George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind education measure into law in 2002. (WIN MCNAMEE/REUTERS)

On paper, some policies sound like they make simple sense. But when all of the dimensions are understood, and these policies are implemented in real schools with real teachers and students, things that seem fair are not, and the consequences are damaging. Here, from Katie Sluiter, a teacher in West Michigan, is a post about how reforms are playing out in her state and affecting teachers, students and schools. Sluiter is a junior high school English Language Arts teacher who lives with her husband and three small children. Her writing has been published on BlogHer, BonBon Break, as well as in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan. A member of both the National Council of Teachers of English and the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, she was a 2014 presenter at the MCTE conference. She holds a masters of arts in English with a teaching emphasis from Western Michigan University. This appeared on The Educator’s Room website.

 

By Katie Sluiter

I have been teaching in a district that I love for 12 years, following two years doing long-term substituting and my student teaching. It was my first choice for where I wanted to get a contract. At the time, the high school I taught in was small enough that I easily knew all the kids in each grade, but big enough that our student sections for sporting events were loud and proud.

The staff is tight-knit and supportive of one another. The administration cares about the teachers. The board cares about the community, teachers, and students. We are a district that is not afraid to identify what is not working and fix it. We are all there for the students.

But we are a Title 1 school, and since I can remember, the Michigan state budget has put our administration in an ugly, awkward position at the end of each school year.

I started in the fall of 2003, and by the end of the 2005 school year, our district began having to make yearly cuts that meant laying off teachers each year–one year they had to do layoffs at the semester. Back then, layoffs were made by order of seniority. This meant that whenever it was announced that there would be cuts due to the state cuts, teachers started to frantically study the seniority list imagining all the possibilities of what could happen. It was a mess.

A couple of years ago, Michigan changed their law to prohibit cutting teachers by seniority; it is now done by a combination of factors that all go into teacher evaluations. On paper, this sounds like a much better plan. Districts were no longer in a position where they had to protect teachers who may or may not be good at their job just because they had been in the district forever.

The problem now is that teacher evaluations are based on subjective things that, depending on the teacher’s relationship with the administrator in charge of his/her evaluation, could mean poor marks. Thankfully, I have never experienced this sort of vindictiveness, nor have I seen it in my district. Our administrators are fair and really want to work with the teachers for the best of the student, but since I have done work with our state’s largest teacher’s union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), I have heard many horror stories.

Another aspect of the new teacher evaluations is student achievement. I believe this may vary from district to district, but our student achievement is based on grades as well as scores on certain tests such as the scholastic reading inventory (SRI) test that our students all take four times a year.

Again, on paper this seems fair. It is a teacher’s job to teach, and in a perfect world that means students learn stuff and advance every year.

But this is not a perfect world and we know there are many things that affect student performance: poverty, mental health, family support, etc. Sometimes we can do everything: meetings with students and parents, individual plans and accommodations, one-on-one tutoring…and if the child is either unable or unwilling to work, the progress is not going to happen. The student who refuses to participate affects my teacher evaluation. The student who never shows up to school affects my teacher evaluation.

Thankfully, since the new legislation went into effect, our district has not had to cut anyone based on teacher evaluations. We have had enough retirements or resignations that we could shift positions around in the district, or we have had teachers who were still on probation (not yet tenured). But we are still cutting every year because of state leadership (or lack there of) with money (or lack there of) for education.

I have taught ELA to grades 8-12, Spanish 1 and 2, and countless electives in three different buildings over the past 12 years. My teaching assignment has never ever been consistent from year to year. It is not what our district prefers, but it’s what the state forces upon them. Each and every year we have managed to balance our budget and end in the black. Each and every year it is a bit closer to not happening.

If the state thinks we can’t, they can take us over as they have done to Detroit schools and Muskeegon schools. The sad thing is, those districts are now worse than they were before government take-over.

Since graduating with my teaching degree in 2001, the outlook for teaching jobs is worse than ever — even for those of us who have been here for over a decade.

What is it like in your state? How has state funding affected teaching positions in your district?