Friday, January 29, 1999
Two teachers fight recertification
They are two of Concord-Carlisle High School's most accomplished and admired teachers who have ignited the flame of their subjects in their students as only rare teachers can. They are two of the teachers people are talking about when they refer to the "distinguished faculty" in Concord-Carlisle schools. But come June 17, Drs. Elliot Lilien and Wilson Flight might be looking for new jobs.
They are two of 65,000 certified teachers required to get recertified by the state. As required since 1993, recertification entails accumulating a number of PDPs, or professional development points, and paying the state $100. To Lilien and Flight, this is "extortion," whereby the state illegally claims over $6 million annually in recertification fees from teachers such as themselves. Their original contracts, that clearly stated "for life" are being taken from them, to be bought back with fees and additional task requirements.
To Lilien and Flight, and to their lawyers as well, the issue is one of fundamental constitutional rights. Both their legal counsel and some media sources suggest the case could have Supreme Court potential. "This violates the U.S. Constitution," Dr. Lilien exclaimed in a recent interview. "They are taking our property without due process. By asking us for $100 and additional tasks, they have violated our contracts."
Lilien emphasized that the issue at hand is not about making better teachers. Both he and Flight have already accumulated more than enough PDPs to satisfy any requirements on that front, as part of their standard of teaching. In competent school systems, professional development, according to Lilien and Flight, is already "part of the evaluation process of teaching staff." Though the professional development courses that teachers can take have been criticized by Flight and Lilien as "sign-in, sign-out, get-your-points-and-go seminars," they are not the primary issue the two are confronting. The issue is that they are being asked to gain the points to regain "something that the Commonwealth assured us was ours."
Flight suggests that a system needs to be put in place that allows school systems to police their own teachers. This would allow for the great variations in the level of teaching staff from one community to another, without trying to use a silver bullet to keep all veteran teachers on their toes. In a Monday meeting with John Silber, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Lilien and Flight said they were told by Silber that the reason for the recertification process was that he felt that 80 percent of Massachusetts teachers were incompetent, a percentage that Flight disagreed with. This widespread inadequacy, Silber reasoned, justified the expense and inequities entailed in targeting the 20 percent of competent veteran teachers. Flight suggested to Silber that the system that is in place does little to make that 80 percent better teachers, and only angers the competent veterans. Silber proposed solutions such as five or six rigorous education courses for veteran teachers over a five- year period. This was a prospect that disturbed Flight, who felt that he and all of the Concord-Carlisle faculty are already doing everything they can to teach at a superior level.
"People see teaching as this cushy, summers-off job," Flight continued. "The public has this conception of the lazy tenured teacher. They don't realize how at the end of the day even a young teacher who used to play three sports is exhausted." The attempt to keep the lazy tenured teacher on its toes has created a situation that Flight likens to a doctor looking at a sea of patients with ills ranging from German measles to a stubbed toe, and writing a single, ineffective, prescription.
The two teachers have been made offers which would enable them to keep their jobs. However these offers, Lilien asserts, do nothing to address the fact that the fundamental recertification process is unjust. "Most proposals we've been offered mean making us a special class of teachers, or having other, possibly anonymous sources, pay our fees. Silber has offered to apply personally to the commissioner of education for our recertification. This isn't what we want."
School must follow the law
Regional School Committee chair, Cynthia Nock, suggests that Lilien and Flight have the weapons of their discontent aimed at the wrong target. "Their quarrel is with the state, not the schools," she asserts. She agrees with the principal of the recertification law, saying, "the idea is to maintain qualified teachers. And though some say the PDPs are not worth the paper they're written on, the teachers choose which course to take, not the superintendents. The teachers union watered down the control superintendents had in that area."
Nock emphasizes that she would hate to lose the two teachers, but the school is obliged to follow the law. The issues of fees, she maintains, could have been addressed contractually in the past. She suggests that in the future, "the $100 could be written into teacher contracts." In an education forum with John Silber in March she plans to discuss the issues raised by Lilien and Flight. The school's bottom line, Nock asserts, is that they are doing everything they can to keep these teachers before the students, where they belong. "We'll try to certify them against their will, prove that they have enough PDPs, " says Nock, if, persisting in their ideologies, they are unable to secure their positions themselves.
Comment from DiCicco
CCHS Principal Elaine DiCicco explained her position, "As I've been telling everyone, they're outstanding teachers and we'd hate to lose them but the letter I got from the state is pretty clear. Teachers need to be recertified. Should teachers be engaged in professional development? I think they should but I wouldn't have designed it the way they did....The other issue is the law and I don't know how to do anything but comply." She thinks the requested changes should be addressed on a legislative level. She continued that she doesn't know why the issue hasn't been addressed in the last five years and why the teachers have waited until two months before they need to be recertified, although there had been previous rumors of discontent. "It needs to be addressed in terms of repealing or fixing the legislation itself to make it do what was intended; that all teachers are engaged in professional development," she said. She thinks the professional development requirements should be handled on a local basis and such legislative changes should be pursued regardless of what happens in this instance.
In response to DiCicco's position Lilien questions, "Would she enforce an evil and unjust law, just because it is the law?" And though support for their cause has been on an upswing, Lilien expresses frustration at the gap between the general support and a willingness to act. However, he hopes to get other teachers to join him in legal action, should it come to that. Silber and Edwin Delattre, a member of the board of education, have taken up their cause, and Concord Schools Superintendent Eugene Thayer has been "on their side" from the beginning as well, asserts Lilien. In Concord, Shelly Mitzenbaium and her husband Steve Kellman of Elm Street are coordinating community support efforts. And perhaps most pointedly, the response from parents and students has been excellent, he said: many letters and calls of support.
Nobody wants to see Drs. Lilien and Flight fired. Yet Lilien wonders how he can stand by the teachings in his German History class that articulate the need to stand up to unjust powers without taking a stand himself. One newspaper article declared that the pair was determined to lose their jobs to make a point. This, Lilien explains, could not be farther from the truth. Should a suit be carried out against the school, the teachers have been told they will be fired. Should it come to that, they would have to be granted a court injunction that would enable them to keep their jobs while the outcome of the case was pending. Lilien says he would welcome an acceptable compromise in lieu of such a battle on their home fields. The two earnestly hope to find an easier way to keep both their principles and their jobs intact. "Give us a way out with honor," states Lilien, "and we'll take it."
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito