned that the state’s new focus is not in the best interest of teachers or students.
    “The philosophy of education that I’ve had for years is being thrown out the window by the state, and I’m at a loss as to what I’m supposed to do. I want to be excellent,” Whitaker said.
    “Education is now simply becoming a cash cow. And I’m fairly certain that few of the people in Indianapolis actually understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of educators.”

Public’s support needed
    Whitaker said support from the public is necessary to derail proposals he feels would detract, rather than enhance, the educational experience.
    “I’m urging not just teachers but everyone to become involved, to actually read what is being proposed, and to ask themselves ‘is this going to work?’. The unpredictability is what worries me most.
    “I won’t argue that we need value for our tax dollar. And I truly believe the people of the North Adams district are getting that,” said the teachers’ association president.
    “But there has to be someone of integrity stand up and say ‘there is a better way.’ Right now I’m hearing people without integrity being heard. And I get angry when I hear someone who measures my value to this state against someone who doesn’t care.”

    The writer is the opinion page editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat. Email him at: j@decaturdailydemocrat.com
 

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