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Archive for March, 2015

I’m not sure how late people stayed up on Wednesday night enjoying the open bar and light snack reception, but I was excited to take advantage of the hotel pool and workout room in the morning.  There is nothing like a school day that starts off with a bodyweight WOD and a mile long swim for a cash-out as the sun is rising and shining through the all glass enclosure occupied solely by me.  Instead of twenty-eight kids calling my name simultaneously for help on foreign propaganda analysis, this morning I got to just float.

View from the pool onto the Tarmac.

View from the pool onto the Tarmac.

When I made my way back to my room to shower and change, I noticed a line of zombies sifting through a buffet line.  The 147 young men dressed in business casual with heavy eyelids amidst the movable corporate art of a red umbrella gave some clue that an insurance convention was in town.  Hartford being the once famed “Insurance Capital of the World” before it wasn’t cost-effective for insurance companies to headquarter here in large numbers anymore, insurance agents are not hard to find or spot.  I’m not sure if these guys stayed up all night partying, or they just hate their jobs, but they were silent and sloppily methodical moving through line.  I actually felt the misery, wafting through the aroma of bacon grease, encapsulate me as I simply strolled by en route to the elevator.  In that moment, I was happy about two things: 1) I had worked out and had endorphins pumping so I felt really good 2) I was in an active profession where I feel everyday that the work I do matters.  That is not to say insurance agents don’t have that same feeling, I would hope that they do if that is the profession they chose, but I know it’s not for me.  I would be miserable.  Teaching is for my calling; teaching is my passion and purpose.

I'm Brian Germain and I approve most of this message.

I’m Brian Germain and I approve most of this message.

When I had packed up and gone downstairs to our group’s buffet, the energy was palpable.  Bright shining faces were excited about the trip before us and I knew that these were my people.  Maybe it was that teachers are just happy when they get to spend a school day outside of school.  Or maybe everyone was just happy because it was 9am and that is considered “sleeping in” in a profession where we all rise before the sun, most in the 5 o’clock hour.

After a relaxing flight to DC with a row to myself (which would be a theme as I got rooms to myself for the duration of the trip as well…missed bonding opportunities) we dropped bags off at the hotel and went to NEA Headquarters where the building wowed all in attendance.  The entrance was beautiful, the atrium was awe-inspiring, and even the cafeteria food was delicious.  After a quick lunch, we headed to the main boardroom on the second floor and began our day.  We were first greeted by Jim Testerman, past president of Pennsylvania’s Teacher Union and current Senior Director at the NEA Center for Organizing who has been filling that role since November, 2011.  The former 7th grade science teacher set the tone with brief opening remarks that included discussion of pushing agency fees this year.  As the new guy, I didn’t know what he meant, but as it was mentioned several times throughout the weekend, I naturally looked it up so I could have a clue.

From the NEA website, “Such a provision requires that all employees in the particular bargaining unit who are covered by the collective bargaining agreement must pay their “fair share” of dues to the union.

The premise is this: since a negotiated agreement covers all employees in a bargaining unit, and as such the benefits of the collective bargaining agreement and union representation are enjoyed by all employees in the unit, all employees should pay their “fair share” to help defray the costs associated with collective bargaining and union representation.” Source: nea.org

At its most basic, I take this to mean anyone getting union benefits needs to cough up some cash because that is both fair and the union wants more money.  Agency fees were only going to be the start to my confusion as Dave Welker who works in the Campaign and Elections Department led us through a three-hour seminar on Charter Schools.  I knew it was going to be a rough ride after he introduced himself as someone who “works on tracking the bad guys.”  It didn’t take long to decipher the union hatred toward charter schools, or maybe just this man’s hatred of them…I don’t know, I was still confused by the end.

NEA We Educate America

NEA: We Educate America.  The corporate art that was donated and proudly handing in the atrium.

