What’s going on behind the curtains in Sacramento City USD


News leaked out over the holiday week that locally our own Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) outside counsel Lozano and Smith principal, Lou Lozano, will be doing a presentation with school board member Darrel Woo, and outgoing Superintendent Jonathan Raymond sharing how they subverted seniority rights during rounds of massive layoffs in recent years. The presentation will take place at the California School Boards Association conference where they will be teaching their tricks to other districts.

After sharing this on Facebook, Larry Ferlazzo, whose Luther Burbank High School was especially hard-hit by the skipping, left the following comment:

 Shades of Edelman’s workshop at Aspen bragging about their manipulation of the political process. Just as that came back to haunt Stand For Children, this workshop will haunt district/teacher relations….

Larry is referencing an event a few years back when the edublogosphere’s collective jaw dropped as a video showing Jonah Edelman at the Aspen Institute revealing “sausage-making secrets practiced in Illinois” to try to make it impossible for the Chicago Teachers Union from striking by requiring any strike authorization vote from union members pass by a 75% margin. You can see the video, and analysis from Anthony Cody here. It was a rare moment where we got to peek behind the curtain of so-called education “reform”.

In the case of Edelman, this brought him and his organization, a lot of harsh comments and scrutiny. It was also was resoundingly unsuccessful is stopping Chicago teachers from striking, as when they did hold a strike authorization vote, it passed with a 90% margin.

What does Lozano and Smith’s advice look like? With the passage of Prop. 30 many of those teachers are being called back, and there’s little need to do any sort of layoffs making these sorts of approaches untimely in the extreme. Claiming they were “successful”, since the courts found against their claims that this is legal under California’s Ed Code, is dubious at best. In addition to being legally questionable, they haven’t been successful, and are even less likely to be so over time.

The schools that got to have teachers “skipped” in layoffs were part of the district’s priority schools program which included SIG (School Improvement Grants under ARRA or the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) eligible schools that were in the lowest 5% of test score performance. Superintendent Raymond threw in some other schools with the one school that met that criteria. Locally, the performance of these schools has not improved to the level of the resources thrown at them. This follows a national trend with SIG schools showing small gains, and in some cases (one-third), schools saw scores drop. Critics will say that all union-loving public school supporters like myself want is to “throw money at the problem”. No, we want to spend money (existing and new) more wisely, and not just throw it at consultants, and more administration.

The real hole in the boat of this skipping policy is that it only “works” when you have a pool of teachers who can’t otherwise find a job, like during a recession. It is dependent on getting low-seniority teachers into these schools, and keeping them there out of fear that if they leave, they will be laid off. The current fiscal (more stable funding for schools) and demographic dynamics (senior teachers retiring) are combining with the fact that most districts (including Sac City) are at their maximum levels in student-to-teacher ratios. If anything, districts will be hiring, rather than laying off, over the near term, and this pool of other-desperate new teachers will disappear.

While Lozano and Smith are arguing for a plan that is rapidly becoming an anachronism, another program instituted at the same time as the priority schools, the Talent Transfer Initiative, has some early results out, and points the way in a completely different direction on the issue of seniority. This was a program that paid a bonus to teachers, identified as effective (I know — based on test scores, but stick with me here) who were willing to move to low-performing schools. Sacramento City Unified participated in the initial roll-out. Dana Goldstein has a nice analysis at Slate.  She sees the success as getting not just good teachers, but something that has been tried for a long time, experienced teachers into low-income/low-performing schools. The c0-hort was older, more experienced, was more diverse, and more stable (home owners) than the control.

Goldstein points out the bigger picture of this which was only a quarter of eligible teachers took the offer (which argues against scalability), and that working conditions (like smaller class-size and a stable site-administration) would do more to recruit teachers to these posts. That’s the exact opposite direction that reformers and the study authors would like to go as the article points out, they’d rather have these better teachers have larger class-sizes to affect more students since it’s cheaper to pay them a bonus rather than lower class-size. Similarly, I’m sure that throwing millions at a handful of schools in the SIG program was probably cheaper for the feds, than helping all students in poverty. Not all so-called education “reformers” are opposed to “throwing money at the problem” of education, they just want to do it badly and throw it at the wrong things.

In my experience, this working conditions observation gets to the heart of why programs like skipping and merit pay alone cannot be scaled or sustained. In opting for focusing on skipping and merit pay, rather than working conditions, Sac City didn’t attract as many senior teachers to priority schools. The conditions became so difficult that not only did senior teachers (like myself) leave priority schools, soon they started losing even less senior teachers who faced and received lay-off notices once they left the protection of working at a skipped school. Think about that, it was so bad, that they would rather be unemployed, than continue to work under these conditions. I know many of the senior and newer teachers. They were not “wimps” or “lazy”, and most have gone on to great success in new placements at non-priority schools. When the district no longer has a large pool of unemployed teachers to pick from (and testimony at the hearings on skipping showed a systematic practice of hiring the least senior teachers by priority school principals) how will they sustain this system?

I’d also like to point out another program with a track record both in Sacramento City Unified, and throughout the state, the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). It was a program to target funds to low-performing schools. Rather than being a “top down” plan (like turn-arounds, and other solutions from the Department of Education that have no basis is research), it concentrated on site-based planning, lowering class-size, and improving collaborative efforts among educators. More information can be found here.

There is no “secret-sauce” to improve schools, just a lot of hard work:

  1. Lowering class-size makes a difference. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. I can’t give quality feed-back to your child if I have 40 students;
  2. Improving teaching takes time and effort, and needs both my buy-in as a professional, and some sense that we’re taking a long-term approach and not following some flavor-of-the-month trend;
  3. If I can’t trust my boss, or don’t know who it’s going to be from year to year, it makes it hard to commit to a community and a school site;

Some will argue we’d also do well to increase SNAP and EITC, or go to a guaranteed income system if we really cared about kids and families, and I can’t disagree with that either.

by posted under politics/policy | 1 Comment »    
One Comment to

“What’s going on behind the curtains in Sacramento City USD”

  1. December 1st, 2013 at 8:54 pm      Reply Beverly Nowak Says:

    Alice, you constantly amaze me! Thank you for the in-depth report and commentary!

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