Sunday, April 28, 2013

Wow! Thank You, WEA-RA Delegates

Wow! What a heady and humbling experience running for WEA president has been. Considering that I entered the race late, spent very little money, and ran as an insurgent, my showing was surprising to me. Thank you to all 243 delegates who chose to vote for me. I am very, very appreciative of the many of you who took time to acknowledge my effort. Some of you have asked for a copy of my remarks, which appear below. The WEA-RA does not video remarks from candidates, but I'll post a delegate's video (once I figure it out) of my speech for those who might be interested.

First election results in the WEA presidential contest:

Kim Mead, President of Everett Education Association
530 votes/49.17%

Mike Ragan, Vice President of the WEA
299 votes/27.7%

Peter Szalai, President of Oak Harbor Education Association
243 votes/22.54%

Run-off election results:

Kim Mead: 624 votes/61.9%
Mike Ragan: 377 votes/37.4%

Congratulations to Kim Mead on her victory who becomes the new WEA President around the time of the NEA-RA this July.

One of my favorite scenes in a movie about teaching is in Dead Poets Society where teacher John Keating tells his students to read an essay called “Understanding Poetry” by a J. Evans Pritchard. Pritchard defines poetry like this: “If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.” 

Here’s John Keating’s response: “Excrement. That's what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can't dance to it.” 

Good teaching is more like good poetry than good math.

The WEA made fully funding and fully implementing the new teacher evaluation system as intended by the legislature one of its top legislative priorities this year. WEA committed vast resources and our reputation to supporting the most emblematic symbol of the education reform movement. Our leadership made a political calculation that traded our core defense of the teaching profession for a seat at the table, and so we helped write the 2010 and 2012 legislation, and now are creating the contractual language, procedures and training to make it work. Without WEA there would be no new evaluation system. 

There’s a time for compromise and there’s a time for conviction. And our leaders have confused the two. Instead of compromising, our leaders should have cried “’Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

We--the preeminent organization solely dedicated to public education—have endorsed the belief that old, bad union-protected teachers prevent children from learning, that teachers require improvement, and that ed reform is the fountainhead of solutions. We have given aid and comfort to those who wish us harm. We’ve saddled hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers with the unnecessary, expensive, and exhausting yoke of a new evaluation system that will not change the reality that most teachers are doing a satisfactory job, that most students have opportunities for success, and that obstacles to failure are beyond the control of educators.

Protecting the teaching profession is a core value of the WEA. It should never be negotiable. You cannot reduce teaching to a number. Period. 

If the WEA is not behind us, who is? If our leaders don’t know when to draw a line in the sand, who will? 

Pedagogy and practice are not the problem. Poverty and parenting are. In the past twenty years in our obsession with teacher performance, we have spent practically no time, money, or energy focusing on deep-rooted and uncomfortable factors that actually do affect achievement: a declining work ethic, evolving concepts of individual risk-taking and independence, an unjust economic system, over-prescription of drugs and over-labeling of behaviors that should not be drugged or labeled, casual attendance, avoidance of personal responsibility, over-parenting, under-parenting, judicial decisions, legislative meddling, and inequitable funding.

Ed reform is a phenomenally misguided and wasteful scheme by politicians, philanthropists, pundits and business leaders to impose a corporate model on public education, believing that educating human beings is a mass production enterprise akin to stamping sprockets on an assembly line. Ed reform has diverted money away from public schools to charter schools, narrowed the curriculum, devalued the fine arts, marginalized social studies and P.E., fomented an obsession with testing, siphoned funds from curriculum and student support to professional development, scapegoated teachers, and absolved students and parents of their responsibilities.

This is the centennial of Rosa Parks’ birth. Many of us know the story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man, an action that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott which is a milestone in the civil rights movement. Later it was erroneously reported that Rosa Parks simply was too tired to stand up. But that’s not what happened. As she said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

It wasn’t a moment to compromise, to negotiate how many rows forward she would be permitted to sit on the bus, or under what circumstances fatigue might trump racism. Well, this is our Rosa Parks moment, our moment to say enough, we’re tired of letting others define good teaching and good learning and good schools, when we finally say, we’re tired of giving in.

Thank goodness that our colleagues at Garfield in Seattle took a stand against the injustice of an over-reliance on testing. 

They understand that not everything that counts can be counted. Can you imagine what mighty power we could harness in effective service of educating and believing in the whole child—not just the part that can be measured and reduced to endless vats of data--if this one moment the WEA leadership actually planned proactively?

I’m Peter Szalai, I’m an 8th grade teacher and spend most of my time with the adolescent versions of the Seven Dwarves: you know them . . . Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, Smelly, Moody, and, of course, Drama.

I’ve been a classroom teacher for 30 years—and I use the label “teacher” not as an honorific--I come from full time teaching not from full time release, not from union offices but from the front lines where we have to implement every next new thing. I'm the insurgent candidate. I am neither beholden to nor enamored by the WEA bureaucracy. I owe no one anything. My focus is totally on what's best for our profession and our members with an authenticity burnished through doing the incredibly difficult job of teaching every single hour of every single work day—a hard job made harder by constantly being poked, pushed, prodded, probed by those who neither teach nor understand teaching—do this, don’t do that, do more of this, do less of that, do this and that. 

