The letter that follows was penned by John deVille , a public school teacher in Macon County, NC, to Jim Davis, his state senator.
Dear Senator Davis:
Macon County Schools, Haywood County Schools, and all the other school systems in your district and the state of North Carolina, are bracing for a wave of fiscal chaos to wash over them this coming fall. This chaos can only be undone by you and your fellow Senators.
We do not understand why it’s coming and what North Carolina children have done to deserve it.
We are speaking about the class-size cap which was passed in 2016. Your goal was simple and praiseworthy: create smaller K-3 classes in North Carolina. But without the necessary funding for both personnel and for the newly-required classrooms, what was praiseworthy will convert to classroom poison.
• We will lose art, music, and physical education classes for K-3 students.
• We will suffer larger class sizes in grades 4 – 12.
• Many school systems will have to have 40 first, second, and third grade students in a single room with two teachers in order to comply with the law.
• School systems will have to eliminate crucial programs in order to finance the class size mandate.
Last spring, the NC Senate faced a similar warning from across the state and even from the NC House. Representative Kevin Corbin was one of four primary sponsors of a bill to mitigate the damage which would be done by the class size cap and he was joined in passing the legislation by ALL Republicans and Democrat members of the NC House.
Finally, you and your fellow Senators gave us a one-year reprieve but the chaos watch has started anew.
Consider who is saying the class size cap law is bad policy:
• Every single Republican and Democratic representative in the NC House.
• Your hometown newspaper, The Franklin Press, published an editorial to this effect last April.
• All 115 school boards and all 115 superintendents across the state have said that this legislation will lead to fiscal chaos in their respective districts. It will cost Macon County Schools a minimum of $350,000 to comply and yet we will still be underwater. It will cost Haywood County Schools $1.9 million to comply and yet they will still be chop other educational opportunities and suffer larger classes outside of K-3.
• The NC PTA, which has never stepped onto the political stage, passed a resolution in early January demanding a repeal of the class size cap.
• As a former Macon County Commissioner, you yourself frequently denounced “unfunded mandates” — demands passed by the General Assembly which have no funding attached and thus force counties to pick up a tab for a meal they didn’t order. There is consensus from numerous outside sources, as well as from all one hundred county commissions, that this class size cap law is indeed an unfunded mandate. Absolutely no credible evidence has been offered that the law has been funded and so your own principles condemn this law as it now stands.
Last spring, we were promised a fix in the fall…none was forthcoming. In the fall, we were promised a fix in January, none has occurred. And now we are counseled to wait until May, with no guarantees that a solution will come even at that late date, long past the March/April window when county commissions and school boards put their finishing touches on the upcoming year’s school budget.
Senator Davis, can you please offer the children of North Carolina, our parents, and our teachers the desperately needed leadership in the Senate and lead your fellow Senators to either repeal this law or fully fund the mandate? Just last week, the highly-respected Education Week noted that North Carolina public schools had fallen from 19th to 40th in the space of 2011 to present…can you please help us turn this around?
By Angela Scioli, Wake County teacher
It’s hard to believe we are staring down the 5th year of Red4EdNC’s existence. In the documentary Teacher of the Year, the founding of Red4Ed is recorded and captures the naivete we brought to the task. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I really did believe that if teachers made their concerns public, through wearing Red 4 Ed on Wednesdays, the “butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker” would soon join us and it would just be a matter of time before elected officials felt the pressure and adopted different policies.
We magnified our message by writing articles and circulating our perspectives widely to inform the public. We hoped to increase the political pressure by taking to the streets, multiple times, to march and protest funding cuts and misguided policies, including a 23-mile march to speak with Governor McCrory that ended in the arrest of 14 of our fellow teachers and new friends. We felt that surely the arrest of teachers in an election year would awaken the public to the gravity of the situation. To ensure a better electoral outcome, we initiated a statewide ballot project and advised voters across the state who they should vote for in local and state education-related races.
We miscalculated. We miscalculated how pervasive gerrymandering is and how it has insulated our elected officials from the electorate. We overestimated the impact outsider tactics like mass protest can have, largely because we underestimated how hard it is to get thousands of time-strapped and underpaid teachers to give yet more of their valuable time to stand out in cold and heat. We were unaware the degree to which our target audiences aren’t getting informed by our perspectives because we are all safely ensconced in our comfortable “echo chambers,” where social media reverberates our ideas back at us, more eloquently perhaps, but rarely disrupting our point of view.
Alternatively, wearing Red 4 Ed on Wednesdays has been a success, but for different reasons than we anticipated. Wearing red has been adopted by lots of groups and is now the universal visual symbol of education advocacy. In that process, we’ve lost a little control of our brand, but we’ve gained a collective sense of identity and purpose that is powerful and palpable. Teaching is strangely isolating and we rarely have time for a decent conversation with our colleagues, much less engage in deep policy discussion related to our profession. In the crushing time constraints of teaching, when we are all working to meet the needs of our students and society, it’s affirming on a Wednesday to see our colleagues in red. It infuses the building with a shared identity, a solidarity, a “yep, we’re in this together, awake and aware,” yet it does not disrupt or delay us in achieving our professional purpose. Morale building like that, in this climate, is of inestimable value, even if the “butcher and the baker” aren’t joining the fun.
Participation in street level protests has been reframed for us, too. When we are able, we find it productive to show up. But we have different expectations. A successful protest is now defined by an affirmative answer to either of two questions, (1)“Did that gathering of like-minded folks feed our souls and strengthen us for future action?” and (2) “Did we network with other key education stakeholders and advocates in a meaningful way that might yield tangible benefits down the road?” By that measure, any protest can be powerful, no matter how many people show up.
