Giving teachers guns won’t make schools safer

*This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer

One day after last week’s horrific gun murders of 17 students and staff at a school in Parkland, Florida, NC state representative Larry Pittman revived his plan to prevent school shootings by equipping teachers with guns, saying, “We have to get over this useless hysteria about guns and allow school personnel to have a chance to defend their lives and those of their students.”  Just days later, President Trump echoed the sentiment, suggesting schools train and arm teachers to prevent attacks by “maniacs” who are emboldened by gun-free zones.  Trump pledged federal funding for such an effort and said that teachers who agree to carry guns should receive bonuses.

The argument follows the standard NRA line we hear after nearly every school shooting, that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  It also protects the interests of a gun rights organization that spent $11 million supporting Trump’s presidential campaign as well as the bottom line of a $50 billion firearms industry.  However, an endorsement of the outlandish idea of arming teachers from the highest office in the land is something new.  It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.

According to FBI statistics, in 2016 there were more than 11,000 criminal gun homicides in the United States.  Only 276 justifiable gun killings by private citizens occurred over the same period.  In other words, 2016 saw forty gun murders for every single case where someone used a gun to kill a bad guy in self defense–this in a country with 300 million firearms.  Perhaps even more alarming for educators who may soon be asked to carry a gun are the 2,203 unintentional shootings that took place that year.

Teaching in a classroom with 30-40 lively children is always an exercise in controlled chaos.  The data indicates that the risk of one of those children being shot accidentally is much higher than the possibility an armed teacher will successfully shoot an intruder.  What’s harder to gauge is the likelihood that a disturbed student who needs help we aren’t currently providing will snatch the teacher’s gun and use it on classmates or staff.

Industry standards recommend ratios of 1:250 for both school counselors and social workers who serve our children.  In school year 2016-17, North Carolina’s students were supported by counselors at a ratio of 1:355 and by social workers at a ratio of just 1:1447.  The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500.  Last year our ratio was 1:1829.  How many of the school shootings we’ve witnessed recently could have been prevented had we done a better job of creating healthy school environments and aiding students in emotional distress?

Gun violence in America is extremely complicated and comes with no single solution.  Giving teachers guns would undoubtedly make this grave crisis even worse.  Our approaches to school shootings must not be driven by legislators’ action movie fantasies or by their loyalty to lobbyists.  We must ensure that school resources provide sufficient social and emotional care to students who desperately need it.  Doing so will be one vital step toward avoiding such unspeakable tragedies in the future.


More NC school districts must take steps to embrace teacher voice


*note:  This article originally appeared on

“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” said Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, referring to the consequences of failing to speak up against injustice.  He went on to say that one person of integrity can make a difference in the face of oppression, provided that person is willing to take a stand.

We live in a much different world today than the one Wiesel endured, but his call to action is just as relevant.  We face serious challenges in education at the national, state, and local levels, and those challenges appear to be growing. Changes around critical issues such as school choice, teacher retention, standardized assessments, and protections for our most vulnerable students are on the horizon, and it is essential that those changes are informed by the people with the clearest perspective on classroom needs: our teachers.

Teacher voice is an integral part of crafting the policies that greatly impact our students, yet in a state with nearly 100,000 teachers, there are often only a handful of educators involved in policy discussions. Teachers may feel that their voices will not be heard by policymakers. Other times, they fear reprisal such as punitive treatment or termination for being too vocal and not “staying in their lane.” This culture of fear leads to an unhealthy silence and maintains a status quo that often is not beneficial for our students.

At its February 13 meeting, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education issued a statement on employee expression which squarely addresses that culture. The statement acknowledges the importance of employee input, welcoming  ‘experience and wisdom’ of staff in helping to ‘inform effective education policy.’ While reminding educators that their conduct may not violate law or existing standards of conduct, the board pledges in the statement that it will ‘act to ensure that employees feel free to express their views without fear of retribution.’

The CMS statement follows similar resolutions issued by Durham Public Schoolsand Chapel HillCarrboro City Schools in 2016. Those resolutions also point out how essential school employees’ expertise is to debate over education policy and encourage teachers and other staff to exercise their free speech rights in a manner that is consistent with their duties as educators.

While these school districts lead the way in embracing teacher voice, other North Carolina counties have much work to do. My work as a fellow with Hope Street Group’s North Carolina Teacher Voice Network brings me into contact with lots of teachers from all over the state. Through those experiences, I’ve learned that some North Carolina teachers face implicit policies which forbid them from freely expressing their views on education issues.  For those teachers, writing an op-ed for their local newspaper, for example, sometimes results in intimidation and negative retribution from school leadership.

In a recent EdNC poll which asked whether North Carolina teachers felt comfortable speaking up about issues that concern them, nearly half of the respondents said they did not. A quarter believed that doing so would put their job in jeopardy. Those results should be troubling to us all. Imagine how much collective talent is being squandered, how much creativity is going untapped, and how many solutions are going unheard simply because teachers are afraid to lift their voices to address the problems they see each day.

If we can eliminate obstacles to teacher voice across this great state, we will put teachers in a better position to help ensure the formulation of education policies that most effectively serve the needs of our students. Increased employee engagement in decision-making will also encourage initiative and innovation and lead to an atmosphere of mutual trust and loyalty. It can go a long way in making our schools more supportive environments that value and retain employees. Honoring the participation of all education stakeholders in this manner will help us to create a school system that is the best it can be for students and teachers alike.

Class size ‘fix’ fails to address major implementation challenges

Thursday’s news of another year-long respite on mandatory class size reductions offered a welcome sigh of relief to school districts that were preparing for the worst.  The new fix allows school leaders to avoid the equally unpalatable choices of cutting arts, PE, and foreign language classes, swelling numbers at 4th grade and above to 40+ students, and holding classes in hallways in order to comply with the unfunded mandate.  However, without additional action by the General Assembly, we still face major challenges that will make it difficult for districts to lower class sizes as required by law.

Rather than requiring districts to meet sharp reductions in class sizes next school year without providing any funding, House Bill 90  preserves the status quo for next year, then phases in reductions gradually over the three school years that follow.  It creates a new allotment for ‘enhancement teachers’ which will grow to $246 million by 2021-22.  

There are valid misgivings about the legislation including unrelated changes to the state election board and diverting money from a pipeline project.  However, slimy political tricks aside, the larger concern is how school districts will be able to meet the mandate in the long term without additional support from legislators.  

As it happens, there is one pipeline with relevance to class size reductions:  the teacher pipeline.  After a 30% decline from 2010 to 2015, the last couple years have seen a slight uptick in the number of people enrolling in UNC teacher preparation programs.  But with thousands more elementary teachers needed to meet the smaller student/teacher ratios, we are likely to face a severe teacher shortage when class size reductions are completely phased in.  Our General Assembly needs to take an honest look at what precipitated the drop in teacher preparation enrollment and work to make North Carolina a more attractive place to be a teacher.  Continuing to improve teacher compensation, reinstating retiree health benefits, and providing a pay increase for teachers earning graduate degrees would be a good start.

The other big piece of the puzzle left unaddressed by House Bill 90 is the capital needs requirement of smaller classes at grades K-3.  In Mecklenburg County, the change will require more than 200 additional classrooms – the equivalent of about five elementary schools. At $100,000 per unit, CMS alone will need over $20 million to purchase and install those mobile classrooms. With many other districts statewide in the same position, we’re looking at well over $100 million in total capital costs.  Districts are typically responsible for their own capital needs.  A significant reduction in class sizes is not a typical situation.  Our legislators need to provide additional funds for decent classrooms so that our students aren’t forced to learn in closets and hallways.

The new short term class size fix comes while districts still have ample time to plan and budget for the year ahead.  Our legislators deserve credit for listening to the committed parents and educators who raised their concerns and asked for a solution sooner rather than later.  But make no mistake:  this temporary fix is not a solution; it merely postpones a crisis.  If the General Assembly really wants to lower class sizes without causing more ‘unintended consequences,’ it needs to begin planning now to address the coming teacher shortage and capital needs implications of such a move.  

The cost of doing business in the education world

*Note: This piece was originally published on

It was 2009, and the world was reeling in the wake of a global financial meltdown caused by failed business practices that preyed on working class people. Against that backdrop I was called to the principal’s office one afternoon. Ms. Olshausen explained to me that a company called SAS had developed a proprietary model which they claimed could precisely measure what value an individual teacher was adding to each student’s achievement.

It was part of the broader push I had been hearing about applying a business model in education in order to improve results. It struck me as an odd time to be holding up the business world as the gold standard for achieving desired outcomes, but I was intrigued by the possibility of learning more about my impact as an educator.

Ms. Olshausen went on to tell me that the analysis of my test data over the past few years indicated that I was above average in the ‘value’ I was adding to my students’ growth as defined on their end-of-year reading test. I was so proud I went home and put the paper in a shoebox reserved for especially motivational documents. Finally, an answer to the question that had been nagging me inwardly for years: I was a good teacher! I really was making a difference, and I had the data to prove it!

