Monday, September 24, 2012

You get a lot of time off.

This is something that Todd pointed out to me. It's true. But technically, we're called 39-week employees, which means that we don't get paid for our summers off. We do get to keep our health insurance benefits in the summers, but our salaries are for 39 weeks (two less than the 41 that you calculate we get paid for--and yes, it's nice!)

It's true that I love having summers off. It's one of the great perks of working in education. But you can't say that I get paid a lot for someone who gets summers off and also say that it's ok for me to work 60 hours a week when it's not the summer (which averages out over the course of a 50-week year to more than 40 hours per week).

And yes, some doctors get less time off than that, but my family members who are (retired) doctors got 6 paid vacation weeks and 4 paid conference weeks. So that's 10 weeks. Plus sick days, plus paid family leave. And that particular family member made roughly 5 times what I make. I'm just sayin.

Todd says that at his job FMLA is encouraged for any sick days more than a week. In CPS, you have to use 10 paid sick days before you can file for FMLA. And then, under the old contract, you would have to use and take pay for all of your sick days during your FMLA. So, during my recent illness, at one point I thought I would be out for six weeks. I would have had to use all 20 of my paid sick days, whether I wanted to or not. And there are two days this year that I want to use for personal business--for my dissertation defense and for my PhD graduation. I would have had to put my job at risk by taking these days as "zero days"--that is, unpaid absences, which can be cause for discipline or dismissal.

Yes, our medical benefit is awesome. Again, unions have been trading benefits for wages for decades. We make WAY LESS than people with comparable levels of education. Many CPS teachers have TWO masters degrees.

Todd asked: "Is the union sticking to seniority as the primary determinant of salary / benefits?" Yes, seniority and level of educational attainment. But seniority is worth much more than educational attainment. I'm going to get a raise of about $1750 annually when I get my PhD. (I was previously in "Lane V," which is a master's degree plus 45 credit hours. From Lane V to Lane VI (PhD or EdD) will be $1750. From Lane I (BA only) to Lane VI is a little less than $10K. Pretty good, and probably worth how much the degree cost me, but conventional wisdom is that changing "lanes," that is, getting more education, isn't worth it if you have to pay for it. There is a new teacher at my school who is an economist, and I'm going to get him to calculate my loss in earning power for not working from age 24-30.)

Let's say my salary was 70% of what I would make if I worked 50 weeks of the year. That would mean my salary, with 3 years teaching experience and a PhD, would be $92,372. Do you think that's fair, even with sweet benefits? I mean, I wouldn't complain if I made $92K. Hey, I can't complain about what I make right now. But it is certainly not commensurate with what other people with my level of education make.

P.S. I'm inappropriately frank about what I make. That's because it's part of the public record anyway! I'm a public sector worker. :)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Letter to my brother: benefits

My brother has been wondering about the new CTU contract and what it means for teachers. I wrote him a long email about salaries. This one is about benefits.

Dear Todd,

The benefits of being a unionized teacher are pretty nice, as I'm sure you can imagine. Most unionized workers have traded better benefits for stagnant wages for decades. In CPS, we have high quality health care coverage for pretty decent prices. We also get ten paid vacation days (one week of our winter break is "paid," the other is not, and our one-week spring break is paid), three personal business days, and ten sick days per year. CPS also pays an additional 7% of our salary as a "pension pick up" into the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund (CTPF). The pension pickup is not taxable, but often gets included in published figures of our salary. This is sort of misleading, about which see more below.

There were big disagreements in the contract negotiations over all three of these benefits (health care, vacation days, and pensions). So, let's look at one at a time.

Health care. CPS wanted to increase the premiums paid for health insurance, only for couples and families. We pay our premium as a percentage of salary rather than as a set contribution amount. I think this is fairly unusual; I know that New York doesn't do it. It's also quite low--I think it's 2% for Chris and me to both be on Chris's. CPS wanted to increase the family contribution by quite a bit. The union beat this back.