At the same time we were engaging in “outsider tactics” like protest and writing, we were developing skills to pivot to more of an “inside game.” Through participation in district level work groups and two of our Board members becoming Fellows with the Hope Street Group, we expanded our understanding of how policy is made, how effective networking can help teachers influence that process, and we developed ideas of what policy initiatives might find traction in the realities of the current political climate. While being firm in our opposition to short-sighted policies of the present, like the unfunded K-3 class size caps currently confounding school districts, we are also committed to improving our schools, school climate and teacher working conditions by proposing real world solutions and specific policies we can achieve now.
In spring of 2017, we began a concerted effort to craft a concrete policy proposal for consideration by elected officials at the state level. Our experience told us that a policy related to (1) identifying and elevating effective educators in a fair, data-driven way, (2) providing cost effective and tailored professional development that included TIME for teachers, and (3) easing the administrative supervisory burden on administrators would be well received. And, in time, PROJECT IGNITE3(Inspiring Growth & New Instructional Techniques by Elevating Effective Educators) was born. With the help of key staffers and elected officials in the General Assembly and Department of Public Instruction, we have polished our pitch and are gaining traction. We are expanding outreach to more and more elected leaders and other education advocacy groups. Our conviction is growing that in a short time, our pilot project proposal will be written up as a bill we can actively lobby for.
It’s an exciting process, but we need your help. Can you read more about the policy proposal here and help us make it even better? We need teachers from rural areas, alternative settings, all grades and disciplines to weigh in. We have an unfortunate history of making ed policy with unforeseen consequences and don’t want to continue that trend. We want to anticipate every possible outcome to ensure this policy is as effective as possible. If you have feedback, please take a moment and complete this form. We really need your input.
Red4Ed was founded on the principle that there is a moderate majority of North Carolinians who support strong public schools. We think that majority knows strong public schools are the key to making the American Dream a realistic possibility for every American. We will continue to evolve our tactics and policies to achieve that vision. Give us feedback, follow us on Facebook, and check our website, red4ednc.com, for updates. We will keep you in the loop as we learn to navigate a “third way” to make effective education policy in North Carolina.
Part I: Reality – What Teacher Evaluation Is Like Now for Veteran Teachers
By Angie Scioli, Wake County Teacher
It’s May, and I can’t seem to get my feet to move fast enough down the hall for all I have to get done. I’ve been up grading since 3:30, have taught first period, and now I have 70 minutes of planning to take a bite off my to-do list. I run into Ms. Moore, one of our assistant principals, in the hall. Based on her raincoat, looks like she’s been chasing class cutters smoking in the woods again.
“Hey,” she says, gesturing my direction, “We need to schedule your summative evaluation. Wanna wait until after graduation? I know it’s a crazy time. But I’ve got 35 to do, so I need to get started on the bulk of them.”
I do a quick mental calculation and agree I should be one of her last.
“Ok”, she says, “but hey, send me some stuff. I know you are doing great stuff with current events, and that letter writing project, and executive teaming and collaboration. Wanna make sure I give credit where it is due.”
“Will do, “I nod. As I walk away, though, I think about the coming weeks. Need to write that last unit test, and email the special ed teachers about separate settings modifications for it. I have NC Final Exam training, graduation committee meetings, and I need to create that exam review. I have a pile of papers to grade and makeup work is flooding in. And I must touch base with parents of students that might fail my class and not graduate. My heart races at that last thought.
I resign myself to the fact that I probably won’t get around to emailing Ms. Moore anything, and like years before, we will have an awkward summative evaluation meeting, again. She has done two brief classroom observations this year, and it is evident when I finally look at my summative form that she has paid close attention and wracked her brain to consider what she has seen so she can rate me as highly as possible on the many categories. But even the greatest lesson couldn’t possible demonstrate mastery of every standard. And so her initial rating will probably underestimate my true ability.
That’s why she needs me to send her artifacts and data that will round out the picture. But the truth always comes down to this: she cares more about my form than I do. She wants me to know that she respects my work and appreciates what I do, but she is bound to only record what she observed in the relatively few moments she was in my room. There’s just not an incentive for me to spend hours pulling together a portfolio when I have so many other tasks competing for my time. And who sees my evaluation form anyways? A good or bad evaluation has no impact on my pay, advancement, hours or supervision assignments. That’s a good thing, because it would be unfair to make the instrument so consequential when it is based on so few observations. She would like to observe more- all the administrators would- but with 35 in her caseload, plus supervising 2500 students all day and dealing with discipline and twenty other areas of oversight, that’s just not possible.
While I’m glad she likes what she sees in my classroom, her classroom teaching days are over. More than wanting to impress the administration, I would like to be an agent of change, a catalyst to evolve the profession and instructional practice in other classrooms. But the current evaluation system provides none of those opportunities.
And so each May, we leave that evaluation meeting feeling a bit deflated. She feels bad that it isn’t a better reflection of my practice, and I feel bad that I care so little about that fact, and I continue to feel isolated in my “silo-ed” classroom. Another lost opportunity.
Part II. How We Could Leverage the Current Teacher Evaluation System to Create Advanced Roles for Teachers and Inspire Professional Learning
It’s May and I’m feeling the usual heat the month brings, both in the weather and in my profession. But there’s something different; I’m really excited about the professional development I have been a part of this year, and I can’t wait for Ms. Moore to see what my summative narrative report demonstrates.
It started in January of last year when our principal informed us we had been selected to participate in the pilot. Those of us who met the requirements- at least five years of teaching and being rated “accomplished” on most standards – applied to be master teachers and I was selected and recognized along with a dozen or so other colleagues. The master teachers declared which standards on the evaluation instrument we particularly specialize in, and we announced that our classrooms are open for all visitors and observers. It’s been fun to welcome guests into my classroom and has helped me stay sharp, knowing at any time I may be expected to model best practices.
