Corporatism, Education, Interview, Teachers — June 14, 2013 at 6:56 am

INTERVIEW: Teacher of the Year used by StudentsFirst & Mackinac Center to promote teacher pay bill he doesn’t support


Michigan’s ‘Teacher of the Year’ deserves better than this

In May of this year, Gary Abud, a science teacher at Grosse Pointe North High School, was chosen as Michigan’s 2013-2014 Teacher of the Year by State Superintendent Mike Flanagan. It’s an amazing accomplishment for a teacher who has only been at it for six years. Well-respected by both his students and his coworkers, Mr. Abud was a worthy choice.

To reward him for his outstanding achievement, the anti-union corporatist Mackinac Center — an ALEC and State Policy Network affiliate funded, in part, by the Koch brothers — did a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out how much money Mr. Abud makes. Once they found out, they proceeded to use him along with details about his salary to promote passage of House Bill 4625, a bill I call the “‘Teach to the Test’ Teacher Pay Act”.

HB 4625, a bill I have written about recently, changes teacher compensation rules to make it illegal for school districts to consider length of service as a criteria for teacher pay. Instead, it changes “job performance and job accomplishments as a PRIMARY factor in determining compensation and additional compensation”. Under the current law, the word primary is replaced with the word “significant”, giving local school systems flexibility in how they compensate their teachers.

In a post on their blog “Capitol Confidential”, the Mackinac Center wrote that Mr. Abud “made $56,876 in 2012-13, which is about $21,000 less a year than the district’s average salary of $77,969 a year.” Why does he make less than average? They falsely answer the question in the title of their post: “Union Salary Schedule Ensures State ‘Teacher of the Year’ Earns Near Bottom In Pay”, implying that this income disparity is the sole result of unions holding back good teachers rather than the fact that he’s only been teaching for 6 years.

Michelle Rhee’s anti-teacher group StudentsFirst, which promotes for-profit charter schools as the answer to all of our education system problems, picked up the ball and ran with it, sending out a deceptive email to their mailing list claiming, as did the Mackinac Center, that this problem would be solved by the passage of HB 4625, a claim which is flagrantly false. You can read their email HERE.

Other websites immediately amplified the message. Libertarian website The Daily Caller amplified the Mackinac Center post and credited Mr. Abud’s lower pay to “anti-meritocratic compensation rules governing teachers unions in Michigan”. Education News reposted the Daily Caller story. The tea party website EAGnews wrote that Mr. Abud’s “union (and most throughout the state and nation) still insists on using a socialist-style pay scale that’s largely based on seniority.” The Restore America blog (whose URL is reposted The Daily Caller piece under the headline “Why does our education system not work? UNIONS!” It was a typical demonstration of a coordinated attack on unions by right-wing “media” websites, all designed to amplify the message that our schools are in crisis and our unionized educators are to blame.

Most of the sites had one or more errors in their piece. The Daily Caller piece described him as a “math and science teacher” and the EAGnews post called him a “math teacher”. Mr. Abud only teaches science and that’s all he’s ever taught. The Daily Caller also used a photo of an elementary school students with an Asian teacher. Gary Abud is a white Lebanese American man who teaches high school and that’s all he’s ever taught.

Equally insulting is the fact that Governor Snyder’s official press release about the Teacher of the Year award not only incorrectly calls Gary Abud a “math and science teacher”. To add insult to injury, it’s nearly a cut-and-paste version of his release from the 2012-2013 announcement of Bobbi Jo Kenyon as Teacher of the Year. He couldn’t even be bothered to write a new one, much less get Gary Abud’s information correct.

All of this got me wondering just exactly what Gary Abud’s opinion on HB 4625 is and how he felt being used as a tool to promote what is plainly legislation designed to lower teacher compensation and further the “teach to the test” approach to education. So, I wrote to Mr. Abud. Here’s what he told me:

While I don’t think that the only factors that should be counted toward compensation are years and degrees, I certainly don’t think state test scores are the way to go. They need to be part of a multi-faceted set of factors and not be supplanted exclusively by standardized test scores. I’m an assessment and grading fanatic so when I see “assessment” in the House bill, I don’t immediately think state test. However, in the legislative analysis it talks about the implementation of some statewide performance evaluation system. I don’t know specifically what that means, but it certainly doesn’t match up with my comments about evaluation being locally controlled, having teacher input, and being differentiated by district needs.