I will have no problem whatsoever speaking truth to power, to say unmistakably, “The Emperor has no clothes.” I won’t dress up bad policies with expediency. I won’t raid our closet to modulate and legitimize those efforts which are not in the best interests of public education. 

I also will stop WEA from lurching reactively, from being stuck in perpetual “the sky is falling” mode—usually singling out and caricaturizing Republicans as two-dimensional figures unable to participate humanly in the public education debate. We should stop alienating many of our members, stop being seen statewide as a toady to the Democrat Party, and stop unwisely marginalizing our influence with those with whom we disagree.

Our rally tomorrow is headlined solely by Democrats. Now, in the words of Will Rogers, personally “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat." And I’ve patiently explained to my Republican and unaffiliated members in Oak Harbor that WEA endorsements are based on candidate positions on our issues. But let’s review:

No Child Left Behind was co-sponsored by a Democrat. Our two new evaluation laws were passed by a Democrat legislature and signed into law by a Democrat governor. Race to the Top and STEM competitive grants, and the appointment of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary are the responsibility of a Democrat President.

In my school district, all three Republican legislators supported doubling our levy rate. On Whidbey Island, we usually have Republican legislators and we engage with them in mutually respectful ways. 

The WEA needs to be a non-partisan, professional organization. We ought to hear from all decision-makers respectfully. When we disagree or favor another approach, we should act accordingly.

And, lastly, I believe we need to get our financial house in order by making economies, reprioritzing our expenditures, and remembering who pays the bills. A beginning teacher with no TRI earns about $33,000. A beginning paraeducator in my district makes $13.31 an hour. And the WEA staff they support are compensated very handsomely, as is the WEA president who is paid more than 32 states pay their governors. My local uniserv, one of five statewide nearing bankruptcy, is raising dues 48% this year and another 15% next year. I support the work of the Sustainability Committee which seeks to reduce the size of the WEA Board of Directors, eliminate uniserv councils, and invest in more local leadership training and development. 

We need to live within our means. 

Everyone has a favorite teacher. Mine is Dr. Heniford, just this month celebrating his 85th birthday. He was my 10th grade English teacher who taught me how to write and speak and value education. When I once asked him why he wore a tie to school every day when many of the other teachers were more casual, he said “To honor my profession.” There’s a word we don’t hear often in relation to teaching and teachers: honor. I don’t remember a single assessment or a learning target written on the board or his fidelity to his department’s pacing guide or his score on 37 sub dimensions of an instructional framework. But I remember him. Good teaching is foremost about relationships.

There are two establishment candidates in this contest—you like how things are going, choose one of them—they’ll keep the same direction, the same policies. I call them the Titanic candidates--their experience in WEA’s bureaucracy looms large and impressive.

But if you have had enough, if you’re ready for a different approach, then for a change you have a choice.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

WEA: A Wing of the Democrat Party

There’s to be a rally in Olympia this Saturday mostly by the WEA-RA delegates who will have their Saturday session cancelled.  The purpose is to “send a message to the legislature to fund our schools.”  And we get to wear red--you can imagine how excited I am.  

Only Democrat politicians are headlined to speak.  Since all three budget proposals from the House, Senate, and Governor—and even the one from just the Republicans in the House—all increase funding for schools, why aren’t legislators from all parties included?  Yes, I can understand that some might be more in line with our agenda, or more favorable to a particular goal.  But, honestly, this is just another political rally for the Democrat Party. 

What about our Republican and unaffiliated members?  What about those, like me, who are un-enamored by Democrats who are largely to blame for much of ed reform?  No Child Left Behind was co-sponsored by Democrat Ted Kennedy and passed by a vote of 87 to 10.  Our two disastrous new evaluation laws were passed by a Democrat legislature and signed into law by a Democrat governor.  Race to the Top and STEM competitive grants, and the appointment of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary are the responsibility of a Democrat President.

The WEA needs to be a non-partisan, professional organization.  We ought to hear from all decision-makers respectfully.  When we disagree or favor another approach, we should act accordingly.  Instead, WEA caricaturizes Republicans as two-dimensional figures unable to participate humanly in the public education debate.  What are we afraid of?  Are Republican ideas and Republicans worthy of automatic, continual, and vociferous vilification?  Do only Democrats have the answers?

In my school district, all three Republican legislators visibly supported doubling our levy rate.  On Whidbey Island, we usually have Republican legislators and we engage with them in mutually respectful ways.  

For the WEA to continue to act as a wing of the Democratic Party, it marginalizes its members and influence, and shows that not only is it a toady of partisans but also intolerant of full debate and those with whom we might disagree.