According to the presentation, since 2000, John Walton of the Wal-Mart empire has pumped $1.5mil into charter schools and in the year 2010-2012 private funding for charter schools hit $266.7mil.  At first glance, I don’t see this to be a big shock.  There is overwhelming evidence to say that American public education is hurting really, really badly.  A knowledge based economy, we aren’t and all around the world, other countries are kicking our butts on PISA, TIMMS, and other comparative measures of academic prowess. When things aren’t on a good course, people innovate and experiment, that is human nature.  Think of if our ancestors stuck with dragging and pushing supplies on skids and never invented the wheel.  Trying new things is the namesake of progress and I have always seen charter schools as a way of embodying this human ideology.

Future data presented show 54% of Americans in a 2014 poll believe charter schools were “better” than public schools. One of the main problems appears to be that this is a hit on the union represented public school teacher.  Often times charter schools are skimming the best students off the top of public schools.  With continually added pressure for the strapped public systems to perform, as 1 in 20 students are now enrolled in charter schools, some districts have reported lower test scores as some of their high achieving demographic are pursuing charter options.

Two of my favorite agents for change.

Two of my favorite agents for change.

A main focus of the presentation was that charter associations often have no membership fee required, although it didn’t sound like Dave was actually too concerned with having this in place for the sake of protecting teachers, Dave was a man who followed the dollar signs.  He bashed Newman’s Own for charter school donations and called out several other companies and individuals for funding connections.  He was angry, confusing with his message and lacked a clear call to action which made him generally hard to follow.  I actually wrote in my notes about halfway through that “This guy is working pretty hard to get everyone to drink the Kool-aid, but is actually a very douchey presenter.”  I kept looking around the room to see the head nods of my colleagues which only brought further confusion.  Was this something that I just wasn’t understanding but it clicked for everyone else who was furthermore on board with this guy’s views?

I believe in peer-reviewed science and data, which one of my awesome ex-girlfriends would swoon to hear me say, but we were not presented with any of that.  What we were shown was a graph and a series of convoluted statements packed with bias that insulted our collective intelligence.  For instance, a graph of charter school growth in New England from 2002-2014 showed NY climbing quickly and CT increasing charter schools at a snail’s pace.  The shock that was sold to us was that “CT must take action to stop this from happening” and “New York and Pennsylvania [neither of which are in New England, thus making the chart mislabeled] are flooded with charter schools” and “You should be both shocked and scared by how many charter schools exist.”

To add a little perspective, because I have a Master’s Degree after all and have learned to think for myself:  NY and PA have a higher population and are simply larger than Connecticut, relatively speaking to the statistical world of proportions, they should have more charter schools and also the likelihood to see quicker growth.  Basic economic principles state that the larger the market, the larger the potential for growth. As if no one even bothered to look at the Y-axis, NY is at around 250 charter schools while CT hovers around 20. My best guess with data, is that CT has 1,179 schools so charter schools represent approximately 1.7% of the total.  New York City by itself has around 1,700 schools, but the entire state logs 6,298 according to reliable sources, which means the total percentage of charters is around 4%.  Both are but a drop in a glass of water, but I get the concern.  Even a drop of a toxic substance can do harm and if you can stop someone from introducing toxic substances in the early stages before the point of no return, that is certainly preferable.  But just what is it that makes charter schools so toxic?  The real answer is lack of transparency and public accountability.

As I ponder accountability, the frequency in which others took bathroom breaks increased.  This is what conference fuel looks like.

As I ponder accountability, the frequency in which others took bathroom breaks increased. This is what conference fuel looks like.

After spending considerable time bashing the charter system, its sub-par educators, and Teach for America Fellows, Dave ended his long brainwashing session with advocacy for Charter Teachers to join unions.  As this was completely counterintuitive to the earlier message of killing charter schools, this led me to wonder if the NEA just wants their money.  Is this just an established entity seeking to buyout a startup that threatens their vigor, not so we can utilize their strengths, but so we can pacify and ultimately shut them down?

