Education Perspectives: IEA President Penni Cyr and Idaho Teacher of the Year Melyssa Ferro
For this edition of the IEA Reporter, we posed questions about critical education topics to two of Idaho’s top education experts—newly minted Teacher of the Year Melyssa Ferro and IEA President Penni Cyr. These two experienced professional educators share their thoughts on master teacher premiums, class sizes, discretionary funding, and ideas to improve public education.
Q-The Career Ladder compensation model was the “big splash” from the last legislative session. How has it been received thus far by professional educators and others?
Ferro-I have seen very little to indicate that this legislation has made a difference in my building or my district. It did not make it easier to hire new teachers. If anything, it just created a complex salary schedule that no one, including members if the negotiations team, can explain to anyone. Many districts do not understand how to make sure that all teachers with Masters degrees are being credited for them and are losing out on state funding because of it. Some master teacher candidates are deciding that it is not worth their efforts to get continuing education beyond the minimum required for recertification. None of it seems to really address the bottom line of helping students.
Cyr-The Career Ladder definitely has received mixed reviews, depending on the understanding of members and district administration and school board members. One difficulty has been helping everyone understand that the CL is an allocation schedule NOT a pay schedule. It is another “formula” the state uses to determine how much money will be sent to each district each year for compensation of certified teachers. It was not ever intended to determine what teachers earn; that is determined through negotiations between the local association and the district.
Q-We have seen some progress in reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing in Idaho. What effect has this had on students and teachers? What would you like to see happen regarding standardized tests going forward?
Ferro-I have not seen that reduction hit the classroom level in my district yet. The sheer volume of testing that the math and ELA teachers in my district do is overwhelming. They are still spending more time testing than they are teaching. I think that it is safe to say that classroom teachers would like to see testing limited to a few days during the year rather than multiple weeks. Another huge benefit would be to have the testing focus on evaluating student progress in a formative manner rather than being utilized to summatively assess both the students and their teachers, which is happening under the current high-stakes formula. Most of the tests currently being used summatively were never designed for that purpose. They are meant to be a formative assessment that allows teachers to diagnose areas of weakness for further instruction.
Cyr-Teachers want their students to succeed. With the great emphasis on high stakes tests under the former Superintendent of Public Instruction and NCLB, teachers have had to resort to “teaching to the test” to make sure their students did well. Tests were never meant to determine if a student could graduate from school or if a teacher should get paid more or get fired. Tests should be used to determine where students are struggling and what help they need. Tests were designed to help professional educators make the best decisions about what students need to continue growing and learning. Under the test and punish regime, some students have gotten very stressed and unhappy; some parents have been concerned that their student aren’t receiving a well-rounded education, and many teachers have lost the joy of teaching because they are unable to properly focus on their students’ needs and interests. Schools have been reducing or eliminating electives and other classes like P.E., music, and art so teachers can spend more time on tested subjects. It is my hope that the number of tests is reduced and that we no longer place such high stakes on tests, but instead let the professionals do their jobs and use tests to guide education decisions for their students.
Q-There has been a substantial increase in the number of non-certified teachers and counselors taking on responsibilities typically handled by certified professionals. How concerning is this and what should be done about it?
Ferro-There is no pathway to teacher certification that can take the place of a high quality internship and student teaching experience. Content expertise combined with strong classroom management skills is the only way to ensure equity of educational access to students from all across our state. Rather than lower the bar for people entering the teaching profession in an effort to fill increasingly hard-to-fill positions in the teaching field, or worse yet, pawning off the responsibly onto non-certificated staff and counselors, it is time for Idaho policy makers to address the core problem. The way to put a highly qualified teacher in every Idaho classroom is going to come down to increasing compensation in a manner that demonstrates a recognition of education and time in the profession and creating an environment of respect for the men and women that serve in Idaho’s public schools.
Cyr-This is very concerning. On the one hand, the legislature says it wants to reward the “best of the best” teachers and on the other hand, they have opened up a variety of pathways for people without professional training in education to teach our students. If the legislature is concerned that our students aren’t being taught by fully-prepared educators, then why do they allow alternative paths to certification? Why do they allow pre-service educators and others to serve as the professional teacher? Idaho students deserve to be taught by highly-qualified, professional teachers.
Q-Where do things stand currently in terms of discretionary/operational funding for education? What are the hopes and expectations for this important piece of education funding next year and into the future?
Ferro-I will defer to Penni for specifics on this, but I can say that teachers want to be able to supplement their lesson plans with hands-on activities, field trip opportunities and project-based learning experiences. Right now, these types of activities are often not on the table due to a lack of discretionary funding in districts.
Cyr-Last year, the legislature did increase discretionary funding for each district and Superintendent Ybarra is asking for a 7.6% increase for the 2016-17 school funding. If approved, the discretionary funding will again see an increase, and we are cautiously optimistic that this will happen. However, this additional funding will still only bring Idaho education funding up to the 2009 levels of funding. Because discretionary funding is used to pay electrical bills, maintain buildings, purchase other school supplies, etc. classroom supply budgets are very low. Teachers have always had to supplement their classroom budgets from their own pockets in order to give their students the experiences they need to be successful.
Q-Master Teacher Premiums were also part of the teacher compensation plan passed last year. What do we need to know about that? Any changes or new developments on the horizon?
Ferro-Master teacher premiums sound like a good idea on the surface but end up being very subjective in many districts. Districts are not showing much consistency in how they choose the criteria for being awarded these premiums, so it opens up the possibility that the money may end up in the hands of people who are friendly with their administrators rather than ones who are providing the highest quality of educational opportunities for the kids in their district. These premiums seem like subjective bonuses and are very divisive in a profession that relies on collaborative partnerships at the classroom level.
Cyr-There is quite a bit of confusion over this because there are two pieces of the Career Ladder which contain the word “master.” Each year, districts are allocated additional compensation funding for every teacher who holds or earns a Master’s Degree. These funds do not get paid directly to the teacher who holds that degree, however, and locals must negotiate for it just as they negotiate for all compensation. If teachers are not being compensated for additional degrees, it is my hope that their negotiations team revisit this in future sessions to make sure that these funds are being used to compensate teachers who have earned these degrees.
Master Teacher Premiums is a different form of compensation and when earned, will be paid directly to the teacher as a bonus. However, Master Teacher Premiums will not be funded until 2019. The State Board of Education created a task force, including IEA members Jolene Dockstader, Sherry Belknap and Aaron McKinnon, to work to create requirements that a teacher must meet to earn the MTP; above and beyond a Master’s Degree or National Board Certification or any continuing education. Districts may decide to use these requirements or create their own requirements, which must be approved by the State Department of Education. In order to earn this recognition and bonus, teachers must have taught for eight years and once earned, it is only good for three years. After the initial three years, each teacher who earned it will have to show yearly that they deserve to keep it. The legislature’s intent is to reward the “best” teachers with additional compensation, but whether the MTP will accomplish that goal is yet to been seen. If the requirements are too stiff or inflexible, teachers may choose not to even attempt it. The 2016 Legislature will consider the Task Force’s proposed requirements and will determine if this is what they had in mind when they passed this law.
Q-How are class sizes running in Idaho and what impact are student/teacher ratios having on learning? Should reducing class sizes still be an important component of our education policy objectives?
Ferro-I have heard several educational gurus claim that class size does not matter when it comes to educating students in public schools and unfortunately, public policy makers like to parrot those findings. What they don’t seem to read is the fine print in those studies. The actual findings of those studies say that smaller class sizes don’t make a difference if they are taught in the same manner as a large class. Smaller class sizes do matter and will make a difference. The paperwork and planning and personalization of instruction are not as effective for a teacher with a large case-load as they are for a teacher with a smaller class size. Teachers in Idaho are often dealt a hand of cards that includes poverty, migrant issues, hunger, language deficiencies and neglect. Smaller class sizes make it possible to provide equitable access to education for all of those students.
Cyr-Class sizes are still high in many areas, often because we have a shortage of teachers or because districts cannot pass levies needed to supplement their school budgets. During the recession, the number of teaching professionals was cut and districts in Idaho are still having trouble attracting teachers to their districts. Class size matters! Individual students are directly impacted by the amount of time a teacher can spend with them. The more students there are in a classroom, the less time a teacher has to give to each child on an individual basis. This does impact a child’s education. Period. No two students are alike and each needs their own kind of individualized attention. To make sure every child is successful, teachers must be able to give each child the time they need to reach their full potential.
Q-What changes/improvements would you like to see in education policy that would benefit students, teachers and communities?
Ferro-Idaho’s new STEM action center is exciting, and I hope that we will follow the template that Utah has provided in STEM education. I would like to see the legislature continue to fund and expand this opportunity for Idaho’s kids to develop the skills that will be required of them in the future. I would like to see education policy bring all of the stakeholders to the table so that we can collaboratively utilize our resources in order to expand Idaho’s education programs. Enhancing science and engineering opportunities will allow our students to be the problem solvers and communicators that we want to be the leaders of tomorrow.
Cyr-I would like to see more teacher-led decision making. Teachers are the professionals in the classroom, closest to the students, who know what they need to help their students be successful. While it is very important for other stakeholders to express their opinions and desires about what the future needs of our communities are, it should be left up to the people closest to the students to make the decisions about how to meet those needs. Decision making should be returned to the local districts where parents, teachers, students and the community can determine together what they would like students to know and be able to do once they graduate. State education policy should clearly reflect this, and should be minimal as was stated by one of the Governor’s Task Force recommendations. STEM education is extremely important as are music, art, social studies, reading, etc. Students’ needs can only be met when local communities are allowed to come together with the parents and teachers to determine what those needs are and how to use their education funding to make it happen.