To “Race to the Top” or Not?

In my previous post, I mentioned that the teaching profession had turned into an absurdist nightmare.  I discussed my first hard dose of reality slap in the face when I had 54 students placed in one Advanced Placement class.  My second hard dose of reality slap in the face of the 2011-12 school year came at our first faculty meeting.  Staff faculty meetings, in general, have a tendency to make me want to quit the teaching profession faster than anything else.  I can tolerate a fourteen year old girl with PMS calling me a stupid f—ing b—h. I can tolerate a fourteen year old boy hitting me in the face with a crumpled up piece of paper because he thinks using the garbage can as a basket would be an excellent display of his athletic ability.  But I can’t tolerate the biweekly staff meetings that seem to be specifically designed to make teachers feel like children and to waste as much of their time as the contract will allow. This is especially true the last day before the students arrive for the first day of school.  You know, when teachers should be scrambling to get their rooms and lesson plans ready for the first day of school but instead have to attend one meeting after the next and are forced to brainstorm over the school’s “Vision and Mission Statement” because last year’s just wasn’t good enough.  I think I attended at least eight faculty meetings last year where we discussed the school’s “Vision and Mission Statement.” To this day, I cannot figure out the difference between a “vision” and a “mission.”

Back to the first faculty meeting of the 2011-12 school year. Most teachers would end up leaving this meeting feeling like they just exited the Twilight Zone.  Our district had won Race to the Top funds. Teachers didn’t realize at the time, that “winning” Race to the Top grant money meant losing job security and all semblance of a fair and rational evaluation system.  We were forced to watch a 20 minute video where the school Superintendent and the Union President sat cozily together and presented our new evaluation system as a done deal.  In a rational and calm voice, they explained that 50% of our evaluation (determining whether we got merit pay or got to keep our jobs) would come from student performance on the FCAT reading exam.  I teach at a high school. Only 9th and 10th graders take the FCAT reading test. Most of the staff does not teaching a reading related subject.  Their chance of receiving a merit bonus or keeping their jobs would depend on the school wide FCAT reading average.  Even if they taught advanced math, their careers now depended on the 9th and 10th grade reading scores.  Now, to someone living in the realm of the rational, this doesn’t make any sense.  How in the name of accountability, merit and “Racing to the Top” do you judge an AP Calculus teacher’s job performance on a 9th and 10th grade reading exam?  Welcome to the state of Florida, the public school system and education policy designed by Arne Duncan! Welcome to the theater of the absurd!

“Race to the Top” mandates that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on standardized tests. In most states, there are only exams for reading and math as was required by No Child Left Behind.  Florida is moving towards end of course exams in Algebra and Geometry and FCAT math has gone the way of the dinosaur.  Florida is working on end of course exams in biology and US History as well.   Those exams are not ready yet, so the bureaucrats were left with nothing but the FCAT reading exam to evaluate teachers.  After all, “we are all teachers of reading.”  Eventually, we were assured by our union steward, there would be a test to evaluate every subject (great, even more testing!).  Our union steward told us, every other job profession is held accountable, teachers must be held accountable too. Hmm…that’s funny. Last time I checked, I was accountable for planning lessons, managing a class of crazy teenagers, contacting parents, grading…..But apparently none of that matters.  We are data driven and in an international race to the top.  So we plan on winning the international war on education by evaluating math and science teachers on the reading test scores of students they do not even teach?  Makes about as much sense as defeating Al Queda by invading Iraq, but anyway I digress…

Back to the faculty meeting. The evaluation system was presented as a done deal. The union steward told us there was an upcoming vote on health insurance and the $14 million in merit pay money.  If we voted no, we would have no health insurance and they would have to give the $14 million in Race to the Top merit pay money back to the state.  “Race to the Top” was only presented as a benign merit pay grant and not linked at all to our new absurd evaluation system.  Most teachers left the meeting dazed and confused.  At the time, I really didn’t know anything about Race to the Top.  I didn’t even vote, like the majority of other teachers in the district, because the opportunity to vote came in an email during the first week of school.  The first week of school is extremely hectic and the district knew most teachers would not have the time to check their email and then go to another website and vote.  Our Superintendent was the head of the state’s Race to the Top application.  His district had to vote “yes” on Race to the Top.  And when the 6,000 electronic votes were cast out of 30,000 employees the vote was “yes.”

Not all teachers in my district are doormats.  One teacher sued the union for following improper voting procedures.  The union lost, and we would once again be given the opportunity to vote on “Race to the Top” tied to our health insurance in a single vote.  This time it would be a paper ballot.  The Union and the district put out a big PR campaign to make sure the majority of teachers voted “yes.”  This time there was even more at stake. The merit pay money had already been distributed, ranging from the majority receiving $500 bonuses to the select few receiving $20,000. Many teachers received nothing.  If we voted no, the district and union warned we would have to give the money back.  The Union President, in a district email, sent out a link to a youtube video explaining what a yes and no vote would mean.  The woman had obviously not checked her email on a district computer in a very long time.  If she had been at all familiar with school computers, she would have known teachers cannot access youtube from their school computers!  Some well informed teachers this time were trying to fight back against a constant stream of disinformation.  A website, was started. We received robo calls informing us to vote no and robo calls from the district informing us to ignore those robo calls.  I tried to inform colleagues at my school about the true nature of Race to the Top by sending out an email using the staff email address.  We were informed at the next meeting that the staff email address was a privilege and that the district had taken away staff emails from most other schools. If another email went out, the district would pull the plug on staff emails.  On the morning of the vote, we received an email from the Superintendent’s office that warned that if we voted no we would have to refund the district any RTTT funds we received.

I was asked at my school site to stay and count the votes.  Out of 200 teachers, only 81 bothered to vote.  Many teachers who showed up to vote, still had no idea what they were voting for.  The union steward and another union member almost got in a brawl over what to do with the left over ballots.  The union member wanted to have them shredded, the union steward wanted to return them to the union as directed. The union member called the union steward a communist and a Nazi but eventually the two men agreed to write void across the unused ballots.  Did I mention that many teachers in my district do not trust the Union?

At my school site, the majority voted “no” despite the draconian warnings from the Union President and the Superintendent.  It was reported to me that at many other school sites the majority voted “no” as well.  The next day the union announced that the vote passed by a two- thirds majority.  Now I am not implying that the union fixed the vote. It’s possible, but it’s also possible that many teachers did not want to give back their $500 that was already spent or they just didn’t understand what they were voting for or that maybe they like the idea of signing away job security and a fair evaluation for the chance of maybe one day receiving a $20,000 bonus.  I don’t know. So for now, we’re stuck with Race to the Top. What we’ll be racing to the top of, only time will tell.