Racial Isolation of Charter School Students Exacerbating Resegregation


At the Milwaukee Math and Science Academy, more than 98 percent of the 335 students are African-American and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

In December 2017, the Associated Press conducted an analysis of charter school enrollment nationwide and found that the schools were among the most racially segregated in the nation.

While only 4 percent of traditional public schools have student bodies that are 99 percent minority (2014-15 school year data), 17 percent of charter schools are 99 percent minority. Furthermore, of the 6,747 charter schools in the country, more than 1,000 had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent.

The numbers were troubling, if not particularly surprising, to anyone who recognizes that high levels of racial and economic segregation is systematically linked to wide gaps in educational opportunity and achievement.

“Desegregation works. Nothing else does,” Daniel Shulman, a Minnesota civil rights attorney told AP. “There is no amount of money you can put into a segregated school that is going to make it equal.”

But for others, the latest bulletin on how segregation is becoming more entrenched in America’s schools warranted little more than a collective shrug of indifference. “I think a lot of people have given up on integrating our schools,” says Dr. Andre Perry of the Brookings Institution.

A national spotlight on the racial isolation of many of its students is just the latest setback for the sector. The more people have learned about poorly managed, unaccountable schools with at best mixed academic records – not to mention the network of anti-union billionaires and for-profit education companies that are fueling much of the expansion – the more charter schools’ popularity has declined.

No surprise then that the AP analysis stung the sector. Charter leaders immediately coordinated a swift and indignant response, arguing that they were being blamed for segregation. Furthermore, critics were not recognizing success stories or acknowledging parents’ right in making these decisions for their children.

In other words, “choice” trumps everything.

charter school segregationNo one is holding charter schools responsible for the the return of Civil Right-era levels of segregation. Clearly, decades of decisions by conservative courts provided legal cover for communities to abandon desegregation efforts that were put in place following Brown v. Board of Education.

At the same time, the racial isolation in many charter schools is undeniable. Because its numbers continue to grow,  the sector is exacerbating the problem nationally.

A 2011 analysis by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California found that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan areas.

“As charters represent an increasing share of our public schools, they influence the level of segregation experienced by all of our nation’s school-aged children,” the report stated.

No Innocent Bystander

“It’s disheartening that you would have an entire sector say ‘Integrating students – that’s not our business,’” says Perry. “What they don’t realize is that it is all of our business,” he says.

“Business” is the operative term for the charter sector because its expansion is fueled by a very corporate, market-driven approach. Indeed, the schools that are most segregated tend to be those that are run by private companies and those that target specific communities of color.

It didn’t necessarily have to be this way, says Perry. “Charters generally are not bound to geographic zones. So we should have seen cooperation and collaboration between these schools, traditional public schools, and districts in using them to break down segregated systems. Instead, charter schools just go where the students are.”

The result is almost unfettered expansion. While the enrollment numbers are impressive, they can’t disguise middling academic gains, enormous costs to school districts, and highly concentrated segregation. And yet, lawmakers in every state continue to champion charter schools without demanding proper accountability, even as they drain scarce resources from traditional public schools.

The charter sector isn’t merely an innocent bystander as school resegregation worsens. A new report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, co-written with researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC), makes the case that charter schools in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are “directly and indirectly undermining” district efforts to redesign student assignment boundaries to break up high concentrations of racial segregation.

In Mecklenburg County, the majority of charter schools, far from serving students in high-poverty areas, are located in suburban areas. According to the report, many parents are using the schools as a political cudgel to protect the status quo:

“The proliferation of charters in Mecklenburg County served as grist for the political activism of suburban parents who threatened a middle-class exodus from CMS to the charter sector if new assignment boundaries did not honor their current neighborhood school assignments. These threats indirectly undermined policy actors’ initial willingness to act boldly and decisively in revamping pupil assignments to curb segregation.”

Long ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were the “nation’s bellwether for successful desegregation,” said Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, professor of Sociology at UNC.

“Today, the district exemplifies how charter schools can impede districts’ efforts to resist re-segregation.”

The New ‘Separate But Equal’?

As charter schools exacerbate resegregation trends, their advocates often resort to justifications that, to many ears, echo those heard during the “separate but equal” era – that integration is not necessary to meet the academic needs of children.

Furthermore, the argument goes, if parents choose to send their son or daughter to a charter school that is deeply segregated but academically successful, who are we to question that decision? And what about those high-performing charters in high-poverty areas?

It’s a point that tends to get oversold, says Preston Green, professor of urban education at the University of Connecticut. Several “schools of excellence” emerged during the separate but equal era that were able to overcome the obstacles of segregation and inequitable funding to achieve impressive academic records.

“A significant characteristic of those schools was that schools and communities had a shared sense of duty,” explains Green. “People today think they can overcome these challenegs and create successful schools as well. But we’re not taking seriously the dangers that privatization creates.”

In a new paper looking at the charter sector in California, Green and Joseph Oluwole, associate professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University, examine how the private entities that are fueling charter school expansion in the state are essentially robbing traditional schools in the neighborhood from state funding and resources.

While modern day versions in the form of charter schools are indeed popping up in some black and Latino communities, the lack of regulation and oversight will have devastating consequences.

“If these outside organizations are allowed to develop charter schools without any restrictions, they may create a parallel system of schools that drain the resources from the traditional school systems that serve black and Latino communities, which are already underfunded,” Green explains. “This scenario of dueling school systems could create a situation in these communities that would be even worse than the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision.”

In short, separate but equal wasn’t possible more than 60 years ago, and it’s even less possible today.

Ultimately, says Andre Perry, many charter school operators seem content to experiment with students’ lives – instead of helping to break down the segregated state of our schools

“Segregation is the source of inequality in America. To dismiss it is to accept structural inequality and the status quo.”





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In Teachers We (Should) Trust


When author and innovation expert Ted Dintersmith set out to visit public schools in all fifty states during a single school year, he hoped to find solutions to the most vexing problems facing classroom educators. He soon discovered that the very solutions he sought had already been found – by the teachers themselves. All we need to do, he says in his new book, What School Can Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America, is to listen to them and trust in their creativity and expertise.

NEA Today sat down with Dintersmith to talk about the extraordinary educators he met during his cross-country journey.

First of all, tell us what an innovation expert is.

Ted Dintersmith: It’s someone who understands what constitutes a legitimate innovation, what types of people can make innovation happen, and what conditions are conducive to innovative people and organizations.  I spent my career in this world, running an innovative start-up business, spending more than two decades in venture capital, and supporting innovative non-profit initiatives.  The trip that inspired my book was all about listening to and learning from remarkably innovative teachers showing us how to prepare students for a world of innovation.

You set out on your cross-country journey to raise awareness about the need for innovation in our schools, but your goals expanded. Why?

TD: As my nine-month immersion unfolded, I stayed true to raising awareness, but was stunned by the remarkable innovative teachers I was meeting along the way.  They know there’s urgency in reimagining school and moving beyond obsolete metrics, and I was blown away, and a bit humbled, by their insights, perspective, and classroom practices.

What else surprised you about the educators you met?

TD: For starters, every single one struck me as dedicated, caring, and willing to go to the ends of the earth to help the children in their care.  These teachers don’t get the trust, respect, and compensation they deserve, but they manage to power through it to fight for better lives for their students.  That is inspiring to observe, and something all adults in our country need to be aware of.

What were the school conditions that allowed the teachers you met to become extraordinary educators?

TD: It starts with trust. The innovative practices I write about were created and driven by classroom teachers, but supported by administrators who, in different ways, had the back of their teachers. Then, I think it’s important to make the surrounding community aware of the need to reimagine school.  If you’re a lone wolf teacher who has students enthusiastically taking on ambitious and authentic challenges, working in teams, being held accountable to a high standard of accomplishment, you still can get wailed on for doing things differently. It’s really important to bring the entire community (parents, school boards, local businesses) into the discussion of how best to prepare our students for a very different world.  Finally, I found that teachers — counter to what many assume — are not averse to being held accountable, but want to be held accountable to standards that matter, and to standards they have a voice in designing.  Given trust, community support, and well-conceived standards, our teaching force can be unstoppable.

What other qualities do extraordinary educators share?

TD: The classrooms I was blown by away were, in the specifics, quite distinct.  But they shared certain common principles. These teachers were creating learning environments where students master what they study, develop essential skillsets and mindsets, have the agency to blossom into self-directed learners, and approach their school work with a sense of deep purpose.  I use the acronym PEAK (purpose, essentials, agency, and knowledge) to keep these core principles in mind.

What outdated modes of education need to end and what new modes should we usher in?

TD: The outdated models are the conditions and metrics we impose on our schools, with public schools bearing the brunt of these constraints.  In the world of innovation, young adults need to be creative problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators, communicators, and responsible citizens (they all start with ‘C’ for some reason!).  But when we hold teachers and schools accountable to obsolete, generally poorly-designed tests, we put our teachers in a horrible dilemma.  In meeting and talking with thousands of teachers, they — far more than legislators, policymakers and mega-foundations — understand that these tests of low-level and narrow competencies aren’t preparing our kids for their futures, and all too often driving the joy and real learning from our classrooms.  What I find as I travel, though, is that there is a deluge of pent-up innovation in our teaching force, which would be unleashed if we just trusted them to engage and inspire their students.

Ted Dintersmith

Ted Dintersmith

What did you learn from you trip that made you hopeful?

TD: There’s so much to be hopeful about.  Someone said to me recently, “The dam may be about to break.”  I think they’re right.  So many have seen the abject failure of the reform agenda — from NCLB to RTTT to today’s lack of national education leadership.  It’s time to move on, and start trusting those who own the consequences of what happens in the classroom — our teachers and students.  They are more than up to the challenge, and are doing amazing things all over the country.  Time to unleash them!

We’re seeing very encouraging signs of what happens when people join together to make real, and informed, change in our country — from the student-led movement to enact sensible policies on guns to the teacher-led movement to provide adequate resources to our schools.  We’re at a real inflection point in the future of our country, and we can’t afford to tinker around the edges of our most pressing challenges.  I put education at the top of the list, since if we launch young adults into life as purpose-driven problem solvers, we will be in a position to make headway across the board.  But if we continue to let the reform agenda rule the day, with its focus on testing, accountability, and college-ready, we will leave millions of young adults vulnerable in a world where machine intelligence is advancing rapidly, erasing millions of routine jobs.

Can teachers lead the way to transforming our schools?

TD: Not only can they, but they are doing it, all across the country.  I was so inspired as I traveled to see the positive change that’s happening.  In every community I visited, I found remarkable, inspiring innovations led by classroom teachers.  If we can celebrate these practices, and put in place the conditions that let all classroom teachers do what they entered the profession to do — engage and inspire our children — we’ll be entering an education period that might well be called a modern day Renaissance.



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Bargaining for the Common Good in Higher Education


The story around parking at UMass Boston is decades long, and rife with buried trash, political corruption, and imprisoned public officials. The latest twist is this: The university is building a new garage, and it plans to charge everybody—students, custodians, faculty alike—$15 a day to park.

“For students, across the school year it adds up to almost the cost of an additional class, and the university is saying that they can add that cost to their tuition bills…so, more debt!” says Annetta Argyres, a UMass Boston faculty union leader. “Also, consider our classified employees, who are our lowest paid employees. They are required to be on campus five days a week, 50 weeks a year. It adds up to an enormous amount of money, far more than any raises on the table.”

A possible solution is this: A growing movement around “bargaining for the common good.”

In common-good efforts, unions partner with community groups—students, parents, racial-justice organizations, etc.—around contract demands that benefit not just the members of the bargaining unit but also the wider community, explains Marilyn Sneiderman, director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University. (Read more about it from Sneiderman, here.) Since 2012, several K12 NEA-affiliated unions, most notably in St. Paul, Minn., have used this strategy to win contract provisions that include more school counselors and librarians, and less standardized testing.

It makes sense to also use bargaining for the common good in higher education, especially at public institutions whose missions—and funding—are entangled with the well-being of their communities. They’re often the largest local landowners and employers, and fuel the economic development of their regions. Bargaining for the common good can transform institutions “from crucibles of inequality into epicenters of democratic…empowerment,” said Joe McCartin, executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

Recently, Argyres and other Massachusetts Teachers Association members, as well as leaders from the California Faculty Association (CFA), attended a convening at Rutgers, co-sponsored by NEA, with more than 200 union, community and racial-justice leaders, where they learned how to run these types of campaigns.

“We’re in a time and place where people are willing to look differently at their unions and the work that they do,” said CFA Vice President Charles Toombs, who led a delegation of CFA members to the Rutgers event. For CFA, this has meant re-writing its bylaws so that it focuses more on anti-racism and social justice.

“This social justice work is going to be a way to insure strong membership,” said Toombs. And, even more important, “in a state like California, to ignore these issues is to do a disservice to the students we teach, especially as we have so many students of color and DACA students.”

In its last contract, CFA won a new article that addresses “cultural taxation,” or the penalty paid by many faculty of color for the disproportionate work they do to support students of color. Now, money has been allocated to help compensate faculty, often in the form of release time, who do “exceptional work with those students,” said Toombs.

This is an example of common-good bargaining—it takes a common-good issue, like the success of students of color, and codifies it in contract language. “It’s a way to bring our concerns with anti-racism and social justice into the contract,” said Toombs.

Common-good bargaining is also a way for “not only our members to see why they need unions and what they do, but also our larger community to see why we need unions and what they do,” said Argyres.

In Boston, common-good bargaining may start with parking—the union’s proposal calls for no student parking fees—but it may lead to bigger issues around public land use and student services. “We need to get more bold and more creative about how we use our contracts,” said Argyres, who also plans to invite students to the faculty union’s next bargaining session with the university.

“We see no reason that they shouldn’t be there for open bargaining,” she said. “This is a conversation that affects all of us.”



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Educators Push Teacher Pay Penalty Into National Spotlight -NEA Today


“Something has to change,” says Noah Karvelis, a teacher at Trios Rios Elementary School just outside of Phoenix. Only in his second year teaching, Karvelis has already seen too many colleagues walk away from the profession in a state where the salaries are so low. Arizona ranks last in teacher pay and in per-pupil spending.

“Being a teacher isn’t a viable career choice here any longer,” Karvelis says.“No one got into this profession to get rich. But we do expect to be able to make a living. And in Arizona, that’s not the case.”

Between 2014 and 2016, Arizona educators increasingly fled the state for jobs in neighboring California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, where teachers make on average $10,000-15,000 more than their counterparts in Arizona.

“Each day that goes by without action by our elected officials, another teacher decides to leave Arizona,” said Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas.

In 2015, special education teacher Robin Edgerton left the Lake Havasu School District for a position in Needles, California, that doubled her salary. She commutes 40 minutes from her home in Lake Havasu.

“I went from living paycheck to paycheck, to where now I can buy a house,” Edgerton told The Arizona Republic. “With Arizona pay, it never would have happened.”

Over the past few weeks, educators across the state have mobilized to demand a 20 percent increase in teacher pay (which would still place Arizona below the national average) and a return of pre-recession school funding levels. With each unacceptable response from Governor Doug Ducey and the state legislature, the #RedforEd movement has grown stronger, joining educator-led protests in other states that have pushed low teacher pay and the divestment in public education into the national spotlight.

The walkout of Oklahoma educators has entered its second week and their counterparts in Kentucky continue to protest funding shortfalls and a bill that would decimate their pensions. The fire was lit in February by the historic nine-day strike by West Virginia educators (“That victory has been incredibly empowering for educators in Arizona,” said Karvelis). Since then, it has swept through other states as teachers and other school staff have become fed up with inadequate resources and the penalties they have to endure to stay in a profession they love.

The dramatic resurgence of the teacher pay issue specifically, says Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, has been simmering for some time.

“You’re seeing two factors—the debasement of the teaching profession and the erosion of wages and benefits to the point where educators are rightfully angry,” says Mishel. “They’re determined to protect their families and their profession.”

Video: Tulsa educator Jennifer Thornton supports herself and her teenage son on less than $2K a month.

A Man-Made Crisis

“Wages for teachers have been falling relative to comparable workers all over the country for many years,” says Mishel. This “teacher penalty” continues to grow,  forcing many educators out of the profession and making it less and less attractive to potential candidates.

And many who remain are forced to take second jobs just to make ends meet. A 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that about 16 percent of teachers across the nation work second jobs outside the school system.

According to a new EPI analysis by Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, teacher pay (adjusted for inflation) fell by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. Even when accounting for benefits, the teacher compensation gap widened by 9 percent, to 11.1 percent over that same time frame.

In Arizona, teachers earn just 63 cents on the dollar compared with other college graduates—the widest pay gap in the nation. The gap is 79 cents in Kentucky, 67 cents in Oklahoma, and 75 cents in West Virginia.

It’s a gap that is abated by collective bargaining, according to 2016 analysis by Allegretto and Mishel.  They found that in 2015, “teachers not represented by a union had a 25.5 percent wage gap—and the gap was 6 percentage points smaller for unionized teachers.” (See Mishel’s recent summary of the research into collective bargaining’s impact)

Since the successful strike in West Virginia, in which teachers and education support professionals pressured Governor Jim Justice to agree to a 5 percent pay raise, the message around education funding and teacher pay has clearly struck a chord with the general public.

“We’re seeing an outpouring of support and respect for teachers in these states,” says Mishel.

A new poll by CBS found that 68 percent of Americans say teachers in their community are paid too little—a majority that cuts across political party lines.

This community support is absolutely critical. For too long, lawmakers have degraded the teaching profession with myths, exaggerations that serve to undermine public education and advance a school privatization agenda.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin pulled out this rhetorical toolbox last week when she compared protesting teachers to “a teenager who wants a better car.”

There are clear cracks in the mantra that tax cuts are the panacea for everything and I think they’re going to grow wider as the public becomes more aware of their impact. How quickly this pans out remains to be seen but the signs are all there.” – Michael Leachman, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The remark was an offensive and clumsy attempt to divert attention away from the reckless tax cuts she and other politicians have championed that have decimated public services in their respective states.

“This is a man-made crisis,” NEA President Lily Eskeslen García told a rally of educators in Oklahoma City on April 2. “Tax giveaways to big business. Starving the revenue that pays for quality education—they’ve been digging this revenue hole for a dozen years.”

Michael Leachman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed the impact state tax cuts have had in Arizona and Oklahoma. While the individual tax breaks differ, the effect is the same: funding education has become increasingly difficult, which it turn makes it even harder to improve teacher pay.

Arizona and Oklahoma were cutting taxes before the Great Recession and haven’t stopped.

“While most states have gradually restored the school funding that they cut when the recession hit, Arizona and Oklahoma have not come close,” Leachman writes. “Most states have reduced average teacher pay since 2010, after adjusting for inflation, but Arizona and Oklahoma are among the deepest-cutting states.”

Although raising more revenue in these states is a daunting political challenge, the ground is shifting, says Leachman.

“There are clear cracks in the mantra that tax cuts are the panacea for everything and I think they’re going to grow wider as the public becomes more aware of their impact. How quickly this pans out remains to be seen but the signs are all there.”

No More Nickel-and-Diming

Arizona educators are all-too familiar with this stubborn allegiance to tax cuts for the wealthy. Derek Harris, a band teacher in Tucson, sat stunned at a meeting with lawmakers at the state capitol last month as educator protests began to gather momentum.

“They told us to our faces that the tax cuts were absolutely necessary and that the reason we had these budget shortfalls was because the district was spending the money fraudulently,” Harris recalls.

This spring the legislature stands ready to approve a capital gains tax cut that will benefit almost exclusively the 183 richest Arizonans — those making more than $5 million a year — to the tune of an extra $27,000 each.

Meanwhile, Governor Ducey has offered teachers a 1 percent pay raise.

Arizona teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol highlighting low teacher pay and school funding on March 28, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“It’s just another slap in the face,” says Harris.“It’s too much. We’re not going to be nickel-and-dimed anymore.”

On April 11, as part of the #RedforEd movement, teachers, education support professionals, and parents across the state are holding “walk-ins” to educate the community about the funding shortfalls facing public schools. Large-scale rallies will be held outside school buildings and are expected to attract huge crowds. The goal right now is to mobilize as much community support as possible to pressure Ducey—who on Tuesday dismissed #RedforEd as “political theater”—and the legislature to change course.

In addition to the 20 percent salary increase for teachers and the restoration of school funding to 2008 levels (approx. $1 billion), educators are also demanding competitive pay for all education support staff, a permanent salary structure that includes annual raises, and no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

What happens next is up to the legislature. If they take no action, lawmakers should not expect educators to put down the megaphone and go home, says Joe Thomas, president of AEA. “I  have not seen this many teachers this frustrated since I’ve been in Arizona.”

Educators will only be more empowered and determined to stand up for their students and their profession, adds Noah Karvelis.

“We are no longer willing to come to school each day unable to do the job that we love so much. An entire generation of students have not been given the education that they deserve. That’s devastating to all of us.”



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Striking the Right Tone: Staff Collaboration Key to a Healthy School


Nurse Sheryl Lapp (right) often meets with staff members like teacher Sandy Doyon to coordinate students’ health care needs.

Three students with food allergies are sitting at the nut-free table during lunch at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in South Plainfield, N.J. In accordance with a new school protocol, they have invited several friends to join them.

