>>Valley Patriot>>

Suppressing Freedom Of Speech
Doesn’t Cure Insanity
Dr. Chuck Ormsby

Warning: This article provides a different perspective on the problems with public education than that usually espoused by public education unions and most administrators and School Committee members. If such views upset you or if you are prone to filing lawsuits to stop the free expression of ideas, I recommend you stop reading immediately. The author, alone, is responsible for the perspective on general educational policy provided herein.

OK, now that I’m just talking to those with an open mind and an appreciation for freedom of speech, I can proceed.

For those who have not caught up with the latest news, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA, on behalf of the North Andover Teachers Association, NATA) has filed a “prohibited practices” charge with the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission against the North Andover School Committee because this author (without any involvement of other committee members) wrote the article, “It’s Insane!”, published in the January edition of The Valley Patriot.

MTA/NATA’s charge boils down to a claim that my article, by touting teacher competency testing and suggesting that public schools pay or reward teachers based on merit, violated ground rules that were agreed to as part of School Committee negotiations last Spring. The relevant ground rules required that both parties treat information discussed or presented during negotiations as confidential and that negotiations not be conducted nor discussed publicly.

This is not the ideal time or forum to refute this charge in detail, but I will offer the following observations:
First, reread the article in question at
www.tommyduggan.com. You will find: No mention of negotiations, OR negotiation participants, OR what was discussed, OR who said what, … OR anything that could even remotely be considered a violation of confidentiality. Ironically, MTA/NATA’s filing violates the very confidentiality they charged me with violating. I never revealed anything about the subjects of negotiations … their public filing does precisely that.
Second, my article is a general dissertation on the failings of our public education system, focusing on the abysmal results achieved in math and science, and exhorting the public to press public officials for reform. My God, imagine that! A School Committee member discussing education policy in the press. Has he no sense?

Third, the article in question was published AFTER negotiations last Spring had been successfully concluded (and signed) AND before negotiations for a successor agreement commenced. Amazingly, there were NO negotiations going on when the article was published! If you think the MTA/NATA charge has merit, you must believe that any School Committee member who has ever participated in negotiations with the Teachers Association is permanently bared from publicly discussing education policy issues.

Finally, given the above facts, how do the MTA and the teachers’ association square their attempt to suppress publication of opposing viewpoints with the rights recognized in our Constitution? When a student asks, “How does this attack by the teachers’ union on the right to discuss educational policy issues in the press square with the First Amendment?”, how will a high school civics teacher respond? Inquiring minds want to know. 

Enough of this … for now. Let’s spend our remaining ink on the real issue: Are our educational policies insane or is this author insane?

Well if it is the latter, then I have good company. Try the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Recently, Dr. Robert Herbold, ex-Chief Operating Officer of Microsoft Corporation and the leader of the Workforce/Education Subcommittee of the aforementioned Council, summarized the Council’s findings in an article entitled, “K-12 Establishment is Putting America’s Industrial Leadership at Risk.” Here are a few of the Council’s findings:

* The United States share of the world’s expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is decreasing significantly.

* The number of Ph.D.s in physical sciences and engineering in the U.S. has decreased from 4,700 (in 1987) to 4,400 (in 2001) while the number in Asia has risen from 5,600 to 24,900 over the same period.

* By 2010, 90% of all Ph.D. physical scientists and engineers in the world will be Asian living in Asia.

* Regarding the math and science skills of U.S. students, as revealed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2000, Herbold says, “The scores of U.S. students across the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades are abysmal.” (His choice of words; my emphasis)

* Regarding the results of the International Math and Science Study, Herbold notes that U.S. twelfth-graders rank at the 10th percentile (from the bottom) and that, “While we do well in grade 4, we do mediocre in grade 8 and very poorly in grade 12.”

OK, so we know the situation is terrible. What does Herbold and the Council think is the cause and what are possible remedies? Here’s where the insanity comes in! Listen to what Herbold says:

* “First, many of our K-12 students are being taught science and math by unqualified teachers.”

* “The second key problem is weak curricula. In 2003 the American Association for the Advancement of Science rated less than ten percent of middle school math books to be acceptable, and no science books.”

* After noting that the academic failings of our public schools have been known for some time and after referencing the famous report, “A Nation at Risk”, Herbold says, “ ‘A Nation at Risk’ underestimated resistance to change from the organized interest of the K-12 public education system, at the center of which were two big teachers unions as well as school administrators, colleges of education, state bureaucracies, school boards, and many others. These groups see any changes beyond the most marginal as threats to their own jealously guarded power.” Apparently, it’s not for the children after all.

* “We need them (those listed above) to get serious about accountability and teacher qualifications.”

* “We need them (the same suspects) to ease their opposition to vouchers and charter schools, which will bring about the kind of competition that generates broad improvement.”

Finally, I can’t resist pointing in particular to the following quote and reiterating the warning at the beginning of this article … this is really pretty insane!

* “Probably most important, the K-12 teaching community needs to implement good management practices, such as performance appraisal systems that identify superior teachers. It should then reward those top teachers with salary increases of 10% or more per year, leading to annual wages over $100,000. Equally as important, it needs to isolate the bottom 5-7 percent of teachers, put them on probation, and – if no progress is made within a reasonable period – terminate them.” (Presumably, Herbold means terminate their employment.)

Let’s see: “performance appraisal” … could that include the competency testing I touted? “Reward those top teachers” … could that mean paying or rewarding teachers based on merit as I suggested? Easing “opposition to vouchers and charter schools” … could that be the same as my concern about the near monopoly enjoyed by the public schools and teachers unions I referenced? Weak curricula, low expectations, etc. … the list goes on.

Maybe we should find a way to muzzle Dr. Herbold. If he keeps writing this stuff, he may end up sharing a cell with some insane writer from The Valley Patriot. I know I’d appreciate the stimulating company.

I have a better suggestion. Instead of muzzling anyone, let’s have an open and honest discussion to determine the structural factors that outlaw common sense management and education practices in our public schools. And then, eliminate them. No fingers in the wind, or counting votes, or pandering to special interests, or measuring the volume of screams, or … or filing lawsuits.

Dr. Ormsby is a member of the North Andover School Committee. He is a graduate of Cornell and has a doctorate from MIT. you can contact Dr. Ormsby via email at: ccormsby@comcast.net

*Send your questions comments to ValleyPatriot@aol.com
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Prior Columns by Dr. Chuck