Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 19, 2005

GUSD: Choose to swing on a star

“Would you like to swing on a star,
Carry moonbeams home in a jar,
And be better off than you are,
Or would you rather be a mule …”

While carpooling into work this morning, I enjoyed the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby crooning the familiar chorus to “Swinging on a Star,” and listened closely to the words of the verses for the first time. They describe stubborn mules and slippery fish who can’t read a book.

Johnny Burke’s lyrics called to mind the labor and student achievement problems at the Gilroy Unified School District.

The district is in the process of implementing an accountability plan with the goal of improving student achievement. GUSD sought community and teacher input in drafting the plan. Staff at each school site devised implementation details and are now working to execute the plan in the ways that make sense for each campus.

The first strategy gets to the heart of the accountability plan: Establish specific, measurable, bold student performance goals. The goal is that when the accountability plan is fully implemented, its students, employees and the community will “be better off than they are,” to paraphrase the song.

Given that the district’s academic status quo isn’t great, it behooves everyone in the district – students, parents, teachers, administrators, janitors, secretaries, counselors, as well as the larger community – to get behind this plan in word and deed.

Establishing goals and then measuring progress toward them means the work habits of some teachers must change. Although the amount of change varies from teacher to teacher and school to school, there’s no doubt that new methods of teaching, reteaching (for students who have not mastered a topic), and measuring progress and interpreting data must be learned and adopted, and that takes time.

That extra time is the subject of an unfair labor practices complaint that the Gilroy Teachers Association filed with the California Public Employment Relations Board.

Change is always difficult. It’s disruptive and stressful. The accountability that’s the heart of this plan probably worries those teachers who are not performing as well as their peers. And if that’s not enough, this plan may seem to be a step toward a merit pay for system teachers. Like the National Rifle Association when it comes to the slightest form of gun control, I’m betting that teachers unions will battle the merest hint of merit pay. Recent letters to the editor demonstrate this point.

I don’t doubt that some teachers have valid complaints about the way the accountability plan has been implemented at their school campuses, just as I’m sure that the plan has been implemented smoothly and cooperatively at other campuses.

I empathize with GUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz’s frustration with the lack of specifics contained in the teachers union’s complaint.

“Until we get some specifics, we can’t determine the amount of impact on teachers, if there is any,” Diaz said. “If there is an issue that has violated the contract in terms of time and responsibility, we need to know specifically where and how.”

Instead, the union has provided generalizations like this one from GTA president Michelle Nelson.

“Where we’re coming from is, this is just one more thing the teachers have been asked to do,” Nelson told reporter Katie Niekirk. “Then it’s another thing, then two more things, then it’s three more things. Every time I turn around, there’s another initiative.”

That kind of vague dissatisfaction is difficult to resolve. The district needs to know which new practice at which campus takes how much extra time.

With a union representative at each school site, and with the wonders of electronic mail available to them, communicating about specific problems shouldn’t be that big of an undertaking for the GTA. If it’s important enough to file an unfair labor practices complaint, it’s important enough to gather specific data and present it to the district first.

The GTA’s lack of specificity makes me wonder if the real problem with the accountability plan isn’t the extra time, but bigger issues about measuring teacher performance and keeping merit pay at bay.

As they deal with the unfair labor practices complaint and the implementation of the accountability plan, I hope both sides will remember that the ultimate goal is improving the education of Gilroy’s public school students.

“… So you see it’s all up to you,
You could be better than you are,
You could be swinging on a star.”

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