Administrators still pop in when they like, but so do lots of others. They follow my blog on the shared directory where I explain what aspect of my practice I am focusing on this year, what changes I am making, and how I am gathering data to assess the effects. It’s fun to write professionally, reflect on my practice, and know that I have an authentic audience that might consult my blog, come see me teach, and replicate some of the things I am doing in a way that meets their specific professional or students’ needs.
I’ve also been assigned a cohort of teachers to lead in doing learning rounds. We are provided two professional development days each year to do learning rounds, and we also meet in the afternoons to identify areas for improvement, strategize about which classrooms we should go see, catch up on the blogs of those prospective teachers, and share our challenges and accomplishments. There are so many cross curricular and disciplinary conversations going on every day now, and I’m learning so many great strategies even as I am sharing mine. Our faculty has a growing collective understanding of many different aspects of our school, its culture, and what it is like to be a student in our school. We also have a growing respect for each other as accomplished professionals, and we all seek to be held in high regard as a result. In short, we are inspired and seek to inspire.
Being recognized as a master teacher has improved my attitude, provided new challenges as I work with my colleagues, and has given me an opportunity to be more reflective in a consistent and public way. I’m energized and can’t wait to share with Ms. Moore my blog, the progress I have seen in my students, my insights about my assigned cohort, and my ideas for next year. I think Ms. Moore is excited that the evaluation form is a springboard to a much richer conversation about teaching and learning, and one that is less dependent on her as the sole authority on my practice.
Part III. An Afterword.
I am aware that there are multiple pilots of advanced teaching models in progress. As a Hope Street Fellow, I was able to observe Charlotte’s Opportunity Culture Model, learn more about Project Advance in Chapel Hill, and study the other models in detail. I also served on Wake County’s committee to develop advanced teacher roles. I know none of the pilots employ the specific elements I have outlined above (learning rounds, release time and teacher-led cohorts), and I wish they did.
This pilot program principles is built upon the following basic realities:
- The current evaluation system has little utility for accomplished veteran teachers.
- That lack of utility is a huge missed opportunity.
- The current evaluation system is creating an untenable administrative and managerial burden for our school administrators.
- There are ways we could adapt the usage of the current teacher evaluation instrument to better serve the needs of teachers and encourage greater innovation in instructional practice.
- Those adaptations could be done relatively quickly and without great expense, but any reform will fail if it does not provide some time away from teaching for observation, reflection and planning.
It is my hope that with your interest and support, we can consider how to leverage the expertise of our most accomplished veteran teachers to inspire professional learning and instructional innovation in all our schools in NC.
By Angela Scioli, Wake County Public Schools Teacher
As much as education advocates (like myself) like to draw lines between education and business (exhibits A and B), there are some undeniable parallels. For example, there is a LOT of money at stake. In 2014, we spent $634 billion on public education in the United States.
Basic business principles are at work every day in our schools.
Principle #1: Branding “works”
Question: Which type of schools consistently demonstrate better educational outcomes when you control for variables such as income, race, and educational attainment of the parent? According to recent polls, most parents would get this question wrong. The answer is public schools, not private or charter schools. Research shows that charter schools vary widely in quality and that private school students’ educational outcomes are below those of public school students. Many education “consumers” don’t realize that private school teachers are typically not certified and charter and private teachers earn lower salaries than public school teachers.
How did consumers get such positive impressions of private and charter education despite their less than impressive academic track record? Simple – branding. Charter and private schools must attract students, and to do so they put a lot of time and energy and money into marketing. They produce well designed brochures, carefully staged and timed tours, and control what teachers can say about the school. They also create application processes that create an impression of scarcity and exclusivity– a tried and true driver of increasing demand. Marketing shapes community perception, and that perception becomes “reality”, even if teacher turnover and test scores tell a different story. The truth is that educating children is a complicated stew of pedagogy, educational theory, a healthy dose of “edutainment”, mastery of child developmental stages, social psychology, and nuanced behavior management. Given that fact, a parent at a school tour is a bit like a single guy looking for a date at a bar. They really want to make the right choice, but it’s easy to get distracted by variables that on the surface seem important, but will matter very little in the long run.
Alternatively, public schools do not flaunt, market or gloat. And while a high percentage of parents are happy with their public school (77% give their child’s school and “A” or “B”), happy news is rarely the subject of conversation.
While branding by charter and private schools is inevitable, it’s a case of “buyer beware” and we need to develop resources that arm parents with more transparency and information. An emerging model might be the information provided by the US Department of Education on its “College Scoreboard” website. Another remedy might be understanding the paradox of choice.
Principle #2: Choice is a paradox.
In America, we have been raised on a steady diet of “choice = freedom = good”. That mentality has led us to have supermarkets with 175 choices of salad dressings and 285 types of cookies. Ironically, research shows that an excess of choice can actually make us less, not more, satisfied. Market analysts believe that one explanation for the success of stores like Trader Joes is that they help consumers navigate what is not known as the “choice conundrum”.
I would suggest that we have met the choice conundrum threshold in some of the more metropolitan areas of our state. This became evident to me when a former student informed me that she was moving to Charlotte, NC. She inquired about which high school would be best for her daughter. When I informed her of the complex choices to be made even within the public school system, let alone considering charter and private, she became alarmed. It was clear that hours of research on schools would be required before she could even begin considering which neighborhoods to look for a home in. We weren’t even sure where her research should begin.