“It used to be that they could invite only one friend to sit with them,” says school nurse Sheryl Lapp. “But one student had several friends and couldn’t pick just one, so we worked to create an environment of acceptance instead of exclusion.”

Among some students, it is socially prestigious to have lunch in the peanut-free zone. Among teachers, food service workers, and paraeducators it is imperative to know the health plans of students with food allergies. They must also be trained to recognize symptoms of a first-time allergic reaction in a previously undiagnosed student. In case of an emergency, working as a unit is vital.

At Kennedy, teamwork, camaraderie, and mutual appreciation are the pillars upon which the school operates. This spirit of staff cooperation stems from the same impulse present at most if not all public schools: the desire to help one another succeed on behalf of students.

“It’s the tone of the building,” says teacher Sandy Doyon, vice president and building representative of the South Plainfield Education Association (SPEA), which includes 450 paraeducators, secretaries, and teachers. “We have great administrators and educators who put students first and know how to work together.”

Kennedy can boast almost 100 percent participation in SPEA.

“The folks here are very supportive of NJEA (New Jersey Education Association),” Doyon adds.

In Sync

At most schools, a principal’s leadership style pervades the buildings, playgrounds, cafeteria and all points in between. Whether positive or negative, it trickles down through the staff.

“Our principal is very supportive and fair, calm, and friendly,” Lapp says. “He can work with everyone here as well as the superintendent and board members.”

Principal Kevin Hajduk arrived at Kennedy in 2015 after serving as principal of South Plainfield Middle School.

It’s one thing to state that staff workers at Kennedy work well together. Educators at many schools do that. It’s another to see their teamwork reflected in the smallest detail.”

“Kennedy was known for its progress on state assessments, great programs, and very supportive staff,” says Hajduk. “Immediately, you can see they are a close-knit group.”

It’s obvious that Hajduk’s loyalty runs deep. After all, he was born in South Plainfield and graduated from South Plainfield High School in 1995.

“We are a family-oriented team,” he says, “with students at the center of the discussion.” Of the school’s 55 staff members, only Hajduk and the physical education coach are male. The unity around gender may be a factor in the team’s success, though Hajduk chooses to credit each individual’s willingness to try new things, resolve disputes quickly, acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses, address certain concerns in private, compliment each other on jobs well done, forgive one another when mistakes are made, and offer feedback when asked.

“It takes all of us, working together, to know our roles and to execute them effectively,” he says. “Respect, trust, and good team communication are our keys to success.”

School Hub

The second grader entering nurse Lapp’s office rushes past a teacher in Lapp’s office and blurts a quick “Hi.” The student is distracted by debris lodged in her eye.

“Let me see…don’t scratch,” says Lapp, whose multi-purpose office is a school hub of sorts.

The sun-soaked space includes a vast storage area for medical supplies and two private restroom facilities—one for hurried teachers and another for students who might experience a stomach-related emergency.

“Sometimes, it’s like I’m the school mother,” says Lapp, who joined Kennedy in 2013 replacing a nurse who had been at the school for 25 years.

“You never hesitate to ask Mrs. Lapp for anything,” says paraprofessional Juliann Bickunas. “She’s well-trained for the job and works well with everyone.”

In a corner across from Lapp’s orderly desk is a wheel chair, oxygen tank, and low-rise bed where students rest after Lapp has tended to a nose bleed, bruised eye, knee scrape, or puncture wound that could be located almost anywhere.

Even teachers are known to visit Lapp’s office for a quick consultation.

“I’m here for them, too,” she says. “Staff members consult me about their own pains, bumps, and bruises as well as those of their students.”

At Kennedy, Lapp works as closely with education support professionals as with teachers and administrators on the academic progress, and emotional and physical health of the school’s 280 preK–fourth graders.

“We talk a lot amongst ourselves,” says Amy Leso, third-grade teacher and a 2002 graduate of South Plainfield High School. “When I have a student with an allergy, I’ll mention it to other teachers and staff.”

Staff are trained to maintain student confidentiality but to also collaborate on care.

All for One

It’s one thing to state that staff workers at Kennedy work well together. Educators at many schools do that. It’s another to see their teamwork reflected in the smallest detail.

Custodian Marilu Hernandez, who has worked at Kennedy for six years, often collaborates with Lapp on choosing the safest cleaning products for students as young as age 5. They read bottle labels together.

“Always, students come first with Mrs. Lapp, the teachers, principal…all of us,” says Hernandez. “When a teacher calls me [after a student has an accident], I go quickly.”

Nurse Sheryl Lapp at work in her multi-purpose office.

Teacher Heather Hearne-Pascale says Hernandez and Lapp are familiar faces in her classroom of nine K–second graders with multiple disabilities. Each student has a different health care plan involving seizures, diabetes, or life-threatening allergies.

“The majority of my students can’t tell me what they’re feeling, especially when it comes to toileting,” Hearne-Pascale says. “We have a lot of little accidents.”

Five paraeducators work with Hearne-Pascale on helping students with everything from language and communication skills to toilet training and personal hygiene.

Outside the classroom, paraeducators are responsible for escorting the students to the cafeteria, gym, music, and other classes.

“All our teachers know these students by name,” Hearne-Pascale says. “We look out for each other and each other’s students.”

Special education teacher Brittany Lillis, who teaches third through fifth grade, also credits caring parents with helping to maintain a healthy school climate.

“We listen to them and they to us,” she says. “You get to know them, which helps us even more to serve our students.”

The margin for error regarding student health and safety becomes slimmer when parents are factored in, explains teacher Alicia Berardocco.

“Parents are very accommodating here,” she says. “We communicate on a daily basis with some of them.”

Crisis Contained

Last fall, Lapp had to rush out of her office to help a student having a seizure in a classroom.

“Most seizures last about five minutes,” she says. “This one went on for almost 15.”

Fortunately, classroom staff knew to remain calm, began tracking the time and the length of the seizure, monitored the student’s breathing and protected the student’s head until Lapp arrived and activated EMS.

“Our secretary knew whom to call…our maintenance staff were on standby to help with whatever was needed,” Lapp recalls. “We are very lucky that our school administration recognizes the importance of having a full-time nurse in the building.”

The student received efficient care and was back in class within several days. The student is among 8 percent of children in the U.S. diagnosed with food allergies. Of this group, 40 percent have the potential for a life threatening severe reaction known as anaphylaxis, which causes blood pressure to drop and airways to constrict.

Anaphylaxis can be fatal without rapid treatment. According to EdSource, a non-profit education news website, almost 20 percent of severe allergic reactions at schools happen to children who have not been diagnosed.

“Sometimes you don’t know until the first time,” says Lapp.

The incident at Kennedy was an example of the high level of collaboration and commitment to the health and safety of students.

“In a school environment that stresses communication and collaboration, I think you’ll find low levels of absenteeism and high levels of [staff] morale and student achievement,” Lapp says.

In Good Hands

Lapp maintains a drawer in the front desk reception area filled with student-specific and stock EpiPens organized in baggies. EpiPens are auto injectors with spring-activated needles and can be administered in a thigh through clothing. Each baggie contains a printout of the student’s medical history and photo, and the EpiPen.

“Many of our staff have been trained to recognize symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, how to administer an injection and follow-up procedures,” she says.

The school’s specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) also collaborate on student psychological assessments and case management.

“She (Lapp) tests thoroughly,” says speech therapist Peggy Monagle. “The students we work with have many medical conditions which require in-depth knowledge of their situation and cooperation from everyone.”

School psychologist Ashley Kellett recalls the many cross-departmental meetings between social service workers, teachers, and others where student health issues are analyzed.

“With certain students, you have to determine what’s causing the (psychological) problems,” Kellett says. “For that, you have to be organized and work together.”

For More:
Nurse Sheryl Lapp and other staff from Kennedy are featured in a video as part of the Classroom Close-up NJ series sponsored by NJEA. The video premiers May 6. View here: classroomcloseup.org



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Despite Progress, the ‘Charade’ of High Stakes-Testing Persists


The proliferation of high-stakes testing is most often associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the national education law that was in place for more than a decade. With good reason – the law imposed a crushing accountability regime that turned many of our schools into test prep factories and corrupted what it meant to teach and to learn. But test-based accountability was well-established long before NCLB was signed into law in 2002. And it persists today, two years after the law was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), says Daniel Koretz, author of The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  

While the campaign led by educators, parents and students against overtesting has helped bring about real improvements, Koretz, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, cautions that too many policymakers refuse to give up their  “blind reliance” on high-stakes tests – to the detriment of students, schools and the teaching profession. “Test-based accountability has become an end itself in American education,” he writes in The Testing Charade, “unmoored from clear thinking about what should be measured, how it should be measured, or how testing can fit into a rational plan for evaluating and improving our schools.”  Koretz recently spoke with NEA Today.

Test-based accountability didn’t begin with NCLB. When did this shift begin and what were the factors that triggered it?

Daniel Koretz: This started at least as early as minimum competency testing in the 1970s and “measurement-driven instruction” in the 1980s. However, looking back, what we called “high-stakes testing” back in the 1980s was very weak tea compared with what we see now. The pressure really started ramping up in the early 1990s, when states began putting in place concrete sanctions and rewards based on test scores. NCLB federalized these programs and made them harsher, but most of its components we had already seen before.

Many people attribute some of the impetus for serious test-based accountability to the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, which painted a dire picture of the condition of American education. However, within a short time, this approach developed so much momentum that few people questioned it. There were ongoing arguments about how to use tests for accountability, but few questioned the basic approach.

You’re not anti-testing, so what’s the “charade” around testing as you see it?

DK: You’re right, I am certainly not anti-testing. Good tests, used appropriately, can be very valuable. They can provide information about the condition of education that we can’t get anywhere else, and they can provide teachers with useful, specialized information.

The charade is the phony signs of progress—the badly inflated test-score gains—that test-based accountability has produced. This misleads the public and allows those in charge to pretend that these policies are making schools better, while in reality they are not. In fact, in many instances, they have generated more problems than they have solved.

There is an irony in this: high-stakes testing has actually undermined the value of tests because it leads to inflated scores that aren’t accurate and informative.

In the book, you talk a lot about the impact of excessive test prep. What are the most damaging outcomes?

DK: One of the most damaging outcomes is the score inflation I mentioned above. It’s not uncommon for studies to show that gains on the tests used for accountability are three to six times as large as they should be, and we have cases of large gains on a high-stakes test that are accompanied by no real gains in learning whatever. This is what has allowed the charade to continue for so long.

Worse, some schools, districts, and states have more severe score inflation than others. This means that we sometimes identify the wrong teachers, schools, or programs as effective or ineffective.

The University of Chicago Press is offering a 30% discount off the list price of The Testing Charade. Visit the publisher’s site and enter the code AD1717 at checkout.

Second, bad test prep undermines the quality of instruction. Teachers have only so many hours a day, and time wasted on bad test prep can’t be recovered for real instruction. And bad test prep is often mind-numbingly boring, which turns kids off to school and, worse, to learning. And teachers have a strong incentive to forgo good instruction for test prep: test prep has the promise of increasing scores more quickly, albeit by producing bogus gains.

Third, test prep has undermined the very notion of good teaching. Many new teachers are taught not only to use bad test prep, but even that this test prep constitutes “good instruction.” And many of these teachers have never seen any instructional program that isn’t dominated by test prep.

As you discuss in the book, even some the architects of standardized testing decades ago warned about the potential misuse of testing. Why have these warnings, along with the mountain of evidence supporting them, continue to be ignored by many policymakers?

DK: I wish it were only that the reformers haven’t seen the evidence. To be fair, that is undoubtedly the case for many of them, even though that evidence has been accumulating for nearly 30 years. However, it’s certainly not true of all of them. Time and time again, I have encountered people who had been presented with the evidence and simply ignored it, insisted that it must be wrong, or denied that it would apply to their own policies. This denial was facilitated by the many researchers and evaluators who used scores from high-stakes tests as if they were trustworthy measures.

This was one of my primary motivations for writing Charade. I finally lost patience with the pretense. My hope is that the book will make it a bit harder to hide from the facts about test-based accountability.

Test-based accountability is defended as a tool for equity – that it’s essential to hold struggling schools accountable so that our most vulnerable students don’t fall through the cracks. What’s the evidence tell us?

DK:  A desire for improved equity was one of the primary motivations of some advocates of test-based accountability. For example, the expectation that test-based accountability would improve the education of low-performing groups was the main reasons why some leading liberals in Congress supported NCLB.

Good intentions notwithstanding, test-based accountability has largely failed to improve equity. There is no evidence that these policies have contributed to the slow and erratic narrowing of the gap between minority and non-minority children, which started much earlier, and the gap between rich and poor students has been widening. There is some evidence of small relative gains by students at the bottom of the distribution of test scores, but that evidence is both inconsistent and limited.

We know some of the reasons why. Bad test prep tends to be more extensive in disadvantaged schools, and by the same token, we sometimes find that disadvantaged students experience much more severe score inflation. This leads to an illusion that equity has improved when it really hasn’t.

Despite the mobilization against testing in recent years by educators and parents, dislodging the system is a major challenge. What are the encouraging signs moving forward? 

DK: There are a few reasons to be guardedly optimistic. While many in the press are still credulous about test-based accountability, a growing number have become aware of the problems it has created. A slowly growing number of people in the education policy community admit that test-based accountability has been problematic, even if their responses to those problems haven’t always been adequate. And there are signs that parents are increasingly fed up with what test-based accountability has done to their schools.

However, this isn’t enough, and there is a long way to go. While ESSA did end some of the worst excesses of NCLB, many policymakers remain wedded to the old approach. For example, the Minnesota legislature is considering a bill, SF 2816, that would establish a rating system for schools and districts that is based entirely on test scores for elementary schools and only on test scores and graduation rates for high schools and districts.

To bring about the larger changes in direction that we need will take real work. Those who want this real change—educators, parents, and other concerned citizens—will have to make their voices heard. That’s why I wrote The Testing Charade.



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Students, Educators and Parents March on Washington to Demand Action on Gun Violence


The crowd fills Pennsylvania Avenue during the “March for Our Lives” rally, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence in Washington, D.C. Organized by the survivors of the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, it was a rally by students for students, but they were joined by thousands of educators who amplified their message — #neveragain. Hundreds of sister marches were held across the country and around the world.

Connecticut Educators March for Students

Busloads of educators came from all over the country to support the Florida students and students all over the country who demand to be heard. Taking part  was a group of educators from Connecticut, where the shooting that killed 26 elementary school children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton is still raw.

“We have to do something with our gun laws, and we have to be vigilant. Talking and talking about it doesn’t change anything and we need to act. Our kids don’t feel safe,” said Mia Dimbo, a middle school math teacher from Bridgeport as she prepared to march to the site of the rally in Washington. “We need support for mental health. We don’t have enough resources for psychologists and counselors, and there’s so much trauma our kids are dealing with. They should not be afraid when coming to school. Today I march for our kids and our teachers.”

Laura McDonnell, a fourth-grade teacher from Avon, Connecticut, said that arming teachers is not the answer.

“We need to listen to each other and use common sense. We don’t need to arm teachers, we need to create more mental health supports and pass common sense gun laws,” she said.

All of the Connecticut educators agreed that the impassioned voices of the students must be heard.

“Our students have a big voice to share and we’re here to support and add volume to their voices,” said Corinne McComb, an elementary educator from Norwich, Connecticut. “And as educators, we don’t want to be armed, we want better services for our students. More psychologists and counselors who can be present for the students more than one day a week or month. We need services for families. We have the money, we can do this.”

‘Kids, Not Guns’

There were almost as many different signs as there were marchers. As they chanted “Kids Not Guns,” demonstrators carried signs with messages including:

  • We Are Children, Not Targets,”
  • #NeverAgain – Seriously This Time
  • Wishing Student Loans Were My Biggest Fear
  • My Kids Survived High School, Will Yours?
  • Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Bullet Proof
  • Rage Against the Machine Gun
  • Schools Are Not Meant to Be Crime Scenes

protest sign at March for Our LivesHolding up a sign that said “Books Not Bullets,” Priscilla Wilson, a high school student from Olney, Maryland, came to the rally with her mother Keshia Wilson, a teacher at Rosa Parks Middle School, who said she brought her daughter and her friends to raise awareness and let their voices be heard.

“I believe gun laws need to be more strict,” Priscilla said, “because kids are dying.”

Ohio Students Join the Fight

A busload of 108 students and educators from Fort Hayes Metropolitan High School in Columbus, Ohio, traveled for seven hours to join the March For Our Lives.

The students, most of whom had never before left the state of Ohio, said they came to fight for safer schools and help make history in the fight to end gun violence in schools.

Martha Tepper, a Fort Hayes music teacher, organized the bus so that the students could experience real life civics education and to learn how to use their voice for action.

“They have the courage,” Tepper said. “They have the voice. Now they’re learning how to use that voice.”





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NEA: It is Time for Betsy DeVos to Resign


(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Until Betsy DeVos is no longer leading the U.S. Department of Education, there is never a bad day to ask her to resign. DeVos has proven time and again how unqualified she is to be Education Secretary, and her testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee on March 20 was no exception.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) pressed DeVos on potential plans to preempt state regulations on student loan collectors. This move aims to protect student-loan debt collectors accused of misleading borrowers by preventing states from imposing additional rules and regulations—rules and regulations that protect consumers.

And who could forget her sit-down interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 minutes, where DeVos said, “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”

This isn’t the first, second, or third time DeVos has disappointed.

In February, DeVos blocked educators, parents, and union leaders from delivering more than 80,000 report cards by locking the doors to the Department of Education. The report cards gave DeVos an “F” for her first year as secretary of education and confirmed what educators already knew: she’s unqualified.

“…[W]e asked the public and 80,000 people responded…[with] a very thoughtful critique of what they saw happening in their schools because of policies she’s supported,” said Lily Eskelsen García, an elementary school teacher from Utah and president of the National Education Association (NEA).

García shared one of these critiques: “Millie of Washington State [said], “I never failed a student during 20 years of teaching, but Secretary DeVos has failed the American people, teachers, [and] our students who are this country’s national treasure.’”

A Mission to Destroy Public Education

It’s been nearly 400 days since García sent a letter to head of the education department, asking for a response to four questions centered on equity, equal access, non-discrimination, and opportunity for all students.

At the time the letter was sent, García expressed how she was “struck by the lack of clear answers” DeVos gave the public during her Senate hearing in June, 2017. “There is no doubt where we stand on issues critical to supporting students and public education, but Americans have a right to know where she stands.”

García asked DeVos:

  1. Do you agree that all schools receiving public dollars must be held to the same accountability and transparency standards?
  2. Will you agree not to privatize funding for Special Education or Title I?
  3. Will you stand with educators and protect our most vulnerable students from discrimination, including LGBT students, immigrant students, students of color, girls and English language learners?
  4. Will you focus, as educators are focused, on the civil rights of all children, regardless of their zip code, by challenging the inequities so many face in equal access to programs, services and support?

America is still waiting for a response.

Every decision she has made since being confirmed is proof that she still does not have the best interest of students at heart—that she does not understand the mission and importance of public schools or the importance of students’ civil rights in schools and on campuses.” – NEA President Lily Eskelsen García

García, along with thousands of educators nationwide, expressed serious opposition to DeVos’s nomination and confirmation. DeVos has no experience or degree in education, has never worked in a school, was never a teacher or an administrator, and neither she nor her children ever attended a public school. Her sole connection to public education is her decades-long mission to destroy it.

Educators, parents and allies sent more than 1 million letters via NEA’s activism site and made 80,000 phone calls in 4 weeks, urging senators to vote no.

“It’s hard to imagine a less qualified candidate for secretary of education than Betsy DeVos,” said Cheryl Lake, a third-grade teacher from Michigan. “Her complete lack of public education experience alone is troubling, but worse yet is her decades of work to undermine public education through for-profit charter school and voucher schemes.”

It’s no secret that DeVos has long supported unaccountable, for-profit charter schools and vouchers, which drain public schools of critical resources and offer no choice for the most vulnerable students—those with special needs, those who don’t speak English, and those living in poverty. Her education track record in Michigan has proved that she’s no friend of public education.

More than a year into her role as education secretary, she continues to “undermine and obliterate the very system that opens its doors to all, not just a few, students,” penned García in an op-ed for the Atlantic Journal Constitution.

“Every decision she has made since being confirmed is proof that she still does not have the best interest of students at heart—that she does not understand the mission and importance of public schools or the importance of students’ civil rights in schools and on campuses. As the nation’s top advocate for students, that is incredibly troubling.”

DeVos confirmation

An Abysmal Record

To start, below is a list of the top five DeVos stories compiled by NEA’s Education Votes. In descending order:

5. School visit ignored how vouchers fail students with disabilities

DeVos’s first visit to a school as education secretary was to a private voucher school in Florida. She and Trump ignored an inconvenient fact about the state’s voucher schools: Florida’s voucher program for special needs students, the McKay Scholarship, asks students with disabilities to waive their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA. The same limitation holds true in many other voucher states. DeVos’s oversight — or slight — came as no surprise given her admitted lack of awareness of the federal special education law at her confirmation hearing. To be clear: Under IDEA, states are required to ensure that all students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education in public schools and that parents are given a voice in their child’s education.