There are some very misleading statements out there surrounding this legislation, including in the articles written that use my name and “story.” While I often try to see the best in things, I can certainly say that I oppose this legislation.

Capitol Confidential contacted me last week to inform me that they were writing that piece and offered me the chance to comment. After doing a bit of homework, I compiled a blog post and submitted it as my comments to them. I published my blog post on Sunday night, knowing they were sending their article out on Monday. That was the extent of my involvement.

Then, yesterday, I see all these other sources that are using my name and this “situation” to promote their conservative agenda. I have never been associated with, nor in contact with, StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee or Deb Shaughnessy. In fact, there are several articles out there that are using excerpts from the original CapCon story so poorly that they are not even factual.

There are glaring mistakes and untruths in these articles. The first is that I teach science. I always have, and I’m only certified to teach science; yet, these blogs call me a math teacher, or (at best) a math & science teacher. A simple web search could tell you what subject I teach, but apparently that’s too difficult for some fact checkers. I wonder how accurate these posts are if they can’t even get that right. Also, some posts say I make $20,000 less and others $21,000 less. If they can’t get the numbers straight, how can they be a trusted source for anything? For that same reason, I know that Gov. Snyder did not in fact comment on my teaching when he made a statement in a press release because he commended my contributions to the fields of “math and science.” Again, I’ve never taught math. Gov. Snyder’s comments included in the Dept. of Ed’s press release for the Teacher of the year are identical for me this year and the winner last year. Snyder doesn’t even know my name, yet the above mentioned blogs cite how Snyder “described him as an outstanding math and science instructor with a tireless dedication to his craft.”

Finally, the original CapCon article misquotes me as suggesting that I think “objective criteria [should be used] as the yard stick for student growth.” My actual quote, in the email I sent to the author was in reference to the HB 4625 language itself, as I had read it. My quote was:

“…This language, as is written, does not seem to endorse any particular assessment, but rather “objective criteria,” as the yard stick of student growth…”

The StudentsFirst email showed up in the email inbox of several educators I know with it looking like I am now buddy buddy with Michelle Rhee. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Your article did a great job of portraying the intended slant of my comments. I can’t tell you the number of concerning messages I received yesterday including one from a friend whose 9th grade son received the email from StudentsFirst that you saw about my involvement with StudentsFirst, suggesting that I’m anti-union. They have not been given permission to use my name, photo, story, words, or any ideas.

How about that? This amazing educator, a man who is dedicated to his students’ achievement and to making sure he does whatever he can for them is now being seen as anti-teacher, all thanks to the Mackinac Center and StudentsFirst who cravenly used this dedicated public servant to further their own anti-union agenda.

Mr. Abud’s position about the need for a multi-faceted approach to teacher evaluation is, in fact, echoed by the Michigan Education Association. I spoke with them and their spokesperson Thomas Morgan had this to say:

MEA supports more accountability for everyone involved in education, including teachers, support staff, administrators, parents and elected officials. But first, policymakers must provide more support to school employees — instead of continuing to slash education funding and pass laws that attack teachers and education support professionals.

House Bill 4625 makes it illegal to take educators’ experience or education attainment into account when determining their pay, except for a few exceptions. Like any other occupation, teachers grow and learn with experience. Surgeons and soldiers alike are paid more as they gain experience, and so too should educators.

Here are the facts: using student test scores is an abysmal way of determining teacher compensation. A report by the National Education Policy Center (pdf) said that:

“[R]esearch suggests that teacher differences account for no more than about 15% of differences in students’ test score outcomes. Other school factors such as class size reduction and adequate, focused funding are also research-based ways to improve education. Further, non-school factors, which are generally associated with parental education and wealth, are far more important determinants of students’ test scores.

The Center for Teaching Quality issued a report that says allowing for local flexibility and teacher collaboration are important factors in student success. When student achievement is used to determine compensation, it should not be based on single, standardized, high-stakes tests.

We favor plans that measure student gains over time (not just a single test score on a standardized test) — plans that recognize both individual and “small team” performance, and that allow credible data from classroom assessments (such as the Nebraska model) to be used.

I spoke with Gary Abud on the phone last evening. It was after 9 p.m. He had been at school all day, participating in his High School’s graduation, another long day on the job for Michigan’s Teacher of the Year. What follows is our conversation.

