North Carolina’s schools need to quit telling children they have no future

Earlier this week I was on late bus duty in the gym.  A bus had overheated, and while a mechanic worked on getting it running again students were sitting in the gym and waiting.  

A second grade boy approached me and said, “I’m feeling tired.  What should I do?” I asked, “Well, do you have a backpack?” He said he did.  I said, “How about you use it for a pillow, lay down and get some rest?” I told him I would wake him up when the bus was fixed.  He thanked me and said, “Don’t forget to wake me up!” and went to get his backpack pillow straight. It was a charming interaction that reminded me how much I love being a teacher because of all the ways I get to be a positive presence in the lives of others.

The very next day I found an envelope in my third grade daughter’s backpack.  She recently took her first major End of Grade standardized reading test, and the envelope contained her score report.  The report details for parents and students whether the child’s test result is on grade level and whether it meets what are called “College and Career Readiness Standards.”

Think about that for a minute.

Our schools are communicating to some third graders that they are not on track to go to college or have a career–at the same time that their classroom teachers are trying their best to encourage them to dream big and believe in themselves.  

We’re telling the young man who is hoping to be the first person in his family to get a degree that it’s not looking good.  The 9 year-old girl who was entertaining notions of becoming a doctor and then maybe even the first female president of the United States is now hearing that she is probably not destined for greatness after all.  

The idea of measuring whether children are college or career material is rooted in the Common Core movement.  That initiative to raise academic standards and strengthen accountability was originally started by state governors and business leaders who felt that schools were too often giving high school diplomas to students who lacked the skills they needed to be successful.  

A few years after this group began work, the Common Core standards were introduced.  Then, in 2013, North Carolina’s State Board of Education adopted College and Career Readiness measures which indicate that any student who scores a 3 or lower on a standardized test is not on a trajectory that will lead to college or a career.

This is the kind of thing that happens when the folks who are crafting education policy are hopelessly out of touch with what’s going on in our schools.  An idea which may have sounded reasonable to a CEO, a career politician or a board member can end up doing real damage in the classroom, where professional educators who want to change lives for the better are doing the actual work with children.

Here’s what any good teacher can tell you:  For students–and, really, for anyone–failure is painful.  The way humans react to pain is generally to pull back and avoid it.  So the reaction some of our children have to academic failure is to think, “Well, that’s really not for me anyway” and put their energy somewhere that makes them feel successful.  

Now consider that this particular score we’re reporting to them is a one-time, hours-long, high-pressure test which is framed as the primary measure of their learning for the year.  If their result on this all-important test says that they aren’t cut out for a career or for higher education, do we honestly expect them to be motivated by that information?

Standards are important, and teachers must set high expectations for students and push them to stretch hard towards their brightest future.  And we do. But the messages that we send our students around their learning need to be nurturing, especially for those who most need support.  Telling third graders that they aren’t going to college and they won’t have a career unless they get their act together should NOT be part of that conversation.

146 students, 146 personal handwritten notes of encouragement to students who are about to take standardized tests.

146 students, 146 personal handwritten notes of encouragement to my students who are about to take their 7th grade End of Grade Reading test.

My hand is tired, but it was so worth it reflecting on a year of working with these amazing kids.  So many triumphs, so many nicknames and inside jokes, so many challenges overcome, even a little Honduran slang acquired. So much growth in various shapes and forms for all of us.  

When you have 146 students, one size definitely does not fit all. And after 10 months of working closely together day in and day out, it’s amazing how well you come to know individual needs and exactly what kind of support each child could benefit from the most. Some of my students have never passed a reading test and need to have the confidence to believe that they can. Some may know they can do it but struggle with the motivation to sustain their effort on an assessment this long and dry. I have students who routinely score in the 99th percentile and are all stressed out about dropping to the 98th. They need to be reminded that they are good enough. 146 student, 146 sizes.

We talk a lot these days about More than a Score, about the need to help our students keep their assessments in perspective and not let anyone think they are completely defined by their scores.  And I am grateful that we can have those conversations and recognize the need for a well-rounded approach to teaching and learning. It’s my hope that one day our assessments of students will more closely measure the kinds of real-world skills we want them to have.

At the same time, while our current system is flawed, it’s the system we have right now. So we make the best of it while we advocate for the changes that our students need.  

146 students, 146 individuals with strengths and needs and hopes and dreams.  

Are schools losing their way in the age of active shooter training?