4. Refused to rule out federal funds for private schools that discriminate

At her confirmation hearing, DeVos refused to say whether she would deny federal funds to private schools that discriminate against students based on sexuality, race or special needs. In response to a question from Representative Katherine Clark whether an Indiana voucher school that denies access to students with LGBT parents would be disqualified from receiving education funds, DeVos answered, “For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that.” Pressed by Clark after DeVos’s non-answer, DeVos said, “The bottom line is that we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s school and education decisions.”

3. Described historically Black colleges and universities as ‘pioneers of choice’

DeVos praised Historically Black Colleges and Universities as “pioneers of school choice,” a remark that bears no relationship to the truth of their origins. For many generations, HBCUs were the only choice for African American students facing racism and educational segregation. DeVos’s gross inaccuracy prompted educators and students at Bethune-Cookman University to ask the college to withdraw its invitation to DeVos to serve as a commencement speaker. “The policies that DeVos pushes would have terrible consequences for future generations of Bethune-Cookman students — and for historically black colleges and universities themselves,” explained Fedrick Ingram, Florida Education Association vice president and a Bethune-Cookman alumnus. These policies included a proposed federal budget that cut millions of dollars for HBCUs and college access programs that help send low-income and first-generation students to HBCUs and other institutions, and $3.9 billion from Pell Grants, which a majority of HBCU students rely on to pay for tuition.

2. Slashed loan forgiveness to students defrauded by for-profit colleges

The Education Department’s plan to provide only partial loan forgiveness to some students defrauded by for-profit colleges could reduce overall payments by about 60 percent, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. DeVos approved a plan to discontinue fully wiping out the loans of students deceived by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges. Student advocates say it’s wrong to hold students responsible for loans they took out to attend fraudulent for-profit colleges that inflated their job-placement rates and engaged in predatory recruitment and marketing tactics.

Eileen Connor, a litigator at Harvard University’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which has represented hundreds of defrauded Corinthian students, criticized the policy. “I think that is terrible. It’s another example of the Department of Education picking the side of fraudulent schools and not doing right by those who have been hurt by them,” Connor told AP. Late last year, the state attorneys general of New York, Illinois and Massachusetts sued the Trump administration and DeVos for not granting loan relief to thousands of students defrauded by Corinthian and other for-profit schools that have closed. Their complaint alleges that DeVos’s Education Department unlawfully declared some of the student loans valid, leading to forced collections from students’ paychecks. California’s state attorney general filed a parallel complaint in the U.S. District of Northern California on behalf of 13,000 Corinthian students waiting for the federal government to forgive their loans.

1. DeVos spreads her influence — and money — in 2018 governor races

There will be 36 gubernatorial elections in 2018, and some candidates have received contributions from DeVos and her family, while others are unabashed supporters of her agenda to drain scarce funding from public schools to give to private and charter schools in the form of vouchers or education tax credits.

Wait…There’s More

  • Instead of fighting to provide equal opportunity for every kid, she openly said that more schools should have a “we’re not for everyone” approach.
  • She rolled back protections for students dealing with sexual assault on campus, further reducing safeguards for students in higher education.
  • She made it harder for students with disabilities to get the support they need to succeed.
  • She led the charge to cut $9.2 billion from the Department of Education—eliminating teacher training programs and college prep courses for students in poverty.
  • Instead, she’s invested her energy in voucher programs that take scarce funding away from public schools and give it to private schools that are unaccountable to the public.
  • She has failed at providing equal opportunity for all students.
  • Failed at protecting the safety of students. Failed at investing in the success of every public school student, and
  • Failed at making higher education more accessible and affordable.

Tell Betsy DeVos: It’s Time to Step Down

NEA leadership is urging educators and community members to sign a petition calling for Betsy DeVos’s resignation.

“We cannot continue with Betsy DeVos as our education secretary for another day, let alone another year.  In the end, our students suffer the consequences. Betsy DeVos is not qualified to be the Secretary of Education.  Betsy DeVos has failed our students. It is time for Betsy DeVos to resign.”





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‘We Were Living This Nightmare’: Parkland Teacher Testifies on Capitol Hill


People hug one another before the start of a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Stacey Lippel is a language arts teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where on Feb. 14 a gunman killed 17 students and educators and injured many others. Lippel saved students’ lives by pulling them to safety in her classroom and locking the door. 

On Tuesday, March 20, Lippel appeared on Capitol Hill to testify before members of Congress. Here are her full remarks:

———————-

Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, thank you for giving me the time to speak with you today.

On Feb. 14, I spent the day at school like any other day in room 1255 on the third floor of the 1200 building, also known as the Freshman Building, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It was Valentine’s Day, and the kids were happy and excited as they walked through the halls with their oversized stuffed animals, oversized balloons and oversized energy level. It was fourth period, and I just taught my creative writing class how to write the perfect love letter. They were animated and silly.

Meadow Pollack wrote a letter to her longtime boyfriend. She told me they were together for four years.

Joaquin Oliver resisted this assignment because he already got his girlfriend plenty of things, but I told him a handwritten note would go very far. He proceeded to write love notes on cut-out hearts and taped them to his shirt. My students told me that he did write an actual love letter but put it in his backpack.

Then, everything changed.

At about 2:20, we heard a popping sound that sounded like a computer cart fell over. The class was loud, so the sound was muted. Approximately two minutes later, the fire alarm sounded signaling that we should all evacuate the building. It was unusual because we had already had a drill that morning, but I knew that the culinary classes were cooking with oil, so evacuating was nothing I would have even hesitated doing. So many scenarios popped into my head at that moment… fire in culinary, or maybe that sound was firecrackers and there is a fire. I never, ever thought that this was a result of gunshots because the context wouldn’t have made any sense.

We live in Parkland.

Nothing bad ever happens in Parkland.

I shouted above the alarm to my students that I would be taking attendance at our usual spot outside, grabbed my emergency folder and phone, then waited for the last student to exit before I closed and locked my door behind me. I walked about 2 feet from my door when I heard the gunshots down in the stairwell. The stairwell is about 20 feet away from my classroom. All of the students who were in the stairwell started screaming and running back toward me and the other classrooms. I quickly turned around, unlocked my door and then very quickly ensured that the lock was back in a locked position so that when I shut the door, it would already be locked from the outside. (I don’t know how else to describe this action, but it’s very important because it truly saved my life and my students’ lives.)

Shots were firing and students were pouring into my class: kids who were mine, kids who I had never seen before. I held my door open and pulled kids in as I watched the scene unfold before my eyes. I saw the shooter emerge from the stairwell and stand very firmly at the front of the hall, about 20 feet from me.

stacey lippel

Stacey Lippel (left) testifies at a congressional hearing on Tuesday, March 20.

He was constantly shooting as he sprayed his rifle back and forth. I don’t know how he didn’t hit more kids with all of the bullets flying in the hallway.

It was foggy with smoke, but I kept my eye on the shooter.

He had on a helmet, gas mask and what I thought was a bulletproof vest that held ammunition. All I know is that he looked like a MAN with a very menacing weapon in his hand. I remember thinking, “Is this real? What is going on here? Why is this man shooting at us?” But I never broke from my task at hand: to get as many kids into my room as possible and get that door shut. I was in autopilot mode.

I don’t remember screaming. I definitely wasn’t crying. I just knew that saving my students and myself was very important.

I don’t know when I decided that now was the time to close my door, but I did. I shouted at Mr. Scott Beigel to close his door because his classroom was right next to mine and he was ushering students into his room just as I was. I grabbed the door handle with both hands because I wanted to make sure I pulled it tight. It was then that I was grazed by a bullet. I remember feeling a little sting, but soon forgot it. As I was shutting my door, two of my students wanted to get in as they were still in the hall.

Understand that even though there were still kids running in the hall, I had to make a decision to shut my door or risk getting shot and putting the students in my room in danger. I don’t remember reopening the door. They told me I did. I opened it a crack, Mr. Beigel shoved them in, then I pulled my door closed and hung onto the handle for a few more seconds to ensure it was really, really closed (another action I don’t remember, but my students told me I did this).

I jumped over to the blind spot in my room where I trained my students to go when we had a code red. I threw myself on top of my students and held on to as many as I could sink my nails into. Seconds later, I heard a barrage of shots in Mr. Beigel’s room, then immediately after that, the shooter fired about four or five times right into my classroom through the glass panel in the door, through the broken glass. I remember stretching my neck to see if he was going to reach in and grab the door handle. I don’t know why he didn’t. He could have easily entered the classroom and shot us all but he didn’t. He continued to fire shots down the hallway. I kept looking at the clock and thinking, “This is definitely not a drill. School should be over soon.” These were the strange and random thoughts we all had, because even though we were living this nightmare, it just seemed impossible that this was happening.

I kept staring at the shattered glass on the floor as well as the bullet casings. We all heard a boy screaming in the hallway, “HELP! OPEN THE DOOR! HELP! LET ME IN!!!” But we couldn’t open the door. The shooter could still be on the floor. If I opened the door, I would put us all at risk. So we cringed every time we heard the screaming. Students were texting their loved ones. I texted a coworker who was on the other side of the school that there was a shooter in my building. My son was in her class. My daughter was in a classroom close to the other side of the school as well. I don’t remember texting my husband. I don’t remember answering texts from concerned family and friends. I
deleted all of my texts that night because it made me sick to my stomach to look back at them. I spent the next hour making eye contact with my students, holding on to them and mouthing that everything was going to be OK.

school shooting protests

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press(Sipa via AP Images)

When the SWAT team arrived, I still didn’t get up to open the door. What if it’s the shooter? They barged in, pointed their guns at us and ordered us to put our hands up in the air just in case the shooter was among us. One of the men pointed at me and asked, “Teacher?” I said “Yes,” and he asked me to make sure my students didn’t look down as we left the classroom. I stood up and immediately saw the body of Scott Beigel on the ground. I couldn’t process that he was dead until a student looked at him
and screamed. I went into teacher mode and ordered her to look up. We stepped out of the classroom and saw carnage everywhere. There were bullet casings, smoke, shattered glass, blood and bodies throughout the hallway.

It was a war zone.

I still couldn’t process what I was seeing.

We live in Parkland.

Nothing bad ever happens in Parkland.

Students screamed and cried as they looked down and saw their classmates dead on the ground. I grabbed them and pushed them down the stairs and finally out of the building. Two of my beautiful students, Meadow and Joaquin, who were finishing up their senior year on a high note, were brutally murdered. My heart breaks for their families and aches for the loss I feel. I knew them both since they were sophomores.

I do not know how I wasn’t killed. I should have been killed. I am thankful that I reacted the way I did because my students needed me to be there for them, but they are all scarred. I have 219 students on my current roster. Since Feb. 14, an average of 10 percent of my students are absent because they aren’t coping well with their experiences.

They don’t feel safe in school.

I was in the trenches.

I was shot at.

I saw the shooter and what he was capable of doing. I don’t know how he got on campus, and why he chose the 1200 building.

In closing, I would like to thank the committee for inviting me here to share my story and do all that I can to make sure that this never happens again.

I look forward to responding to your questions.

#ThankYouStudents

After the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, students from Parkland and around the country are saying never again — with overwhelming support from their educators.

As students prepare for the #MarchForOurLives Saturday March 24, and participate in the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools on April 20, educators, parents, elected officials, activists and community members are sharing messages of support, thanking them for their courage, their activism, and their determination You can record a video and post it with #ThankYouStudents. It’s a quick, easy and impactful way to show you’re with them.

You can upload your video here so we can share it!



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Dismantling the Myths About Teachers


(Photo © 2016 NEA / Moses Mitchell Photography)

In this era of so-called “fake news,” few are able to escape the task of wading through the distortions, half-truths, or just outright lies that proliferate across countless media platforms. Finding the truth – or “myth-busting” – can be an arduous task, and even if you don’t personally buy into a popular bit of misinformation, you can bet many people do.

For public school educators, being the focus of pernicious propaganda has become all-too familiar. The steady drumbeat of misinformation heard on on TV, in politicians’ speeches or even from a neighbor down the street, has created a toxic narrative around the teaching professions and the state of public schools that has been difficult to dislodge.

It might be tempting fro some to label them as “misunderstandings,” but that obscures the fact that these myths are hatched and disseminated explicitly to undermine public education.

“The folks driving the myths have a clear agenda for the future of public schools: reduce the measure of an education of worth and value to a single score on a high stakes standardized test; dismantle any expression of the collaborative voice of teachers; turn public schools over to private managers,” says Bill Ayers, educator and activist.

School privatization is big business, and a network of corporate interests are using their financial muscle to make sure that myths about teachers and public education continue to drive the debate.

In their new book, “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones,” And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers Unions, and Public Education,” Ayers and fellow education professors Crystal Laura of Chicago State University, and his brother Rick, of the University of San Francisco, take on many of the myths and dismantle them one-by-one.

The title, of course, refers to perhaps the most specious and enduring myth about educators – that so-called tenure (actually due process) has been a refuge for ineffective teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of students. Far from that, the authors write, “tenure doesn’t so much help teachers keep their jobs as it protects a teacher’s freedom to do an excellent job….Without tenure, every teacher would be a puppet or pawn of every nomadic administrator. Without tenure, innovation would suffer and authentic critical exchanges between teachers – the lifeblood of improvement – would cease.”

In each chapter, Ayers, Laura, and Ayers first play the “devils advocate,” laying out in detail the tenets of the myth and the major players promoting it. They then debunk each one with a detailed and research-based  “Reality Check.”

myths about teachersWhether it’s teacher unions as those immovable obstacles to student achievement, the superiority of charter schools, the conceit that “anyone” can teach, the value of high-stakes standardized testing, the need for more rigor, the primacy of science over arts, or how teaching grit can countermand the effects of poverty, each myth is disassembled with surgical precision.

“We certainly didn’t need to review or conduct research in order to find out what’s in the popular media or what frameworks dominate the public space,” explains Bill Ayers. “We then dug into the facts concerning the themes being parroted in every direction, and where our investigation suggested the frame was a myth, we refuted it with evidence and analysis.”

First and foremost, the authors say, the book is for educators – as a source of comfort and inspiration, but also as a ready reference to refute the misinformation about their profession. The book can also serve as a formidable tool for parents, students, and community members who are crucial allies in the fight for public education.

And it would be nice if lawmakers at every level of government – particularly those who haven’t been completely indoctrinated in school privatization dogma – used the book to make “wiser policy decisions,” says Laura.

Helping to recast the debate over education depends of course on the committed and tireless activism of public school educators. A teacher’s “voice” should not be confined to the classroom or at a conference with parents. Ayers, Laura, and Ayers dissect the narrative that teacher activists are somehow “troublemakers” (Myth #11), that by raising their collective voices — “getting political” as it’s often derided — they are abusing their positions and skirting their responsibilities.

In fact, they are doing precisely the opposite. And the collective voice of teachers is desperately needed now more than ever, says Ayers.

“When people become teachers, they don’t cease being citizens — if anything their civic duties and responsibilities become even more focused and more intense,” he explains. “Teachers voices have enormous power in the classroom and we should approach our work with thoughtful patience and humility. But because our work is about the future society we should also thoughtfully engage in the public square.”

Crystal Laura and Bill Ayers, co-authors with Rick Ayers, of “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones.” (Photo courtesy of Beacon Press)

At the national, state, and local level, social justice unionism has become a pillar of the National Education Association’s organizing efforts in recent years. It’s hardly new but this increasingly popular model could hold the key to preserving public education as a right for all students. Educators – most recently in St. Paul – are using contract negotiations to focus on equity, social justice, and other community-wide concerns.

For Ayers, Laura, and Ayers, social justice unionism means simply “living up to the ideals of education in and for democracy.”

“This is the way forward. We see in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Chicago that when teachers stand together, link arms with parents and community, and fight for public education, everyone wins,” says Laura. (To learn more about NEA’s social justice work, visit NEA EdJustice)

With Donald Trump in the White House and Betsy DeVos leading the Department of Education, the corporate interests that propagate myths designed to undermine public education have powerful allies in the highest places.

Still, despite a heightened sense of urgency, Ayers says teachers and their allies should draw inspiration from the fact that “even with the big megaphone and the vast sums of money deployed for decades, their message has failed to win a majority of Americans.”

And the opposition to their toxic agenda is only growing.

In educators, parents, and students, “the forces determined to destroy public education have encountered a formidable opponent,” Ayers adds.

Myth: “Anyone Can Be a Teacher”

A popular image of teachers as experts sharing their knowledge meshes neatly with the notion that teachers are clerks conveying the expertise of others: in each case, teaching is the mechanical and direct transmission of information and knowledge from the smart ones into the upturned heads of the passive and less smart ones. We must simply tell teachers: here is the literary canon; here is the truth of history; here is the skill of reading. Teaching is the efficient delivery of bundles of “teacher proof” knowledge called curriculum, and one person can deliver it as well as anyone else.

This view of teaching as a simple transaction in which the wise transmit knowledge to the ignorant has led agencies and organizations on a determined search to find innovative ways to recruit young folks and move them quickly from college gradu­ation into brief tours of duty in troubled classrooms. Fast-track teacher-preparation initiatives have proliferated across the country in a wide range of programs geared to attracting college graduates to teaching. …

Dilettantes and tourists will not solve the problems of public schools. It will take a deeper level of respect and engagement. In reality, problems in a democracy are best solved by more — not less — participation, as well as deeper and longer-term commitments, not drop-in charity. And the people with the problems are also the people who have the solutions. It takes a deeper level of engagement and struggle to unlock and build lasting results. …

The one thing that characterizes a solid, effective teacher is a commitment not only to the subject matter but also to motivating students, even discouraged or resistant students, to learn. If a teacher drops that responsibility and decides to ”just teach” the material and fail those who don’t step up and succeed, he has an easy job. But good teachers, and most teachers, claw and agonize and struggle through the weeks and months because they are determined to turn on and engage all students.

Excerpted from “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” And 18 Other Myths about Teachers, Teachers Unions, and Public Education by William Ayers, Crystal Laura, and Rick Ayers (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.



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Math Teachers Explain: 3 Reasons Lawmakers Fail at School Funding


Problem #1: Elected Leaders Put Rich Corporations Before Students

Telannia Norfar is a problem solver—in more ways than one.

She is quite literally a problem solver, as a math teacher at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, but also in the figurative sense: It is in her nature to identify problems and find a solution.

“What a shock, entering the teaching profession,” recalls Norfar, who previously worked in publishing. “The lack of resources, technology, and structure was so different from what I had access to in the corporate world. The computer in my classroom was older than me.”

She was thankful to have textbooks and a whiteboard and classes that usually stay under 30—social studies and English classes sometimes exceed 40 students.

But she still faced an array of problems, and she tackled them one by one. She wrote technology grants, organized supply swaps with colleagues, and even used her own money to buy desks as those in her classroom fell apart.

“For so long many local citizens and the press have been able to ignore the crisis of underfunding in our schools, because educators do so much work to make up for what the district isn’t providing,” Norfar says. “But things are changing. Awareness is growing.”

Educators and parents have led the effort to help other citizens see how state lawmakers have neglected school funding to finance outrageous tax giveaways for oil and gas companies that have left the state with a $900 million budget hole.

Fight for Funding and the Oklahoma Education Association have put the pressure on state legislators to begin reversing the damage they did in allowing the deepest cuts to education in the nation since 2008.

Photo: Zach Burns

The groups have shined a spotlight on the severity of the teacher shortage. Oklahoma teacher pay is so low, that many teachers have uprooted their families and gone to work in surrounding states.

Telannia Norfar knows teachers who qualify for food stamps and Section 8 housing.

But she is hopeful that the increased attention on conditions in Oklahoma schools—reflected in local news coverage and a new poll that shows voters believe that insufficient education funding is the biggest problem facing the state—will force lawmakers to take action.

A recent poll of likely Oklahoma voters shows 85 percent believe teacher pay is too low and a majority says raising taxes to increase teacher pay is a necessary step.

Seventy percent said they support increasing the gross production tax from 2 percent to 7 percent on all oil and gas wells to fund an average $5,000 teacher pay raise.

“This is a problem with a clear solution,” says Norfar, who was recently awarded the Presidential Award for Science and Mathematics Teaching.

“We can’t let our elected officials pretend that they can’t solve it.”

Problem #2: Lawmakers Set Education Budgets Without Knowing How Much it Costs to Educate Kids

As a fourth-grade teacher, Dona Ostenso is responsible for teaching her students “the billions” in their math lessons. As president of Maryland’s Calvert Education Association, she’s taken on the responsibility of educating adults about the billions that the public school system has been shorted.

In fact, the recently completed Kirwan Commission Adequacy Study shows $2.9 billion in unmet needs in Maryland’s public schools.

“People find that number shocking, and they should,” says Ostenso, a veteran educator with 29 years of experience.

The Kirwan Commission is the 25-member board charged with rewriting Maryland’s education funding formula. The Commission was formed after the passage of a 2015 bill, strongly supported by the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), that required a study on the real costs of educating students.

One reason most states don’t fund schools properly is because they don’t actually know how much it costs to educate students currently in their schools in accordance with state standards, as Professor Bruce Baker, a school funding expert at Rutgers University, points out.

And very few state school finance systems take into account that schools educating kids living in poverty require more resources. “Fifteen years ago—the last time our school funding formula was rewritten—we didn’t have to worry about having Wi-Fi in every classroom,” says Ostenso. “The number of our students living in poverty since then has ballooned. How can an outmoded funding formula account for all of that?”

