Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The ‘Soft Indifference’ of Low Expectations

Some years ago, President Bush (43) spoke the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  As I recall, he was referring to the public education system, and how it’s all too easy to lower our expectations for minorities and/or those in poorer areas.

I thought it was an insightful concept, and I still do, and now I see a broader meaning to the concept in our own circumstances.

As I think back to my days in school, I remember two primary motivations to do well (besides my insatiable thirst for knowledge…ha, ha!)  One was the fear of my parents reaction if I didn’t.  The second, which was even stronger, was the fear of being “left back” as we called it then.  Nobody wanted to stay behind when all your friends moved up, and find yourself a sore thumb in the grade you were repeating.  And in later years, nobody wanted to “flunk out.”

Nowadays, my sense is that such antiquated concerns and realities no longer have any relevance in out government run schools.  When’s the last time you heard of a student being “left back,” or flunking out?  There may be an instance here or there, but I’ve come to believe that ‘seat time’ promotions and ‘social’ promotions have become the preferred way of addressing lack of classroom performance.

The first time I heard the term ‘seat time promotion’ I was taken aback.  It was explained to me that if your attendance was acceptable, you would be promoted, regardless of performance in the coursework.

For years I’ve heard the radio ads seeking literacy volunteers to help adults learn to read (and hopefully, write), and wondered how we could have adults who made it through our school systems without learning to read.  I think the answer lies largely in the promotion policies described above; rather than tackle the problem, the system prefers to look the other way and just keep moving the kids up and eventually out, giving them diplomas that are increasingly meaningless.

I asked myself how we could allow such an irresponsible policy to become the norm; how could we so diminish expectations as to render them irrelevant to moving through the system.

Then it dawned on me; this is exactly the way we deal with our teachers, and if it’s good enough for the teachers, it sure should be good enough for the kids.

What do I mean?  Take a look at the teachers contracts here in town and elsewhere, and you’ll find that they are the very essence of ‘seat time’ or ‘social’ promotion through the salary increase system.  Every teacher can look at the contract and project exactly what they will make in coming years, without regard to merit or performance by any measure.  Do the time, earn the credits, get the salary shown.

The very worst teachers move through the salary steps and lanes just as quickly as the very best teachers do.  Occupy your ‘seat’ for a year, and move up a year on the scale.  In other words, as Woody Allen famously said, 80% of success is simply showing up.  And that’s especially true of our pampering and homogenizing of the teachers corps.

Under the circumstances, is it any wonder the ‘professionals’ in the field would be so willing to promote their students without expecting much from them to earn it?

By the way, if you’d like to get a sense of how the State Teachers Union (MEA) guides the local contract negotiation process, just read what follows.  Note, among other things, that should the School Department expect teachers to pay more of their insurance costs, they want their salary to increase to cover that, after other expected increases.

From where we sit, the soft indifference of low expectations is a tragic and near irreversible trend in our public education system, at least under current circumstances. 

And it doesn’t say much about honoring the notion that ‘the children are our future,’ does it.


Maine Education Association
Statewide Bargaining Goals

Wages and Salaries:
1. All bargaining unit members should receive a real increase annually, i.e. a wage or salary increase at least equal to the annual increase in the cost-of-living, after accounting for any increased costs to the employee for maintenance of insurance benefits.
2. Negotiate salary and wage structures that eliminate “dead zones” (multi-year steps without a rate change) and reduce the number of years required to reach the maximum rate on each lane. (Suggested long term goal – no more than 10 steps by 2020.)
2.1 When the State mandates minimum salary or wage levels, associations should negotiate improved scales in which the salary or wage base amount equals or exceeds the mandated minimum amount without extending the length of time required to reach the maximum.

Health Insurance:
3. Maintain or increase the employer-paid share of employee and dependent health insurance premiums, without compromising the health coverage and benefits of the existing plan.
3.1 Associations should reject health insurance plans that reduce premium costs by shifting health care costs to consumers, such as high deductible health care plans, whether or not enticements such as health savings accounts or health reimbursement accounts are offered.
4. Negotiate the same health insurance benefits for all teachers and educational support professionals.

Hours and Working Conditions:
5. Eliminate or reject any provisions that result in two-tiered systems where some employees are limited to lower wages or salaries, benefits or working conditions.
6. Workload – All contracts should address workload.
6.1. Teachers’ unit contracts should deal with workload by language either regulating the amount of work to be performed or requiring additional compensation when the work exceeds specified standards. Aspects of workload that should be addressed in this manner include required duties or meetings outside the work day or work year; planning time; and performance of non-instructional duties.
6.2. Contracts for educational support professionals should deal with workload by specifying work schedules and the length of the work day, work week and work year; and requiring that employees be paid at their regular or overtime rate as appropriate for all hours that they actually work.
7. Eliminate or reject any provisions which result in the Association waiving or giving up its right to bargain about any mandatory subject of bargaining.
8. Negotiate grievance procedures that end in final and binding arbitration.
9. Negotiate just cause protection, to the extent that it is not legally prohibited, for any disciplinary action.
10. Negotiate reduction in force procedures based on objective criteria only, e.g. seniority, certification, authorization, licensure, etc., with no consideration to employee evaluations.
11. Negotiate current and accurate job descriptions that are maintained and reviewed annually and when changes in responsibilities take place.

Recommended by the MEA Statewide Bargaining Committee–March 6, 2010

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