Speaking of indoctrination, a State Board of Education member wants new social studies standards to teach students that America is great.

Indoctrination has been a hot topic in North Carolina education policy discussions lately.

Last month the NC House of Representatives passed a law entitled “An Act to Ensure Academic Transparency” which would require teachers to post their lesson plans and details about all instructional materials online for public review.

In defense of their support for the new legislation, which passed almost entirely along partisan lines, some Republican legislators cited the need to prevent indoctrination of North Carolina students.

Iredell County Representative Jeffrey McNeely said, “Hopefully we’re just gonna teach the kids. We’re not gonna try to indoctrinate ’em or teach ’em in a certain way to make ’em believe something other than the facts.”

At its meeting today, the North Carolina State Board of Education reviewed glossaries and unpacking documents related to new state social studies standards which will be implemented in school year 2021-22. (Unpacking documents are overarching documents intended to help teachers understand how the standards should be taught).

During the discussion, board member Amy White expressed her view that the standards unpacking documents needed to ensure North Carolina teachers are teaching their students that America is a great nation.

Audio is fairly poor quality, so I’ve included a transcript below it.

One final question. Several months ago in our discussion about standards, I made a comment from the table about the foundation of our social studies curriculum being anchored in the thought and the premise that America is a great nation. And is there any place for inclusion in that foundation as a preamble to all of these documents together that we are educating our students about our history both positive and negative but that through our challenges through sacrifices through our triumphs that America is a nation today that we should be proud of and blessed to live in?

In an effort to help our students better understand about their role as future leaders in this nation. And I really think that a document or a statement underlining that fact that our teachers teaching in the public schools should be making every effort to help our students understand our history as it impacts the socioeconomics, diversity, economic development and future development of this country. It’s important that we undergird that with the idea that we live in a tremendously prosperous land.

The board agreed to take Ms. White’s suggestion under consideration and bring it back for additional discussion at next month’s meeting.

Whether or not you see America as a great nation depends on how you and your ancestors have experienced life in the United States.

But the larger point here is that social studies classes should not be a place where students come to learn that their country is great. It should be a place where they can learn the truth about their own history and the history of others and then develop their own views based on the facts.

I trust that Representative McNeely will be reaching out to Ms. White in order to express his disapproval.

Mecklenburg County plan to withhold school funds represents a 180 for two former Board of Education members

Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, 2004

One of the saddest parts of the year-long debate over Mecklenburg County’s plan to withhold funding from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has been the dramatic change in philosophy it represents for two former school board members who now serve on the Board of County Commissioners.

Board Chair George Dunlap served on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education representing District 3 from 1995 to 2008, and Commissioner Vilma Leake was the Board of Education District 2 representative from 1997 to 2008.

Over the past year, both have been enthusiastic supporters of plans to hold back education funding in a supposed attempt to address the achievement gap. Leake was first to suggest the approach at the 2020 Budget Straw Vote session. 

But archived Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education meeting minutes show that, while in their former roles, both Dunlap and Leake understood the vital importance of local funding for improving student outcomes and were frustrated when Mecklenburg County failed to provide adequate resources at the time.

At a September 2004 meeting, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education heard a recommendation from Superintendent James Pughsley to approve the 2004-05 CMS budget.

In his comments, Pughsley expressed concern that local funding had not kept pace with the school district’s growth, explaining that the lack of county funding would mean cuts that would “have an impact on teaching and learning.”

In the discussion that followed Superintendent Pughsley’s presentation, Board member George Dunlap noted that insufficient county funds would harm efforts to improve student achievement and said voters should hold commissioners accountable for their lack of support for the school district:

Mr. Dunlap reported that the budget that has been presented is what Dr. Pughsley believes best suits the needs of the children in the community and he is the one who will be held accountable. To move dollars here or there will not help him achieve his goals. It should be unquestionable what you do with a budget that is millions and millions of dollars less than what you need to achieve the things you had hoped to achieve. Mr. Dunlap reported that Dr. Pughsley had proposed initiatives to improve students who are low performing and, as a result of the budget cuts, some of those would not be realized. He stated it is very important for the public to be aware of this during the election year.

George Dunlap’s take on the budget in 2004 differs sharply with his current approach as Chair of the Board of County Commissioners.

At a May 25, 2021 meeting between Dunlap, County Manager Dena Diorio, Board of Education Chair Elyse Dashew and Superintendent Earnest Winston, Dunlap seemed shocked the district would even imagine that its request from the county might be fully funded:

Dunlap:  So, one of the things that was said was that we underfunded CMS to the tune of ninety something million.  And so, what that meant was that we underfunded the fifty-six, plus the amount that you asked for that you didn’t get.  Which suggests that you are under the impression that whatever you ask for you should get.  Now that was released by CMS.  Am I correct in that?

Dashew:  Ninety-six million. I don’t recall that number.


Winston:  I think it was eighty, it was eighty-one million.  And I think, Chairman Dunlap, what we did, and we went through a very methodical process with our budget that included community input and everything that we requested as part of that budget ask was everything that we thought we needed to appropriately and effectively educate our students.  So we didn’t…another way of saying that is that there wasn’t any fluff in that budget.  And we requested what we needed to educate kids.

Diorio:  But you do it every year.  And we never fully fund your request.  This is no different than any other year. 


Back to the 2004 Board of Education budget discussion. 