*this article was published by USA today

Recently I sat silently in a school staff meeting while our faculty debriefed after the previous month’s Active Shooter Training.  All kinds of thoughts and emotions ran through me as I listened to colleagues brainstorming possible ways to prepare for an armed intruder roaming our building.  Should we stash a hammer in our desk drawer for use as an improvised weapon? Keep a supply of feminine hygiene products on hand to stop the bleeding if someone is shot?  Have students ready to throw books at the attacker? But the absurdity of the entire conversation really hit home for me when a well-meaning staff member suggested teachers be given bags of marbles to throw down in the hallway in the event of an armed prowler.

It’s the Home Alone defense.

Have we completely lost our marbles?

There are about 133,000 K-12 schools in the United States.  Last year, 24 of them experienced shootings.  Despite the relative rarity of such events, the number of schools doing lockdown drills has doubled since 2004. 95% of public schools now regularly have students and teachers practice huddling in silence, hiding from an imaginary gunman.  Growing numbers of schools are preparing more aggressively for active shooter scenarios–in some cases even using fake bombs, AR-15s loaded with blanks, and students made up with realistic bloody bullet wounds.  At an Indiana elementary school earlier this year, teachers were forced to kneel against a classroom wall while local law enforcement unexpectedly shot them with plastic projectiles in a simulated execution.  They were told “This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing.”  

It’s important to note that the annual occurrence of school-associated violent deaths over the past quarter century has remained relatively consistent.  But over that same period, our actions in response to those deaths have changed completely, with our society placing ever-increasing responsibility for stopping school shootings on the schools themselves.  As schools have accepted this responsibility, we’ve opened our doors to police and military types to take the lead in telling us exactly how to prepare for an attack.  In doing so, we’ve ensured the conversation will remain largely centered around reactive approaches such as how best to bunker up and fight back instead of focusing on the underlying causes of the problem.  

We must also consider the psychological impact on students and staff alike of constantly calling attention to the potential for violence in our schools.  Heartbreaking stories are now regularly emerging about young children of the lockdown generation who, convinced they could be about to die, compose goodbye letters to their parents or even write wills to designate who can have their toys when they are gone.  Experts in childhood trauma say there is the potential for children who are regularly exposed to frightening circumstances to suffer from symptoms including “everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology and substance abuse.”  This is not the nurturing school environment our students deserve.

On the teacher side, educators who already wear innumerable hats are now expected to endure the pressure of preparing to act as law enforcement and neutralize a maniac who may be armed with an assault weapon and intent on murdering their students.  How can that added stress not have a detrimental impact on their teaching and on their mental well being in general?

If our current lockdown and active shooter training culture were actually making us safer, then it might all be worthwhile.  It’s not. A recently published comprehensive review of school-based practices from 2000-2018 found that “none of the currently employed school firearm violence prevention methods have empirical evidence to show that they actually diminish firearm violence in schools.”  The study’s authors determined that our current ineffective approaches are creating a false sense of security and suggested that school officials refrain from giving in to “political pressures to ‘do something’ when that ‘something’ is likely to be ineffective and wasteful of limited school resources.”  

I understand the value of being prepared for disaster, and our schools have long-standing safety protocols in place for that reason.  However, we must be sure that the measures we are taking are actually serving their intended purpose and are not doing more harm than good.  We must stop expecting our educators to play the role of law enforcement and let them focus on teaching our children. And we must redirect every bit of energy we are currently putting into ineffective, potentially traumatizing non-solutions towards addressing the root causes and conditions that are contributing to the unique epidemic of gun violence in the United States.  

NC Superintendent now comparing teacher wages to those of unemployed UNC graduates to show how good North Carolina’s educators have it

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and all across the nation educators are enjoying clumsily wrapped gifts from students and heartfelt notes of gratitude from parents.  Not to be left out of the festivities, North Carolina’s superintendent of schools Mark Johnson penned an op-ed to our state’s teachers. The piece is entitled ‘We must elevate, appreciate our teachers.’  Perhaps a more accurate title would have been ‘We must educate our teachers.’

Apart from a few obligatory platitudes about the amazing impact educators have on our children’s lives, much of Johnson’s message is to let teachers how good they have it in North Carolina.  It’s the latest in a marketing campaign that began when superintendent recently rolled out the North Carolina School Finances data dashboard in a move timed to undermine thousands of educators coming to Raleigh on May 1 to highlight our state’s chronic underfunding of public schools.

Johnson was immediately called to task for his dashboard because, in order to show how well teachers are paid relative to other professions, it compared the average salaries of teachers to the median wages of non-teachers.  This violation of 6th grade math has since been pointed out multiple times in the media but has still not been corrected, and the taxpayer-funded data dashboard continues to misinform the public.