This approach needs to change.  Otherwise, the WEA will continue to be disrespected by many in this state.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Availability at the WEA-RA in Bellevue

2013 WEA-RA Delegates and Successor Delegates should receive the following and final email from me this evening . . .

Hi 2013 WEA-RA Delegate or Successor:
As you begin preparing for the WEA-RA next week, I just wanted to send you a final note.  Unlike the other candidates, I will not have a table of materials and gifts, campaign posters, or chanting supporters to welcome you to the convention center.  My candidacy is self-funded.
I've accepted an invitation to speak to the Sammamish Council's breakfast caucus on Friday morning.  If you would like to speak with me or visit your delegation, I can be reached at my delegation's hotel (the Marriott Courtyard across the street from the convention center), via the email address listed below, or via cell phone--(360) 929-2376.
Otherwise, you will hear from me and the other candidates in prepared remarks on Friday afternoon; you will then vote on Friday from 5:30 to 7:15 p.m.
I've listed ways to learn about my candidacy below.
I look forward to competing for your vote at the upcoming RA in Bellevue.

To learn more about my candidacy or to help:


To Donate: Make checks payable to Elect Peter and mail to 
732 Palisades Dr., Coupeville, WA 98239

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Money Wasted

Spent the day at the NWESD189 learning how to evaluate teachers using the University of Washington's 5 Dimension's instructional framework. The cost of the 4-day class, substitutes, and mileage for 5 administrators and 3 teachers is about $5,800. 

I'm wondering if any teacher could think of another way to spend $5,800 that would have a greater effect on students?

You Can't Be a Little Bit Pregnant

The Florida Teacher of the Year who nonetheless was rated unsatisfactory in her annual evaluation is now part of a NEA lawsuit claiming that using test data in a Value Added Model (VAM) is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, here in Washington, the WEA’s legislative priority is to “fully fund” and “fully implement” our version of a new evaluation system so that ”it succeeds as intended by the legislature.”

Unlike the Florida Education Association which is part of the lawsuit challenging evaluating teachers by using test scores, the Washington Education Association is up to its elbows in not only fashioning final legislation but also in devoting significant staff resources in facilitating state-wide implementation of an incredibly-cumbersome, time-consuming, and wholly unneeded evaluation system.

The argument from leadership is that because WEA was and is heavily involved leveraging our special relationship with Democrat politicans we now have an evaluation system that is less onerous, less dependent on testing, and more nuanced than it could have been. Basically, it's not as bad as it could have been.

You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Either we have an evaluation system that attempts to reduce teaching to a number and relies on student growth measures or we don’t.

WEA has foolishly colluded with those who seek to harm public educators and public education. We have given aid and comfort to those ideologues who believe that children are being prevented from learning by old, incompetent, over-protected, over-paid, and under-scrutinized teachers. The new evaluation system saturated with WEA’s fingerprints weakens due process, ends tenure, uses student growth measures (including testing), and provides teachers with a final summative rating—a number. There continue to be attempts in the legislature to emphasize student test scores because we--the preeminent guardian of public education--have whetted the appetites of those who believe that reform is the answer.

If ever there was a time where WEA should have said “We’re mad as hell and we’re not taking this anymore,” when WEA should have organized all 82,000 of its members to storm Olympia with a fiery outrage, it was in 2010 when 6696 and in 2012 when 5895 were being passed by the legislature. But, our leaders made a cold, short-sighted, far-reaching and dead-wrong calculation "to be part of the solution, to make it work"--to mitigate and parse injustice.

Those company candidates who voted in favor of trampling on our core values—and the WEA Board usually and dutifully votes unanimously--can hardly be expected to know when it’s time to say “enough is enough."

‘Enough is Enough’: Florida Teachers Sue to Block Flawed Evaluation System

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Let's Remember Who Pays the Bills

The salary of the president of WEA is higher than that of 32 governors--$144,797 plus $59,754 in benefits. 


We’ve been told that the WEA’s budget has been under strain due to a declining membership and stagnate wages. We’ve also been told that all of the 21 uniserv councils are similarly suffering, and that five in particular are in imminent danger of going flat-out bankrupt—my uniserv, 4th Corner, is one of the five. My uniserv delegates reported vague warnings sporadically throughout the year that finances were an issue, but no substantive information or proposal made its way to my membership until about a week before we were asked to vote on a 48% increase in dues to support the uniserv next year, and then another 15% increase the year after. Level V staff directors earn a maximum of $126,802 (plus the $59K in benefits) and 7 out of 10 Level V staff directors are at the maximum.

Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone is necessarily overpaid. My association has received excellent service from various staff directors assigned to us and from the central office as well—when, from time to time, we’ve needed assistance. I have to be honest in that except for assistance in bargaining, grievances, contract maintenance, and separation agreements provided by staff directors, our uniserv council itself does not materially or positively affect the members of my local.

I am, however, strongly suggesting that we keep in mind who pays the bills. A beginning teacher earns a base pay of $33,618; a beginning paraeducator in my district makes $13.31 an hour. We also need to live within our means. In my local, we made reductions and economies when our membership declined. We did not raise dues.

One of the challenges of the next WEA president is strengthening local leadership, reorganizing uniserv councils while most likely reducing staff or salaries or benefits.