In September and October 2017, the Kirwan Commission hosted four public hearings around the state. MSEA helped locals organize members to attend and make their case for investing in schools.

Photo: Luis Gomez

Ostenso took an active role in the campaign, organizing 40 members to travel by bus or drive to the closest Kirwan hearing, in Largo, Md.

“We’re not a huge local, but we really made an impression when we filed in wearing our bright red T-shirts,” says Ostenso.

“Four of our educators had the opportunity to speak, and they talked about caseloads and class sizes, and the fact that French teachers are teaching Spanish,” she says. “All of these concerns lead back to inadequate funding.”

More than 15,000 MSEA members attended building meetings and shared their funding priorities, which MSEA delivered to the Kirwan Commission. At press time, the Commission’s final recommendations were pending. The state legislature will debate and vote on those recommendations during the 2019 legislative session.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget proposal for FY 2019 was his fourth in a row that redirects casino gaming revenue—which is supposed to go to increasing education funding—to other parts of the budget. In Hogan’s four years, $1.4 billion of gaming revenue has been similarly redirected.

In response, MSEA launched the Fix the Fund campaign to pass a constitutional amendment that would direct casino gaming money to education, providingan additional $500 million annually for public schools.

“If lawmakers could just be me for a week, they would see quite clearly what we need in the budget,” says Ostenso. “Short of that, they simply need to listen more to educators before they pass education policy and budgets.”

Problem #3: We Allow Public School Students to Pay the Price for Private School Vouchers

Wisconsin math teacher Robin Dahl knows all too well that private school vouchers take resources from public schools, and ultimately leave many students underserved.

In the Racine Public School District alone—where Dahl teaches Algebra and Geometry to ninth graders at Case High School—vouchers take more than $22.4 million meant for public education and funnel that money to private schools.

“One of the most obvious problems is that some of our class sizes are way too big now,” says Dahl.

Take her Math Lab. It is intended to give students extra help with their math lessons, and now serves 30. Last year, Dahl had a co-teacher. This year she’s on her own.

Photo: Gregory Shaver

“It reduces the one-on-one interaction that helps you see where students have challenges and correct them. I know I was much more effective back when I was working with fewer than 20 students at a time,” says Dahl, who has 24 years of experience.

It’s a step in the wrong direction, says Dahl, who hopes someday to have a second educator in all classrooms where there are struggling students.

While vouchers were sold to Wisconsin voters as a way for low-income families to leave underperforming public schools, it was soon obvious that vouchers were not going to those students.

A recent report shows that more than 86 percent of the students who received vouchers in the 2016 – 2017 school year were already attending a private school.

The faulty logic used by those who support vouchers, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, goes like this: Vouchers don’t hurt public schools, because the money simply follows a student that the public school system no longer has to serve.

But the reality is you can’t put a price tag on a student. The public school system can’t realistically lower costs until they have to lay off educators, reduce paraprofessional hours, or allow class sizes to increase.

Another reason that educators like Dahl are fed up with vouchers is that private schools routinely turn away students who are more expensive to educate and are not obligated to provide special education and English language learning services.

“It’s better to keep taxpayer dollars in the public school system so we can appropriately staff the right services and help all of our students,” says Dahl. “There’s no better solution.”

Pledge to vote for leaders who will support public education



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Educators Say No to Arming Teachers, Favor Real Solutions to Gun Violence


(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Believing that gun violence has reached a “crisis stage,” the majority of members of the National Education Association favor a wide-range of new gun safety measures. But arming teachers and other school staff – the lynchpin of President Trump’s gun proposals – is not among them. Seventy-four percent of educators oppose the measure, according to a new poll commissioned by NEA.

The survey of 1000 NEA members nationwide, conducted March 1-5, also reveals that 60 % of educators say they are worried that there could be a mass shooting in their school. Three quarters (77 %) believe it is too easy to access guns, including 71% of independents, 58 % of Republicans, and 60 % of gun owners.)

The recent spate of school shootings has triggered a nationwide mobilization led by students to change the nation’s outrageously lax gun laws.

According to the NEA survey, educators NEA support proposals ranging from banning assault weapons (85%) and bump stocks (a modification to a semi-automatic weapon that enables it to operate like a machine gun) (84%), universal background checks (99%), raising the age of gun ownership to 21 (78%), and preventing mentally-ill individuals from obtaining guns (91%).

NEA members, however, are strongly opposed to arming teachers and other school personnel, an idea floated by President Trump a few days after the Parkland shooting and that was formally proposed on March 12. In addition to doubling down on arming educators, Trump also announced he was appointing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to lead a Federal Commission on School Safety to study the issue.

But seven in ten NEA members say arming school personnel would be ineffective at preventing gun violence in schools. Among all members, 82 % say they would not carry a gun in school. Even among members who own guns, two thirds—63 %—say they would not agree to be armed in school.

What’s more, two-thirds of educators say they would feel less safe if school personnel were armed.

“The idea of arming teachers is ill-conceived, preposterous, and dangerous,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “This new national survey of educators confirms that. Arming teachers and other school personnel does nothing to prevent gun violence. In fact, quite the contrary, educators would feel less safe if school personnel were armed.”

Eskelsen Garcia said the debate over arming teachers has become a distraction from the very real and urgent problem that many lawmakers would prefer to ignore: the ease at which dangerous individuals can buy weapons that can kill a great number of people in a very short amount of time.

“The White House and Congress owe it those victims of gun violence and survivors across the country to work together to implement common sense solutions that really will save lives,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “We need to listen to gun violence survivors, students, educators, and parents. They are demanding common-sense gun laws. They are demanding a plan that will keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people.”

National Day of ActionStand With Us to End Gun Violence in Our Schools and Communities!

Pledge to join students, parents, educators, and other community leaders in making your voice heard by taking action to end gun violence in our schools and communities. We can no longer stand by silently while gun violence continues to threaten the safety of our students. We demand that leaders take action to pass comprehensive laws to end gun violence NOW!



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School-Based Programs to Stem Substance Abuse


Campaigns to warn people about the consequences of substance abuse have been around since before the 1980s. Remember the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” and “This is Your Brain on Drugs” television advertisements? These campaigns created awareness around addiction and helped to save lives.

The Ad Council, for example, reported that 68 percent of Americans exposed to the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” ad have tried to prevent someone from driving drunk. In 1998, reports showed there was a record-low number of alcohol-related fatalities nationwide since the U.S. Department of Transportation began keeping records.

Ads alone cannot curb substance abuse. It’s going to take a concerted effort among several entities, including schools.

By the Numbers

In 2014, the death toll from drug overdoses in the U.S. hit a record number: 47,055. Sixty-one percent—or 28,647—of these deaths resulted from opioid overdoses. Substance abuse, however, is more than just opioids. The most recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in 2016:

  • An estimated 51.3 million people aged 12 or older were current cigarette smokers, including 29.7 million who were daily cigarette smokers and 12.2 million who smoked approximately a pack or more of cigarettes per day. Although about 1 in 5 people aged 12 or older were current cigarette smokers, cigarette use generally declined between 2002 and 2016 across all age groups.
  • About 1 in 5 underage individuals aged 12 to 20 were current alcohol users. About 7.3 million people aged 12 to 20 reported drinking alcohol in the past month before the survey, including 4.5 million who reported binge alcohol use and 1.1 million who reported heavy alcohol use. The percentage of underage drinkers in 2016 was lower than the percentages in 2002 through 2014 but was similar to the percentage in 2015. About 2 out of 5 young adults aged 18 to 25 in 2016 were binge alcohol users, and about 1 in 10 were heavy alcohol users.
  • An estimated 28.6 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, which corresponds to about 1 in 10 Americans overall (10.6 percent) but ranges as high as 1 in 4 for young adults aged 18 to 25. Regardless of age, the illicit drug use estimate for 2016 (the most recent year we have data for) continues to be driven primarily by marijuana use and the misuse of prescription pain relievers. Among people aged 12 or older, 24.0 million were current marijuana users and 3.3 million were current misusers of prescription pain relievers.

With substance abuse starting at early ages, states are looking to public schools to help revamp their drug abuse education programs. Much of the focus is now on preparing elementary school students with the right tools to make healthy decisions.

In February, a panel formed by Ohio lawmakers recommended schools implement new drug educational programs that start in kindergarten. Other states have already taken similarly strong measures as educators believe prevention efforts that start early are key to fighting substance abuse.

“It only makes sense to start health education in the early grades. The students will build on the knowledge as they grow and learn,” explained Beth Mattey, lead nurse of the Brandywine School District in Delaware and president of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), in a March interview with NEA Today.

Helping Students Make Healthy Choices

Many factors contribute to substance abuse, and there is no single solution that schools can do to prevent it. However, there are a number of things schools can do that can help to create the conditions for students to make healthy choices, and include:

  • Foster protective factors. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found, based on a growing number of studies, that there are protective factors that can help young people avoid multiple behaviors (including substance use) that can place them at risk. One of the most important is school connectedness, which is the belief by students that adults and peers in their school care about their learning and about them as people.
  • Provide standards-based health education, which is classroom instruction aligned to the National Health Education Standards. These are the expectations for what students should know and be able to do to promote their personal, family, and community health. Proper substance use, as well as state and local laws about substance use, should be part of a health education program in developmentally appropriate ways. Among the skills that are the most important in promoting healthy choices are decision making, goal setting, self-management, and bystander intervention.
  • Use teaching resources created by reputable sources, such as SAMHSA and their partners. One example of this is Operation Prevention from Discovery Education and the Drug Enforcement Administration. It offers a full toolkit of teaching resources, including lessons at all grade levels, which are aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards and the National Health Education Standards.
  • Support educator professional development through partnerships with state and local health departments. It is important that educators have access to the latest and best information on the substances and risks about which they are teaching.
  • Offer programs that have evidence of effectiveness for the specific issues targeted. SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices offers a searchable database of programs that can be refined by age group or for other specific groups of young people.
  • Follow the lead of Maryland and require public schools to carry the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
  • Consider the community partnerships that can help to connect students and families to resources such as additional counseling or treatment.

Seeking Treatment

Seeking treatment for substance abuse can seem like a huge undertaking. SAMHSA offers a confidential treatment locator at https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov.  From this landing page, one can search by zip code or call the confidential and toll-free number 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or
1-800-487-4889 (TTY). If you have insurance that covers substance abuse and/or behavioral health, that is also an important resource for finding appropriate treatment.

Additional Resources

Association of Recovery Schools, https://recoveryschools.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on school-based health education, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/shpps/pdf/2016factsheets/Overview-SHPPS2016.pdf

Educational Leadership (published by ASCD), issue on mental health in schools. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/current-issue.aspx

NEA articles/blogs

http://lilysblackboard.org/2016/09/talk-opioids-heroin-kids-dying/

http://neatoday.org/2017/03/01/opioid-crisis-schools/

The Newshour, What works on opioids and kids.  https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/what-works-to-educate-kids-about-the-dangers-of-opioid-use



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Arming Teachers is Not the Answer


(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Only two weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and educators were murdered, Florida lawmakers rejected a ban on assault rifles and decided instead to heed President Trump’s call to put even more weapons in our schools. A bill is moving through the state legislature that would train teachers to carry guns. It allocates $67 million to create so-called “school marshalls,” staff trained to carry a concealed weapon on school grounds.

The bill would put 10 armed educators in every school, roughly 37,000 statewide.

For the students, educators, and parents still reeling from the massacre in Parkland (just the latest in a rash of school shootings that has spread across the U.S.), the notion that combating gun violence in schools requires even more guns being brought into schools is both ludicrous and dangerous.

Alexis Underwood, president of the Association of Bay County Educators and a retired Marine, calls arming teachers “a horrible idea.”

“One of the things that my drill instructor told me is that even individuals in the military, in a moment of crisis, when the gun fires for real, are going to forget what they’ve been taught to do and they’re going to run or they’re going to make stupid mistakes,” Underwood told a local Florida TV station last week. The priority, Underwood added, should be funding highly trained school resource officers.

Most law enforcement experts agree that school staff should not carry guns because they lack the tactical knowledge of handling weapons that trained law enforcement personnel receive on a regular basis. Even if the funding for the weapons and training were to be available after massive cuts to education budgets, educators carrying concealed weapons pose too high a risk to school safety.

“You don’t want to have a gun that’s available to a student or another worker who may have mental health issues,” Maureen S. Rush, vice president for public safety and superintendent of the Police Department at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times.

Parents and educators overwhelmingly reject the idea of arming teachers and other school staff, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Bringing more guns into our schools does nothing to protect our students and educators from gun violence. Our students need more books, art and music programs, nurses and school counselors; they do not need more guns in their classrooms,” she said.

More Accidents, More Fatalities, More Fear

NEA Vice-President Becky Pringle shudders at the thought of how a school’s learning environment would be transformed by the presence of educators walking around carrying concealed weapons.

“I taught eighth grade science for over 30 years,” she said. “I can’t imagine being in an environment where guns are all around me. What’s being described by the president and others sounds more like a prison to me, with the teachers as armed guards and students as prisoners.”

With that many weapons in a school, Pringle says, there will be more accidents, more fatalities, and more fear.

More importantly, educators themselves do not want to be armed in their classrooms. Over the past couple of weeks, teachers and education support professionals have taken to social media in droves to send a message to the Trump administration and pro-gun advocates that arming educators is an unacceptable response.

Melissa Falkowski, who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, says the logistics of arming teachers makes no sense. A shooting like the one in Parkland, Florida, happens in less than three minutes, she says, and “having a gun that would have to be secured and locked somewhere in a closet and then having to go for that gun and then having to use that against a shooter, it makes no logical sense.”

Video: NEA Vice-President Becky Pringle on Arming School Staff


Arming teachers is an idea that comes from people outside of the classroom, she says, and urges lawmakers to listen to what educators are saying.

“If you have never worked in a school or qualified with a firearm please stop advocating that teachers should be armed,” Dan Staples, a mathematics teacher who served in the U.S. Marine Corps posted on Facebook. “First, most of my colleagues have zero interest in carrying. Second, there is a much greater chance of having a negligent discharge or a misplaced weapon or a bad guy getting hold of that weapon than there is of that teacher using it to neutralize a threat.”

“I’m a teacher and a gun owner with a concealed and carry permit, and I’d never want to bring a gun to my classroom,” tweeted Benjamin Gorman, a high school English teacher. “My kids need to feel safe, and I should be thinking about content and not worrying about someone grabbing my pistol. Arming teachers is a gun manufacturer’s solution.”

High school French teacher Margaret Kieler tweeted, “My job is to connect with kids and teach them a language. No shooting required.”

Students, who have become leaders in the new push for common sense gun laws, are also outraged.

“I don’t know if Donald Trump has ever been to a public high school but, as far as I’m aware, teachers are meant to be educators,” Parkland student Alfonso Calderon told CNN. They are meant to teach young minds how to work in the world. They are not meant to know how to carry AR-15s; they are not meant to know how to put on Kevlar vests for the other students or for themselves.”

Keep the Focus Where it Belongs

Armed educators are already roaming the hallways in schools in nine states, most notably in Texas. In addition to the bill being debated in Florida, lawmakers in other states are gearing up to introduce similar legislation. While educators should be mobilizing against these proposals, Eskeslen García urges lawmakers to refocus their efforts on common sense measures “that will really save lives.”

Public support for these types of solutions has surged to its highest level in 25 years, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll. Overwhelming majorities back measures such as banning assault weapons and instituting background checks on all gun sales. And the sight of Parkland students leading massive protests has reenergized the movement to change gun laws.

As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote on Feb. 26, the gun lobby is spooked and would be more than happy to keep the public debate on guns focused squarely on arming educators.

“The deliberately outrageous idea of arming classroom teachers is nothing more than a distraction,” Robinson said. “A ploy by the gun lobby to buy time for passions to cool. Don’t get sidetracked.”

National Day of ActionStand With Us to End Gun Violence in Our Schools and Communities!

Pledge to join students, parents, educators, and other community leaders in making your voice heard by taking action to end gun violence in our schools and communities. We can no longer stand by silently while gun violence continues to threaten the safety of our students. We demand that leaders take action to pass comprehensive laws to end gun violence NOW!





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Standing Up for the Rights and Freedoms of Working People to Organize


Photo: Jay Mallin

Union and non-union workers from across the nation stood together and raised a strong collective voice Monday morning outside the U. S. Supreme Court in their fight for working people’s right to join unions.

At issue in the Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) case being argued inside the courtroom is the question of whether government employees who are covered by and benefit from a union contract, though not members of the union, should have to contribute to the union’s costs for contract negotiations.

Outside of the courtroom, one speaker after another commented on the impact Janus could have on public employee unions and the need to beat back wealthy special interests and their attack on workers and communities.

“The Janus case is extremely harmful to labor,” said Terrence Wise, a fast food worker from Kansas City, Mo., and labor leader with Fight for $15, an organization advocating to raise the national minimum wage. “In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘All that harms labor is treason to America.’”

When the Rev. Michael Seavey from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Ore., took the podium, he quoted Pope Francis: “There is no good society without a good union.”

“A true community transforms society,” the reverend said. “Go back home and form those true communities.”

The Rev. Seavey and Wise were among a dozen speakers representing a wide range of social justice, civil rights and labor organizations. Another speaker, kindergarten teacher Kember Kane from Silver Spring, Md., said it is through negotiating collectively that educators can advocate for the conditions that support student learning such as safe schools, small class sizes, and for resources that help educators do their jobs.

“The Janus case is a threat not just to working people but to children themselves,” said Kane, a member of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA). “The National Education Association (NEA) is built on unity. NEA advocates for all of our needs and for all of us.”

Make no mistake about it, we are living in a system that is rigged to benefit special interests and billionaires at the expense of American working people.” – NEA President Lily Eskelsen García

A media conference was also held on the court’s plaza following the conclusion of oral arguments. Featured were attorneys arguing on behalf of AFSCME and working Americans, as well as for plaintiff Mark Janus, primarily supported by the National Right to Work Legal Foundation. Janus is an Illinois state employee who is suing AFSCME while asking the court to reconsider long-standing rules that have made it possible for people to stand together with one voice at work and in their communities.

Illinois is one of 23 states that allow unions to charge “fair share fees.” At job sites, workers vote on whether or not to form a union in the workplace. Even if a majority votes for a union, workers who don’t want to join don’t have to, they just pay a reduced “fair share fee” or “agency fee” to cover the cost of bargaining and representation that the union is legally required to provide for all workers. Such fees are reduced amounts charged to workers who opt out of union membership yet continue to receive the union representation and bargaining services that unions provide for the benefit of all employees. These fees are not charged for any political purposes.

Janus argues that these fees violate his First Amendment rights on the theory that collective bargaining is inherently political and therefore requiring him to pay the fee is no different than forcing him to pay for political activity he disagrees with. But the Court has never found collective bargaining to be equivalent to straight up political activity. And Janus arguments on that score seem to be a stalking horse for attacking strong unions and the benefits they provide workers.

A Rigged System

In the nation’s 27 right-to-work states, where employees are not obligated to join a union as a condition of employment, union density is significantly lower and, as a result, educators have less negotiating power to advocate for student learning conditions. According to several speakers, as nurses, educators, firefighters, sanitation workers, and other public employees enjoy the benefits, job security, and other protections the union negotiates, it is only fair that all employees contribute to the cost of securing those benefits and protections.

“Today, thousands of working people rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court and around the country to send a message that, whatever the decision in this case, these oligarchs won’t stop working families from realizing our American dream,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “Make no mistake about it, we are living in a system that is rigged to benefit special interests and billionaires at the expense of American working people.”

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said at the post-hearing conference that the case was not about impinging anyone’s First Amendment rights.

janus supreme court

Photo: Jay Mallin

“This is a case where there are a group of very well-funded right-wing extremists that want to eliminate unions throughout this country,” Madigan said. “If that happens we are going to see an even steeper decline in the middle class and we’re going to see an even greater economic inequality than we already have.”

The corporate special interests behind this case are, according to Eskelsen Garcia, “dead set on eliminating the rights and freedoms of working people to organize, to negotiate collectively and to have any voice in working to better their lives. It is no shock to most that is has become harder and harder for working people to get ahead and provide stability for their families.”

In 2016, a similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, asked the court to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education — the 1977 case in which the court unanimously upheld fair share fees that support collective bargaining. Each state was left to decide for itself whether to permit such fees.

A decision in the Janus case is expected in June, before the court adjourns. The deciding vote might be the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch. The other justices split 4 to 4 in the Friedrichs case, which was decided after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

If the court bans fair share, it will mean that some workers will have to pay for the benefits enjoyed by all workers. Also, such a decision will make it harder for teachers, firefighters, nurses and other public service workers to negotiate for decent wages and benefits. Every public employee who benefits from a negotiated contract should contribute to the costs of securing that contract.

Lee Saunders, president of the AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employee union and the defendant in the Janus case, said the intention behind the legal action was to gut the power of progressive forces.

“The billionaires and corporate special interests behind this case don’t believe we should have a seat at the table,” Saunders said.

Conservative organizations, think tanks, and other right-wing activists backed by corporate donors including the Koch brothers, the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and the Bradley Foundation, have long been preparing for a case like Janus as part of a larger campaign to break unions. Secretary DeVos, a staunch proponent of reducing the power of teachers’ unions attended courtroom proceedings.