What does it cost us when we pursue our individual freedom and agency rather than committing to the social and communal institutions around us? In Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, he asserts that “Americans are paying for increased affluence and freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of community. What was once given by family, neighborhood and workplace now must be achieved and actively cultivated on an individual basis. The social fabric is no longer a birthright but has become a series of deliberated and demanding choices.”
What if the school-choice movement is just a dead-end rabbit hole that on the surface seems ideal, but at the core will lead to a debilitating choice paradox that leaves us never quite feeling certain or satisfied? Would we actually be better off if we had fewer schools, committed collectively to their success for all students, and invested in creating a strong and dense social fabric for our communities? Business seems to be pointing in a surprising direction – less may be more.
Principle #3: Economies of Scale = Efficiency
There is a real chicken and egg controversy brewing about charter schools and children with learning disabilities. First, it should be stated up front that no charter school can turn away a student with disabilities. However, charter schools on the whole consistently have fewer disabled students, and, merely attending a charter school decreases the likelihood a child will be diagnosed with a learning disability in the first place. Why might fewer disabled kids attend charters, and why are charter school kids less likely to be diagnosed? I think it’s a simple answer: economies of scale.
You can imagine the feeling of a charter school administrator when a parent asks about special education services, or when a teacher suggests a child might need to be tested. On one hand, you know the law, and on the other, you know the school’s revenue and expenditure streams. If you can avoid hiring or contracting with special education providers, that will create more flexibility with already tight budgets. And so, you don’t turn the parents away. You just say that special education is not the “focus” of the school. You encourage the teacher to make modifications without testing and identification. You don’t say no, but you don’t say yes. And over time, the “problem” just kind of takes care of itself.
But that “solution” is just a band-aid that sidesteps the real business principle at work. It is inefficient to have multiple schools serving the same purposes, and that inefficiency is hurting kids. And not just disabled ones. Take AP classes. I teach at a large comprehensive high school. There are 2400 kids at the school and nineteen people in my department. We offer five AP courses in social studies. Enough students register for those classes that our teachers teach only one AP course and most teach multiple sections of it a day over the course of many years. They know the curriculum, they hone their ability to teach it, and they have a track record of student scores to be analyzed. Many go on to be exam assessors in the summer and contributors to online teacher communities focused on masterful teaching of that course.
Smaller charter (median size 286) and private schools (average size = 140) offer fewer courses at the high school level, and teachers are more likely to teach several different subjects within their department. They might teach an AP course once a day, every other year, for example. A teacher with three or more different lesson preps a day is in a qualitatively different position than a teacher with one or two. Small school teachers’ ability to master the subject, create detailed and effective lessons and assessments, and give quality feedback is compromised by how many lessons they must prepare for a single day. A parallel in the business world is developing a pitch to sell one unique product as opposed to selling four. Division of labor and specialization wins the day.
Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation learned this the hard way. One of their first reform ideas was to create smaller schools, and in 2003 they spent $20 million in North Carolina alone to make that dream a reality. But by 2015, they were closing or reorganizing those schools, citing evidence that the reform had not improved student outcomes in any significant way.
Larger schools also provide capacity for students with special needs. If you already have a speech therapist on staff, you can identify and serve more students that need therapy. The same is true for learning disabilities, autism, hearing impairment and behavioral disorders. If you think about it, public funds should not be going to schools that in any way, subtle or unsubtly, fail to fully serve students with disabilities. To do otherwise goes against the letter and spirit of the law.
What are the business principles, applied to education, that might produce the best societal and student outcomes? Understand the power of branding and arm consumers with information, or, avoid the choice conundrum altogether by offering fewer, larger schools that benefit from economies of scale, have the full support and investment of the entire community behind them, and better meet the needs of teachers AND students.
One of my most prized possessions is my grandmother’s cross-stitch of the Serenity Prayer. As I hung it on the wall in my new house this summer, I was flooded with thoughts about the coming school year.
God grant me Serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
Public education is complicated and costly. Despite our attempts to improve school resources and teacher conditions, the political landscape has not been friendly to these changes. Decisions about education involve the cooperation of educational leaders, politicians, and voting taxpayers. This can feel so unlikely at times it makes me want to give up. I’ve been spending too much time lamenting this reality rather than trying to find ways to navigate through it.
There is no cure-all for reaching all students. Every year I get a new idea for how to reach my low performing students, and I start the year optimistically believing this will finally be the year all of my students will succeed. Sure enough, I’ll reach students I wouldn’t have in the past but then lose other students who would have responded better with my old method. Some adolescents will actually sabotage their own success for some psychological or social reason unknown to you.
My family needs me and I need them. I can’t always put off time for my family until the weekend or the holidays or summer break. We provide each other unconditional love and care that is needed every day. All the time I spend on extra school work is non-refundable and the work will literally never be done. Time with family is precious and limited. My kids will stop wanting to always hang out with me, then they will be too busy with their own school work, and then they will grow up and move out.
…Courage to change the things I can…
I will stop trying to fix everything all the time. I genuinely want to improve my teaching and help my students more, but I get too stressed when I get in over my head. It makes me uneasy to let something go that needs work, but students are resilient and don’t require everything to be perfect. In fact, trying to perfect everything doesn’t work and may even backfire. Embracing my classroom as a “work in progress” will give them a model of a true learning environment.
I will let go of misguided feelings of guilt. I want to walk out of my classroom and feel good about what I did accomplish rather than guilty for not doing more. When I really do need to do something different, guilt is a helpful signal. But when I just feel guilty all the time over things I can’t change, it tends to make me both insecure and defensive. I plan to practice mindfulness through yoga and meditation so I can be more aware and accepting of myself.