Gary, before we go any further, congratulations. This is a really cool achievement for you and I’m just so happy for you. Especially for someone who has only been teaching for six years, that’s huge, that’s amazing. We should laud people like you.

Well, thank you.

I just have to ask you, how do you feel about the fact that the Mackinac Center FOIAed your salary? That’s got to be a bizarre feeling.

It’s a very uneasy feeling. I remember when I first started teaching and someone said, “Well, if you want to compare contracts from district to district, there’s this website called the Mackinac Center that posts all of the contracts and you can go and see what all the districts pay.” And that was the sort of thing that we did when we were in teacher college to get a sense of the field we were entering. At the time I didn’t really understand why they were posting those and how they were getting the information. I naively thought, “Oh, this is an informational service for teachers.” But, as I’m learning more and getting a little bit wiser, I’m finding out that that’s not necessarily their intention.

So, I went to their site and the first line of their story was “here’s the Teacher of the Year and here’s what he makes for his salary”. I find that inclusion of a number, my salary, demeaning. I understand that public funds pay my salary but, when we put numbers on individuals, all we’re doing is valuating them. That should not be confused with evaluating them, in my opinion, because placing a value on someone is really changing the dynamic of the human value of that person and the work that they do. I think it’s very devaluing to someone whether it’s a teacher or a corporate CEO or anyone.

If I made $506K or some other arbitrarily high salary and still won the award, would they still think that my story exemplified their view of the union’s artificial ‘glass ceiling’ imposed on great teachers that must be brought down? No.

People judge and size up others based on their salaries. It happens in every job and career. Putting my salary out there like that and emphasizing that it is artificially low is a judgement. Their promotion of the judgement of teachers, and me as an individual, based on money is very embarrassing for me, my family, and my colleagues. All I did was do my classroom teaching job well because I think that’s what students deserve. Now the world gets to know how much I make and is encouraged to judge me on my salary.

These groups are exploiting how much individuals earn to encourage judging of others based on their salary. If that’s what putting “students first” means then what has our concept of educating the youth become?

Do you blame the union for your lower than average salary?

I do NOT blame the union for my lower than average salary. I know how contracts are structured and that I’m newer in this field. In many fields entry level is lower than veteran level on compensation packages. In almost every field, I would imagine. I had the pleasure of working in the biomedical research field before I got into teaching. When I worked for a hospital and did biomedical research for them, you started out at a baseline, entry level salary and, based on your year to year progress, you advanced up the salary scale. After you had some experience and demonstrated performance, your experience contributed to your salary advancement. That’s what they’re doing with the salary schedules so I can’t say that the union wants me to make “X” amount of dollars and blame them the way the Mackinac Center article portrays.

The way that the Capitol Confidential piece reads, it’s as if they believe that unions are intentionally holding back good teachers. I’m not sure I understand how they come to that conclusion. It’s not logical on its face, basically.

That’s right. They weave it as if the union isn’t just trying to hold us back but to penalize “good teachers”. To say that someone won an award would certainly suggest that they’re a good teacher. But nowhere in the article do they qualify why I was a good teacher or why I received that award. By leaving that ambiguous, it leads the reader to think that the way I’m being lauded as a top teacher is based on the criteria that they think all teachers should be measured against. And that’s just not the case.

As I mentioned to you in the first email that I sent, reasonable people can agree or disagree on the criteria that we use to evaluate teachers. You said that you feel that teacher performance based on specific, measurable things is reasonable. I think most people would agree with that. What in your mind do you see as a reasonable way to measure teacher achievement and job performance as it relates to student achievement?

This is a great question. I would go back to my experience working in the medical field to propose the skeleton outline of a model for doing something like this. It would first involve recognizing when teachers are implementing best practices. By best practices I mean teaching strategies and methodologies for teaching and learning that have been research-proven to drive students in the forward direction of learning and that is independent of standardized test scores. In other words, what is good for teaching and learning based on cognitive science and based on teaching practice research that have shown to have better learning outcomes? This might include best practices like the use of multiple representations of a concept including written, linguistic and, perhaps, visual representations.

So that you’re addressing the various types of learning styles kids have?

Absolutely. You’ll see that in some classrooms only one methodology or one approach is being taken when we know that there are many different ways for information to be learned. A best practice is known to use multiple representations. So, first and foremost, I would suggest that a model for evaluating teachers has to include whether or not they are implementing research-based best practices in their classroom.