Despite the potential for setbacks from Janus and other attacks, NEA and its affiliates will remain the leading voices of the education professions and will continue to work on behalf of students and public education.

For more, visit neatoday.org/janus.



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Students Lead Protest to Change Gun Laws


Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press(Sipa via AP Images)

There’s a new face on the age-old gun debate: our students, and they won’t be silenced. They are demanding that the adults in power keep them safe and they will not stand by and allow elected officials to fail them any longer.

As of Feb. 14, just a month and a half into the new year, a total of 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in shootings at American elementary, middle, and high schools. Only weeks earlier at Marshall County High School in Kentucky two students were killed by a 15-year old shooter who left fourteen others wounded and all traumatized perhaps for the rest of their lives.

A gunman killed ten at Umpqua Community College in Washington state. Twenty-eight young children and their teachers had their lives cut short down at Sandy Hook.  Thirty-three died when one shooter opened fire at Virginia Tech.

Students are saying, no more. This time, they might be right.

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez shouted at a packed rally in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. “We are going to change the laws.”

‘Stand Up For What You Believe In’

The rally participants called for a ban on assault weapons like the one used at the high school, and to vote out any lawmaker who opposes a ban on assault weapons or who takes money from the National Rifle Association.

Wiping away tears, she said school violence is not just a mental health issue. “He wouldn’t have harmed that many students with a knife,” she cried to shouts and cheers.

“When our message doesn’t reach the ears of the nation, we call B.S.! They say tougher gun laws don’t decrease gun violence, we call B.S.! They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun, we call B.S.!”

With her powerful voice shaking with emotion and the crowd shouting with approval, Gonzalez said, “Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This is about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”

David Hogg, 17, huddled in a closet with his classmates to hide from the gunman. A student journalist, he decided to record his terrified classmates on his phone.

“It was sheer terror,” Hogg told CNN, but he believed it needed to be recorded so that lawmakers could hear the horrified students and understand the need to prevent another mass shooting.

“It’s a midterm year and it’s time to take action,” Hogg said. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat. I don’t care if you’re a Republican. Stand up for what you believe in. Let’s make some compromises and save some children’s lives.”

The Mass Shooting Generation

School shootings are rare for most of our students, but since the 1999 Columbine shooting, they have become accustomed to lockdowns and code red drills. School violence occurs often enough that the New York Times is calling today’s young people the “Mass Shooting Generation.”

They’re also a social media generation and harnessed that power to bring about change. In the hours following the massacre, the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting created #NeverAgain, a movement that immediately gained traction in social and traditional media, sparking tv interviews, viral videos, a march, and support from celebrities.

Brendan Duff, a college student who went to school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, returned home to help manage the digital campaign. He told NPR that the response has been overwhelming, with hundreds of messages per minute pouring in.

“People all over the country want to help. Social media is honestly the best way to reach not only everyone in this country I think, but definitely this generation,” Duff told NPR.

Organizing for School and Student Safety

Nationwide, students and activists have joined their rallying cry and have organized two upcoming events — the National School Walkout on March 14 and the March for Our Lives on March 24. NEA will also participate in another event, a National Day of Action on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

  • March 14th – the Women’s March has announced a National School Walkout in which school communities will walk out of their schools for 17 minutes to honor the lives lost in Parkland. NEA will join with AFT in encouraging educators throughout the country to wear orange on this day.
  • March 24th – Several students who survived the tragedy at Parkland have called for a student-led march and protest. They will travel to Washington, DC, and meet with politicians on the need to address gun violence and are encouraging others to join. This is a fully student-planned march. More information can be found at marchforourlives.com
  • April 20 – NEA and its members are joining with the National Public Education Network, American Federation of Teachers, Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, and other national organizations, to take action against gun violence on April 20 together in a way that sends a strong message to policy makers that #enoughisenough.

“We demand a plan that will keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Only the United States has such a long, long, long list of mass public murders by a lone gunman. The reason is simple. Our laws allow dangerous people to easily purchase military-style, rapid-fire assault weapons. That’s the only difference. That’s what we need to fix. Thoughts and prayers will not prevent the next tragedy. People rising up will.”

NEA is asking educators nationwide to share their ideas and information on events in their school communities. Visit April20ActionsAgainstGunViolence.



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Politicians Create Havoc With Class Size Law, Hit Wall of Opposition


Educators across the country have been advocating for smaller class sizes for more than a decade because, as research has continually shown, class size is a key determinant of student outcomes. So when a state legislature actually passes a bill mandating smaller class sizes in every K-3 classroom in every district, that might be welcome news.

But if that requirement doesn’t attach the necessary funding and imposes an inflexible timeline, the result – as educators in North Carolina can tell you – is nothing but chaos.

In spring 2016, the GOP-led General Assembly slipped a provision into a state budget bill that lowered maximum K-3 class sizes from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on the grade level. So far so good. But the new policy was slated to go into effect in the 2017-18 school year, giving districts precious little time to implement the mandate.

And the necessary funding to hire new staff and build new classrooms? That was nowhere to be found.

According to an analysis by the North Carolina Justice Center, fully-funding the necessary increase in staff (4,375 new teachers) would cost $304 million statewide – not to mention the additional tens of millions of dollars for new classroom construction.

Why would they do this? It makes sense when you couple this move with the push to privatize public education in the state. This is about creating chaos and disruption in our public schools, to make them look less desirable to parents” – Todd Warren, Guilford County Association of Educators

It was an unfunded mandate, said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), and compliance would force districts to make deep cuts to programs and staff. “That’s what we call a false choice,” said Jewell.

Lobbying from NCAE was instrumental in persuading the General Assembly to delay the mandate until 2018-19, but once again no additional funding was allocated. With the deadline looming, districts spent the better part of the school year scrambling to come up with plans to defray the costs and comply with the mandate.

To help pay for new teachers, districts were faced with placing so-called “enhancement” positions – arts, music, physical education, and technology teachers – on the chopping block. Without the money or time for new classroom construction, schools would have to resort to trailers or other temporary classrooms, including locker rooms or cafeterias to house students. Another option was packing more students into grade 4-8 classrooms to free up more teachers for K-3.

“The plan really threw us into budgetary and logistical chaos at the local level,” says Todd Warren, a Spanish teacher in Guilford County, the third-largest district in North Carolina.

Just a case of lawmakers oblivious to the consequences of unleashing an unfunded mandate on a school system already wreaked by budget cuts? Not likely, says Warren, who is also president of the Guilford County Association of Educators.

“Why would they do this? It makes sense when you couple this move with the push to privatize public education in the state,” explains Warren. “This is about creating chaos and disruption in our public schools, to make them look less desirable to parents who may be looking at that charter school down the street as an alternative.”

Setting Public Schools On Fire

The past seven years in North Carolina, says Kris Nordstrom of the North Carolina Justice Center, have seen the steady deterioration of the state’s reputation for academic excellence.

“It’s been dominated by a series of not just bad policies, but bad policies that are incredibly poorly crafted,” explains Nordstrom. “Nearly all initiatives were moved through the legislature in a way to avoid debate and outside input from education stakeholders. The result has been stagnant student performance and increased achievement gaps.”

According to the 2018 Quality Counts Report Card released in January by Education Week, the state has dropped to 40th in the nation. As recently as 2011, North Carolina ranked 19th, the same year Republicans took control of the state legislature and proceeded to slash education spending (per-pupil funding has plummeted to 43rd, $3,000 below the national average), promoted unaccountable charter schools and school voucher programs, and eliminated due-process rights for teachers.

In 2017, the General Assembly passed another around of tax cuts, reducing the corporate income tax rate from 3 percent to 2.5 percent –  $100 million in revenue that could have been allocated to help schools adjust to smaller class sizes.

Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to believe lawmakers were merely blindsided by the “unintended circumstances” of an unfunded mandate.

“They’re just being more stealth in the way they create dissatisfaction with our public schools,” says Michelle Burton, a library media specialist in Durham County. “Who doesn’t want smaller class sizes, right? But they’re just using a common sense position to cloud what was an unfunded mandate that was going to cause disruption and result in a lot of teachers losing their jobs.”

Burton is particularly outraged at the term “enhancement positions” to describe arts, music, and physical education teachers.

Since the passage of the unfunded class size mandate in 2016, educators and parents in North Carolina have kept up the pressure on lawmakers to reverse course.

“Calling those key positions ‘enhancements’ makes them easier to cut. They’re trying to make them somehow dispensable. But we know how important they are to a well-rounded education,” Burton says.

On a brutally cold Saturday afternoon in January, Burton joined roughly 300 educators and parents at a rally in Raleigh, organized by NCAE and parent advocacy groups, to pressure the General Assembly to act. Public school advocates across the state joined the mobilization against the mandate, signing petitions, talking to lawmakers, and taking to social media to #StopClassSizeChaos.

Educators had an ally in Gov. Roy Cooper, who called the mandate “artificial class size change—one that shrinks classes on paper but in reality hurts students and teachers.”

“The pushback from NCAE and parent groups has been effective,” says Warren. ” I think some of the legislators began getting nervous about their prospects in the 2018 election if they didn’t address the concerns.”

Amid the mounting outrage, lawmakers, who had hoped to delay action until May, called a special session in early February to try to undo the mess they created.

“This body set fire to our public schools and now we are the firefighters,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, who opposed the mandate.

Breathing Room –  For Now

On February 8, lawmakers announced a proposal to phase-in smaller class sizes over the next four years instead of lowering them at once in 2018-19. During that time, $61 million a year will be included to help school districts pay for art, music, and physical education teachers.

NCAE President Mark Jewell called the revision a step in the right direction that would, at least for the time being, allow schools to breathe a little easier.

“The phased-in plan has always been the more reasonable approach for local school districts, but whether the resources are adequate is still a question mark,” Jewell cautioned. “This doesn’t address the other class size challenges in higher grades, and it doesn’t provide funding for much-needed school construction, which many local districts will find a significant challenge.”

Jewell says any plan to reduce class size needs to be strategic, fully-funded, and involve educators at every step of the process. The issue is too important to be done haphazardly. “Class size affects all levels of the public education spectrum,” he said.

Although North Carolina’s public schools are still facing a largely unfunded mandate, Todd Warren believes the mobilization by educators and parents was critical in staving off the chaos that was on the verge of engulfing the entire system.

“Parents, teachers, NCAE, PTAs, and advocacy groups forced the General Assembly to take action that they otherwise would not have. Our organizing relationships and infrastructure are responding and growing more effective,” says Warren. “We’ll keep working and  redoubling our efforts.”



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‘We, As a Country, Need to Do More to End These Senseless Shootings,’ Says NEA President


PARKLAND, FL – FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook, 17 people were killed and another 16 injured after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire with an AR-15 rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The shooter pulled a fire alarm but another alarm had gone off earlier in the day for a drill.

The school had recently held an active shooter training.

“We could not have been more prepared for this situation,” Melissa Falkowski told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “We did everything that we were supposed to do. Broward County Schools has prepared us for this situation and still to have so many casualties, at least for me, it’s very emotional. Because I feel today like our government, our country has failed us and failed our kids and didn’t keep us safe.”

Those who died included students and adults, according to local police. Parkland, with a population of 31,000 in 2016, was named Florida’s safest city last year, according to one analysis. The south Florida city had seven reported violent crimes and 186 property crimes the previous year, the analysis said.

“Our hearts are broken yet again by the senseless and tragic shooting in our nation’s public schools, this time in Parkland, Florida. We are monitoring closely the still developing and tense situation, but we have confidence in the ability of the first responders and the school staff and administrators to help students and families at this time,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “While our thoughts and prayers are with Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, educators and their families, we know that we, as country, need to do more to end these senseless shootings.

“As educators, our foremost priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our students. Our focus now is on supporting the educators, students and their families in the Broward County community today and in the future. We all have a responsibility to create safe schools and communities. As a state and a country, we can and must do more to ensure that everyone who walks through our school doors — educator, student, parent or community member — is safe and free from violence.”

For more information on the shooting and how to talk to your students after gun violence and other tragedies, visit the Florida Education Association at Feaweb.org.



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What Do School Vouchers Have to Do With Protecting Bullied Students?


In 2015, when the Nevada legislature passed SB302, school voucher advocates celebrated to the hilt. They had good reason: The new law would offer so-called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to every one of the state’s 500,000 K-12 students — the most ambitious such program in the nation.

The Nevada law was a potential game-changer because ESAs have become a model across the nation on how to tweak and rebrand school vouchers, a policy that is consistently unpopular with the general public. Vouchers have been voted down at the ballot box every time they’ve been attempted through referendum.

So imagine the disappointment two years later, when the legislature refused to allocate the funding necessary to implement the program, essentially pulling the plug on ESAs in the state.

What changed in two years? The legislative gains Republicans made in 2014 were wiped out in the 2016 election that swept public education allies, steadfast in their opposition to ESAs, into office. The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) was relentless in its attack on the program. No matter what form or name a voucher program takes, the impact is always the same: scarce funds are drained from public schools and redirected to private schools that are unaccountable to the public.

When the legislature refused to fund ESAs in June 2017, Nevada students had reason to celebrate.

“The future and the chance for success is no longer threatened by the failed promise of private school vouchers,” said NSEA President Ruben Murillo.

In 2017, vouchers were also thwarted in deep red Texas, where rural GOP lawmakers, concerned how the scheme would shortchange the schools in their communities, helped defeat an expansive new bill that would have brought ESAs and “tax credit scholarships” (another school voucher in disguise) to the state’s school system. Public education advocates in Tennessee were also successful in holding off similar voucher programs in 2017.

Tell Betsy DeVos She Has Failed to Make the Grade
After one year as education secretary, it’s safe to say #BestyFailed. In addition to pushing a federal school program, DeVos has proposed cutting $9.2 billion from federal education programs and eliminating $2.2 billion for teacher training programs and funding for special education programs. Send her a report card today.

In other states, the news isn’t as encouraging. Most notably, vouchers gained a foothold in Illinois with the passage of the “Opportunity Scholarship,” which dangles tax credits in front of corporations and individuals in exchange for contributions to private school scholarships.

New Hampshire may be on the verge of adopting its own ESA program, and pro-voucher lawmakers in Florida are determined to expand their already sizeable program by targeting bullied students.

2018 could be a pivotal year in the battle over school vouchers. Despite setbacks last year, voucher proponents are nothing if not relentless. Betsy DeVos is leading the Department of Education essentially for the sole purpose of pushing vouchers and other school privatization schemes nationwide, an effort fervently supported by GOP lawmakers in every state  –  if not the the majority of the public.

Which is why, says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, public education activists must stay alert to the ongoing effort to push school voucher initiatives and to hold them up to public scrutiny.

“There’s a need to be vigilant in every state where governors and key legislators support these bills,” explains Sciarra. “Their strategy is often to move bills quickly and towards the end of the session so as to not give the public, parents, and taxpayers a chance to organize and defeat them.”

‘Privatization and Non-Transparency By Design’

Action around school vouchers at the state level in 2018 continues to be focused on Education Savings Accounts. In addition to the six states who have adopted ESA programs, 13 other states have introduced legislation.

“The trend is definitely moving away from traditional vouchers and toward ESA neo-voucher programs,” says Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, associate professor of education policy at the University of Arizona.

Under an ESA, a state’s per-pupil education funding is put into an account that parents can tap into to pay for approved education expenses, including private school tuition. Therein lies the appeal –- voucher advocates see ESAs as an “end run” around state constitutions that forbid the use of public funds for religious activities (i.e., private religious schooling).

School Vouchers’ Dismal Record Comes Into Focus
Skirting accountability and transparency, funding discrimination, and leaving our most vulnerable students behind – it’s clear that school vouchers are destructive and misguided schemes that use taxpayer dollars to experiment with our children’s education without any evidence of real, lasting positive results.

Jimenez-Castellanos is a co-author, along with Kevin Wellner of the University of Colorado, of a new policy brief  that analyzes the emergence of ESA programs. Despite their growing popularity among many lawmakers, the authors state that ESAs, like other voucher programs, lack even the most rudimentary safeguards for accountability –- both financial and in terms of student performance:

“ESA programs embrace privatization and non-transparency by design. Accountability systems are absent, and data are limited …The best evidence about the likely academic outcomes of ESAs is therefore found in the research on conventional voucher programs. Overall, this voucher literature raises serious questions about the quality of the voucher-funded, private-school education, with recent studies for four different states suggesting that students using vouchers do worse than they would have done had they remained in their public schools.”

It’s a case educators in New Hampshire are taking to state lawmakers, who are considering SB193, an ESA bill that would redirect potentially up to $3,600 per student to parents to pay for private school tuition. The House and Senate have approved the bill but will have to reconsider final legislation once its financial impact has been assessed.

The state’s educators have mobilized against the bill, outraged that lawmakers seem willing to take such reckless action against the state’s first-rate school system. According to an estimate by Reaching Higher, under SB193, New Hampshire’s schools are estimated to lose over $6 million in the first year alone, and $36 million over five years.

“This is ill-conceived legislation that hands over tax dollars taken out of public schools and gives them to parents of children who homeschool their children, or send them to private or even religious-based schools in violation of the New Hampshire constitution,” said NEA-NH President Megan Tuttle. “All this without a fig leaf of accountability as to how those dollars will be spent.”

Tying Vouchers to Bullying

Another way ESAs gain traction in states, says Jimenez-Castellanos, is by “creating an alliance with a powerful constituency.” Arizona’s law, the first in the nation, was originally restricted to special education students. In 2017, the program was expanded so that all public school students could apply. (A citizens referendum on the expansion has been put on the ballot for 2018, thanks to an intensive grassroots effort by public education activists.)

“Focusing on students with a strong constituency – special ed and  bullied students for example,” Jimenez-Castellanos says, “can help make vouchers more acceptable to families who might otherwise be opposed to the idea of using public funds for private schools.”

This bill … is likely to result in more children being victimized by failing to address the root cause of bullying, violence, and harassment in the first place. It’s yet another attempt to send more kids to private school using taxpayer-funded vouchers under the guise of protecting victims.” – Stephanie Kunkel, Florida Education Association.

Look no further than Florida, where pro-voucher advocates are moving a bill through the state legislature that would allow parents of bullied students to apply for a private school voucher. The Hope Scholarship program, as it’s called, would divert up to $40 million annually from the state budget.

Why not take that money and spend it on anti-bullying programs? That’s what Jacksonville parent Marie-Claire Leman would like to know.

“Frankly, we’re just not falling for this one. We don’t believe it’s about bullying. We believe its a thinly-veiled attempt to expand the source of funding for vouchers and to further privatize education.”

Even as an anti-bullying measure, the bill falls far short  because it lets a bullied student transfer but leaves the bully in place at a school where he or she could victimize more students. Furthermore, bullying occurs in public and private schools. But unlike public schools, Florida’s private schools are not “legally required to have anti-bullying or harassment policies and procedures in place,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

“This bill, while attempting to help victims, is likely to result in more children being victimized by failing to address the root cause of bullying, violence, and harassment in the first place,” Stephanie Kunkel, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, told The Orlando Sentinel.

“It’s yet another attempt to send more kids to private school using taxpayer-funded vouchers under the guise of protecting victims.”

It’s too soon to tell if pro-voucher lawmakers in other states will try to emulate this strategy, says David Sciarra, but the Florida bill, if successful, may send a strong signal.

“It’s one to watch, because Florida often leads the way on school privatization.”

“Voucher for the Rich”

Last summer, Betsy DeVos’ plan to expand school vouchers nationwide was dealt a major setback when a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee chose not to fund the $20 billion program.

Six months later, however, DeVos’ federal voucher plan was given a new lease on life, although in a diminished form. A late-night amendment was inserted into the GOP tax bill that will allow families to set aside up to $10,000 annually from 529 college savings plans offered by states into a tax-free account for K-12 private school tuition and other expenses.

States stand to lose significant revenue for schools and other critical public services from the 529 extension, which amounts to little more than a “voucher for the rich,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “It will allow wealthy families to stash away money for private school, and will hurt students and neighborhood public schools.”

A 2013 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that less than 3 percent of families participated in 529 plans and those families were usually among the most affluent Americans.



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Educators Strike Big Blow to Overuse of Standardized Testing in 2017


Despite the many good reasons to bid 2017 a collective good riddance, public education advocates nontheless notched up important victories during what was an unquestionably trying year. Topping the list was the continued success educators, parents and their allies had in rolling back standardized testing overkill.

The victories have been widespread and impressive and have surfaced across the country in red, blue and purple states alike. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fair Test) recently compiled a year-end review, “Testing Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?” that examines what made the campaigns effective and how they can be sustained and emulated in the years ahead.

“Widespread opposition to the overuse and misuse of standardized testing is producing a marked shift in attitudes about high-stakes assessments and, increasingly, state and district practices,” the report states. “Across the nation, assessment reform activists are winning important victories in reducing the amount of testing and ending high-stakes exams.”

“These wins often resulted from effective grassroots advocacy by parents, teachers, students and their allies. They reflect the growing public understanding of the damage caused by the overuse and misuse of standardized testing.” – Monty Neill, executive director, FairTest

The reforms haven’t been limited to one particular aspect of standardized testing. From 2012 to 2017, the number of states that had or planned to have high school exit exams plunged from 25 to 13. Many jurisdictions have also cut back on the amount of time spent on testing and curtailed test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Ten states now allow parents to opt their kids out of some or all tests, and fairer, more effective assessment systems have begun to emerge.