CPS also wanted to institute a "wellness program" for all CTU members. Chicago has actually gotten almost all of the city employee unions to sign on to this--the last holdouts are the police. Of course, this is to bring down costs. It's going to be sort of a pain in the butt. We have to do annual "biometric screenings" and then keep some sort of account online where we record "points" of some sort once a month for engaging in healthy activities. The only example I've been given of how to do this is reading articles online about healthy habits. So it's mostly just a cost savings, and not actually designed for wellness, which is sort of silly. This doesn't bother me so much, though, because I heard that a staggering proportion of members were not using their insurance well, instead using the ER for most of their health care needs. Yikes! Why don't they just do some health insurance education, you ask? I dunno. HMOs are hard to use, I promise you that.

Sick days. In the past, CPS employees have been able to "bank" their accumulated sick days and personal days. They can then use them in case of long-term illness or family/maternity leave, or they can have the days paid out at their final pay rate when they retire or leave the system. Arne Duncan, our illustrious Secretary of Education, received a $50K sick day payout when he became ed secretary. (Duncan then said in statements that the system was flawed. But he didn't offer to return his payout.)

So CPS wanted to do away with our ability to bank sick days. Initially, they were talking about instituting a "use or lose" policy. Other districts have done this with disastrous effects, from what I've heard. CPS doesn't actually have enough day-to-day substitute teachers to cover all of the absences if every teacher actually took all 10 sick days every year. Also, many teachers (Chris included) didn't want to lose the sick days they had already banked.

The compromise that was reached is pretty great. Previously banked sick days go into a special bank, to be paid out under the old terms. New sick days can still be accumulated up to 45 days to be used as necessary (sick days can also be donated, which is cool). Our three personal days will be use or lose. And, best part, CPS will now offer employees paid short-term disability/maternity/family leave. The first 30 days are paid out at 100% of your salary. After that, it steps down, and you can take up to 90 days. For young teachers new to the system, this is huge, as it means that you don't need to work for several years to accumulate sick days before you can take a paid maternity or paternity leave.

Pensions. The sick day thing wasn't an easy sell, and it really divided the membership along veteran/rookie lines. So did pensions. Initially, CPS was pushing to institute a new two-tier system where current employees would stick to the old pension plan, but new employees would get put into a defined contribution plan. This was obviously divisive. People my age and younger are obviously worried that the pension won't work out for us, so we would rather be able to have a little bit more control over our retirement money. People who are closer to retirement are worried about the weakening of the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, which is actually (thankfully) separate from Illinois's state pension fund and very solvent. Unfortunately, CPS has been diverting money from the CTPF for the last few years to pay for deficits.

Also unfortunately, CTU is one of many teachers unions that foregoes Social Security taxes in favor of their pension contributions (not all teachers unions do this). Many people don't know this, and this is why I think it's unfair to count our pension pickup as part of our "income." It's true that we don't pay social security, so I guess our net income is higher than it normally would be. But we don't *receive* social security either, so it's sort of misleading. I'm sure you can calculate how fair this is in monetary terms, but that's not within my mathematical power.

Anyway, CPS backed off changing our pension contribution scheme pretty quickly. And eventually they agreed to maintain our 7% pension pickup. The best part is, for awhile CPS was saying in the news that we were being offered a 16% raise over 4 years. Guess how they got this number? 3% + 2% + 2% + 2% + 7%. That's right. They haven't actually been paying our pension pickup for the last four years, so they counted starting to pay it again as a RAISE. And here they're saying we're the ones who don't know how to teach math.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Short History of CPS-CTU salary talks that I wrote for my brother

I wrote this email to one of my brothers just now, and then thought it might be helpful for others who read my blog.

Dear Todd,

I've been meaning to write back to you since I got your email about Karen and how we were still out. Karen doesn't always look great in the news, but I've grown to really respect and admire her as a leader.

