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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
By: Angie Scioli
Laura Woods had a circuitous route to teaching public school, but that’s hard to believe now that she is in her 30th year at Broughton High School in Raleigh, NC, where she is a living and breathing institution.
Born in Kentucky and attending Cornell University, Laura began teaching in outdoor education and park settings in the early 1980s. A couple of subsequent rewarding years in private school classrooms then led her to UNC-Chapel Hill to get her Master’s and license to teach. She has been teaching, leading and serving in the science department at the flagship high school in Wake County since she was hired in 1987. She has taught Biology (Honors and Advanced Placement), Marine Ecology, Physical Science, and a study skills course.
But this is a big year. Year 30. After this year, she can walk away at any time, with a full pension, thanks to years of investment via her monthly paycheck and a guarantee for lifetime benefits from the state pension system. She’s weighing her options.
“I know the practical answer. I should retire, get my pension, go find another job and make a ton more money”, she muses. But she’s 58; Social Security doesn’t kick in until age 66, and that’s eight years to bridge through private employment. That scenario would entail basically re-inventing herself and navigating a very different daily routine. “Even if I went to teach at a private school, it would be a significant learning curve. Here, I know where everything IS. Every piece of equipment, all the rules, protocols . . . it takes a lot of time to set up labs, and labs are key in science instruction. These are realities I consider.”
One thing she says would keep her around? A cost of living raise. She hasn’t had a raise in quite a while. “The state doesn’t want to give veteran teachers a raise, as that only contributes to their pension liabilities. They’ll give a bonus here and there, but that is not helping me keep ahead of inflation.”
Another primary concern is the future of the club she founded when she started, Student Action for the Environment (SAFE). In its 26th year, the club is an extension of Woods’ values and philosophy. The students organize activities for Earth Day and coordinate the recycling program for the entire campus. It entails week in, week out commitment and oversight and Woods has been unable to find a less experienced teacher willing to take on the voluntary role. Many younger teachers have second jobs or are unwilling to add more hours to their long days of teaching and grading. The weight of an entire campus’ worth of landfill waste literally weighs on her conscience – no small matter for an environmental scientist.
Of seemingly secondary concern are her physical ailments. She has chronic plantar fasciitis, so her otherwise professional wardrobe is necessarily accompanied with practical sneakers on a daily basis. Her feet “hurt all the time”, but that’s just a daily reality when you are on your feet all day. She says she’s grown used to it.
She said she also grew used to the toll teaching took on family time. Since Broughton is on an A/B year-long schedule, when she takes up multi-page typed lab reports, she has 155 to grade. She says she’s spent a lot of time in coffee shops over the years, away from her family so she can work as efficiently as possible. An empty nester now, she rises at 4:50, is at school from 6:55-5:00 and just brings the work home to complete. She’s also always trying to work smarter, using web-based assignment platforms, exit tickets, and scantrons or zipgrade for multiple choice sections of assessments. But there is no replacement for written lab reports, and immediate feedback is still important.
Mentoring and assisting new teachers is also a big challenge. A new reality of teaching in NC is teacher turnover, even at a prestigious school like Broughton. In a department of fifteen, there are eight veterans and the remaining positions demonstrate fairly consistent churn. It took them an entire semester to find a Chemistry teacher this year. “You really do your best to help the new teachers – show them the ropes, share resources, help them set up equipment, whatever they need. It takes a lot of time, but you invest in them, hoping they will stay.” They rarely do; she estimates most last about 2 years. Each resignation comes with a sense of loss for veteran teachers who have poured their time and efforts into the new recruits. “But you just keep investing in them. You always hope this new teacher will be the one who stays.” She notes that the teachers who stay are the ones who invest in the community, “They buy homes, have children, put down roots. They commit to be here and it makes a big difference.”
Recently, Laura gave her principal a commitment to teach for at least one more year at Broughton. This in itself is a significant gift to the state’s students. A teacher with Woods’ content knowledge, classroom management expertise and community-minded spirit has an impact on a school and student body that is so significant it is hard to quantify. Whatever the future beyond that, we celebrate the amazing career and service of Laura Woods, today and always.