I will start taking better care of myself during the school year. I can no longer stay up half the night to grade papers or skip lunch several days a week to help students. I need to take breaks throughout the day to use the restroom, get water, stretch, walk the halls, and talk with colleagues. When I have a medical issue, I am going to take care of it immediately instead of risking it getting worse. I am not going to let work interfere with my plans to cook healthy meals and exercise.
…and Wisdom to know the difference.
Which battles should I be fighting? When I started writing for Red 4 Ed, I was very optimistic about helping influence the outcome of the most recent state and local elections. When that did not happen, I got discouraged but also motivated to try harder next time. Something that would help me the most is school calendar reform – anything that would increase the number of workdays and spread breaks more evenly throughout the year. But if that is not going to change any time soon, I have to make more time for myself and encourage others to do the same. I started cutting back on my hours two years ago, but my lessons and assessments were still so high-maintenance that it didn’t work out. Last year, I said no to some leadership opportunities and limited my participation in committees. Most importantly, I had to start changing how I taught and ran my classroom so I would not burn out.
What can I simplify or scale back? Last year was an interesting experience. On the positive side, I learned how to do some things more efficiently by focusing on the purpose and end goal of everything I do. In some cases, this got me to think of something that was not only more efficient but also more effective. The weeks where I stuck to my reduced workload plan, I was more refreshed during class and had more mental energy when giving feedback. However, I could not always meet all the demands of the job. I had less time to prepare for lessons, less time to grade, less time to contact parents, less time to complete paperwork, and less time to organize my classroom. I was much more likely to forget to do something or simply run out of time to meet a deadline. I had to think of it as a juggling act with too many balls for one person to juggle, so I just had to choose which balls to let drop.
What really matters here? During this time, my father became critically ill and spent almost two months in the hospital. I missed over a week of school and spent many more afternoons going to visit instead of staying after school to work. We got lucky and he recovered, but this was a massive wake-up call. Taking care of family is my first priority, and school can go on without my constant attention. My colleagues handled plans and grading; my students were sympathetic and patient while I caught up. I got to be a person, a daughter, a caregiver, not just a teacher. We all focused on the biggest priorities and everything turned out okay in the end. It was good that I had already decided to cut back, because if I had not, there would have been less room to adjust. Building in more time for “rainy days” would also create more opportunities throughout the semester to give students the breaks and personal attention they need.
I am putting these statements and questions in italics on a sign as a reminder for the coming school year. You can download a printable version to keep in your plan book or make your own. (It is made from a picture of the actual cross-stitch I inherited from my grandmother, Frances Snow)
By Angela Scioli, Wake County Public School Teacher
An edited version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the News and Observer on July 26, 2017. It can be accessed here.
Since 2013, I have had no textbooks (yes, that is correct: no textbooks) for my American History classes. I’ve had age- inappropriate textbooks for my Civics classes (written for 7th grade, but my students are in 12th), and my AP Government textbook was written when George W. Bush was president. Suffice it to say that politics has changed somewhat since 2006.
The resources a teacher needs vary greatly according to grade, population, discipline and teaching style. Not all teachers need the same things, even if teaching the same grade at the same school. I would actually prefer textbooks, and I realize I might have lost you right there.
Textbooks have gotten a bad rap lately as outdated, biased and inefficient. You might assume I am “old school” and boring in my instructional approach; I assure you I am not. But textbooks make sense if you consider the courses I teach: American History, Civics and Economics, and AP Government and Politics. These disciplines are “content heavy”; students need to know basic information to master the course and do higher level critical thinking activities, collaboration, and problem solving at the center of our work.
A textbook solves that problem quite nicely, even if it isn’t perfect. First, assigning reading helps with reading comprehension and fluency, allowing me to teach the skill of note-taking, an important practice in any format, digital or otherwise. A textbook doesn’t require a broadband internet connection at home; it is portable, “fixed” (so related assignments make sense), and written and edited by a cadre of professionals and experts in the field.
My second choice: computers. If I send each student home with a computer (or have them use their phones), I would need to collect and curate my own digital content for each course I teach, much of which would be video-driven. This option does not aid in reading comprehension, and there is less editorial control for bias/errors. Also, the incredible amount of time required to construct this content presents its own issue.
Like many teachers, I have tried various options to get the resources my students need. Most teachers reach into their own pockets first, but the resources I need far exceed my salary. I have funded supplementary books through Donors Choose (the GoFundMe of teaching), or gotten grants, but again, the need here is greater than those platforms typically provide. (This is why we pay taxes and collectively leverage resources for public education, the most ambitious, and expensive, public project we have ever engaged in as a collective body. It’s bigger than well-meaning charities and grant opportunities). I have attended and organized others to attend protests. I started a statewide symbolic protest movement called Red4EdNC (like us on Facebook!) and we remind people weekly to Wear Red for Ed on Wed. I have marched 23 miles with other teachers to see if the Governor would meet with us (he did not, 14 were arrested). I have developed relationships with policymakers. I have had them as guest speakers in my classes – county commissioners, school board members, my state representative, my state senator. I have visited them in their offices. The Chair of the NC House Education Committee, Craig Horn, has spent hours in my classroom and met with me for hours in his office. My elected officials know me and greet me as a friend, as well as a constituent. I have spoken at public comment opportunities at school board meetings, county commissioner meetings, and state committee meetings. I have spoken to Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs. I have had a camera crew follow me around for a year for a documentary (that can be screened here until August 2nd). In the last election, I piloted a ballot project statewide: If you sent Red4EdNC your name and address, we would research your ballot’s education-related races, and text you back an image of your ballot with our voting recommendations. Due to gerrymandering, it had little effect: our elected leaders are safe in their polarized districts.