The second thing is related to student achievement. However, student achievement measurements have to be differentiated for the student population that you’re in front of. It’s similar to patient outcomes in the medical field. I worked in a hypertension or blood pressure treatment clinic. Some of the patients would come in with very, very high blood pressure to start and their blood pressure would lower quite a bit after treatment. Other patients would come in with slightly elevated blood pressure and their blood pressure would lower back to normal range. The difference in these two examples is that each has an objectively different change in their blood pressure outcome, but overall, for each patient, they achieved substantial gains toward getting them back to their normal level.

What I think happens in the standardized testing situation is that we look at the absolute gain as being the measurement or the yardstick rather than, perhaps, a subjective gain that’s relative to the students before and after the instruction or relative to student population that’s in a specific classroom or school based on their learning needs. So, I would absolutely advocate for student achievement or student growth data that was differentiated and relative to the student population that is in front of a teacher and not compared with all of the students in every place as if they were all equal and had the same everyday condition.

Certainly teaching at Grosse Pointe North is a lot different than teaching at, say, Cass Tech in Detroit, for example.

Certainly. It definitely can be. Also, one of the things that comes out in teaching is that we have a variety of learners in the classroom. Whether you teach at Grosse Pointe North or Cass Tech or rural St. Louis, Michigan, all of these schools do still have some variants in their school population. Because of this, we have students coming into my classroom, for example, with reading levels that are elementary school level. To expect them to make the same gains as a student who has a college reading level is just unreasonable. If you were to measure them up against their own abilities as a baseline to see what they’ve gained as far as their learning outcomes, I think that would be a much more reasonable approach, whether you are at my school or any other school in the state. Having students being compared to themselves rather than some objective standard would be the way to go.

Now that you’re Teacher of the Year, does that give you more input into educational policy and things like that?

One of the things that I’ll have is a seat on the State Board of Education as a non-voting member. I will represent the voices of teachers in the conversations and discussions that lead up to decision making at the policy level on the State Board.

Well, I’m glad! Listening to you talk, I would hope that we have people like you having an input into those types of things.

Well, thank you. One of the other things that I’m hoping to get out of this is that I’m learning that you can use your time and your position to connect with people who might not otherwise talk directly with teachers. This includes policy makers, legislators, and corporate interest groups who are involved in education in some way or another. So, I’m hoping that this year I’ll have those opportunities to maybe have conversations that might not otherwise have had a chance to occur.

Are there any other things you’re hoping to accomplish?

Absolutely. Another thing that I hope to communicate during this next year is that, too often, we see the negative nuggets of news coming out about education. Those get amplified so loud by the media that they overplay and sort of outplay any of the positive press. So, for most individuals, their experience in the classroom leads them to think that they have expertise in regards to teaching. They think that they know teaching because they were a student. In that respect, I think it’s the same as saying that, as a patient, I know about being a medical doctor. We don’t think those two are the same thing but they’re each based on the same logical fallacy. Because I’ve gone and had my blood pressure taken doesn’t mean I could treat someone for hypertension and just because I learned calculus from my teacher doesn’t mean that I could necessarily go and teach calculus to somebody or say how calculus should be taught.

I would really encourage your readers not to just consider their experience as a student but also their experiences in their own life teaching someone else something and wondering whether or not there was only one way that worked or whether there multiple ways. And, also, to recognize and identify whether or not they think that that’s being promoted in schools; whether a single method or multiple methods that could be effective are being promoted.

Sadly, with the “teach to the test” mentality that some of these groups are either inadvertently or directly promoting, what they are really saying is that there’s only one way to teach and that is a way that was popular in the Cold War era.

That’s another one of the things that I really want to get out there. People think that classrooms still look like they did during the Cold War. They think that it’s all lecture, it’s all note taking, it’s all book learning, it’s all worksheets and everything is just on the student to just memorize, pick an answer out on a test, and move on because they got a grade.

Because there’s been so much change and so much progress in education that’s been driven by research, it especially in the area of cognitive science, it can really inform teachers that it’s about more than just answers. It’s actually about processes that we can carry forward.

The public is unaware of this because they’re not part of the educational field and they’re not part of that conversation. They don’t know that education has progressed beyond the Cold War era. So, when they hear about things on the news, they wonder why it isn’t just the same as it was when they were in school.

I get the sense that it was very hard for you to get these emails from people saying, “Hey, why are you supporting StudentsFirst and why are you anti-union?”

With regard to the emails that they are sending, I think it’s reprehensible that the StudentsFirst organization is using my name and my picture and promoting their agenda using my name and my story. I think the fact that they must have ripped that off from Mackinac Center’s article or, perhaps, obtained information directly from Mackinac Center, that’s really unfair to me. They’re trying to portray my position when I represent teachers in a way that makes it seem like I feel that I’m being somehow short-changed in my own field when I feel like I’ve had nothing but success in my field because of the structures that are in place.

I did not win Michigan Teacher of the Year because my students had the best test scores. My students performed well on their tests. But they also performed well on assessments in my classroom of what I teach. What I teach is more than just chemistry and physics and science content. It’s practices of being a scientist, it’s engineering practices that they can take on and use elsewhere in their life. It’s thinking skills. It’s communication. It’s collaboration and it’s project-based in a way that mirrors the career world.

Those things aren’t assessed on state standardized tests of content areas. So, if I were measured exclusively on my state test scores, first of all, I don’t think I would have won an award because there are probably other people out there who have different test scores than I do. But, at the same time, if all I were focused on were state test scores, I would have no ability to be encouraged to do innovative things in my classroom and give students a richer experience than the traditional Cold War era educational style.

That’s one of the things that sets me apart from other teachers: I’m in a district where they really encourage, support, and promote teachers to do innovative things that are beyond mere content instruction and beyond just communication of facts and knowledge.

What I do in the classroom cannot be replaced by a computer. That’s a big thing that’s coming up. There’s a lot of talk from StudentsFirst and Governor Snyder’s education reform ideas that we can cheapen the cost of education if we do a blended model where teaching is delivered by computer-based sources. The form of education that I do in my classroom is not something that you could reproduce without an individual as the leader of that classroom and it can’t be reproduced with computers. The things that I do wouldn’t be possible if I were forced to teach to the test and focus only on content instruction.

My students come back to me later on when they’re in college and say, “I’m so far ahead of the other students in my classes because I not only know science but I know how to learn. I know how to work with others. I know how to use digital communication tools that they’re using now in college and that they’re using out in the career world. Those are the things that will disappear if we turn it into a model where students are just being forced to just learn for a test they take that doesn’t even mirror the career world in the first place.

Gary, is there anything else you’d like for folks to know?

There are actually. Two things. First, I understand that StudentsFirst is led by Michelle Rhee. Michelle Rhee, as I understand it, was a Teach for America teacher at some point in her career. One of the things that I think has helped me prepare, besides working with great colleagues, is that I had a really strong teacher preparation training that gave me a full year of experience teaching in the classroom guided by a master teacher. At the same time, I was taking courses where I was learning how to translate theory into practice for a variety of different things like assessment, instructional strategy, and differential instruction for different learners.

Teach for America teachers often don’t get more than five weeks of training in preparation. It’s like a crash course in teaching. So, when they jump into teaching, the natural mode for every human being when they teach someone else, if they were to get in front of a group, is to revert back to the most recent memory of their student experience which, for many people, is high school or college. They get in there and they think that teaching is lecturing or explaining really well or in a really fun, catchy way.

I really would challenge those out there who think that that’s what teaching is, to get into classrooms, to get in touch with teachers, and go and see if that’s what it really is. And go and see what’s going on in classrooms. The Teach for America program, although they probably have some good individuals who are part of their group, are not preparing their teachers in a way that traditional institutions such as higher ed. are preparing their teachers. We need great professional development for teachers and we need great teacher preparation before they get into the field. That’s one of the things that we’re going to lose if we just move in the direction of this test taking factory.

The last point is that, for the legislators, policy makers, and business interest groups who are thinking about funding education reform, I would like to extend an invitation for them to come and visit my classroom next year. I would invite them to come and look at some of the material that I’ve got posted online of what happens in my classroom and tell me if that’s the type of thing that they’re discouraging teachers from doing and students from experiencing. Because I think they’re really missing out on what’s going on in classrooms and they don’t realize that what they’re doing is going to short-change a really robust learning experience for millions of kids on a daily basis if they move things in the direction of a test taking factory.