Do you know an educator with a unique perspective that we should highlight? Let us know! Email Angie Scioli @ firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to consider them for a future installment in this series.
By: Angie Scioli , et al (meaning many of her teacher friends who joined her on Facebook)
Early voting starts WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 20TH, and we can think of no single group of professionals that are better suited for early voting than North Carolina’s 10,0000 + teachers! Why, you might ask? Oh, let us count the ways! I asked my fellow teachers to help me brainstorm a list of the REAL ways their best laid plans have gotten blown up in a single day, and would have been just the thing that would have prevented them from voting on November 8th.
There’s a few different categories. There’s the
#1: “Don’t Be Fooled That Whatever Flexibility Has Been Put Into Place For Other Professionals Applies to You” Category
Heard there is a two hour delay in your school system to ease traffic and crowding at the pools? Thinking you’ll have time in the a.m.? Oh no, that probably doesn’t apply to teachers! For example, Wake County is expecting all teachers to be in at the usual time. Other counties have a teacher workday and have planned professional development sessions all day.
And, then there’s the
#2: “Ninja Tricks All Teachers Need to Think About”
If you vote early you can get the copy machine all to yourself when everyone else is standing in the other line!
And the ever popular
#3: “You Didn’t Actually Think You Were Getting Out on Time??” Reality
A last minute IEP meeting is called and YOU are the only core subject teacher…and guess what…it’s time to review and change it!
Monday’s after school faculty meeting ran into Tuesday.
Surprise! Someone from downtown wants to talk to you about additional insurance you can’t afford anyway….for an hour and a half
A new kid that has a limited English vocabulary doesn’t know how he is supposed to get home and no one is answering the number in PowerSchool and school has been out for an hour and a half
An angry parent storms in because their child has a low grade, and they want to know why YOU didn’t remind them to do/take out/turn in their homework every night for the past 8 weeks.
That one kid that turns in everything late for a “70” brings in all his assignments the day before grades are due. And he wants to know his new grade. Like, NOW, because his phone is about to be taken away.
A student tells you they are suicidal at 2:15 and you can’t locate a parent for the next several hours.
That parent that you’ve been trying to get to come in for a conference finally comes in… unannounced
#4: “You Aren’t a Teacher, You Just Wouldn’t Understand” Issue:
It’s book character day you go to the polls dressed as Ms. Frizzle because you forgot your “normal” clothes and get mistaken for an escaped mental patient.
#5: “Standard Occupational Hazard” Calculus:
Also it’s flu season so there is a 90% chance I’ll get vomited on by a tiny human.
#6: The “DOH! I Never Have Time to Do My ACTUAL Job” Reality
You get so caught up reflecting on your amazing lessons that day that you completely lose track of time……….OR………”oh (insert word of choice), I don’t have lesson plans done for tomorrow”
PowerSchool has been down for maintenance and grades are due tomorrow.
There are not enough bus drivers (they are all voting) and you get pulled to drive a “quick” route. 3 hours and most of the county later….
Not be outdone by the
#7: The “If You Stick Around Long Enough You See it All” Dynamic:
Your classroom was broken into and you have to spend your “after the bell” time cleaning and reorganizing!
You are in a hurry to leave school, but unfortunately slip, fall, and split your knee open. You then have to drive yourself to the Emergency Room for stiches!
An early ice storm hits and you have to stay in school to make pb&j sandwiches for the kids that couldn’t get picked up.
During your parking lot duty a teenage driver backs into another car. You are stuck comforting them and trying to convince them their parents aren’t going to “kill them”, trying to find the other car’s driver, AND a principal and SRO.
It’s field trip day to Old Salem and your bus is the one broken down on I – 40. But it’s ok – they can “get another one to you by 6:00 pm. Hang tight!”
#8: “I Don’t Have the Bandwidth to Run My Life and Teaching Life Simultaneously” Reality
Your super-duper teacher’s car breaks down on the way to the polls and you had to let your AAA membership expire when your parents didn’t renew it for you. Because who can afford AAA?