Ending the “Testing Arms Race”

While the districts, policies, and players differ, the same driving force can be found behind most of these successful campaigns, says Monty Neill, lead author of the report and executive director of FairTest.

“These wins often resulted from effective grassroots advocacy by parents, teachers, students and their allies,” Neill explains. “They reflect the growing public understanding of the damage caused by the overuse and misuse of standardized testing.”

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), passed in 2001, triggered what Fair Test calls the “testing arms race.” The law instituted sweeping mandates for standardized tests and imposed brutal consequences for schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress.” Schools were turned into test prep factories. By the end of the decade, however, educators, parents, and students had had enough.

Learn more about How to Get involved in ESSA.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns decision making for our nation’s education back in the hands of local educators, parents, and communities.

Thanks in large part to an unprecedented mobilization and advocacy campaign, NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, (ESSA) in 2016. States now have the flexibility to design new accountability systems that don’t rely solely on student test scores. Although testing reform was already building momentum in communities across the country, ESSA provides a new mechanism to help produce further positive gains.

Having a national education law in place that reflects the dimming support for overtesting is essential, but its impact would be marginal without the tireless work of activists on the ground. Buoyed by the growing backlash against testing, alliances led by educators and their unions have been at the forefront of these campaigns, demonstrating, Neill says, “an increasing capacity to use testing issues to influence elections and to pressure school boards and legislatures to make needed reforms.”

Big Win in Maryland

Perhaps the most far-reaching victory against overtesting occurred in Maryland, one of the case studies featured in the Fair Test report. In 2105, the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) launched the  “Less Testing, More Learning “ campaign  to reduce testing and high-stakes accountability, culminating in two major legislative triumphs in 2017.

In April, the General Assembly  passed the Protect Our Schools Act of 2017, which overhauls how the state judges its schools. The law ensures that the flexibility granted under ESSA be used to place less emphasis on test scores and more on school quality indicators such as a broad, challenging curriculum, class size, and school climate.  The bill became law in April after the legislature overrode Governor Larry Hogan’s veto.

MSEA President Betty Weller called the the law “a commonsense safeguard against over-testing in our schools.”

“This means our kids will have more time to learn important well-rounded skills, and our teachers can get back to why they went into the profession in the first place: inspiring their students to love learning,” Weller said.

Jefferson CountyIn May, the More Learning, Less Testing Act was signed into law, which limits mandated testing to 2.2% of the year in the state’s public schools, which translates to 23.8 hours in elementary and middle schools and 25.7 hours in high schools. The law also eliminates 730 hours of standardized testing across 17 districts each year. The average Maryland student had been taking more than 200 standardized tests during their time in school, taking away 250 hours from instruction.

Crucial to the these legislative wins was the relentless mobilization of MSEA members, who sent 50,000 emails, made 4,000 phone calls and mailed 2000 letters and postcards to their representatives. Alliances were forged with groups such as the PTA, ACLU and the NAACP.

Moving forward, Maryland educators will be vigilant in monitoring the implementation of these new laws – and begin work on the next phase of the campaign.

“Maryland should be a leader not only in reducing testing, but in advancing new hands-on ways to assess students through performance tasks and portfolios that better fit within our students’ everyday learning. We must keep our focus on more comprehensive action to improve student testing in Maryland,” Weller said.

Starting with the School Board

The FairTest report also takes a look at how NEA-Las Cruces in New  Mexico paved the way for common sense reform by flipping the local school board. In 2015, organizing efforts led to the victory of pro-pubic education candidates endorsed by NEA-Las Cruces to fill two vacant seats. This shift led to the appointment of a new superintendent who soon issued a moritorium on district-wide testing.

“You can’t be passive. Otherwise, you don’t accomplish things,” says retired teacher Becky King. King held a “meet and greet” at her home with the two candidates, attended campaign events, and was among the many educators who knocked on more than 2,000 doors.

“This was about getting out there and doing something,” King says. “Had we not gone door to door, it probably would have been status quo.”

Educators in Knox County, TN, also focused their efforts around school board elections. The Knox County Education Association partnered with parents and other allies to elect a majority on the board that supports less testing, including ending testing in grades K-2 and cutting district-mandated testing.

The progress in Knox County, however, isn’t being duplicated statewide. Tennessee, like many other states, continues to mandate more tests than the Every Student Succeeds Act requires – a glaring reminder of the uphill challenges facing educators as they look to build on these victories.

“Activists need to increase visible opposition to the overuse and misuseof standardized tests and turn this opposition into policy victories in legislatures and school boards,” the FairTest report concludes. “This will require electoral battles as well as pressuring current officeholders. The 2018 elections …provide an important opportunity.”

How States Are Limiting Testing

Cutting the amount of state or district testing or the time spent on testing. Maryland is a recent example. Its legislature capped the amount of time districts can devote to testing. Instead of testing all kindergarteners, Maryland will test representative samples. Many districts have followed this initiative by ending or reducing their own testing requirements.

Eliminating high school graduation exams. Since 2012, the number of states that had or planned to have standardized high school exit exams has plunged from 25 to 13. Idaho eliminated its grad tests in 2017. At least seven states have made their roll back of graduation testing retroactive.

Opting out. Idaho and North Dakota brought to 10 the number of states that allow opting out. The opt-out movement in New York held steady at a nearly 20% refusal rate, while increases were noted in other locales.

Implementing performance assessment. New Hampshire remains the strongest example of a state overhaul. Half of all school districts are now replacing standardized tests in most grades with local, teacher-made performance assessments. Across the nation, many districts that have cut their own test mandates are joining with local unions to promote such assessments at the local
level.

Ending or reducing the use of student test scores to judge teachers. Seven dropped this requirement, while other states reduced the weight of test scores.

-Excerpted from “Testing Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?” National Center for Fair & Open Testing



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Moonlighting


Teacher Krista Degerness is focused. It is the final minute of her last class for the day.

She’s zeroed in on a passage of dialogue written by one of her seventh graders for a storytelling lesson at Ken Caryl Middle School in Littleton, Colo.

“I think you’re almost there,” Degerness says to the budding writer as the seconds tick away. “That piece of dialogue should advance the plot or reveal something about the character. Almost there.”

Degerness will soon be decked in airy cotton scrubs and high-traction sneakers as she reports to her second job as a part-time dental assistant and office manager at the Andante Endodontic Dental Clinic.

As the 3 p.m. bell announces the day’s end, Degerness exits the main school building, and heads directly to her brawny Nissan Frontier truck. Fortunately, she has an easy commute to her dental gig: Ten minutes, three miles.

What seems like a world away, Degerness arrives at the dental facility, changes clothes, scrutinizes several digital X-rays for cavities and gum disease, scans a patient’s electronic chart, and begins to sterilize dental instruments through the autoclave.

Teacher Krista Degerness leaves home before dawn and does not return until late evening after her second job. (Photo: Doug Gritz)

“I have to shift my focus pretty quickly from classroom setting to office environment,” says Degerness, 35. “My teaching salary is not enough to cover my expenses, so I have to spend time working a second job to not go into the red every month.”

During her final minutes at the dental office, she will prepare root canal trays for the next day. Afterward, she will drive through the chilly night, arriving home just in time for a 9:30 p.m. dinner. The next day, she will rise before 6 a.m. and do it all again.

Nationwide, many public school teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) work nights and weekends to supplement the income they receive from teaching. These educators are not pursuing a passion when working as waiters, bartenders, hotel clerks, and cashiers.

They are not trying out new careers as sales representatives at clothing, electronic, and auto stores. They are not attempting to bulk up their resumes working as freelance tutors, personal trainers, electricians, plumbers, and other jobs related to their area of expertise at school.

They are simply trying to keep their financial boats afloat.

“We work second jobs because our salaries alone are not sufficient to pay our bills, let alone save for the future,” says Degerness, who works 15 to 25 hours a week at the office during the school year and over long weekends, and 40 to 70 hours per week during summer.

“But I want to work with students, especially those who struggle in academia with learning disabilities. It is incredibly rewarding.”

“We work second jobs because our salaries alone are not sufficient to pay our bills, let alone save for the future,” says Degerness. (Photo: Doug Gritz)

A 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics states that about 16 percent of teachers across the nation work second jobs outside the school system. Even more, a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows how teachers’ pay continues to fall further behind the pay of comparable workers with similar experience and education levels.

In 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17 percent lower than those of comparable workers—compared with just 1.8 percent lower in 1994, according to the EPI report. In Colorado, for example, teachers earned approximately 65 percent of what similarly educated professionals earn.

“Even with a second income, I still do not have enough to save, make a dent in my student loans, or plan for the future,” says Degerness, who rents a room in a house with two roommates. “I’m making ends meet but I don’t have my own apartment, let alone my own place.”

In a 2017 NEA report, the U.S. average public school teacher salary for 2015 – 2016 was $58,353. State average teacher salaries ranged from those in New York ($79,152), California ($77,179), and Massachusetts ($76,981) at the high end to South Dakota ($42,025) and Mississippi ($42,744) at the low end.

A 2014 study by the Center for American Progress found that in Oklahoma, teachers with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree earn less than sheet metal workers, while in Georgia those with the same credentials and experience earn less than a flight attendant in the state. Colorado teachers with a graduate degree and 10 years of experience earn less than a trucker in the state.

According to NEA, Colorado ranked 49th among states in 2015, paying teachers an average annual salary of $44,421. In 2016, the state moved to 46 in the rankings ($46,155).

“Earning what I do with a master’s degree is downright offensive, especially when the cost of living is so high in this area,” says Degerness, a member of the Jefferson County Education Association. “Fortunately, I was able to earn a few grants for graduate school and work part time at the office.”

Monthly, Degerness pays $800 in rent, $400 in truck payments, $200 for auto insurance, and $400 toward her student loan. Her take home pay: About $2,000.

“Throw in gas, food, or anything fun and it’s pretty much gone right there,” she says. “I’m in survivor mode.”

In addition, her health plan calls for a 20 to 80 percent co-payment with a $3,000 deductible, which increases her monthly expenses for prescriptions and medical visits.

Strong Unions Improve Schools

“This erosion of relative teacher wages has fallen more heavily on experienced teachers than on entry-level teachers,” says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkley, and a co-author of the EPI report.

There are likely many reasons for the increasing pay gap, she says.

“The weakening of teachers’ unions, pervasive anti-government sentiment, defunding of public education and the spread of charter and private schools all play a role,” Allegretto says. “An effective teacher is the most important school-based determinant of education outcomes. It is therefore crucial that school districts recruit and retain high-quality teachers.”

But this is difficult at a time when the supply of teachers is constrained by high turnover rates, annual retirements of longtime teachers, and a decline in college students opting for a teaching career. Providing adequate wages and benefits is crucial to attracting and keeping qualified teachers, according to the report.

“Collective bargaining is the anecdote to the teacher pay penalty,” says Lawrence Mishel, EPI president and co-author of the report. “But it’s not enough. Even unionized teachers have seen their pay erode relative to other workers.”

EPI is a nonprofit think tank based in the District of Columbia that works to include low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions among legislators, academicians, journalists, and others.

The organization has conducted numerous studies on teacher pay gaps. Allegretto says collective bargaining agreements help to set teacher pay and benefits at levels that help educators maintain decent living standards.

“Even as the relative public school teacher pay gap is widening, unionized teachers do better than teachers without collective bargaining,” she says.

Education unions also influence other workplace issues such as breaks, bus duties, or if teachers eat lunch with and while monitoring students.

“Strong unions, otherwise, increase job quality,” she adds. “This helps to make teaching a more attractive profession.”

Contrary to one grave misperception about education unions, they do not unfairly protect “bad apples.”

In “The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers,” author Eunice S. Han says school districts with strong unions do a better job of weeding out bad teachers and retaining good ones than districts with weak unions.

The dilemma rests with district officials who may want to pay higher wages to attract good teachers but must contend with ever-tightening state budgets.

“If you have elected officials who are dedicated to shrinking government budgets, then it is difficult to raise wages for not only teachers but all public service workers,” says Mishel.

Teachers in Some Cities May Need a Second Job to Afford a House

Across the country, housing prices in many cities are rising, while teacher salaries are not. To gauge what percentage of available homes teachers could afford, Redfin, a real estate brokerage firm, compared listed home prices over the last five years in more than 30 cities with average teachers’ salaries. The number of homes within reach for an unmarried teacher has declined in some areas by more than 25 percent since 2012.

“Teachers don’t go into their field to get rich,” says Mishel, who has co-authored “The State of Working America,” now in its 12th edition. “But they have reasonable expectations of earning a middle class living, being able to own a home some day and raise a family.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual U.S. teacher salary in 2015 was $57,200 for high school teachers and $54,550 for elementary teachers, though compensation varies by state.

“If school administrators continue to squeeze teacher salaries, making it difficult for them to work toward the purchase of a home, for example, working teachers will do other things to support their families,” Mishel says.

The residential real estate website, Trulia, compared average elementary, middle, and high school teacher incomes from 2016 with average home-buying prices in more than 90 cities. The report defined affordability as a property where monthly payments take up only 31 percent of a homebuyer’s monthly paycheck or less.

“Teachers don’t go into their field to get rich. But they have reasonable expectations of earning a middle class living, being able to own a home some day and raise a family” – Lawrence Mishel, president, Economic Policy Institute

The cities that fare best in terms of affordable housing for one-income households include Dayton, Ohio, where 83 percent of houses for sale at the end of 2017 were attainable on a teacher’s $61,810 average state salary. Dayton was followed by Akron, Ohio; Detroit, Mich.; El Paso, Texas; and Bakersfield, Calif.

In cities such as Chicago, where the median listing price was just above the national average in 2017, teachers and other educators can afford about half of the houses on the market.

For teachers on one income, San Francisco is the least affordable city to live. There, the average teacher earns $72,340 and the average property costs $1.2 million to purchase.

To ease the burden in California, a bill passed in 2016 allows school districts to put local and state funds and federal tax credits toward affordable housing for school employees. By last year, the San Francisco Unified School District’s plan to provide housing for 500 teachers and paraprofessionals by 2020 had helped 16 educators, according to The San Francisco Examiner.

A Third of Texas Teachers Work Second Jobs

Teacher-coach Rashad Bolds enjoys tracking money and economic trends for discussion in his finance classes at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, Texas. He is equally adept at his second job: spotting and shaping raw talent among the young athletes he tutors in track, football, and other sports. He charges $20 an hour as a tutor.

“I mainly use the tutor money to pay back loans and credit card debt,” says Bolds, 29. Currently, he has about a half dozen young clients.

Teacher-coach Rashad Bolds, 29, earns $20 an hour tutoring a half dozen students several evenings a week and on weekends.
While paying back various loans and credit card debt, he hopes to begin saving to buy a house.

The added income has brought him close to owning his beloved 2012 Chevrolet Impala ($300 a month plus insurance).

“I’m so close to paying it off,” says Bolds, who rents an apartment. “I’ve also started to save money to maybe buy a house.”

When he isn’t tutoring young athletes on weekends and several evenings a week, he works after school at Jefferson as the varsity football running back coach and junior varsity offensive coordinator.

A former sprinter and hurdler in college, Bolds is also head coach of the girls track team at Jefferson.

“When things slow down after football season, I might start helping a friend with his tax consulting business,” says Bolds, a member of NEA-Dallas. “It can get stressful trying to stay on top of expenses.”

A 2016 survey by the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), in conjunction with Sam Houston State University, showed that a third of teachers who responded said they needed outside jobs during the school year to support themselves and their families.

According to the survey, respondents work about 13 hours a week at their out-of-school jobs, and an additional 17 hours a week grading papers, preparing lesson plans and other school-related work outside of regular school hours.

“Although the weekend gives students a break from their classes, and time to relax with their families, for many teachers Saturdays and Sundays are spent working at extra jobs and preparing for next week’s teaching duties,” says TSTA President Noel Candelaria.

Almost half of the survey respondents had summer jobs, with 60 percent serving as primary income-earners for their families.

According to NEA, the average salary for teachers in Texas in 2016 was $51,890, a 2.3 percent boost from 2015 ($50,713).

“I can’t imagine how teachers with families are able to carry two jobs and still spend quality time with their families,” says Bolds, who is single.

In some cases, teachers with young children would prefer to have second jobs to save for their children’s college careers, for example, but they are unable to work due to familial responsibilities.

“Being a responsive parent is itself a second job,” says Bolds. “But I realize this is not unique to educators.”

The TSTA study found that 72 percent of teachers forced to moonlight believe the time spent on extra jobs affects their teaching, and 86 percent of them said they want to quit their extra jobs but would need a pay raise of about $9,000 to do so.

The survey showed that only 8 percent of respondents believe legislators and state elected officials have a positive opinion about teachers, while only 30 percent of respondents said they believe the public has a favorable opinion of them.

“Our teachers work extra hours and spend their own money to buy school supplies, because they are dedicated to their students’ success,” says Candelaria. “It’s time for elected officials to support students and educators with that same dedication by providing the resources needed for success in the classroom.”

Paraeducator Mattie Barnes earns $6.25 an hour plus tips shuffling cards as a dealer at the Lady Luck Casino in Vicksburg, Miss.

Luck of the Draw

Paraeducator Mattie Barnes can play poker, blackjack, and other casino card games with anyone who walks into a casino, but she is not a gambler.

After a long day as a paraeducator at A.W. Watson Elementary School in Port Gibson, Miss., Barnes begins shuffling cards for her second job as dealer or croupier at the Lady Luck Casino in Vicksburg.

“Some days are good and others are nothing,” says Barnes, who earns $6.25 an hour plus tips working part-time. “Even with my casino job, some months are rough.”

Full-time K–12 ESPs like Barnes in Mississippi, and those living in Oklahoma and Idaho (see side bar, Page 42), have the lowest average earnings in the country at less than $23,000, according to the 2016 “NEA ESP Data Book.”

“Some weeks I have nothing to save after paying health insurance, utilities, food, you know, the normal things,” says Barnes, 61.

“Education is the gateway through which anything can be achieved. Every student has gifts and I work hard to capitalize on those strengths. I enjoy my work at school and would like to stay at it.” – Krista Degerness

She has worked for the school district for 25 years, slightly longer than at the casino, where Barnes is a rarity. She was at a card table during the casino’s grand opening June 20, 1994, and has never left.

“I thought it (casino job) would help me get started after college, but the more I worked there the more I needed the extra income to offset the cost of living,” says Barnes, who has a bachelor’s degree in home economics.

The added income has allowed her to buy a house and raise a son as a single parent.

“I couldn’t have afforded to buy my house on just my paraeducator pay,” she says. “If it wasn’t for my casino job, I’d probably still be renting an apartment somewhere.”

The extra income also allows her to buy books and other classroom supplies for students.

“I get them books from the Dollar Store during the year but especially at Christmas,” Barnes says. “I might not make a lot of money, but watching the kids learn is a reward in itself.”

At the casino, Barnes happens to work with a former kindergarten student, now a security guard. “I hadn’t seen her since she was a little girl,” Barnes says. “But I remembered her because she was so pretty back then and still is.”

Table Games Manager Renza Grennell says Barnes is known among staff and guests for her expertise at the card table, “caring nature,” and “warm heartedness.”

“Her many years of experience are invaluable to us,” Grennell says. “She arrives at the casino prior to her work schedule and can be found reading in the break room.”

At day’s end, Krista Degerness works with a student comfortably situated in his “quiet zone” under a table while contemplating his writing assignment. Other students are similarly strewn about the classroom in deep study. Soon, the teacher will don scrubs as a dental assistant/office manager. (Photo: Doug Gritz)

Educator at Heart

At times, Degerness’s two worlds collide. An example is when she inadvertently warns students about the evils of consuming too much soda, candy, or chewing gum.

“My dental knowledge comes out at random intervals,” says Degerness, who has worked part-time in the dental office since she was 16. “I’ve learned valuable skills that transferred laterally into my education career.”

Dealing with certain patients, for example, has helped Degerness manage demanding parents.

“While I love my school, there are days when I need a confidence boost at the office where I know my work is both recognized for excellence and appreciated for effort,” she says.

While all four of her grandparents were teachers, it wasn’t until Degerness was in her mid-twenties that she felt inspired to enter the education field. After earning a master’s degree, she began work as a teacher in 2015.

“Education is the gateway through which anything can be achieved,” she says. “Every student has gifts and I work hard to capitalize on those strengths. I enjoy my work at school and would like to stay at it.”



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Not Your Grandfather’s School Library


School libraries used to be the place for quiet study, but today there is no more shushing.

Students research and collaborate on projects or presentations, create video games, record podcasts, experiment in the makerspace, or work on fan fiction or graphic novels. There are places for clubs and study groups to meet, and guest speakers and authors to host lively book talks. It’s like your favorite indie bookstore, minus the grumpy barista.

“Walking into a school library can be like walking into Willy Wonka’s factory—just about anything could be going on inside those doors and it’s often amazing and sweet,” says McLean County, Illinois, school librarian Michelle Gattley. Recently, one of Gattley’s libraries hooked up with an astronaut on the International Space Station using amateur radio networks, she said.

And yet, school libraries often are on the chopping block when it comes to state and federal budget cuts. It’s as if lawmakers have no idea how librarians prepare students for 21st-century workplaces.

