Short Subjects

Teachers in Pinckney, Mich., voluntarily gave up coverage from the Michigan Education Special Services Association, a third-party insurance administrator affiliated with the Michigan Education Association. Some 97 percent of teachers voted to switch health insurance plans, joining several other bargaining groups in the district that have abandoned MESSA in the recent past. The district estimates the changes will reduce costs by $800,000 and allow staffing levels to remain constant.

A group of students in Ironwood, Mich., expressed their displeasure over unsuccessful contract negotiations between the teachers union and their school board by wearing matching T-shirts to school recently. Several dozen students at Wright High School in the Upper Peninsula’s Ironwood wore the maroon shirts that said "What about US?" on the front and "87 percent" on the back. Student organizers said the "87 percent" was in reference to the percentage of American workers who choose not to belong to unions.

Two national teachers unions released studies recently that show Michigan teachers are paid in the top five nationally. The National Education Association said Michigan’s average teacher salary of $56, 973 in 2005 placed the state fourth. The American Federation of Teachers said Michigan teachers averaged $54,474 in 2004, good for fifth in the country. The NEA also said Michigan moved up from ninth to eighth in the total amount spent on public education, at $19.2 billion a year.

The first post-Katrina school to open in New Orleans was a charter school, the International School of Louisiana. Although both of the school’s buildings, in Orleans Parish, were destroyed by the hurricane’s flood waters, it became the first public school in the city to reopen, holding classes Oct. 31, 2005 in spare rooms at a local church and a portable classroom. Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed a law allowing the state to take control of 102 of the 117 public schools that were operating in New Orleans before the hurricane. Most of the schools will be turned over to universities and foundations and reopen as charters. Before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, some 90 percent of the city’s public schools were performing below the state average. Of the 170 schools statewide deemed "failing," 68 were in New Orleans. Tulane University, the Eli Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have expressed interest in the charter school project.

Michigan Department of Education officials say they will not need the extra year states were given to meet federal standards that all teachers be "highly qualified" under the No Child Left Behind Act. In a letter last October, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said that funding would not be cut off if schools could show they were making progress toward meeting the standard. Schools originally were given until June 2006 to meet the goal of having 100 percent compliance. Set in 2001, the requirement means teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, be state certified and demonstrate knowledge in their subject. Officials at the Michigan Department of Education expect to meet the goal of having 100 percent of Michigan teachers highly qualified under the No Child Left Behind Act by the end of this school year. They estimate around 94 percent of Michigan teachers already meet the standard, while Detroit Public Schools, the state’s largest district, estimates 98 percent of its teachers are highly qualified. The state has been using special permits to allow teachers to teach in subjects outside of their major, and programs through state universities offered training over the past three years to help teachers pick up the certifications they need under NCLB.

The Cleveland Public Schools could lose 10 percent of its funding after misreporting absentee rates. During the 2004-2005 school year, the district of 63,000 students originally reported 620 total absences. Those numbers were reviewed last October and a new figure of about 519,000 absences was reported. The district said employees counted students present if they were not in school, but thought to be doing classroom work from home. The Ohio Department of Education said it will monitor and review the district’s data collection and reporting. Ohio law allows for a 10 percent reduction in state aid for misreporting data.

Denver voters agreed recently to pay an additional $25 million in property taxes as part of a plan to reform the way teachers are paid and reward them for student achievement. The ballot measure, called ProComp, not only will reward teachers for student performance, it also will give bonuses for taking on "hard to teach" subjects or teaching in tough schools. The plan phases out the current union-negotiated salary structure.

"(Denver Public Schools) will be the best big-city school district in the United States," Mayor John Hickenlooper told the Denver Post. ProComp passed 58-42 percent, despite opposition from many teachers. "I’m 100 percent against it," teacher Anna Cafaro told the Post. "I just don’t think it’s an effective way to pay teachers." ProComp will allow teachers to make as much as $80,000 to $90,000 a year, depending on what they do to earn it, as compared to a top salary of $54,185 now for a teacher with 13 years of experience and a master’s degree. Current teachers have seven years to opt into the plan. All new hires as of January 2006 will automatically be enrolled.

High school graduation requirements have been raised in Missouri. Students starting high school in 2010 will need 24 credits to finish, up from 22, and will have to earn four credits of English, three each of math, social studies and science, and one-half credit each of health and personal finance. The changes drew about 600 mostly favorable public comments, according to the Missouri Department of Education. The law was last changed 20 years ago.

A home schooled student from California won first place in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology. Michael Viscardi, 16, won $100,000 for his work on a 19th century math problem known as the Dirichlet problem. Viscardi’s theorem could be used in engineering and physics, including in the design of airplane wings. Viscardi takes math classes at the University of California at San Diego, and has been home schooled since fifth grade. His father is a software engineer, while his mother, who stays at home, has a doctorate in neuroscience.

Union staffing rules, rather than employee performance or student need, dictate how 40 percent of teacher vacancies are filled in urban public schools, according to a study by The New Teacher Project. The study, "Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers Union Contracts," looked at hiring and teacher movement in five urban districts. The districts were given anonymity in exchange for access, but two, San Diego and New York City, have identified themselves. Specific contract rules such as "voluntary transfer," and "excessed teacher" were examined, according to a TNTP press release highlighting the study. A voluntary transfer is a teacher with seniority who moves between schools in the same district, while an excessed teacher is one whose position has been cut, usually for budget reasons. Excessed teachers are often given jobs at a different school within the same district.

"These staffing rules often require other schools to hire these incumbent teachers even if they are not the right match for the job," TNTP’s press release said. "As a result, urban schools are often forced to hire teachers regardless of students’ needs. These contract rules thwart any sustained attempt to significantly improve teacher quality — the single greatest school-based factor in increasing student achievement."

The study also found that of more than 70,000 teachers in the five districts, only four tenured teachers were terminated due to poor performance in a one-year period. Because of the difficulties in firing teachers, 25 percent of principals surveyed in one district and 40 percent in another admitted that they urge poor performers to transfer to another school. The American Federation of Teachers, a union of 1.3 million teachers and school personnel, called the study "meritless," in its own press release. "The TNTP report completely misses the mark on the challenge of retaining new teachers in urban schools," said Antonia Cortese, the AFT’s executive vice president. "Almost 50 percent of new teachers leave schools within five years."

TNTP’s study, although not about new teacher retention, did find that staffing rules in union contracts mean new teachers are often expendable. "Novice teachers are, by default, the first to be excessed," TNTP’s press release said. "In three districts, a subset of novice teachers also can be stripped of their positions if more senior teachers need or want their jobs. As a result, one-quarter of principals surveyed reported having a new or novice teacher bumped from their school the prior year." According to its Web site, "The New Teacher Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to partnering with educational entities to enhance their capacity to recruit, select, train and support new teachers effectively."