One of your 1st period students is certain the set of car keys he or she has lost is in your room, and you help search, no luck. BUT, they’ve also managed to misplace their phone and don’t know any phone numbers. So… you help track down a ride and wait with them until the ride arrives after work. Then you can’t remember where you have put your own keys.
Not to be confused with the
#9: “I Have Multiple Jobs and I’m Always Working One of Them” Problem
It’s the start of basketball season and somehow you forgot it’s your gate duty night until you get that email reminder to pick up your box!
And finally, the
#10: “Details Matter” category:
You show up at the polls on November 28th and are surrounded by Trump supporters wondering where everyone is…
See, teachers?? It’s crazy out there! Do yourself, and all of NC a favor! We need to hear your voice loud and clear this November; take control of this situation and VOTE. And, VOTE EARLY!
By Kelly Bradshaw, Johnston County Teacher
I was at dinner the other night with some of my school colleagues and we were having a lively conversation about all of the things that had happened at our school the previous week: cool projects our clubs were taking on, interesting comments made during meetings, the recent curriculum changes that were affecting the way we approached various subjects. We talked about faculty concerns, asked advice for certain students that were being difficult, and conversed about the governor (a favorite pass time of all educators in North Carolina). We were having a great time. And then it happened… A stranger, who had obviously overheard us talking, joined our conversation. “You guys must be teachers,” he said. “I am so sorry.”
“I am so sorry.” That is the phrase most used when discussing the teaching profession with the public. It is said on Parent Night, at random encounters in restaurants, and basically any time anyone dares to utter the phrase, “ I am a teacher.”
Teacher, the word that used to garner respect and positive recognition, has now somehow become synonymous with a person to be pitied. This is not to say that the public at large does not appreciate us; I would be lying if I didn’t say that the phrase that most often follows the above one is, “I appreciate what you guys do.” However, the problem lies in the fact that by saying “I am so sorry,” the public is openly admitting that the state of the education profession in North Carolina is at an all-time low, despite the statements and campaign ads put forth by Governor McCrory.
All the bad campaign ads in the world can’t hide the facts from the public. The News and Observer recently printed an article that put forth the truth about teaching in North Carolina. Referencing a study done by the National Education Association, the article painted a clear picture of what it means to be a teacher in our state and it becomes starkly clear why we hear apologies so much. According to the NEA, North Carolina is ranked 41st in teacher pay with our teachers making around $10,000 less than the national average. The NEA also found that North Carolina was 48th in percent change in teacher salary between the 2004/05 school year and the 2014/15 school year with our salary actually decreasing 10.2% when cost of living was considered. Additionally, insult was added to injury when Master’s pay was taken away, giving us limited ways to increase our salary and leaving us at the mercy of an uncaring governor and unreasonable legislature. With all this in mind, it is no wonder that educators are pitied. We are doing more for less. We are working two jobs to compensate for the cost of living increase that our legislature has ignored. We are waiting for the $50,000 a year that Pat has touted in his speeches.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I am tired of waiting. I am tired of working two or more jobs so that I can continue in a job I love. I am tired of empty promises for higher salaries. I am tired of the lack of respect, lack of funding, and lack of opportunity. The time for change has come and it is time that we advocate as passionately for ourselves as we advocate for students. If we want better pay, more respect, and better opportunities, we have to take an active role in making these things happen. We, to paraphrase Mohatma Gandhi, need to be the change that we want to see.
But, how do we make change happen? How can we passionately advocate for ourselves in a time when it feels like we are punished for speaking out or peacefully congregating to make our voices heard? How can we positively affect our profession?
The answer is simple: vote.
You see, there are many ways that those in power try to keep us from being heard. They arrest us at Moral Monday protests. They threaten to take away our teaching license if we peacefully walk from Durham to downtown Raleigh. They put out false campaign ads. They take away Master’s pay and tenure.