I get it, charter schools takes funding away from public education, of which I am a part.  Teachers have less protection and they can work their tails off to be fired at any time….just like a normal job.  The opportunity to unionize and protect the rights of educators while advocating for the best routes to student success are vital.  But not all charter schools are built on a bedrock of pure evil.  At the end of the day, I care about what’s best for the kids.  Do some charter schools provide students with opportunities they might not have previously had? Of course they do! Corporate funded charter schools who have big dollars flowing through the front door are scary because they defy regulation.  In an antiquated, faltering system of education we need innovation and I think charter schools can provide a valuable service in it’s pursuit.  As a state and a nation, we can’t just keep doing things the same way and hope to get different or even better results; that is the classic definition of insanity that Confucius coined millennia ago.

Charters shouldn’t be shut down, just come under closer watch and have to follow more stringent regulations.  They can’t have the best of both worlds in keeping selection, donors, profit, and other processes secret while continuing to defy government oversight under the auspices of being “private institutions” and still getting public support and government aid for building, taxes, etc. by saying they are “public institutions.  Fall in line with one of those distinctions, and fall in line with the rules that appropriately accompany said selection.  They must operate in a more responsible manner than they are right now and from what I rotely remember from my 7th grade public education is that “Responsibility is something for which one is accountable.” (Thanks, Mr. DeLucia). The schools need to be accountable to the community they serve and not just investors.  The government must hold these schools accountable to protect the communities they serve.  Don’t shut down charter schools, they are just like kindergartners playing on the playground, they don’t know any boundaries until they are established and enforced.  Arne Duncan, when you read this, maybe think about issuing charter schools a set of common sense rules that will help serve and protect current teachers, learners and posterity.

Towards the end of the seminar’s rant, it appeared other teachers fell into the boat of angry confusion with me.  When the last question of the session asked Dave to clarify what exactly his call to action was, he responded with, “I don’t know, I guess it’s your union and you guys have to figure out what you want to do.” Thanks, Dave.  Keep tracking the “bad guys.”

Eerily empty edifice of the National Education Association, Washington, DC

Eerily empty edifice of the National Education Association, Washington, DC

To see the high resolution photo album from the trip, click here: Brian F Germain’s Flickr Account, CEA/NEA Orientation Album

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Every year, the Connecticut Education Association takes $489 from my paychecks.  The National Education Association takes $183, and my own local union takes…well I’ve never actually looked into it since the deduction is automatic and I can’t stop it anyway.  I teach units in US History about the importance of unions, workers’ rights and collective bargaining, yet I regarded my own union as a convoluted pyramid scheme I was locked into since there is no “opt-out” option.  How’s that for professional cognitive dissonance? I know they negotiate our contracts, which being the arrogant, invincibility-complex young man that I am, always left me wondering if I could have done a better job striking a deal on my own.  The only other thing I knew about our teacher’s union was that they will provide a lawyer if you either do something bad, or get accused of doing something bad.  As I didn’t ever plan on doing anything wrong or making any enemies that would bring false allegations against me, I felt this money to be unjustly stolen.  Around $800 each year is taken and I have gotten nothing in return.

CEA Orientation Group, 2015. Taken from CEA Facebook page.

CEA Orientation Group, 2015. Taken from CEA Facebook page.

 

The CEA boasts 43,000 active members and 6,000 retired members, who can either pay a lifetime membership fee of $250 or $55 each year.  They also boast 3,000 student members, but I’m not sure what the financial obligation for a college student is.  Overall, this inflates the Hartford cash-cow to $22 million of annually flowing dues money.  Now, rest-assured, every single penny brought in is also spent, as verified by outside CPA firm audits; but what does such a powerful sum of pooled capital really get? How is it put to use? What does it buy?

 Had I been as resourceful as I pride myself in being, I could have just logged onto the CEA website and figured all of this out.

