Gov. Wolf’ veto and a teacher’s response

 

                There was an editorial response to Gov. Wolf’s veto in the Sunday Inquirer – it can be found at this link  http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20160529_Commentary__With_veto__Wolf_puts_unions_ahead_of_students.html

                The editorial was written by Sharif El-Mekki, a principal at a Mastery Charter School, and is critical of the veto because it “puts unions ahead of students.” El-Mekki suggests that now ‘we” are stuck with the old system – the one that dictates that any layoffs must be done by seniority. There is sound historical precedent for this system and I will not go into the details here, but anyone familiar with the teaching history in Philadelphia knows of what I speak. One of the flaws in his argument is that Mastery Charter, as is true for the vast majority of charter schools, does not have to follow this dictate. Union protection for teachers has never existed in Mastery Charter Schools. As a former Mastery Charter teacher I know this to be true – in fact, in the formative years of Mastery Charter the threat of closing schools was verbalized many times if teachers were to even try to unionize.

                I do not wish to just criticize the editorial, although I am disappointed that the Inquirer seems to be a supporter of charters in the privatization vs public school debate based on the numerous “editorials” that favor this slant – and this is usually done without a dissenting view.

                I admit that I agree with El-Mekki on a few points – students should come first and students should have access to the best teachers. The devil always comes in the details! How do you define “best teachers”, and how do you define “student achievement?”

                I acknowledge El-Mekki’s 13 years as a principal though I do wonder how many years were spent as a classroom teacher.  I devoted 31 years to classroom teaching and have come to a few conclusions of my own. Classroom teachers know their students best and it takes years to sharpen practice and find successful ways to merge theory and practice into what Paolo Friere referred to as praxis. Mastery Charter does not subscribe to that theory and usually looks to organizations such as Teach for America to recruit teachers. Although some of the TFA recruits have become good teachers too many of them leave the classroom after a few short years. A faculty composed of predominantly new teachers is a faculty that is unable to critique methodology. Charters have taken that opening to subscribe to a methodology that features teaching to the test with a slavish intensity to test taking and teaching isolated skills that can be found on the standardized tests. A strong faculty would be one that mixes senior teachers with new teachers, gives them opportunities to talk and share better practices without this exchange being part of their evaluation rating, and then the administration gets out of the way and lets teachers and students improve each classroom learning community.

                Sadly, this is not the charter school model. El-Mekki suggests that principals should be allowed to choose the faculty members who remain and those who are let go. Charter schools have this power now – and it can be used at any time because no teachers are tenured at any point in their teaching years at a charter. Regretfully, principals are ill equipped for this task of assessing teachers. The reality is that principals are not instructional leaders – how is that even possible when principals have very few years as a classroom teacher and are not conversant in the skills that a good teacher must possess.  Most principals, in my 31 years of experience, are woefully unprepared to make those types of professional judgements about teachers and teaching. This is true also for public schools (hence a need to protect seniority), and is especially true for charter schools where most principals do not even come close to El-Mekki’s 13 years of experience.

                Much work needs to be done to put students first. We could begin by funding schools in a fair and equitable manner. The evaluation of a teacher’s practice needs a lot of work – leaving it in the hands of people with negligible classroom experience is definitely the wrong path to follow. We need to value the teaching profession and not view it as a mechanical set of steps to follow in order to gain a respectable score on a standardized test

This is part of the background of Governor Wolf’s veto – a governor who has pushed for fair and equitable funding for public schools. Here is where it does become a partisan political issue between Democrats and Republicans, particularly in this state where the Republican legislature has blocked fair funding in every way possible. This teacher applauds Governor Wolf for his stand of courage and integrity.

               

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