In the latest round of our superintendent’s efforts to convince the public that teachers are paid handsomely and that the sea of red in Raleigh last week amounted to a bunch of misguided whiners, Johnson claims in his Teacher Appreciation op-ed that beginning teachers earn $13,000 more than the average UNC graduate makes one year after graduation:

Superintendent Johnson’s claim has now been republished by media outlets in Pitt County, Robeson County, Harnett County, Sampson County, Guilford County, Scotland County, and Forsyth County, and it’s likely to keep popping up in more places as Teacher Appreciation Week continues.  I would bet that, at breakfast tables in all of those counties and more, folks are talking about how teachers will never be satisfied with what they earn.  I would also speculate that was Johnson’s intent.

If the $26,400 average salary for a UNC graduate figure sounds implausibly low to you, that’s because it is.  

According to Derek Scott, that average salary includes graduates who are either unemployed or, at the very least, rarely employed.  In the study Johnson’s spokesman acknowledges the figure came from, for UNC graduates who earned less than $20,000, the most common salary was a little less than $2,000–which could only mean those graduates earned wages very intermittently at best.  Here’s a chart from another study using the same data which illustrates this point:

To sum up, the message Superintendent Mark Johnson wants North Carolina teachers to receive this week is the following:  Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. Be glad you’re earning more than someone who doesn’t have a job.

Red for Ed is about much more than politics for North Carolina educators

Earlier this week, veteran News and Observer political reporter Colin Campbell published an opinion piece entitled “Partisanship made teacher rally less effective” in which he chastised public education advocates for their approach to last week’s Day of Action in Raleigh.  The article has since been republished by a variety of outlets around the state.

In the piece, Campbell deemed the rally ‘a huge missed opportunity’ because, in his view, few educators took the initiative to speak with legislators who were ready and willing to listen to our concerns.  He accused the North Carolina Association of Educators–which organized the event–of ‘petty partisanship’ and suggested that educators consider building bridges ‘on both sides of the political aisle’ if they want their policy agenda to have any shot at becoming a reality.

Campbell generally does solid work reporting on the goings on at the state legislature, but his account of the events of May 1 and thoughts on North Carolina’s education advocacy landscape in general are condescending and riddled with inaccuracies.  

Here are a few things Campbell should have considered:

On May 16, 2018, many educators spent more than three hours waiting in line to get through security and into the legislative building to meet with legislators.  As someone who complains about having to wait in that line, I know Campbell can understand the frustration of valuable time being wasted in this manner.  This year, our plan was to march to Halifax Mall, then assemble by counties so that lawmakers could easily and efficiently meet with their constituents for dialogue about our five demands.  All members of the General Assembly were invited to do so, and some of them took the opportunity to come out and speak with their visitors.

Many May 1 participants did opt to go into the legislative building and meet with the legislators who remained inside.  I was fortunate to be able to sit down with some colleagues and have a productive conversation about teacher recruitment and retention with Republican Senator Dan Bishop, and I witnessed a lot of other educators having formal sit-down meetings with lawmakers or catching them for a quick word at their office doors.  

Campbell’s article specifically mentioned how few teachers tried to meet with Senator Phil Berger as evidence of a shortsighted strategy and a lack of understanding about who calls the shots in North Carolina.  Let’s be clear. Nobody is confused about who is most responsible for the catastrophic education policy changes of the last eight years. However, in the weeks leading up to May 1, Berger kept up a steady stream of social media posts and press releases labeling the event as a ‘far left strike’ and consistently framing it as a ploy to earn votes for the Democratic Party.  He questioned the integrity of educators calling for more psychologists and counselors to support the mental health of their students. His supporters took the divisive rhetoric even further, using the senator’s posts as springboards to attack teachers by referring to May 1 participants as Communists and calling for us to be fired for abandoning our students. It’s safe to say that few educators were imagining a welcome mat in front of Berger’s office on May 1.

Campbell also neglected to mention that House Speaker Tim Moore scheduled an all-day meeting of the House Appropriations Committee for May 1.  The Speaker announced the meeting to committee members on the evening of April 29. As this committee includes 88 of the 120 members of the North Carolina House, Moore’s move greatly reduced the opportunities educators had to meet with their Representatives.  You can infer for yourself whether that was the intended outcome.

The idea that the thousands of teachers who descended on Raleigh last week were all simply participating in a gigantic political stunt on behalf of NCAE or the Democratic Party is insulting on many levels.  But the most demeaning thing about this view is that it assumes educators are not capable of following specific policy issues, watching how their elected officials represent them, and holding them accountable for their decisions when they do not act in the best interest of our public school students.  

It’s also incredibly misinformed.  