It is four years later. The embedded chart shows you the budget, in millions, for textbooks and instructional materials. The numbers came from the DPI website here. My students still do not have the necessary resources. I have ten laptop computers that students cannot take home, and I am grateful for that (thanks, Wake County Commissioners!), but it does not solve the problem. When I ask the commissioners for (more) money, they remind me that the state constitution says the state bears the responsibility for guaranteeing each child an equitable public education. When I speak to my state senator, he says the county commissioners could raise property taxes to pay for books if they wanted. All my elected state officials say they have very little influence over the state budget. I sense just a few people actually do.
So, it’s late July, and another school year is in sight, and I still do not have the necessary resources for my students. What else can I do? Time is running out. And my students deserve better. Please state your ideas in the comments.
Though she technically teaches English, she has embraced a multidisciplinary approach to instruction that led her to partner with Career & Technical Ed teachers to help struggling ninth graders transition to school and later careers. While she was at it, it seemed perfectly natural to have the Foods teacher do cooking demonstrations and the sewing and art teachers get into the game as well. Years into the project, her partners were snapped up, one by one, to work at SAS, and in time she decided a new adventure was in order. She applied to work as the Secondary English Language Arts Consultant for the state at the Department of Public Instruction. She was employed in that capacity for two and a half years, and then, to the surprise of many, she decided to return to the classroom. That atypical set of experiences motivated us to hear her story.
Growing Up, Into and Out of Teaching
Angie’s family of origin didn’t let geographic boundaries limit them, either. Born in Wilson, NC, they lived all over NC – Jacksonville, Rocky Mount, Greensboro, and Elizabethtown/White Lake – before moving to Maryland. After graduating from the University of Maryland, Angie took a job at Englewood High School in Jacksonville, FL where she taught for two years and met her future husband, Charlie, also a teacher. In 1989 she returned to NC to attend graduate school at NC State. True to her boundary-breaking form, when she started teaching at Broughton High School, she taught social studies and English, in five different classrooms.
Upon realizing a new high school would open in northwest Raleigh, Leesville Road High School, and a good number of her students would be transferring, Angie joined them in the transition to help open the school in 1993. In her tenure at Leesville, she has taught every course but 11th grade and every level except AP. Team teaching the ninth grade transitional class was by far the most transformational; she worked with various models to support students in building on prior knowledge and applying it in other classes. “We were a community. We were teaching them English and Business Applications, but also tried to expose them to all the Career and Technical Ed electives to help boost motivation and make school an enjoyable place to be.” She and her teaching partner could move students to a different cohort to manage behavior, and teachers could move students into different spaces and interact with kids throughout the day, in different ways.
She admits the model was partly about the structure, but also largely dependent upon the talented people she was paired with. And, as they left the school, one by one, she considered her options as well. One force driving her to seek a new positions was a changing public school culture. She felt that, increasingly, students were not being held accountable. Even today she continues to be surprised by student response to expectations: “Firm deadlines have disappeared. Weeks past a deadline, I can ask a student about a missing assignment and they will say “Oh, I’m working on it”. Or worse, some students will choose to copy and paste one and, instead of giving them a zero and teaching them a lesson, they are provided a chance to re-do it for a reduced grade. Then, if their grades are poor, I have to remediate and help them grade recover. It was and is at odds with my ethics; I wouldn’t want that for my own children because it will make them lazy and entitled. While I understand the necessity of getting students to graduate on time, we must remember our mission statement – to produce effective citizens. If you don’t know Shakespeare? Fine. But please be an honest person who will work hard and meet deadlines.” That shift in culture, paired with a never-ending paperwork load and ten years of stress from working with a struggling student population, led her to seek a new position.
DPI: Perception v. Reality
Armed with a wide range of instructional experiences, a master’s, National Board certification, and a confident, flexible demeanor, Angie quickly realized she was qualified and knowledgeable enough to undertake her new job at DPI. But she remembers being struck by some unexpected realities. “The first thing was the physical building, “ she mused,” DPI is known as the “pink palace” for its imposing building facade, but the interior Is in need of attention just like many facilities across the state. It needs new carpet, simple maintenance. It’s pretty metaphorical if you think of some other things going on in our state.”
A second thing she picked up on was a small language shift. When talking about teachers, the pronoun “they” was often employed instead of “we”. “I was kind of abashed at first. THEY? I still thought of myself as a teacher, and I saw this new job as an opportunity to serve my fellow teachers in the field, but I can see that many teachers don’t view DPI presence that way. One unfortunate reality of how some DPI positions interface with teachers is that, without deliberate intent, teachers sometimes feel discounted and their unique circumstances not fully considered.“ Angie recalled how her team would prepare presentations for teachers in a precise and exact manner so that all regions of the state received the same, exact information. “ Every slide had a script. And some presenters have a hard time going off that script and incorporating the ideas and practices of teachers, of seeing how teachers need to approach instruction based on their region and resources. As a result, presenters might come off as being demanding, and rigid, causing teachers to feel like they are being told “there is only one way to do it.” She became more and more aware of the chasm between the ideal, coming from DPI, and the everyday reality of classroom teaching. “Teachers need to feel supported, and they need things that are realistic.”
After two years, she began to see the limits of her position in impacting student achievement: “I learned a lot, got to travel and experience the various school systems, network, it was great. There are so many people at DPI doing great projects and work that I deeply respect, such as Global Education and Comprehensive Needs Assessment visits, but in terms of my direct work, I felt like I was perpetuating a system I didn’t believe in much like I felt in 2014 when I left the classroom. And so I realized I might as well go back and impact young people directly in a positive way, which I know I can do. I like them, and typically they like me.”