Teaching Students to Navigate the Digital World

Encyclopedia? What’s that? Students have a world of information at their fingertips, and the role of the school librarian has evolved and expanded to keep up. Not only do they help students find information, they help them navigate sources and be responsible and critical consumers of information.

Gattley also is excited about changes in children’s publishing. “The explosion of graphic novels and comics written specifically for young readers, the development of ebooks and audiobooks, and the proliferation of fan fiction and other online sharing of writing has expanded our definition of reading,” Glatt says. “This means a librarian’s collection lives outside the library’s walls as well as within, and librarians must keep up with and promote a diverse and wide-range of materials.”

Partnering with the Public Library

School and public librarians always have shared the work of assisting young people with information needs, cultivating life-long readers, and encouraging them to pursue topics and activities they are interested in and passionate about. But Gattley points out that budget cuts have made it even more necessary to collaborate. Public librarians often visit schools to host book-talks, especially popular with older students, and also work with school districts on library card sign-up initiatives that coordinate with school registration.

“One of our sixth-grade teachers put ‘get a public library card’ on her school supply list this year,” says Gattley, who taught students how to access ebooks and audiobooks from their public library. “This year all K–5 students will be issued full-service cards if they don’t already have one,” which will be valid through twelfth grade. “I can’t wait to start teaching students to use online databases, to request materials from public libraries and through interlibrary loan, and to investigate everything our public libraries have to offer.”

Looking ahead: The Future of School Libraries

As online or distance learning grows popular, Gattney says school libraries can be helpful by “curating digital resources, providing meeting space for students working outside classroom walls, and helping teachers connect with their students.” New technologies are inevitable, but school librarians are excited about the possibilities that lay ahead for educators and students. Says Gattney: “School libraries and librarians thrive despite constant change and joyfully accept the challenge of new ideas. No matter what the future holds, we will be ready.”

How to Advocate for School Libraries

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García points out that in the nation’s most affluent schools, there is always a librarian. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), there is an opportunity for all schools. from inner cities to rural communities, low and middle income, to fund a librarian position.

The law asks states to include success indicators – services and programs that help students succeed in addition to classroom academics — to become standards in their public schools.
“We want that dashboard of opportunity indicators to include library media specialists,” she said.

Find out how you can advocate for school libraries at myschoolmyvoice.nea.org.



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From Policy to Plate: Healthy School Meals Starts With Us


(AP Photo/The Herald-Dispatch, Lori Wolfe)

Most parents and educators want school cafeterias to serve food that is fresh, local, organic, and nutritious. But the truth is that many school nutrition programs operate on a freezer-to-oven basis. Meals arrive highly processed and ready to pop into the oven.

That’s what Sheila Mulrooney Eldred found nearly a decade ago when she first visited public elementary schools in Minneapolis trying to select one for her children. “I was appalled by the cafeteria choices: sugar-saturated cereals for breakfast, pre-packaged French Toast ‘stix’ with syrup for lunch, and chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milk,” the health and fitness journalist wrote in 2016 for Minnesota Monthly.

Changes in nutritional requirements under the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, however, have required more fruits, vegetable, and whole grains, and cutbacks on calories and sodium. Now that the measure is law, students eat 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch, according to a 2014 Harvard study.

The changes are also visible throughout Minneapolis Public Schools, where, since 2011, more than 30,000 students have received locally sourced foods—things like fresh produce, meats, and baked goods. Minneapolis isn’t the only city that’s changing its menu.

The trays in Kentucky’s Madison County Schools (MCS) are chock full of locally sourced foods, too. That’s thanks to a partnership with local farmers who supply the school system with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I want kids to eat healthy,” says Scott Anderson, food service director for MCS. “We saw kids who weren’t eating their vegetables and what they were eating wasn’t tasty.”

Last year, the school district purchased salad bars for every school. This year, local farms offered students healthy, locally grown options, including cucumbers, broccoli, zucchini, kale, and pumpkin.

Cafeteria staff has been trained to create meals that kids will enjoy, too.

If your district is thinking about making the switch to healthy school meals, consider these steps:

• To get food grown locally, create partnerships with farmers, butchers, and dairy producers.

• Start a school and community garden, and invite students, parents, and other community members to help.

• Provide school nutrition staff with professional development opportunities covering scratch cooking, and knife skills. Remember that fresh food is more labor intensive, and encourage an increase in staff hours.

• Acknowledge that many students depend on their school to provide for basic nutrition. Consider adding things like breakfast in the classroom, after school snacks, and summer breakfast and lunch.

• Advocate for better funding. Most schools in the National School Lunch Program receive a per-meal reimbursement that is between $3.25 and $3.30 for qualified students. Most districts use the funding as a base upon which to build a self-sustaining nutrition program that can function without other district funds.

• Form coalitions to represent the views of all interested parties, including students, parents, school nutrition staff, education support professionals, teachers, administrators, farmers, and child nutrition advocacy groups.



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Better Read than Dead: New Young Adult Book Dives into McCarthyism


L.M. Elliott is a former Washington journalist turned novelist who recently published Suspect Red [Disney-Hyperion], a young-adult work of historical fiction set in a time of national paranoia and xenophobia. (No, not 2017!) The year is 1953, during the nation’s Second Red Scare, when thousands of Americans were accused of being communists, Elliott’s story is told through the eyes of two teenage boys, Richard and Vladimir. Recently, Elliott sat down with NEA Today to talk about the book and how the lessons of McCarthyism are relevant to today’s middle schoolers.

Rumors play a big part in the book. We see them feeding McCarthyism and the blacklisting of artists and State Department employees in a very damaging way. But rumors also are very common in middle school…

L.M. Elliott: Yes! I originally started the book after the Boston Marathon bombing. There [was] lots of conversation and legitimate debate at that point about people’s rights to privacy versus national security. But, as I was researching McCarthyism, and its paranoia, its pack mentality, and the whole thing about labeling people [as patriots or Communists], I thought—oh my god, it’s like middle school took over the world! It’s really horrifying, that kind of guilt by association, accepting innuendo as fact, being afraid to disagree with whoever is king of the hill. That McCarthyism attitude is the kind of attitude that middle schoolers, sadly, contend with all the time, even as they try to form their own sense of ethics and strength and individuality. The more I researched, the more I realized what a good topic it is for seventh through tenth graders.

Another theme in the book is heroism. How do you hope readers will define heroism?

I’m very interested in the heroism of ordinary people who stand up for what they believe in. Frankly, it’s that kind of heroism that changes the world. For a kid to say to a bully at their school, ‘I don’t believe in that. I don’t agree with that,’ that’s more courageous to me than the antics of a fictional 007 character. Today, that means saying, ‘I don’t believe,’ and I’m quoting Trump here, ‘that Mexicans are rapists and responsible for all crime.’ There is so much fear-mongering language being thrown around. It’s easy to get swept up in that paranoia. It takes real courage to stand up and question the mindset of our leaders, whether it’s your best friend or the president.

There are clear connections between the hate speech and fear-mongering of the Hoover and McCarthy days and today’s Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Do you think these could be useful connections for educators?

L.M. Elliott

I recently was talking to students in Wilmington, N.C., and they went right to the heart of it. One said to me that ‘Muslim is the new Red.’ It was a brave statement. Part of the reason McCarthy gained such speed and traction, as did Trump, was that there had been terrifying events that preceded them. With McCarthyism, you’ve got the Iron Curtain, the hydrogen bomb, the start of the Korean War, the discovery of atomic spies within our borders. These things primed the country to be afraid, and McCarthy was very good at exploiting it. You’ve got the same thing with Trump—9/11, various terrorist attacks, and an underlying fear that he can exploit with conspiracy theories and fear mongering. The similarities are endless. McCarthy was the king of deflecting criticism by attacking the questioner. We see exactly that today with Trump and ‘fake news.’

What I think it makes clear is that our responsibility, as human beings, is to ground our opinions and actions in our personal experiences, our personal research, and personal thoughts—and not to judge the all by the few. I applaud what I see so many educators do in telling and teaching their students to verify facts themselves. I hope it also can be a springboard for discussions around our First and Fifth amendment rights, the power and importance of petitions, and the potency of well-positioned, peaceful protests by students.

The two main characters, Richard and Vladimir, are cool kids who love books, and they avidly read and share some of the best books of the mid-20th century. Do you have any favorites that you slipped into their hands?

Robin Hood is a favorite of mine. I love that book, and had the illustrated copy as a child. When I learned it had been banned…it’s ridiculous territory! Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful, eye-opening book. I also happen to love Steinbeck. I think he so humanizes and ennobles the quote-unquote “common man,” the people who are just trying to survive, and he does it with such poeticism. The fact that Of Mice and Men could be banned across the country takes my breath away.

What’s on L.M. Elliott’s shelf?

“Here’s the thing about historical fiction,” says Elliott. “If it’s well done, you’re going to ache for the people. It’s like any compelling story, but with the wonderful side benefit that you’re learning all this other stuff!” We asked Elliott to recommend a few works of historical fiction for young people. Here is her list:

1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is the story of two female friends, the pilot and passenger of a British spy plane that crashes in Nazi-occupied France. “It’s just beautiful,” says Elliott—a good reminder that “there are beating hearts in history.”

2. Although Elliott is a fan of almost everything by author Laurie Halse Anderson, she is especially taken by Fever 1793, set during Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic. As 14-year-old Mattie Cook struggles to survive, the gravediggers cry, “Bring out your dead!”

3. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse is the 1998 Newbery Medal winner, and “an amazing book,” says Elliott. Set during the Depression, in Oklahoma, the book’s first-person narrator is a 14-year-old who writes in verse.

4. Christopher Paul Curtis is “great—and very funny!” says Elliott. Her favorite is The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, for its “great sense of whimsy and tragedy.” In it, 13-year-old Byron Watson’s family drives from Flint, Mich., to Birmingham, Ala., and straight into the Civil Rights Movement.

5.Finally, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, the story of rival teenage gangs in the early 80s, “seems like historical fiction now!” says Elliott. “Everybody should read it, but boys in particular. They’ll find themselves in that.”



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Community Schools Provide Evidence-Based Approach Under ESSA


In a briefing on Capitol Hill Tuesday in Washington, D.C., educators highlighted a recent report that shows how community schools improve academics and student health while encouraging parents, business, and other community leaders to work together toward common goals.

“When you put your focus on children, community schools bring people and institutions together in a way that says, ‘let’s face this problem or issue together as partners,’” said Jose Munoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, an alliance of more than 200 national, state and local organizations, including NEA, dedicated to youth development, community planning and development, family support, health services, and philanthropy.

The study by researchers from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) in conjunction with the National Education Policy Center found that community schools can serve as an evidence-based strategy for the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

“ESSA allows schools to leverage their own strengths,” said Alonzo Blankenship, a specialist for social and emotional learning from the Austin Independent School District in Texas. “It allows for more autonomy where school and community leaders can collaborate.”

A member of the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), Blankenship was one of four educators who participated in the briefing.

“ESSA puts the power in state and local hands,” said Munoz. “It also gives states and districts greater responsibility for designing and implementing systems of school improvement.”

According to the study, policymakers should consider incorporating a community schools’ strategy into ESSA state plans.

By most definitions, a “community school” represents three separate ideas.

ESSA allows schools to leverage their own strengths. It allows for more autonomy where school and community leaders can collaborate.” – Alonzo Blankenship, Austin Independent School District.

First, it is place, usually a public school location. Second: a partnership concept between a school and community resources. More recently, the idea of community schools is associated with a strategy in which community agencies and local government provide an integrated focus on a school’s academic performance, student health and social services.

Using public school locations as hubs, community schools bring together many partners to offer a range of support and opportunities to students, families, and others.

“Community schools vary in the programs they offer and the way they operate, depending on their local context,” said Anna Maier, LPI research and policy associate.

Maier said most community schools feature four pillars of support:
• Integrated student supports
• Expanded learning time and opportunities
• Family and community engagement
• Collaborative leadership and practices

“These pillars help to create a new, more collaborative way of doing business,” said Maier, who discussed the report at the briefing. “This is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.”

At NEA, six pillars for transformative, sustainable community schools are identified and used to not only start more community schools, but to strengthen existing ones. The additional pillars were added as educators, parents, and community leaders learned lessons about what works and what doesn’t in supporting community schools.

Because ESSA requires that federally funded interventions be evidence-based, Maier said the report assesses both research on community schools as a comprehensive strategy and research on each of the four pillars of the strategy.

“We summarized the findings and evaluated the studies against ESSA’s criteria for evidence-based interventions,” she said. “We concluded that the evidence supports well-implemented community schools being included as part of targeted and comprehensive interventions in high-poverty schools, for example.”

“The community school model is evidence-based and should be funded,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who spoke at the event.

“We need to make sure there is sufficient funding to continue the current program,” he said. Panelists discussed ways in which Congress can support community schools through funding and other legislation.

The report found that community schools operating for more than five years had fewer chronically absent students. In Baltimore, Md., students in sixth through eighth grade were 48 percent less likely to be chronically absent.

“The community school model is evidence-based and should be funded,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at a Capitol Hill briefing on community schools on Nov. 14. (Photo: Patrick Ryan)

“It’s not just about academics,” said Shanelle England, community school director from Forest Park High School in Baltimore. “We look at the child as a whole, as someone who might be homeless or abused at home.”

Joining England on the panel from Forest Park was twelfth-grade student Camilla Gavin, who said she and her peers appreciate having a voice at the school.

“Ask your students what they need,” she said. “We know.”

England stressed the importance of having student views on academic instruction, extracurricular activities, and other components that affect school culture.

“We need to listen to the voices of young people,” she said.

Students “don’t live in a vacuum,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Community schools gives us the opportunity to align those things … academic, health, and social services.”

Capo works with a city-wide community schools model.

“We have to consider the holistic approach at the community level,” he said. “So that we are not duplicating services at the school level.”

The researchers found that it is important to involve the community, parents, and young people as part of any needs assessment, design, planning, and implementation process. ESSA requires it, and, in the case of community schools, such collaborative relationships are part of what will make the strategy successful, according to the report.



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A Weak Link Between High Test Scores and Student Happiness?


Teaching is an enormously complex and challenging profession, but the excessive reliance on standardized tests set in motion by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) condensed teaching and learning – and therefore accountability systems  – down to test scores.

NCLB is history, replaced in 2016 by the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), which gives states the flexibility to design more expansive and effective accountability plans. ESSA does require, however, that states to consider at least one “nonacademic” or “noncognitive” factor in the development of these new policies.

Broadening the definition of what it means to a successful student and a successful teacher is good policy and long overdue, says David Blazar, an assistant professor of education policy and economics at the University of Maryland. Blazar is one of a growing number of researchers who are building a body of evidence that demonstrates the critical role teachers play in developing student skills beyond test scores.

“We’ve focused so long on these scores because that was the data available to us, but of course anyone who has been in a classroom, including myself, know that teachers do so much more than improve test scores,” Blazar explains. “We should be paying more attention to the skills and practices that teachers engage in and see teaching as a multidimensional profession.”

In a recently released study, Blazar analyzed data from 4th and 5th grade teachers in three states and from surveys administered to their students to look at the different ways teachers are effective at fostering student engagement, behavior and sense of belonging.

Anyone who has been in a classroom, including myself, know that teachers do so much more than improve test scores. We should be paying more attention to the skills and practices that teachers engage in and see teaching as a multidimensional profession.” – David Blazar, University of Maryland

Blazar found that teachers have a significant impact on students’ self-reported behavior in class, self-efficacy in math, and happiness or engagement in class. In short, effective teachers can and do create happy students.

Blazar also found, however, that teachers who were successful at raising math test scores may be doing so in a way that made their students less engaged and happy. A decade-plus of test-based accountability in effect may have short circuited some teachers’ ability to create engaging and comfortable learning environments for their students.

Does this suggest that test scores and student happiness are incompatible? No, says Blazar, but schools should redirect resources and attention to help teachers develop both skills. “This is not a fixed reality,” he says.

Blazar believes students’ social and emotional development should be a central goal of teachers’ work. As he wrote in the study, “accountability systems that focus predominately or exclusively on student achievement send a message that the skills captured on these tests are the ones that policymakers want students to have when they leave school.”

Policymakers in full panic mode over the nation’s “failing” public schools, however, may scoff at the importance of student happiness. This is a mistake, according to Blazar.

“By ‘happiness,’ we’re talking about enjoyment or engagement in class conversations. It’s an important measure. Students who are happy and engaged in school do well in life,” he says.

How these new measures of teacher effectiveness are used, on the other hand, is another issue. While many school leaders and educators support incorporating student outcomes beyond test scores, and teachers’ ability to improve them, in policy conversations, they should not be focused on high stakes decisions, Blazar says. Instead, a more appropriate use would be to identify areas for professional growth and connect teachers with targeted, more effective professional development.

confidence in public schoolsHappy Students and School Climate
A positive school climate depends on school safety, but also how connected or engaged a student feels in school, the strength of relationships with school staff, and the state of parental involvement. Creating and sustaining that environment is an essential and very complex task, say experts.

How ESSA Helps Advance Social and Emotional Learning
As the Every Student Succeeds Act affords states the flexibility to decide how to measure student achievement, more attention is being paid to how schools play a key role in developing students’ so-called “soft skills.”

Moving forward, Blazar hopes that adminstrative datasets will be expanded to include a wider range of student outcomes, which in turn will provide new tools to “examine what works in education.”

Blazar is in the process of tracking some of the students he surveyed using district data that over time may reveal how their happiness in 4th and 5th grade impacts their academic career.

“I would hypothesize, as I’m sure others would as well, that having a teacher who creates an enjoyable, engaging classroom experience will get you excited about school and that will carry over into middle and high school. I think we’ll continue to see those trends and that will provide more impetus for measuring these sorts of skills and teachers’ ability to improve them.”



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Students Choose Digital Over Print, But at What Cost?


If the average 14-year-old is given a choice of reading an 800-word news article in a print magazine or on an iPhone X, you can bet the digital format is going to win out. And chances are the student will read it very quickly. So what are the downsides? That depends, says Dr. Patricia Alexander, an educational psychologist at the University of Maryland. If the goal is reading comprehension, then the answer is probably more than you think. According to a research survey and their own investigations, Alexander and graduate student Lauren Singer, found that students who read a text in print that is more than a page in length are more likely to better comprehend the information.

While digital reading “is part and parcel of living and learning in the 21st century,” Alexander and Singer write, educators should still give careful thought about how and when to employ a digital device in the classroom. The rush to digital, Alexander recently told NEA Today, is fueled by a number of factors, but improved student learning may not be one of them.  

Through your review of the existing research into print vs digital, you found surprisingly little about which medium is actually better for reading. Did that surprise you?

Patricia Alexander:  A lot of aspects of digital reading  – navigational issues for example – have been well-researched. But when it comes down to the question of what we actually learn from the text, the comprehension side of it, there isn’t as much as you would imagine. I think the assumption is, because of the popularity of digital devices and reading online, not many people have bothered to ask what we are really getting from it.

Students strongly prefer digital over print, but according to the research and your own investigations, they also think their reading comprehension is better with digital. What do you attribute that to?

PA: Students live in a world were digital is so commonplace, so, yes, they obviously say they prefer it. Digital always wins. But if you give them a test and ask them to rank how they think they did right after they take it, they have this illusion that they understood better by reading on a digital device.

Why is this happening? Students read faster digitally, right? And that speed gives them the illusion of faster processing and that must mean they’re getting it better. Just like in school, kids who finish first are usually perceived to be somehow better or smarter. So speed tends to be aligned with intelligence as it is with so many things. But it can actually result in a deficit of learning compared to print.

For general questions, getting the idea of a text, the medium doesn’t really make a difference. But for deeper learning and critical analysis –  that’s different. Comprehension is significantly better when participants read printed texts.

What is about reading online that leads this deficit?

PA: There’s the “disruptive effect” of scrolling through a digital text. It’s the loss of place that occurs through his action. As soon as you scroll you lose continuity in digital and that affects comprehension. When you’re reading print, there’s a sense of location, where information is on a page. There are so many more sensory elements that come in play in situating where something is occurring on a page. But we have to investigate this more.

The speed issue is another factor. Students tend to move their eyes over the page. It’s highlighter pens. It’s the idea that if I somehow just run the highlighter pen over a page, it somehow transfers to knowledge, which doesn’t really happen at all.

Lauren Singer and I have just finished a paper that’s in press right now that looks at profiles of readers. The group of readers that did somewhat better in digital read much slower than they did in print. They didn’t take the digital environment for granted and maybe they were less confident in it and slowed down their reading. Granted, this was a small group but it was the only group that showed improvement when reading digitally.

Are we too preoccupied with what students prefer? In K12 especially, you constantly hear about “meeting students where they are.” 

PA:  Let’s be honest: Why has there been such a drive toward digitial reading? Why is there a rush toward online courses? From a pedagogical standpoint  or a cognitive-neuro standpoint, its not because we think these things somehow enhance learning. It’s because they’re expedient, they’re efficient. I download my books onto e-books when I travel because it’s convenient. Now universities are pushing e-books. Why? They make these decisions for pragmatic reasons, not because it improves student learning.

It’s often hard to criticize anything digital – particularly while championing print – without being accused of being anti-technology.