We only decided to stay out on Sunday because the lawyers had not finished writing the tentative agreement. In the past, other teachers' unions have had items clawed back when they went back to the classroom too early. Everyone wanted the strike to be over, and it would have been really hard to muster everyone to go back out again if something like that happened. If we had reconvened on Monday, it would have been during Rosh Hashanah, which many in the House of Delegates (including myself) thought would be in appropriate. So we met Tuesday. This gave them enough time to finish writing the agreement.

I honestly wasn't worried about losing public support when we voted Sunday, and the honks and thumbs up that we got on the picket line on Monday felt no different from last week--if anything, we had even more support from families who understood that we wanted something in writing before we could go back into the building. There was still a minority of delegates on Tuesday that wanted to stay out and hold out for more--by and large the people who wanted to hold out were doing so on the basis of salary and benefits. The problem is, these people are out of touch with economic reality and/or are conspiracy theorists who believe that CPS is hiding cash under its mattress.

I've been so busy that I haven't had a chance to read any of the reports estimating what the new contract is going to cost the district. But they'll come up with the money. They always do. It was their bad for creating and ratifying a budget before they had a contract with the teachers.

Nothing in the tentative contract is a secret. What might have seemed odd to someone on the outside though is the way that the union kept saying that it wasn't about the money, and yet that we were striking over wages and benefits and layoffs. This is because of a new Illinois state law that says we can only strike over wages and benefits and layoff practices. We had to keep saying that we were striking on those things, even though they were actually negotiating on other things in the contract, because otherwise the strike could be declared illegal. And yes, Rahm tried to do that. Big baby. Part of me really wanted to see him try to use a court order to make the teachers go back to work. The Chicago Police are completely on the teachers' side--they always give us thumbs ups at our rallies--because their contract is up next.

The salary sticking point was tricky. The backstory is that the Board canceled a promised 4% raise for the 2011-12 school year, the last year of our previous contract. At the end of the 2010-11 year, they said that they could only honor the raise if they laid off teachers. CTU staged a couple of protests over this and even threatened to reopen the contract early, but we never got the money. Then when the 2011-12 school year started, Rahm Emanuel announced that he was going to use his prerogative under a new state law to extend the Chicago school day. (This was a big campaign promise of his--he used a completely made up statistic about how kids in Houston attend school for a total of 4 years longer than Chicago students over the course of their lives. By the way, Chicago does not have the shortest day in the nation. And most research says the length of time in the classroom does not correlate to student achievement or graduation rates. But who's paying attention to doing what makes sense?) The union cried foul and actually got a court order from the ILRB for him to stop. But then he went into individual schools (many run by AUSL, the organization that runs my school) and offered teachers $1000 bonuses to agree to a longer day. Many of these teachers felt coerced into voting yes. The ILRB said that the district had to stop having teachers vote waivers on the longer day, but that the schools that already had voted would keep their longer day.

The longer day became the signature reform in the new contract talks, at least on Rahm and the city's side. They created a huge propaganda machine referring it to as the "Full School Day," as if teachers had previously been doing half days! We were forced to pass out letters to our students from the district explaining how important it was to make this change. Meanwhile, CPS wanted to add 90 minutes to the elementary school day (45 to the high school day) and 10 teaching days to the school year, and they initially offered no pay raise. They said they couldn't afford it. Then they started offering 2% in the first year of a 4-year contract, followed by a salary freeze in years 2 and 3, and the implementation of a total overhaul of our compensation scheme in year 4 of our contract.

The big line in the news throughout negotiations was that CTU had "demanded a 30% pay increase." The actual number was somewhere between 26% and 29%. Of course, no one expected to get a raise like this, but personally I thought it was a bad PR move on our part all along. The point they were trying to make is that the city was asking us to work 19% more than our existing time while also claiming that these are unprecedented times of austerity. We needed to make sacrifices for the children, they said, which is more of this "education crisis" nonsense where politicians try to make it look like they're going to fix everything right away because there's no time to lose.

When everything went into arbitration over the summer, the arbitrator stunned everyone by coming out on the side of the CTU, at least on wages. My favorite part of his report was where he likened CPS to someone who has bought a car and can no longer make the payments, but wants to keep the car anyway. The longer day was their idea, and if they couldn't pay for it, then they didn't need to have it. Except that it was one of Rahm's top five campaign promises. The arbitrator, who has a reputation for being fairly financially conservative, recommended a 13% raise. He came to this number by deciding that CTU had fared better than the rest of the economy during the last contract, so we were slightly overpaid, and basically figuring the difference for a 19% increase in time. He stressed that teachers are just like all other workers--you can't ask them to work more time for free. (The CTU had meanwhile commissioned a report from the School of Labor Relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that found that teachers work an average of 58 hours a week during the school year. I was only sad that this report was issued by the labor relations department at the school, which I thought made it less credible than it would have been had it been done with the school of education.)

Of course, as soon as the arbitrator went against what CPS wanted, they said he was a crazy idiot, and we were back at the table. So, in the end, we got a 3-year contract with COLA increases of 3%, 2%, and 2%. We also got to keep our salary "steps," which are increases we receive for years of teaching experience. We have an option to extend our contract for a 4th year for another 3%, but it has to be agreed upon by both the union and the district. This is the most I have ever felt like a baseball player.

I have more to say about steps, so-called "merit pay," and benefits, but I'll leave it at that for now!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Going Public: Why I went on strike!

I've decided to stop keeping this blog such a secret. Of course, that doesn't mean that any more than the four people who read it now (Thanks Chris, Michael, Brian, and Dad!) will read it. But I'm fed up. I'm fed up with ignorance disguised as common sense. I'm fed up with I-work-harder-than-you-do. And there are so many bloggers out there whose work I admire. I would really love to be able to add my voice to the mix.

So here goes! I am a proud member of the Chicago Teachers Union, and right now we are on strike. I went on strike because my district is trying to impose changes that will be bad for students. The biggest sticking point, for me, is an evaluation process that would use so-called "student growth measures" (i.e., test scores) as 40% of a teacher's rating. This basically means that you could get an unsatisfactory rating if your students' test scores did not go up.

Last year, my students' test scores did not go up. In fact, for my brightest class, they went down. Even though I know all the research that discredits value-added measurement, and even though I know that my particular network's way of assessing "growth" is particularly mathematically sketchy, I was still devastated. Why? Because I have so internalized the idea that my students should be able to do better on the test if they've actually learned in my classroom. This is just plain false. The test that we use was not designed to be used this way.

But this goes beyond my evaluation and my rating. I am vehemently opposed to the whole regime of high-stakes testing, and this strike is proving to be an opportunity to have a national conversation about how much testing is damaging our children and their futures. Sadly, that opportunity is being overlooked by most news outlets in favor of the so-called "personality clash" between Rahm Emanuel and Karen Lewis, or in favor of wild misinformation about how much teachers get paid. But I have seen the narrowing of the curriculum first-hand. I have 9th graders who know almost no geography or grammar--these aren't tested on the ISAT. I see students who seem to have lost their imaginations some time in the 1st grade because imagination isn't tested. I see my 11-year-old niece describe herself in terms of her score.

After 10 years of NCLB and 3 of RTTT, we are raising a generation of children who have been failed by terrible federal education policies created by people who think they know better than teachers how to educate children. It's time to stop this. And that is why I am on strike.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

10 things you may not know about my job

A few weeks before the end of the summer I went to a family reunion. My dad's side of the family is very close and we have reunions every other year or so. I had a chance to talk quite a bit with my relatives about what it's like to teach in my district, and they were surprised by a lot of what I had to say, so I thought I'd share some of those things here.

It's funny, too, because my dad's sister was a lifelong teacher and her husband went into teaching after years being miserable in his first career. The two of them are now, as my brother and I like to say, poster children for the joys of a much-deserved retirement. But even though we've had these two teachers in the family for years, most of my family doesn't get teaching.

OK, in no particular order...

