Friday, February 21, 2014

The Cost of Calamity Days.

This blog post was inspired by a Columbus Dispatch article dated February 21, 2014 where the Dispatch, in response to comments from members of the legislature, tried to tally up the cost of calamity days in Ohio. The article is here:

The line that got me was this one:

They used numbers that ranged from $460 million to $700 million that they said would be wasted if teachers were paid for four days — in addition to the five allowed now — when classes are canceled for bad weather.

“If you divide the 184 days into the billions and billions … we spend (on education), I’m told you spend about $115 million a day,” Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon, said during the debate on Wednesday.

The calculation - divide the total cost of education by the number of days of education to get the per day cost - makes sense if education employees were producing cars and the factories had to run a certain number of days to produce a certain number of cars, however, I don't really think education works that way. I think that over the course of a semester or a school year, the content that needs to be taught is taught. You don't get 0.5% better an education for each made up calamity day in quite the same way that you can produce 0.5% more cars if the factory ran an extra day. If only it was that easy, right?

The question is (or should be) - how many days or hours are required to teach the board (community) approved curriculum? It may very well be 180, but it could also be 160 or 200. Given the major shift in Ohio education brought about by Common Core and given that this is the first year that a full Common Core based (though locally developed) curriculum is being taught, I don't think anyone knows. This will come over time, with experience. It's also obvious that education is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. When you build a car, it takes the same amount of time to build each car and each car turns out more or less the same. Educating children, when each child is a unique entity with their own talents, hopes, dreams, fears and needs, is a bit more complex and logically would require a different amount of time for each kid to do the job.

The legislation (HB416) passed by the Ohio House allows that for calamity days 8 and 9, teachers must report for work for training purposes. If you listen to the debate on the House Floor, it was clear that the motivating factor was to make sure that the state got their moneys worth out of teachers for the year. Makes sense, you say, so why do I find this disturbing?

Teachers are white collar professional workers with a unique skill set. Each year, their task is to teach the required curriculum. If they can do that in 160 days, that's great. If it takes a full 180 days, that's OK and if takes 200 days, they should be willing to do that as well. It's not about "getting our money worth", its about making sure that each kid has had sufficient time in school and/or online and with teachers to absorb a differentiated curriculum tailored to the individual student so they can be the most successful in the current year and future years. In other words, it should be the result that matters. We pay teachers an annual salary to achieve a result and as long as that result is achieved, does it really matter if teachers get to stay home when it snows?

So, you might be asking yourself why it does matter - why are so many people concerned about whether teachers report to work on calamity days. Ironically, it's because of the teachers themselves, or rather, their unions. Virtually every teacher union contract in the state treats our professional teachers as if they were blue collar assembly line workers. The contracts rigidly mandate the number of days worked, the number of hours worked, the number of minutes that teachers must be in training, the number of minutes a teacher gets for lunch, length of recess and so forth. Don't believe it? Read this excerpt  or this excerpt from the Columbus Education Association contract with Columbus City Schools. This rigidity makes perfect sense in a factory where if someone is off the line, the necessary result cannot be achieved but it makes absolutely no sense in providing an education for children in the year 2014, especially given our connected society where learning can continue online, through text messages to teachers, email exchanges on Saturdays or at 3am and so forth.

What needs to happen in my opinion is that we need a whole new paradigm when it comes to thinking about time in schools. Most teachers, at least in Worthington,  work very hard to make sure that kids get the material they need. Most teachers work tirelessly to differentiate instruction and provide enrichment opportunities for advanced learners and most teachers are relentless at helping struggling learners reach mastery in a given subject. Frankly, we should expect nothing less of professional educators. Given this professional relationship, I would personally never demand that teachers report to work for training on calamity days 8 and 9 as HB416 allows. Instead, I would expect that whatever professional training is required for teachers to do their jobs well, they obtain.  I, for one, refuse to treat professional educators as assembly line workers and I hope that one day, throughout the country, our professional educators no longer treat themselves as assembly line workers.

When they day happens, when both school district management and teachers can focus on the results and not so much whether we are getting our moneys worth by counting every minute teachers are on or off the job, education in this country will have taken a giant step forward.