PA: Sure. I’m far from being anti-technology but what I am against is the non-smart use of smart technology. That’s what bothers me. I can only speak to what’s going on on college campuses but I’m guessing its the same in K-12. When a phone buzzes, it’s alike Pavlov and his dog. We are conditioning today’s students in very detrimental ways to be controlled by the technology, and not regulating ot controlling it, or using it to its best advantage.

What should a teacher consider when choosing a print or digital format for an assignment? 

PA: First, I would urge teachers to think about what they want students to get from the text. Again, does the assignment require a deeper level of thinking? How well the student comprehends could depend on whether they read in print or digital.

I would also teach students early on to get in the habit of stopping when they read digital, to just take the time to self-reflect, summarize, so that they are not flowing through the text so quickly. Take the time to be a bit more regulatory, a bit more meta when they’re in the digital environment.

It also helps for students to move some of the digital text off the page. By that I mean, for example, have students carry around a notebook in which they can jot down things from the reading that to them were particularly important, so that they have some sort of trace of what was in that digital text.

We need to look at the bigger lessons as well. Again, why does the younger generation have an illusion about what they are learning? That’s what troubles me the most. I understand the preference for digital, but many students are so poorly calibrated.  They are so routinized and familiar with technology, but it’s more about diversions, not depth of processing. Yet they walk around with such an illusion of knowing. That’s something that anyone who cares about education should consider.



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Talking About Race, Inequity, and Injustice


The National Education Association 2017 Equity Leaders Summit.

More than 150 educators from 50 states gathered in Chicago on Oct. 21-22—on behalf of their students—to attend NEA’s Equity Leaders’ Summit. The summit’s goal was to build action plans that push against issues of inequity and injustices.

Why? Because “It’s the corner stone of everything we want to be as a society,” says Gabriel Tanglao, a social studies teacher from New Jersey. “What we’re realizing now in the 21st century is that people put a period after the civil rights movement, and that’s not where it ended.”

For example, recently a teacher in New Jersey was filmed telling her Spanish-speaking students to “speak American” to which the offended parties walked out of their classroom in protest. The video was posted to Facebook, where it’s been met with mixed reviews. These aren’t isolated cases, either.

Instances of inequities and injustices shared during the summit highlighted how quality programs are inaccessible to many students of color, students as young as five are telling Spanish-speaking classmates to go back to Mexico, schools with large populations of students of color lack access to technology, and some teacher attitudes perpetuate ideas about what certain groups of students, such as kids who have a disability, can and cannot do.

Intensifying these issues are national statistics that show 50 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, black students are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students, and 60 percent of the nation’s Bureau of Indian Education schools lack access to quality digital broadband.

While the education landscape has some roadblocks, not all is lost, as more and more educators work to identify the tools and skills needed to help level the playing field so that every student has equity, assets, and opportunity.

Arun Puracken, a middle school social studies teacher from Maryland, says these types of gatherings are in place because educators care about equity, and it’s up to people who care, like him, to organize around issues that benefit their students and get more people involved.

Arun Puracken

Arun Puracken

“If an educator isn’t involved in the union, and may care about equity, but doesn’t go to a conference … it’s up to individuals who are involved in the union to go back and advocate in the buildings, hold workshops and seminars, and develop personal relationships to get support,” says Puracken.

And NEA’s Equity Leaders’ Summit provided a safe space to have honest conversations about the work educators could take back home.

Summit Takeaways

It’s not easy to talk about race, inequities, and injustices, but it’s a conversation that needs to happen, and it takes courage.

“If we are considering the questions of racial justice, equity, and social justice, the fundamental needed for that fight is courage,” says Keron Blair, national director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and guest speaker at the summit. “Courage isn’t easy … [it’s] a muscle. It’s not poured into us like a liquid. You’ve got to build it … daily.”

On hand to help build this muscle were NEA leaders, members, organizers, and policy analysts, who armed participants with the tools and skills needed to address inequity and injustice within their school and community.

Part of this learning is to lean into uncomfortableness and …to do something with it because you don’t build social justice warriors from just saying ‘we have a problem,’” Maxine Mosely, school counselor, New Hampshire

Specifically, participants learned how to identify inequities and injustices, hold a conversation around these issues, handle an oppressive situation, engage others, and develop an action plan focused on achieving equity and justice for all students. These action plans will be submitted to the NEA, and some will be selected to receive funding from the association.

To push these plans to action, participants focused on leveraging the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which provides an opportunity to lead,” says Johanna “Hanna” Vaandering, a physical education teacher from Oregon now serving as an NEA executive committee member. “It tells us, we can lift up our voices, we can bring parents and students together and we can thrive.”

The federal policy can be used to help ensure opportunity for all students regardless of ZIP code, as it requires state accountability systems to include at least one indicator of school quality or student success. School improvement plans can examine resource inequities, school wide program plans, which may include strategies like school-based mental health programs and district plans that improve learning conditions.

The Road to Equity and Justice

NEA has developed various indicators that helped guide many of the action plans developed by summit participants, such as the association’s Your School Checklist, which helps educators think through what schools need.

The checklist, for example, can identify the resources needed in schools, such as libraries, world language, or science labs. Summit presenters pushed participants out of their comfort zone to come up with concrete ways to organize around inequities and injustices.

“Part of this learning is to lean into uncomfortableness and learn to be OK with that and to do something with it because you don’t build social justice warriors from just saying ‘we have a problem,’” says Maxine Mosely, a school counselor from New Hampshire.

To “do something with it,” as Mosely indicates, means educators can use ESSA and NEA’s checklist as a conversation starter with parents about what their school is missing. Ask them to fill out the checklist and compare the results with your checklist. End the conversation by brainstorming ways to move forward, such as organize to pass a school board resolution or speak at a school board meeting on the need of more funding for a full-time nurse or advanced courses in math and science.

Depending on the school’s environment, educators can advocate and organize around several issues, such as a safe and welcoming schools, which ESSA recognizes as a measure toward student and school success.

One participant from New Jersey, for example, shared how educators organized the community that led to the firing of the local police chief after several reports of police brutality. The tipping point came when students were maced by police officers.

Lindsey DIckenson

Lindsey DIckenson

NEA’s Checklist also officers ideas around healthy and modern schools, well-rounded curriculum, school climate, and quality educators.

Lindsey Dickenson, an eighth-grade math teacher from Illinois, is hopeful that through ESSA’s accountability plan she could move toward creating a safe and welcoming school for her students, especially for those whose parents are undocumented.

“Our local union has been pushing the district to reconfirm the Dream Act and adopt a local policy about welcoming school,” says Dickenson.

This issue came to the forefront last year when a student shared how she feared immigration officials would deport her parents. Dickenson encouraged the student to share her story with school board members and how her life would turn to shambles if her parents were to be deported—impacting her learning opportunities. The student also urged school officials to adopt friendlier language when it comes to the status of undocumented students and families and stop using language that is divisive, coded, and used to dehumanize immigrants.

Today, the issue has made some gains and steps to create policies to support students of undocumented families will be explored at the next school board meeting.

To get connected and engaged on the issues you care about go to neaedjustice.org. NEA EdJustice engages and mobilizes activists in the fight for racial, social, and economic justice in public education. Readers will find timely coverage of social justice issues in education and ways they can advocate for our students, our schools, and our communities.

Other Tools

Gone are the days of using a single test to measure student and school success. NEA’s Great Public School (GPS) Framework addresses research and evidence-based resources, policies, and practices that are proven to narrow opportunity and skills gaps. Specifically, the Framework elaborates on the criteria integral to school and student success, such as quality programs and services that meet the full range of all children’s needs so that they come to school every day ready and able to learn, as well as a qualified, caring, diverse, and stable workforce.

NEA’s “Opportunity Dashboard,” also looks at more than just test scores. The Dashboard look at things like robust arts and athletics programs. Full time counselors and nurses and librarians. Strong parent and family engagement programs. Rigorous AP classes and engaging electives.

Another tool is the union itself. Ana Batista, who teaches bilingual, talented, and gifted students in Connecticut, says she wants to use recruitment and retention to increase teachers of color in her district, and plans to “see our state president and her executive board who could guide me in this area.”

Other participants have also recognized their unions that help push the needle toward equity and justices for every student.

“If it wasn’t for the union giving me opportunities like this,” say Maryland’s Puracken, “I wouldn’t have the courage to do what I’m doing now. When [the union] talks about being a leader, activist, and change agent … I listen and I hear it loud and clear … and I owe a great deal of success to unionism and union work,” which has given him the opportunities to build networks of support, grow his skill set, and raise his voice as a leader in the profession and union.

Photos: Jim West



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Filling Leadership Gap, Educators Sound the Alarm on Mold in Schools


 Parents dropping off their children at Williamstown Middle School in Monroe Township, New Jersey, a few weeks ago were greeted with a jarring sight: maintenance crews carrying out ceiling tiles stained with mold.

“It caused a little bit of a panic,” recalls John Staab of the New Jersey Education Association. “Parents have little or no faith in the health or safety of the school buildings.”

For good reason it turns out. Holly Glenn Elementary School – one of six schools in the district – had already been closed due to an extensive mold infestation, and its 500 students were being temporarily relocated to available classrooms in other schools, including Williamstown Middle. So to those parents watching those confiscated ceiling tiles being hauled out, it became abundantly clear that Holly Glenn wasn’t the only school contaminated with mold.

Soon every school in Monroe Township – affecting 6,000 students in all – was suddenly closed down as a “precautionary measure.”  In early October, emergency inspections went into overdrive and furious parents demanded answers. The district scrambled to get a handle on a tense and volatile situation.

Six closed schools and a potentially serious health crisis – just one of those unforeseen emergencies that can and do materialize during a school year? Not really. The Monroe Township Education Association and the Monroe Township Association of Education Secretaries had been sounding the alarm on mold in schools for a few years, carefully documenting the issue with photos, emails, and repeated maintenance requests for the district to pay greater attention and move beyond temporary band-aid solutions.

When the air quality in the schools became a full-blown crisis, the administration’s approach was no longer tenable, forcing it to correct a long-standing problem in just five months.

Educators in Monroe Township weren’t interested in a game of one-upsmanship with the district, but it was obvious that it had a credibility problem.

“We could have prevented this crisis had they listened to us years ago,” says Staab. “Now they’re taking it seriously.”

No national standards exist to govern how public schools should monitor, detect, and address air-quality problems and states have none of their own. This often leads to Inaction or, at best, half-measures on the part of individual districts, forcing educators and their unions to fill the leadership and trust vacuums that inevitably open up.

The mold infestation at Holly Glenn Elementary has closed the school for at least three months. Inspections revealed mold on doors (pictured here), bookcases, tables, toys, lockers, ceilings and in bathrooms. (Photo: TTI Environmental, Inc.)

Risks to Students and Staff

The massive rains that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma bought to Texas and Louisiana left behind an array of public health threats stemming from bacteria, pollutants, and mold. Even as flooding recedes, the lingering excessive moisture in buildings and houses make infestations almost inevitable. The basic structural soundness of a school building doesn’t negate the very real possibility that students and staff could soon be breathing in mold eight hours a day, five days a week.

But it doesn’t take Category 4 or 5 hurricanes to generate the conditions that lead to mold infestations. Students across the country are learning in old and decaying buildings that are in dire need of repair. Portable classrooms, in particular, are notorious breeding grounds for mold and mildew.

In addition to the absence of national and state standards for mold testing and remediation, the chronic underfunding of public education has exacerbated policymakers’ and school officials’ neglect of school upkeep and maintenance.

When technicians conducted tests at Holly Glenn Elementary, they found visible mold everywhere – on ceilings, floors, walls, lockers, desks, and toys. While most schools in Monroe District reopened after one week, Holly Glenn will stay closed at least through the end of the year because its HVAC system – probably not updated since the 1960s – has to be dismantled and replaced.

“It’s going to take a while to fix this,” says Staab. “No parent is going to let their kids anywhere near that building until It’s done.”

Parents know that exposure to molds can cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, otherwise healthy children can become sick if exposed to mold indoors. Studies have warned that children who are exposed to mold can develop asthma, which now affects 1 in 10 children.

“Schools are more densely occupied than office buildings, and children aren’t little adults. They’re uniquely vulnerable,” explains Claire Barnett, director of the Healthy Schools Network.

School staff are also at risk.

“When everyone is away for the summer and they feel fine, and then they come back to school and start feeling sick, you know something is wrong,” says Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union (BTU) in Broward County, Florida.

“This School Is a Health Hazard”

Broward County is not only one of the largest school districts in the country, it’s also one of the most humid. Mold has been an unwelcome presence in the district’s schools for years.

In 2010, a grand jury ordered the state of Florida to get a handle on a widespread mold problem that was plaguing its schools. But most of the panel’s more sweeping recommendations were ignored in Broward County and subsequent legislation to address the issue always ran aground over concerns over the cost of the needed repairs and a barrage of lawsuits.

Union leaders raised the issue again in 2015, demanding the district take the necessary measures to address the toxic air quality in the schools. “This has been going on for too long,” Fusco says. “We were getting emails, photos of spores and mushrooms growing on doors, student desks, lockers. Mold was everywhere.”

“When everyone is away for the summer and they feel fine, and then they come back to school and start feeling sick, you know something is wrong,”  – Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union

“We knew the union had to take action and push the issue so that the people who can make something happen will finally listen. We’re talking about our students’ health and everyone who works in the building,” she adds.

In 2016, BTU conducted a survey of its members to determine what, if any, experiences they had with mold in their schools. The response was overwhelming and, in light of the inaction of the district, damning.

“There is mold present with the naked eye on doors on the second floor in classrooms and you can smell it in classrooms on the second floor just across from the library,” one educator responded.  “The first floor library stinks of mold upon entering the room. There are also visible water stains on ceiling tiles in rooms on the first and second floors.”

“Mold issues have been prevalent at this school for years and years,” wrote another. “Many teachers and students have gotten sick as a result. If a person is sensitive to mold, this school is a health hazard.”

Another respondent said the health affects on the students were unmistakable: “My students have suffered this year with what seems to be an unusually high amount of colds and daily allergy issues. One child has congestion and even bloody nostrils, but does not show these symptoms at home (as per parent).”

The results of the survey were made public and local news outlets reported on the rash of illness in many of the contaminated schools. Broward Teachers Union also announced it would bring in their own experts to conduct inspections. In September, Fusco and some colleagues showed up at one school to demand (successfully) that a teacher, sick from the mold-infested classroom she was assigned to, be moved.

The pressure and publicity appeared to work. Soon, the district announced it was going to deploy assessment teams at some of the infested schools. After years of intransience, the district is beginning to move in the right direction, says Fusco.

“We’ll have to see where it goes, but they’re sitting down with us and we’re talking about solutions. That’s the biggest step we’ve taken in years.”

“Parents Trust Us”

Like the Broward Teachers Union, the Monroe Township Education Association and Monroe Township Association of Education Secretaries collected extensive information from its members about mold contamination in their schools. They are also paying for independent tests for mold to verify the results from the district’s own contractors. The New Jersey Education Association also partners with the Work Environment Council (WEC) to advocate for healthy schools.

At an emergency Board of Education meeting on Oct. 9, parents in Monroe Township demanded answers about the mold infestation that had temporarily closed every school in the district.

The community’s frayed trust in the administration was on full display at an emergency meeting of the board of education right after the schools were closed. Twelve hundred parents packed the auditorium at Williamstown High School to express their dismay at what they saw as a mishandling of the situation and lack of transparency on the part of district officials.

“It just got to the point where I think the district lost credibility with the parents,” Staab explains. “So the local associations stepped in and told the administration, ‘We can help with this and get it fixed.’”

The union leadership formed the Indoor Air Quality Communications Task Force to assemble and disseminate accurate information about the monitoring and cleanup of the mold contamination. The group includes teachers, school secretaries, support staff, parents, and a liaison from the administration. Not a decision-making body, the task force will make sure all stakeholders are getting the right information about the schools’ air quality and in a timely manner.

“Parents in the district have developed a connection with us on this issue,” Staab says. “They trust us.”

District officials have promised to be more proactive and do what is necessary to clean up the schools, Holly Glenn Elementary in particular. While educators are supporting these efforts, they will continue to monitor the situation for any lingering signs that corners could again be cut as public attention around the mold contamination begins to fade.

“This isn’t about creating controversy,” says Staab. “Our goal is and always been to get our schools clean and safe and back open for our students.”



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Beware of Hype Over Grade Inflation, Educators and Other Experts Warn


What does this grade mean if SAT scores are lower?

In school districts across the country, letter grades – one of the most durable and entrenched traditions of U.S. education – are under scrutiny. The A-F system of assessing student academic performance appears to be pleasing no one. The trouble is, the decision to phase something out, or at least refine it, is the easy part; coming up with a replacement is the challenge. The adage “be careful what you wish for” quickly springs to mind.

Critics believe that letter grades discourage learning and are ineffective at measuring student progress. What exactly does a ‘B,’ after all, really tell you about a student? Other concerns include how grades are used to rank students, creating needless competition and toxic hierarchies within schools. On the other hand, many educators counter that letter grades and grade point average (GPA), while imperfect, still provide generally reliable information to teachers, students, and parents. And they are an invaluable tool for college admissions offices.

On this last point, Michael Hurwitz, senior director of the College Board, disagrees. Recently, Hurwitz and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, examined transcripts of high school graduates from 1998 to 2016. They concluded that grade inflation is prevalent, making letter grades, at best, an unreliable gauge of student achievement, and should therefore be downgraded by admissions offices.

Hurwitz and Lee found that during that 18-year period, the average GPA rose from 3.27 to 3.38, According to their data, 47%  of high school seniors in 2016 graduated with an ‘A’ average, up from 39% in 1998.

Another eye-catching detail in the data is that grade inflation in high schools is widespread in affluent school districts. At suburban public high schools, GPA rose 8% from 1998 to 2016. At urban schools over the same period, GPA barely budged.

It’s in private schools, however, where grade inflation is most common –  three times more likely than in public schools. If the College Board’s data is correct, grade inflation is giving a major advantage in college admissions to the very students who need it the least.

Hurwitz told USA Today that the motive behind the work was not to explain why grade inflation occurs, only to “make sure that college admissions professionals are equipped to make the best decisions possible.”  Hurwitz and Lee say the data suggests that high schools are handing out too many A’s, making it too easy for students to “succeed.”

Why are these higher grades so suspect?  If students were actually becoming better learners and deserving of all these A’s, then their SAT scores would also be improving, according to Hurwitz and Lee. But scores dropped by 24 points during the same period.

While the College Board’s study received a good amount of positive coverage (particularly around the finding of rampant grade inflation in affluent schools), it has also garnered a fair share of criticism and skepticism.

Without calling into question that grade inflation exists at some level in high schools, many educators and other experts doubt grade inflation has been that widespread.

Peter Greene, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, is skeptical. Writing in his blog Curmudgucation, Greene wonders whether almost half of high school seniors really are graduating with an ‘A’ average:

“I’m not going to defend grade inflation – it’s not a good thing where it happens. I’m just highly doubtful that it happens this much. And when it’s being reported by someone who has a stake in discrediting grades, I’m extra doubtful.”

The “stake” Greene refers to is, of course, the College Board’s interest in boosting standardized tests – the SAT specifically – as a more accurate measure of student performance.

“If all transcripts are replete with A grades, without standardized tests,” the study says, “admissions staff would be tasked with the impossible – using high school GPA to predict whether the student will thrive academically.”

But Bob Schaeffer, executive director of Fair Test, says what the College Board’s focus on grade inflation “is simply an attempt to slow the test-optional admissions movement by casting doubt about the value of high school performance as a tool to forecast who will succeed in higher education.”

Schaeffer believes that while grade inflation is likely a real phenomenon, its impact in the college admissions process appears to be minimal. He argues that high school GPA has consistently proven to be the best available predictor of undergraduate success – and considerably better than standardized test scores.

“That is a major reason why so many colleges and universities have dropped ACT/SAT requirements,” Schaeffer says.  (For a skeptical examination of the College Board’s data, read this analysis in Inside Higher Ed)

Alfie Kohn, a longtime critic of letter grades, also cautions that a focus on grade inflation is probably driven  “more by conservative ideology than by evidence.”

It’s certainly not hard to imagine how headlines hyping an “epidemic” of grade inflation feed into right-wing talking points about public schools covering up failures and indifferent teachers casually passing out A’s to students as they walk out the classroom door.

Kohn, the author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition and The Schools Our Children Deserve, is a proponent of ditching number and letter grades in favor of, among other alternatives, qualitative narrative reports in which teachers describe and discuss student progress.

Kohn is also a vociferous critic of class rank, which Hurwitz and Lee in their report recommend as a sorting mechanism to offset the distorting effects of grade inflation. This is a practice, however, that has fallen out of favor. According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, about half of schools no longer report class rank, which Kohn believes “pits students against one another as if they were sports teams, and has been shown to undermine psychological health, relationships, interest in learning, and, ultimately, excellence.”

As Peter Greene said, grade inflation is not worth defending when and where it occurs. To the extent that it does exist highlights another flaw – though not a central one – with the A-F grading system. Some school districts are merely revising existing grading policies, while others (thought not many) have moved to eliminate grades entirely. But the growing number of districts who taking on this undeniably complex task are hopefully looking to create more effective and equitable systems to evaluate student progress and promote learning.

“The key question is whether our primary motive is to do what’s best for students or to figure out how to sort them for the benefit of admissions offices,” Kohn says.



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