In the years that followed, EVAAS was rolled out on a larger scale across the district and state, and similar data measuring teacher effectiveness was made available to more teachers. I was dismayed to see that, while some years I apparently had made a difference, there were other years when I did not make much of a difference at all. Some years I even made a negative difference.

As teachers began to talk with each other about their own value added measures, I learned that my friend Laura, a teacher who inspired me through her constant innovation, her ability to build positive relationships with students, and her use of data to tailor instruction to individual needs, had received relatively low EVAAS results — the same year 100 percent of her Algebra students had passed their end-of-year exam.

The results for many other colleagues, when compared with anecdotal information and school-level data which we knew to be accurate, were equally confusing, and sometimes downright demoralizing. Measures billed by the SAS corporation as enabling teachers to “make more informed, data-driven decisions that will positively influence student outcomes” instead left them with no idea how to do so. Yet despite the obvious problems with the data, there were rumblings in the district about moving toward a system where teacher salaries were determined by EVAAS effectiveness ratings — a really scary proposition in the midst of the worst recession in decades.

Justin Parmenter and his friend and fellow teacher, Laura, on student exchange trip to France, 2009

I began to realize that the notion that anyone could accurately measure exactly what value I was adding to each of my students’ learning was false, as was the idea that I could use this EVAAS data for much more than a ticket to an emotional roller coaster ride.

Over the past few years, more and more research has shown that value added ratings are highly unstable and are unable to account for the many factors that influence our students and their progress. Lawsuits have sprung up from Texas to Tennessee, charging, among other things, that use of this data to evaluate teachers and make staffing decisions violates teachers’ due process rights, since SAS refuses to reveal the algorithms it uses to calculate scores.

Despite the growing questions about its efficacy, taxpayers of North Carolina continue to spend more than $3.5 million a year for EVAAS, and SAS founder and CEO James Goodnight is the richest man in the state, worth nearly $10 billion. The view that, like a good business, we will somehow be able to determine the precise value of each member of our ‘corporation’ and reward them accordingly, persists — as does the notion that applying business strategies to our schools will help us achieve desired outcomes.

In 2016, state legislators set aside funds to reward third grade teachers whose students showed significant growth on standardized tests and high school teachers whose students passed Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. Under this system of merit pay, which will continue through 2018, third grade teachers compete against each other to get into the top 25 percent for reading test growth. But if the General Assembly’s goal was to increase teachers’ effectiveness by motivating them to dig deep for the ideas they’d been holding back, the plan seems to have backfired.

I spoke with teachers from across the state and found there was zero impact from the bonus scheme in some schools and negative impacts in others. Some teachers weren’t even aware that there had been a bonus available for them to work toward, indicating a crucial breakdown in communication if the goal was to create a powerful incentive. On the other end of the scale, some teachers had been very aware of the bonus and had jockeyed for position to land students who were primed for the highest amount of growth. When these sizable bonuses were awarded — $9,483 to some teachers in Mecklenburg Count — resentment flared among teachers who had previously collaborated and shared best practices to the benefit all students. It takes a village to educate a child, and the General Assembly’s plan ignored key players who contribute to student growth — everyone from school counselors to EC teachers to literacy specialists.

Research on the impact of financial incentives in education shows that, not only do they fail to increase student achievement, in some cases they even decrease it. The competitive nature of such incentives isolates teachers and harms relationships so critical to maintaining a positive school culture.

Ironically enough, while we have been busy trying to emulate business practices that don’t improve our outcomes in education, the business world has begun to recognize the importance of collaboration over competition. Sparta CEO James Pember recently said this about how to increase sales:

Contrary to popular belief, the best sales teams aren’t a pack of “lone wolves”. Yes, each team probably has a handful of rogues, those who do their own thing yet still manage to blow out the targets. However, all of the anecdotal evidence suggests that the best teams are mission-driven and committed to team success. In other words, they are collaborative …Collaboration, in other words, working together to achieve a shared goal, is indeed one of the strongest drivers of sales success. I’ve seen it work time and time again. Teams that set collaborative goals and work together for team success will always outperform the team of mavericks.

All of this talk of the pitfalls of merit pay is not to say that money should be left out of the equation, but as career analyst Daniel Pink notes, how that money is used is the key. Paying a decent base salary and avoiding bonus schemes that demotivate teachers would help foster the kind of school culture that enables us to effectively work together towards a common goal.