They cannot, however, keep us away from the polls. They cannot keep us from voting for people in local, state, and federal elections that will be good for education. They cannot control the box that we check on our ballot. They cannot control our right as a citizen to elect those who serve the greater good for us. Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author, once said, “Voting is the expression of our commitment to ourselves, one another, this country, and this world.” She is inarguably right. Voting shows that we are committed to a better education system for ourselves and our students. Voting shows that we want our voices heard. Voting shows that we will not be weakened by radicalism. Voting shows that we are not to be pitied, but rather to be taken seriously.
We are at a crossroads for the education profession in North Carolina. We, as educators, can either sit idly by or we can act. Now is the time to act. This election is our forum and our ballots are our microphones. We can change the direction of education in our state. We can make our voices matter. Most importantly, however, we can make our votes count.
By Allisen Fischer, Wake County Public School Teacher
It’s fall and it feels like another successful school year is under way. The kids are decked out in their new outfits with new haircuts, and their book bags are overflowing with new supplies. Did you feel the excitement in the air that last week of August? The students and teachers began the year filled with fresh optimism.
And then we teachers saw our class rosters, and the reality of the funding finagling started to hit home. When I was arranging my desks into groups of three for collaborative learning, I was really proud of my creative use of space and got really excited about a table I set up as an alternative work space. But then I totaled up my roster numbers. Whereas I am thrilled that shifting of funds has allowed for class sizes for my elementary-aged birth children to remain reasonable, I am less than thrilled by the fact that I have 195 high school students this year. I wish I never totaled up that number because I started to feel deflated before the kids even walked in the door. I respect the fact that my principal encourages us to form meaningful relationships with every single one of our students, however, I am not exactly sure how I am going to do that. I am going to try my best, but… I actually, you know, have to teach, too. There are multiple high school classrooms around Wake County alone that have 40 or more students in the class!
At my school, we are starting this year with three-fifths of our department new to our school. This means that veteran teachers such as myself are in the position of helping multiple teachers on multiple Professional Learning Teams. Finding time to meet with all of these teachers takes away from my time to make meaningful connections with my 195 students!
So, why do we teachers need to meet so much? Well, in the fun world of math in North Carolina, we find ourselves in the middle of a unique battle of “Which Curriculum Is Best?” We were teaching Algebra I, II, and Geometry, and then 4 years ago, the State haphazardly implemented the Common Core Standards, threw together a curriculum, and called the courses Common Core Math I, II, and III.
Our three-year marriage to Common Core expired, so last year, a team was assembled to re-write the math curriculum once again. So we attended some very rushed meetings this past spring getting introduced to the curriculum we would be teaching this fall (pending the approval of said NC Math Curriculum in June 2016). Teachers were also prepping for (another) summer training sessions so we could effectively teach another new curriculum. NC Math would basically shift some things around to “fix” some of the haphazardness of the previous curriculum and would also clarify the standards (which had been a huge problem previously). In prepping for NC Math, teachers were actually asked for their input via surveys!
And then, that last week of school (June 2016), the news came out that there was a bill, sponsored by Senator Jerry Tillman, stating that schools should offer BOTH NC Math as well as the “old” Algebra I, II, and Geometry pathway. We wanted to throw our hands up in the air that minute.
Do you see why, perhaps, we had to replace three-fifths of our department?? How in the world are we supposed to teach TWO DIFFERENT CURRICULUMS? (Someone, like myself, who has been around for several curriculum changes could likely handle teaching all these different courses because I HAVE taught all these different courses in the past, but come on). How can we support the needs of giving the students the option of 6 different math courses versus 3? And that doesn’t even account for honors versus academic or semester long versus all year long.
Consider the basic logistics. When I first started teaching at my school 18 years ago, we had 20 teachers in my department and the school had 1600 students. We now have 15 teachers and 2100 students. You don’t need to be a math genius to know that this just doesn’t add up. We can’t hardly teach the courses we have now.
That is why this election is so important. You and I simply cannot sit idly by and assume that the vote will go the way we want without our active participation. Please educate yourself, and others, and vote for candidates that will make education a priority. Our kids deserve better from us. Their schools shouldn’t be a revolving door of teachers, or curriculums, nor should their classrooms be as overflowing as their bookbags.
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