The CEA headquarters across from the Capitol is owned outright by CEA and was built in 1991.  CEA itself is housed on the 5th and top story where membership, media, policy and all of the things one may associate with the union actually go down.  Each floor below it is devoted to its own specific role that is vital to CEA’s mission and a whole 292 parking spaces exist in the convenient underground garage to support the individuals working in this 113,000sq.ft. facility.  All of this is according to Glenn Silva, Director of Technology, Administrative, and Building Operations.  I’m not sure why one job title covers technology and the building, but if it works, it works.

CEA Board Room

CEA Board Room

It is up on the 5th floor where Vinnie Lofredo, Director of Government and Political Relations organizes testimony to be given before the General Assembly.  He showed off his stylish lanyard and tag that all lobbyists are required to wear in conjunction with regulation policies that require they report all money and time spent politically.  I’m absolutely positive these regulations came amid the shady, closed door dealings for which lobbyists are renowned in pop culture.  While many policies that make the legislative agenda through the time and effort of his team seem like they should be common sense initiatives anyway, I recognize I am looking at this from the bias perspective of an educator.  If the existence of lobbying is necessary in this modern day labyrinth of laws, I’m happy to have the gears of the political machine greased by people in my own self-interest.  At least the peculiar organization that is the education lobby is funded by educators as opposed to some sketchy third part conglomerate and maintains wholesome and moral goals.  At the end of the day we are trying to shape laws to benefit all students and provide more equitable learning opportunities.

Of course, political relies on public opinion and a valuable asset to any reform is to win the hearts and minds of the people.  Laurel Killough is the New Media Coordinator/Editorial Assistant for Communications who connects educators and the general public to the issues.  Utilizing tried and true methodologies like the CEA Advisor, coverage of special events and projects, 21st Century media tweets its presence as well.  Social media of all types are leveraged which in part help provide a platform for digital content which go beyond blogs and standard web applications to include sublime videography most recently coming out with this official commercial:

 

The CEA will help local chapters establish a web presence and give tips for growing a platform that will function properly and attract real usage from the membership.  Dave Canales, webmaster and lead designer at CEA has invested three years of coding his golden vision into CEA.org to transform it from an antiquated plop on Google’s baziliionth page of search results for “CEA” to a number one result that offers streamlined and user friendly information diffused through a gorgeous web platform.  The site houses resources that union members want, need, and use. All negotiated contracts are posted on the site, so if members are entering negotiations and want to see what other districts have used for legal language to establish a clause for sabbatical, or class size caps, the previously unavailable information gives teachers negotiating power.  Teachers can see decisions being made in Hartford that will affect them and unite to take courses of action in support or defense of proposed policy.  One other beautiful feature of the webpage is a listing of upcoming sponsored events, many of which the union covers costs for.  Want to learn about racial inequality in education, teaching sexual tolerance, education and the law, or connect with other educators at political events? There’s an event to suite your needs! The webpage is an important tool that unites us as a profession.  Knowledge is power and that’s exactly what the CEA website offers us all.

 

The CEA contract section has tons of valuable resources.  Looking at job postings and wondering what the salary schedule is for certain districts? Look it up at cea.org

The CEA contract section has tons of valuable resources. Looking at job postings and wondering what the salary schedule is for certain districts? Look it up at cea.org

 