In that same shoebox where I stashed my first EVAAS report I keep an assortment of documents that provide me with a much more valuable barometer of my effectiveness as a teacher. I pull them out on a rainy day from time to time. These handwritten notes from colleagues, thank you notes from students, and emails from parents are the measures which motivate me to keep making a difference and reflecting on how I can improve.

The vast majority of the teachers I know are not motivated by money, they are driven by a desire to change people’s lives. They are in it for the outcomes, not the income. We can encourage the reflection that helps them hone their craft without using misleading data that fails to capture the complexity of learning. We can make desired outcomes more likely by nurturing collaboration among educators whose impact is multiplied when they work together. As our leaders chart the course forward, they need to look to those educators — not the business world — to help inform the process.

Unintended consequences: Legislation deserves the educator’s touch

*Note:  This piece was first published on EducationNC

Recently the education news waves have been dominated by talk of the impending class size crisis. Across the state, school districts are facing awful choices: cutting arts, PE, and foreign language classes, swelling numbers at 4th grade and above to 40+ students, and holding classes in hallways in order to comply with an unrealistic law quietly inserted into the state budget in 2016.

When public outcry first began over the legislative changes, some state legislators acknowledged the law’s shortsightedness. House Education Committee Chair Craig Horn admitted the mandate was not “fully thought through with regard to unintended consequences.”

But with the quality of our public education at stake, how does a law like this get passed in the first place? And what can be done to prevent it from happening in the future?

With many education professionals right down the road at the Department of Public Instruction and thousands more experienced teachers in the field, every piece of education legislation should be thoroughly and systematically informed by best educational practices in order to yield optimal outcomes for our students. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s General Assembly has a pattern dating back to when Democrats were in power of fast tracking major education initiatives by placing them as special provisions in the budget to avoid the public debate and stakeholder input so vital to the creation of effective policy.

The current class size crisis may be the most recent example of what can happen when a legislature fails to listen to educators, but it’s hardly the first.

The literacy program Read to Achieve — created five years ago — suffered from the same malady. When Read to Achieve was passed in 2012, the legislation was intended to end social promotion and help 3rd graders avoid what Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has called the “economic death sentence” awaiting students who are unable to read proficiently. According to the legislation,

The goal of the State is to ensure that every student read at or above grade level by the end of third grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that he or she can read, comprehend, integrate, and apply complex texts needed for secondary education and career success.

Berger’s intentions may have been laudable, but it’s clear that Read to Achieve’s implementation lacks the educator’s touch. The initiative attempted to improve reading by increasing the volume of assessment in grades K-3 and ratcheting up the threats of retention, essentially punishing children for not being able to read well enough in early grades. That’s not the approach an effective teacher would take. A good educator works to understand where the child is coming from and develop unique supports that best fit his or her individual circumstances. A good educator knows that punitive measures seldom result in long term success.

According to former NC superintendent Dr. June Atkinson, when Read to Achieve was drafted, the Department of Instruction was very candid about the challenges it presented and the impact it would have. DPI warned the General Assembly that the volume of portfolio assessments the legislation added to 3rd grade was too high and that the pace and funding of implementation didn’t provide enough professional development for teachers to effectively transition to the new system. The General Assembly had also slashed pre-K funding 25 percent from pre-recession levels at the time, and DPI informed legislators that quality early childhood education was an important component of building a foundation for literacy. All of that feedback fell largely on deaf ears.

Data from a comprehensive 2014 UNCG study on the first year of Read to Achieve reveals that the program struggled mightily from the beginning as a result of state lawmakers disregarding the advice of education professionals. The survey included responses from 66 district superintendents, 729 elementary principals, and more than 3,000 elementary teachers. Respondents said that “educator input should have been more systematically and extensively sought in the design of the RtA components and statewide rollout,” and indicated a need for more flexibility in using state funds for reading interventions. Eighty percent of K-2 teachers and 93 percent of 3rd grade teachers felt that Read to Achieve had “resulted in a significant loss of instructional time.” Perhaps most concerning of all, teachers reported the number and intensity of assessments were “negatively impacting some students’ attitudes toward reading and their enjoyment of teaching.”

UNCG’s report detailed educator’s feelings about the first year of Read to Achieve, and anecdotal information I collected from elementary teachers in various parts of the state suggests that little has changed. Teachers still report that students and educators alike are overwhelmed by the number of assessments and that Read to Achieve’s inflexible requirements are reducing time spent on other important topics such as writing instruction. As one teacher put it, “We spend so much time testing that we honestly just don’t have the time to teach. If a student doesn’t do well then there is no time to go back and reteach, but instead hope that they have time to tutor after school.” Schools still lack money to be able to provide more reading specialists to work intensively with struggling readers. Pre-K funding has improved slightly, but quality early education is still out of reach for many of our families.