Many of the advocates who attended the event are not members of NCAE, and there are quite a few among us who consider themselves lifelong conservatives.  Mecklenburg County educator Bishay Elshoukarey is a Republican who has gone to Raleigh the past two years to press lawmakers for change. He says, “I marched on May 1st because quality public education is not left or right, it’s a pillar of every civilized nation.”  Heather Blount, who teaches in Robeson County, has participated both years as well. Heather has never voted Democrat in her life but believes she needs to stand up for public education because the actions of our legislators make it clear that they “do not have a clue” about what is going on in our schools.  

I don’t pretend to speak for all of my colleagues, but I believe many educators view a quality public education as a basic human right.  As such, working to improve the education we’re providing North Carolina’s children, particularly in the face of the many harmful policy changes that have been enacted over the past few years, feels like a moral imperative.  It’s much deeper and more personal to us than politics.

In the end, a lot of the misinformation plaguing Campbell’s views on May 1 appears to come back to a basic lack of due diligence.  In fact, the only sources he cites in his piece are Senate Republicans and a spokesman for Senator Berger. (I did contact him to ask whether he had spoken directly with any educators about the rally and he didn’t respond.)

If your research for an opinion piece on teacher advocacy consists of asking Senate Republicans ‘What did you think about the teacher rally?’ it’s no surprise that the end result sounds a lot like it was written by Phil Berger.  Had Campbell taken the time to talk to some of the public school supporters who were in Raleigh last week, he could have gained some valuable insight into the important work we’re engaged in. I’d call that a huge missed opportunity.  

Virtual Pre-K back in House budget, no funds for expanding legitimate Pre-K

This is the post I didn’t want to write.

On Thursday night, a successful amendment to the House budget by Mecklenburg County Representative Carla Cunningham stripped funding from Representative Craig Horn’s Virtual Pre-K pilot program initiative and transferred the money to the Department of Public Instruction’s Students in Crisis grants, which aim to “increase school safety by providing evidence-based and evidence-informed crisis services and training to help students develop healthy responses to trauma and stress.”

It was a short-lived victory.

On Friday, at the eleventh hour of budget negotiations, Representative Lewis’s amendment to restore that funding for Virtual Pre-K passed.  Now the ball is in the Senate’s court.

To recap, the Virtual Pre-K pilot program will provide in-home access to online preschool for four year olds who are living below the federal poverty line.

In his impassioned speech to the House K-12 Education Committee last month, Horn vowed that his goal was merely to provide educational opportunities to those who would not be attending a real Pre-K program anyway and that Virtual Pre-K was not in any way intended to be a replacement for high quality Pre-K.  Furthermore, he claimed Virtual Pre-K would be accompanied by continued expansion of access to Pre-K. (You can actually hear him make that claim here.)

Neither Representative Horn nor any of his colleagues proposed expanded access to Pre-K in this year’s House budget.

North Carolina has received national attention for the quality of its Pre-K program, which research has proven reduces special education placement and the likelihood of children repeating a grade between 3rd and 8th grade as well as improving reading and math assessment results in both elementary and middle school.  Unfortunately, that national attention has also called out state funding for Pre-K as being entirely inadequate.

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Early Education Research called on North Carolina lawmakers to do a better job of providing young children with the foundation they need to be successful in school:

NC Pre-K now reaches less than half (47 percent) the children it was designed to serve. Significant numbers of young children–almost 33,000–across all races and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas, are losing the opportunity to develop foundational skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In fact, 40 counties are serving less than half of eligible children.

While children may be attending other early education programs, those programs do not provide all the quality components of NC Pre-K—so those vulnerable children are less likely to gain the lasting benefits provided by NC Pre-K.

But back to the Craig Horn and Virtual Pre-K.  Not only did Horn and his colleagues fail to even propose expanding access to NC Pre-K in the current budget, Horn’s Virtual Pre-K legislation calls for testing the feasibility of expanding Virtual Pre-K ‘to all preschool-age children in the State.’

(ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.

This legislation opens the door to lawmakers backing away from funding legitimate Pre-K in favor of an approach they can frame as innovative ‘personalized learning’ for young children.

Our children deserve access to a quality preschool education.  They deserve to be provided with the opportunity to interact with other children and develop skills of collaboration and communication that will serve as a critical foundation as they transition to elementary school.  They won’t get that in front of a screen.

*Update: to those who have commented that this year’s budget does in fact include an expansion of Pre-K in North Carolina:

Representative Horn’s exact comment to the K-12 Education Committee was “We may, and I think we will, continue to expand access for Pre-K.”  He clearly was speculating that there would be continued moves by the legislature to expand Pre-K beyond what is already on the books.  

This year there are statutory increases to Pre-K in the base budget which were signed into law more than a year ago (here).  The proposed House budget does not include any additional expansion. The only new legislation around Pre-K is Horn’s pilot program of virtual preschool.