Linette Branham, the director of Policy, Research, and Reform took from and center of the CEA boardroom to explain her role in the noble cause of education.  She first warmed us up by saying that there is an “Evaluations” tab on the CEA website to see policy letters that the Governor and other higher-ups send to Superintendents.  I think everyone was pleased to learn of the transparency available and the fact that if we wanted to see initiatives or political information coming down the pipe, we could easily do so.  Loving this option, she next stated that she was in charge of TEAM.  Now her immediate inclination was to go on a jaunt about how superior this program is to BEST, the old system of new teacher training and induction. Being one of the only young bloods around the table, I think I was one of a handful who understood the stressful fury of TEAM, but I also recognized that compared to BEST, this was a cake walk.  I have in fact never, EVER, heard one good thing about BEST, so am thrilled it has been trashed.  As I pondered on the words Linette spoke and thought about my own early education excursions, I realized just how important the program was.  While it was a stressful struggle to be a new teacher and balance the million things a new classroom bombarded me with, I had to research and experiment in the classroom while tracking results, being observed, and log a final report.  The process for 2 years was daunting, but I can honestly say it made me a better educator.  I still use pieces of a token economy I implemented in year one and all of the research in innovation has led me to where I am today: constantly trying new things.  I have flipped my class, gamified learning, and am rolling out Mastery Based Learning and Standards Based Grading next year.  My mentor has continued to be my guide in the district long after the program has finished, and knowing that many educators don’t get the guidance to find current trends in education post-college, I always provide information on that topic at the start of professional development seminars I run.  So, TEAM, to me you are like high school English class.  I hated you at the time, but looking back, I am so fortunate you were there to give me the skills that are contributing to my current success.  Thanks, Linette. Just for fun, if you want to see an unknown draft of my first TEAM paper, you can do that here: Brian’s First TEAM Paper.

The entire fourth floor of CEA’s building is devoted to workman’s compensation, which is a legal matter that my mind has never dwelled on much.  Still this seems like a floor worthy cause, especially as we are first of all a labor union and also looking to include mental impairments in coverage as well. For more information on that, please see the following article: Workers Comp to Cover Mental Impairment

The third floor houses legal counsel.  Everything I gleaned about their operation comes from Chris Hankins, head of that department. From his seven minute synopsis, I could tell this is the type of guy I’d love to have a coffee with; authentically enthusiastic and humorous at the evening hour he spoke with us, his demeanor definitely made him a joy to listen to.  Chris and the two other members of his counsel have a 72 page booklet for distribution called “Teachers and the Law” which they will bring to a PD of the same name if 30 or more educators in the district attend.  He says the 3rd floor is rather empty, but that legal has to have its own floor because when the press comes to cover CEA activity, if they caught crying teachers seeking consultation, it would be bad publicity.  On that topic, Chris says it is their official policy to have a box of tissues in every single room and that “men cry harder than women.” He hit a noticeable number of tangents cursing DCF, so while legalities restrict him from talking about what exactly he sees teachers for, it is not good.  The hierarchy for problem solving in the union goes like this: 3,000 building reps–>157 Union Presidents–>24 Regional UniServ Reps–>3 Counselors.  We were assured that the counselors get involved only after the hierarchy has been exhausted and it is almost certainly a career ending event.  Basically, if you see Chris Hankins come into your school, you’re going to want to talk to him because he’s probably an awesome guy, but you’re also about to have the worst day of your life.

 

Men cry harder than women.

 

The second floor houses the American Federation of Teachers, which I believed was the other “rival” union in the state.  When I worked in New Haven, they represented us and as I learned in orientation, they serve mostly large urban districts.  Apparently in the 1980’s these two unions were poaching each other’s members.  If CEA was perceived to not handle something properly, a teacher from a district where this happened was likely to call AFT who would then rally the district to switch the entity that represents them and the long, expensive tug-of-war with membership would begin.  By the late 80’s the strain had been seen, and for the greater good, both unions called a truce.  They decided to join their powers and collectively bargain with politicians for better schools, better support, and better outcomes.  So while the unions remain two separate entities, they act as friends of a common cause that have united to improve the lives of educators, students, and families which will have an untold ripple effect across our state and nation.

 

Sandy Hook Memorial. It was promised to be built on Capitol property, but was denied for unknown (to me) reasons. It's now housed in the CEA lobby across the street.

Sandy Hook Memorial. It was promised to be built on Capitol property, but was denied for unknown (to me) reasons. It’s now housed in the CEA lobby across the street.

To see the high resolution photo album from the trip, click here: Brian F Germain’s Flickr Account, CEA/NEA Orientation Album

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