Back in the Trenches
While in some ways returning to teaching was like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes, in other ways it was like a plunge into a cold pool. First, about a year into her new position, Angie decided that she would not teach the same way if she ever came back and she threw out all of her files. Secondly, the pace of her workday was less hectic but also out of her control for the most part, “At DPI, I had a less hectic pace and a directed workload. While at school I have more autonomy and control over how my day would proceed. Teaching, there is nothing like this. It is rapid fire, on all the time, saying one thing while filing three things in the back of your head to attend to later. People are your product, and they’re each different, unique individuals. You need to instruct, guide, maintain order and at the same time not hurt someone’s feelings and injure that relationship.” Angie estimates that once you are out of the classroom 3 years, returning to classroom teaching would be a significant challenge.
She gained new insight into the exhaustion that accompanies teaching. “By the end of the day we are so exhausted because of the sheer number of decisions we have to make all day, both actively and subconsciously. That’s the element that has become more pronounced. And every year something gets added. For example, now we have to take attendance twice – once in class and then repeated on the computer, and every detail of computer entry has to be accurate. There’s little room for error.”
And, her stint at DPI really improved her teaching in the area of targeting instructional standards – she knows and teaches the standards. “Now that I know the English Language Arts standards, K-12, inside and out, and they drive my instruction, I can see the power of that deliberate focus for students.” Throwing out her old files and building lessons on that new foundation has been key to that evolutionary development. “I have not regretted coming back to the classroom. This is what I am supposed to be doing. And I think I was supposed to have that little reprieve and perspective shift, too. It’s all turned out really well and I’m so grateful I could come back here to Leesville, my home. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
With thirty years in teaching, most educators would be planning retirement; but, clearly, boundless is where Angie Stephenson’s comfort zone lies. And the state of North Carolina, and Ms. Stephenson’s students, are all the better for it.
By Angela Scioli, Wake County Public School Teacher
I woke up at my usual 3:30 a.m. on April 5th, not to grade papers but to write out the statement below; I hoped to read it during the public comments at the Senate Education Committee meeting at noon. Due to a doctor’s appt. at 9:00 requiring a sick day, it seemed like an opportune time to go to the General Assembly and try and inject my point of view as a member of the public, teacher, and parent.
Right as I walked in the door, my plan ran into problems. The bill I wanted to speak about, HB13 (a bill to ease the impact of unfunded class size reductions), was not in the Education Committee, as one would expect. It had been assigned to the Rules Committee. They were meeting at 5:15pm. I immediately started reworking my schedule for the day, trying to determine how I could remain downtown until that time.
I found out that Charles Rabon, from Pender County, is the Chair of the Senate Rules Committee. I located his office to check in about the 5:15 meeting. I was informed that the Rules Committee was meeting at 5:15pm, but they were not hearing HB13 and public comment can only occur on a bill on a specific day. That day could be any day, and it might not be known until 8am on that day. But this was not the day.
A quick mental calculation helped me realize that a classroom teacher’s voice will very rarely be heard in the public comment system that exists now. Paid lobbyists? Yes. Me? No. I have to plan weeks ahead to miss school, arrange a sub, write lesson plans and activate the plan. I can’t exactly head down to the General Assembly after checking the day’s schedule over breakfast. I’m sure most working people are like me.
Feeling defeated, I offered the legislative assistant my printed copy of my comments. Could she pass them on to the senator? Visibly annoyed, she said someone had already dropped off a paper about HB13. Confused, I told her that I had written these comments myself, and I might as well leave them with her as they now served no use. I left the paper on her desk. She seemed averse to touching it.
I don’t think my comments were ever actually seen by an elected official. But here is what I would have said:
I want to talk today about HB 13. But not as a teacher. Without the passage of HB13, I am certain my high school social studies classroom will grow ever more crowded and there will not be enough textbooks. But that is not what concerns me most.
First and foremost, I am a parent and a citizen. My daughters, Campbell and Caroline, are 9 and 10 years old and attend Leesville Elementary School. They are doing amazing things at the school. They are reading primary texts, finding textual evidence, and they are learning how to do math from the inside out. To be honest, they are being challenged and they are a little stressed a lot of the time. But there are two classes we hear about all the time, and the joy they feel about them is contagious.
Ms. Perricone is a reservist in the National Guard and let me tell you, she is fired up about fitness. She has dreamed up all kinds of ways to get kids excited about moving. The girls have persuaded me to buy them a step counter so they can compete in the inter-class competition to see who can move the most during PE class. My daughters demonstrate the LATEST core exercises to build strong bodies, let me tell you. They love PE. Ms. Perricone motivates and inspires them in so many ways.
Ms. Benner is their art teacher. Caroline right now is paired with Molly and they are figuring out how to make a huge sculpture using only recycled materials. They have decided to make a huge paintbrush out of soda bottles and tin cans, and cardboard, and I don’t know what all, but I know Caroline is constantly problem solving and carting things out of the house to take to school for this structure. And her and Molly are learning to work together.
My point is this. If HB13 doesn’t pass we may not have Ms. Perricone and Ms. Benner in our lives next year. My children will be devastated.
I understand there doesn’t seem to be enough money for lower class sizes AND art AND PE. But I want to know why not? This is the United States of America. Our children are our most important resource. And I want them to have orderly classrooms, and healthy bodies, and creativity and beauty. I am willing to pay more for that to happen for ALL our children.
The state constitution says it is the state government’s ultimate responsibility. I am a proud American and I want us to do better. I know we can. So, if you won’t pass HB 13, pass something that will actually fund the class size reductions you mandated last year.
But, cutting PE and Art to staff K-3 class caps is not the answer.
