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Utah Teachers Say They Are Caught in the Middle

Ohanian Comment: For starters, why aren't teachers evaluations of student work valued any more? Why do communities allow testing to squeeze out a 20-year tradition of students studying a Shakespeare play? If you can answer these questions, keep reading. The article raises a few more.

For the first time in her 20-year teaching career, Margaret Pratt dumped "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

An unprecedented 10 days of state- and district-ordered standardized testing compelled the Bingham High School English teacher to abandon the Bard.

"It about broke my heart," she said. "Every teacher wants to teach a Shakespeare play, and every student needs to have one."

Losing the play is yet another cruel reminder to Pratt that public-school teachers are losing respect -- among politicians, among policy-makers, among parents. Ask Pratt and her classroom colleagues about this and they will rattle off reasons faster than their students do the times tables:

* The grades teachers give aren't enough anymore. Now, the state and the feds want to test and test and test before advancing or graduating students.

* If a few students lag behind their peers, an entire school is seen as failing under President Bush's sweeping education reforms.

* Teachers set aside time to update parents about their children's progress, but the grown-ups don't always show.

* Business and higher education leaders complain about meaningless high school diplomas. State lawmakers respond by passing more unfunded mandates.

* Class sizes continue to swell -- sometimes topping 40 students -- while teacher raises virtually vanish.

* And Utah remains dead last in per-pupil spending.

"You could not pay me enough to do this job if I did not love it," Pratt said. "They neglect to realize teaching is not a science. It's an art. Some teachers are better than others, but we're all trying hard."

The union line: School-reform advocates and some lawmakers see it differently.

They say the stature of teachers, particularly their unions, and the rest of the education establishment could stand to be knocked down a few notches. Educators, they say, wield too much power over school policy and practice and impede reforms that would improve public schools.

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige labeled the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, a "terrorist organization" for its resistance to reforms spelled out in the No Child Left Behind law. He later apologized and called teachers "the true soldiers of democracy."

Some Utah lawmakers and business leaders are just as leery of the union's Utah affiliate, the Utah Education Association.

Rep. J. Morgan Philpot blames the UEA for Gov. Olene Walker's recent veto of his special education voucher legislation. And, like Paige, he says the union, not its members, is the culprit.

"Most of us [legislators] do not think they're the face of the average teacher in Utah, and that's frustrating to us," the Midvale Republican said. "The UEA is the intermediary between teachers and the Legislature, and they do a great disservice to their members. There is no working with the UEA for a Republican in Utah. They are a very left-wing organization, very left of a Utah Democrat."

UEA President Pat Rusk says Philpot is wrong, that many of her ranks hail from the right.

"The UEA is the sum of the teachers who belong to it," she said. "Yes, we have Democratic teachers, but we also have Republican teachers, independent teachers and Green Party teachers."

Unions aren't the only ones drawing criticism, and lawmakers aren't the only ones dishing it out. Many leaders in business and higher education say public schools -- and, by extension, teachers -- are falling short.

A 2003 report by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public-opinion research group in New York, found that fewer than half of employers and college professors rate public schools as "good" or "fair," compared with 73 percent of parents and 93 percent of teachers.

In the same study, two out of three professors said they believe the grades on children's report cards were inflated. Half as many teachers thought grades were juiced.

Similar concerns led Utah lawmakers to require teachers to advance and graduate students based on demonstrated skills rather than merely classroom participation.

At the same time, standardized tests in Utah and nationwide show an achievement gap between impoverished children and their more affluent peers and also between minority students and their Anglo classmates. That disparity led Bush and Congress to craft No Child Left Behind, a sweeping 2001 law compelling schools to bring all students up to grade level by 2014.

Schools and teachers need to be held accountable for student performance, said Eugene Hickok, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

"We can do better," he said during a December visit to Salt Lake City. "We need to have higher expectations for our students and for our teachers."

In the trenches: Teachers say they want to be accountable. At the same time, they are tired of being criticized by state and federal lawmakers who haven't spent much time in classrooms yet blame teachers for school shortcomings.

"They need to shadow those teachers who have been pounded on," said Jodean Burrup, a South Jordan mother who crusades to restore respect to teachers. "People have no idea the hours a teacher logs."

Visitors to Rina Rosenhan's sixth-grade classroom at Meadowlark Elementary in Salt Lake City, can see firsthand how student transience and poverty affect academic achievement.

"When they look at low test scores, the first and only people they go to are the teachers," she said. "They don't look to the children's background or history. They don't look to the parents. They don't look at other things like test anxiety. I have kids who have been to so many different schools that I'm supposed to make up for all they missed?"

Visitors to Steve Davies' seventh-grade algebra class at Joel P. Jensen Middle School in West Jordan will see 38 students crammed into every available desk and chair. And that is his easy class. Most of those students behave and excel.

Drop in on one of Davies' remedial math classes, and it's a different scene. Twenty or fewer students, but all with a record of struggling in school. Some prefer daydreaming or doodling to computing compound interest.

"Most are not that bad with math; they're bad at school," Davies said. "Some of them don't get much support from home. I'll sit down with their parents and we'll come up with a big plan on how they can help their student, and then, nothing. It doesn't happen."

Talk to Stan Banks, an English teacher at Bingham High School in South Jordan, and one might wonder why anyone would do his job.

A teacher for three years, Banks falls on the low end of Jordan School District's salary schedule, making $26,000 a year. His income is low enough that his young daughter qualifies for reduced-price lunch.

Banks made three times as much money in his previous career stringing power lines. He acknowledges that job was more dangerous, but it wasn't nearly as gratifying as the one he has now. Still, he says, he marvels at how his hourly wage falls short of his college-age daughter's pay as a fast-food worker.

"I made more with a high school diploma and commercial driver's license than women with bachelor's degrees and educational licensure," Banks said. "As long as anything to do with raising and nurturing children is considered women's work, the pay for teaching will never be commensurate.

"There's really this expectation -- because we're in this for esoteric reasons, which is not true -- that we do this out of the kindness of our hearts, so that should be satisfaction enough."

It's not. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a third of teachers leave the profession within their first three years.

Banks says he won't change his career, but he may change his location.

"I see myself teaching for the rest of my career, but not in Utah," he said. "Other states have more respect for the profession. More importantly, it's treated as a profession."


— Ronnie Lynn
Salt Lake Tribune


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