1. My dad's other sister (whose children went to one of the wealthiest public schools in the suburbs of a major US city) was stunned to discover that the federal government gives students free or reduced price lunch as well as free breakfast. (About 90% of the students at my school are on free or reduced lunch.) When I told her that families need to provide proof of their income to qualify and that they do not game the system, she seemed skeptical at first.

2. At my school, students are offered a choice between chicken patties and pizza for lunch EVERY DAY. Their "vegetable" is an apple or an orange. Their drink is a sugary orange drink.

3. I probably spent $1000 of my own money on school materials last year.

4. This year, my department did not have enough money to buy more than one book per quarter. So we have 4 books to teach this year. And we added a whole new grade level.

5. I spend at least an hour every day making photocopies.

6. I teach approximately 150 students (my mom has heard this number a dozen times and she is still stunned every. single. time.)

7. Last year, I taught a class of 35 students, and I only had 32 desks. The other 3 students sat at a table that I had, so it wasn't so bad.

8. Many of my students do not have a computer in their homes.

9. Many of my students read below the 5th grade level as high school students.

10. Many of my students need glasses and can't afford them.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Quickest Way for a Teacher to Recover from Illness: Remind her that there's a sub in her room

I find myself lately in the terrible position of being out of work for an extended period. I want to get back to work as soon as possible, but I'm being told to rest and recover and not push myself too quickly. Meanwhile, I am wracked with guilt and worry about what must be going on with my students.

When I share my concern with others, the obvious reply comes, "Well, they'll have a sub, won't they?"

Now you may not even need to think back to your own high school education to reflect on what you know about substitute teaching. You may know someone who has been a sub for some period of time, or you may have seen subs on TV. Let me tell you: in a classroom run by a sub, very little learning happens. I once left very clear, simple, fool-proof plans for a sub to use while I had to attend an IEP meeting, and returned to the classroom to find strange drawings on the board. I grabbed one of my students from the hallway and demanded an explanation. The students were supposed to spend 20 minutes reading silently. The students weren't being silent, so the sub, instead of making them be silent, decided to entertain them with riddles for the last 15 minutes of the period. (e.g. "If a plane crashed on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, where would they bury the survivors?")

OK, maybe a little bit of learning happens when kids do brain teasers. In my district, what we call "day-to-day" subs come from a centralized pool. They can be assigned to any classroom in the district, any age group, any subject. So you can't just leave your copy of Romeo and Juliet on the desk and ask the sub to pick up at Act 2. Even worse, it can actually be quite difficult to find a short-term leave replacement to cover a classroom for a couple of months in the event of a sabbatical or a maternity leave. (When I was a resident, my mentor went on sabbatical, and I covered her classes for the rest of the year. They didn't hire a short-term replacement. Since I wasn't a certified teacher, they still needed to bring in a sub, so they used subs from the day-to-day pool, who would sit and watch me teach the class, and, if they were good, heckle us. So I had a revolving cast of characters. They should really make a sitcom about substitute teaching. It would be a lot like Extras, but with more "gangsta" jokes.

Anyway, this absence reminded me that I was meaning to post this article that proposes some really excellent solutions to the problem of ineffective substitute teachers. When I taught at a private school, the maximum load for a teacher was 4 classes, and some teachers taught 3 classes. So when someone was absent, we often just covered for each other. But when you only have 2 prep periods, and one of those is your department's team time (so everyone in your department has that period as a prep), then really there is only one period of your day that you might be free to cover someone else in your department's class. Since my district is getting ready to move to a "use them or lose them" policy with our 10 annual sick days, maybe they'd better look into some of these options...

A School Leader Who Really Understands How to Assess a Student's Growth

A 16-year-old girl finds out that she is pregnant. The school finds out. She is escorted to her locker, told to take her things and leave the rest, and sent out of the building.

Forty years later, having grown into a remarkable businesswoman and mother, the former student calls the school and asks what can be done about the degree the school stole from her.

Have a conversation with her. Read a writing sample. Decide that she has demonstrated far and beyond the competency to deserve her high school diploma. Then, have a lovely private ceremony where she can finally graduate.

Glad no one is saying she needs to take the ACT!