By Jennifer Orr, 18 year Durham and Wake County Public School Teacher
In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a general statute (GS 115C-83.15 2013) requiring schools to be assigned a grade on a scale of A – F labeled School Performance Grades. These grades were released for the first time in the fall of 2015 and are calculated using a formula of 80% achievement and 20% growth. Many parents use this as an overall measure of a school’s effectiveness, but these grades are misleading to parents and especially damaging to the reputation of schools serving economically disadvantaged children. This A – F grading system is giving parents and the community the impression that many of our public schools are doing a poor job…that students aren’t learning. This is simply untrue – let me show you why.
The graph to the left shows each school’s percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch compared to that school’s “performance” grade for the school year 2015 – 2016. Each dot represents a Wake County elementary school. The red dots are the elementary schools where more than 50% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. Notice what happens as the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch increases. School performance grades clearly decrease. In addition, this graph shows the A – F grade cut-offs for the 2015 – 2016 school year. It is disturbing to note that ONLY ONE school with more than 50% of the students receiving free or reduced lunch was given above a C. Furthermore, NO schools with fewer than 50% of the students receiving free or reduced lunch were given a grade below a C. These letter grades are not measuring the performance of the school – they are measuring the economic status of the school’s students.
Economic status has been a hot topic in education recently, and much research has been conducted on the effects of poverty on children. A study was done in 2015 using scans to measure gray matter in the brain. The study found that the gray matter volume for children living below the federal poverty level was 7 to 10 percent lower than typical for their age, particularly in the areas of the brain associated with problem solving, auditory processing and memory (Hanson, Hair, & Wolfe, 2015). Schools are facing new challenges with higher rates of poverty in America. Now, more than half the students in America’s public schools receive free or reduced lunch, a measure often used as a proxy for poverty rates. In North Carolina, the percentage is higher than the national average with 53% of students receiving free or reduced lunch (Southern Education Foundation, 2015).
Because of the impact of poverty, we must find a better way to measure school performance that doesn’t discriminate against schools serving economically disadvantaged students. Growth is a measurement that truly shows a school’s effectiveness. The graph to the right represents the same Wake County elementary schools during the same school year as the first graph. It shows each school’s percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch compared to the school’s growth. Notice that the data no longer follows a pattern based on student’s economic status. Instead the data is scattered evenly with little to no correlation meaning the growth a school produces has little to do with economic status. Some schools are exhibiting more growth than others, however this measurement no longer penalizes schools with higher numbers of low-income students. This shows how the school GREW the student, as opposed to the student’s economic-based achievement level.
The reputation of some of the schools teaching a high percentage of low-income children suffers under this system. Two elementary schools that received a D last year would have received an A if graded on growth alone. These are not the only schools that received low “performance” grades even though their growth score tells a different story: 4 schools receiving a C grade would have received an A for growth, 4 schools receiving a D would have received a B for growth, and 10 schools receiving a C would have received a B for growth. All these schools serve a population where more than half of the students receive free or reduced lunch. So, why give the public the impression that these schools are doing a poor job? These schools’ grades should reflect the dedication and hard work of the staff and students.
Maybe even more important than the schools receiving low grades are those that receive deceptively high grades. Two schools that received an A performance grade would have had a C growth grade. Yet these schools’ grades give the impression they are doing a better job than many others with lower grades. This is because of a provision in the statute that allows schools who have over an 80% achievement score and who met growth to ignore the growth score in the formula if it brings the school’s overall grade down. In other words, the school’s growth could be stagnant and the school would still receive a very high score. Last year, 14 Wake County elementary schools used this loophole. Those schools’ grades are not a reflection of their performance, but rather of the higher income population of students.
Many economically disadvantaged students are entering school behind their peers in proficiency and the school may be doing a great job helping these kids grow, but school performance grades do not show this. So why hasn’t the North Carolina General Assembly changed the formula? Last week, the House introduced House Bill 322 which would change the way these grades are calculated to 50% achievement and 50% growth. This is the third time the House has introduced a bill to change the formula in the last two years. The other two, House Bill 803 and House Bill 300 both introduced during the 2015 – 2016 session, did not make it into law. Even Senator Jerry Tillman, a proponent of the original bill to give School Performance Grades, stated, “I’d rather be in a D school making great growth than in an A school where growth is stagnant. I know if these kids are growing, there has to be good teaching and good leadership for that to be occurring.” (Bonner, 2015). The General Assembly needs to change the formula and recognize growth separate from achievement.
It is impossible to take all that a school does and boil it down to a single letter grade. However, to be meaningful, a school performance grade at minimum should reflect the school’s performance – not the school’s economic make-up of students. If a school is going to be graded on how it is helping students learn – helping them GROW – then the school’s grade should be based primarily on GROWTH. The public perception that our schools are declining is false – students ARE learning and growing in our schools. It is time to recognize the schools using accurate performance measurements and to adjust policy and decisions to meet the challenge of increasing poverty in our state.
Jennifer Orr has taught high school mathematics for 18 years in both Durham Public and Wake County Public Schools. She is currently implementing a volunteer program tutoring students who are below grade level in math in an elementary school with over 50% free/reduced lunch. You can find out more information about the program and how you can volunteer by going to www.projectrisenc.org.
Bonner, L. (2015, February 3). Retrieved from The News & Observer: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article10249871.html
Hanson, J. L., Hair, N. L., & Wolfe, B. L. (2015, September). Jama Pedicatrics. Retrieved from The Jama Network: http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2381542
Southern Education Foundation. (2015, January). Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools. Retrieved from Southern Education Foundation: http://www.southerneducation.org/Our-Strategies/Research-and-Publications/New-Majority-Diverse-Majority-Report-Series/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now