If Senator Phil Berger’s goal was to improve 3rd grade reading, Read to Achieve does not appear to be working. Since the law was passed in 2012, the number of our state’s 3rd graders reading on grade level has actually dropped 3.1 percent:

In addition, the number of students retained for not demonstrating reading proficiency on third-grade standards has risen each year since Read to Achieve was implemented, except for last school year when it remained flat. For clarification, students retained do not necessarily repeat the grade but are retained in a third grade accelerated class, placed in a transition class with a retained label, or placed in a fourth grade accelerated class with a retained reading label.

Had the General Assembly truly partnered with the Department of Instruction on improving early grades reading, the results might have been very different. Legislators could have provided the requested high-quality pre-K for more students, allowing them to enter kindergarten with a stronger foundation on which to build. They could have given instructional flexibility to districts rather than burying students from Franklin to Currituck under piles of inauthentic assessments that sap student motivation. If our leaders had been willing to allocate the resources, the law could have provided additional reading specialists and given existing teachers the professional development they need to find new, engaging strategies for supporting our struggling readers. Regrettably, that’s not what happened.

As the saying goes, those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Despite clear evidence that dismissing the advice of professional educators leads to poor results for our students, the General Assembly is continuing that pattern today. What starts out as a decent idea and effective campaign flyer bullet point ends up causing major damage because of poorly informed execution.

In 2016, lawmakers inserted a major class size reduction for grades K-3 into the state budget and passed it with little debate and no funding. Just like with Read to Achieve, the intention behind class size reduction was not the problem — no educator or parent would argue against smaller teacher-student ratios. The major flaw of this legislation was in the execution, in the idea that such an improvement could be had for free with no adverse side effects.

Then-Superintendent Atkinson reports there was minimal discussion between the General Assembly and the Department of Public Instruction prior to the creation of the class size law — a shocking fact given how this legislation stood to change the landscape of our schools. The collaboration was limited largely to the department providing legislators with comprehensive data. The Department of Instruction also reportedly informed the General Assembly that reducing class size was a huge mistake without sufficient dollars, specifically explaining the consequences for North Carolina’s schools if the law was passed but not funded.

After the class size reduction passed, public outrage quickly grew as parents, school officials and teachers became aware of the reality they faced. While our lawmakers waste valuable time alternating between blaming school districts for the crisis and assuring the public there is no need for alarm, 1.5 million students and more than 180,000 staff watch our state inch ever closer to crisis. Parents are faced with the reality of children with no exposure to arts and PE classes so crucial to nurturing creative minds and healthy bodies. Teachers at grades 4 and above are wondering how they’ll be able to teach such large numbers of students — and whether they’ll have to do so in hallways or closets because of the lack of sufficient classrooms.

All over North Carolina, budgets are due to county commissions on May 15, and preparations must begin in earnest for next school year, with year-round schools set to start classes in early July. The most frustrating part of this mess is that it could have been prevented if the General Assembly had chosen to work with the Department of Instruction to set attainable goals on class sizes.

So where do we go from here?  How do we cultivate productive partnerships between educators and legislators so that the laws that impact so many of our children are informed by the experience and perspective that can make them more effective?

Imagine how different things could be if we developed a process for authentic dialogue between the classroom and the General Assembly. Picture a gathering of teachers and legislators in the same room — not for a photo op, but for real talk about specific problems and solutions in our schools. Such convenings could be by facilitated by groups like the Hope Street Group or the Public School Forum, organizations with access to networks of teachers who are eager to engage with policymakers if that interaction can lead to better policy.

A legislator with an education bill in the draft phase could participate in a roundtable discussion with teachers who have experience directly relevant to that particular bill, everything from early grades reading to dropout prevention. Convenings could occur in person initially, then virtually as the bill moves through the process. Another idea could be to create a teacher advisory body that checks in regularly with members of education committees in both the House and the Senate as laws make their way through the committees, helping to ensure their work takes into account best practices and the reality of the classroom. This meaningful collaboration would improve the quality of our legislation and build a valuable bridge between two groups that have been throwing stones at each other instead of working together for far too long.

Teachers, do you have any additional ideas on what more effective partnerships with lawmakers might look like?

Members of the General Assembly, are you open to the possibility of developing a closer working relationship with educators?

The short session is right around the corner. Springtime in North Carolina would be a great time to renew our commitment to trying to do better for our children