In her comments at the meeting, Vilma Leake went even further than Dunlap, blasting commissioners for playing politics and suggesting that, if the county was not willing to provide the funding needed to educate at-risk students, perhaps a lawsuit was necessary:

Ms. Leake asked how do you hold Dr. Pughsley and this Board accountable when the County has not provided funds in three years? She asked the County Commissioners to provide the funds to educate our children and not be political in the process because the children are the ones who lose in this process. Ms. Leake expressed a concern for at-risk students not receiving the funds they need to be educated. Ms. Leake encouraged the public to ask the County Commissioners to provide the funds necessary to educate the children. She suggested perhaps CMS or the public could bring a lawsuit against the County to make them provide the funds necessary to educate the children like they did in Guilford County.

Leake’s 2004 comments contrast distinctly with her 2020 move to punish Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools for not adequately educating children.  

At last year’s Budget Straw Vote session, Leake was the one to first raise the idea of placing funds in restricted contingency due to low student achievement in order to show the public that she was willing to be tough on the school board:

Dunlap:  All right, Commissioner Leake?

Leake:  Yes, let me look at, I want to find out how I can take some money from the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board as it relates to student assignment and educating our children, cause that’s not what they’re doing.  The scores are still the same, or less, and they’re not putting teachers appropriately.  How and where can I take funds to show the public that we have to say to the school board “You must use this money to educate our children”?


Leake proposed withholding 30% of CMS’s instructional budget, which County Manager Diorio informed her would come to $84 million.  Leake then reduced her proposed amount to be withheld from CMS to $30 million.

The motion was tabled when commissioners couldn’t come up with a process that would allow for the release of the money. 

One year later it’s been resurrected and nearly doubled to $56 million that will be withheld from the district until CMS officials produce a plan for closing the achievement gap that satisfies commissioners. The Board will meet on Tuesday, June 1 to vote on the fiscal year 2022 budget.

What we could really use right now is the chance to have 2004 George Dunlap and Vilma Leake come and present to the 2021 Board of County Commissioners about the need for the county to provide adequate resources for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and to trust our Board of Education and district leadership to thoughtfully engage in the hard work of addressing the achievement gap.

Perhaps they could convince commissioners that when much-needed resources are held over the head of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, the children are the ones who lose.

**Credit to Laurel Brooks for unearthing the 2004 CMS minutes, which you can view in their entirety below**

091404-Regular-Board-Meeting

CMS sets the record straight on county plan to withhold funding: “Funding reductions and holdbacks of this magnitude impact the classroom. Period.”

On Tuesday, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools released the following FAQ to clarify some important issues around Mecklenburg County’s plan to withhold $56 million from the district’s budget for the upcoming school year:

Frequently Asked QuestionsCharlotte-Mecklenburg Schools BudgetMay 2021

Q:        Why doesn’t CMS share its plan to improve academic outcomes? 

A:        CMS has shared our 2024 strategic plan with the Board of County Commissioners as recently as May 4, 2021. We began implementing this plan in 2018. Our plan addresses outcomes for all students. The Board of Education and CMS staff continue to fine-tune and revise our strategic plan in light of the impact of the pandemic. We look forward to sharing the results of this governance work at the appropriate time. 


Q:        Weren’t many of these problems pervasive pre-pandemic? 

A:        Disparities in educational outcomes for black and brown students have existed in Mecklenburg County and across the nation for decades, just as have disparities in housing, economic opportunity/wages and many other areas. There are many underlying reasons for these gaps existing and widening, including factors beyond the control of public schools. Erosions over the past two-plus decades in the successful reforms enacted after the historic Swann decision 50 years ago are among the causes. Further inequities in housing, food insecurity, wage gaps and other factors that impact students in the 128 hours per week when they are not in the care of our schools also must be addressed.  The pandemic has magnified all of these factors. The school system cannot be looked upon in a vacuum when other community ills contribute to the difficulties of addressing educational outcomes. 


Q:        What is the projected enrollment number for next school year and how does this differ from recent enrollment numbers?  How does this affect CMS’s per-pupil budget request to the County?

A:        Projected student enrollment for CMS for FY2022 is 143,856 which is higher than the actual enrollment for FY2021 at 140,070.  It is important to note that while the FY2021 budget was based on a higher projected enrollment than actually materialized, the state held districts harmless at projected funding levels. CMS followed the state’s lead by retaining staff and maintaining planned allocations to schools to avoid disruption to classes. The district also provided additional support and avoided terminating employees in the midst of the pandemic.  To date, CMS has continued to employ staff and prevent layoffs, and furloughs. The budget request for additional funding for next year is a prime example of how per pupil funding may increase year-over-year.  For example, salary and benefit increases for existing staff will increase the per pupil amount even without any change in enrollment. The request for operating costs for new schools and preventive maintenance for existing facilities is needed regardless of changes in enrollment.  The request for additional social and emotional support staffing represents an ongoing need to reduce the ratios of staffing to students to meet the needs of students – now more than ever – but was needed long before the pandemic and is also not impacted by the level of enrollment shifts this past year.  Bottom line, the budget is not built on a per pupil basis. Instead, the request is driven by and based on additional funding needs.


Q:        County officials say their recommended budget contingency will not impact the classroom. CMS says it will – can you explain? 

A:        Funding reductions and holdbacks of this magnitude impact the classroom. Period. County funding is used to supplement what we receive in state and other funding sources. Many of the expenses paid with county funds cannot be paid with state funding – even if we had the funds available, which we do not.  The recommended allocation completely eliminates the funding in several categories and decimates a few others so operating with this “holdback” of funding as outlined will be extremely problematic.  Local funding pays a portion of salaries for principals. For many assistant principals, entire salaries are locally funded. Another example: the county proposal reduces the budget for Finance and Human Resources by about half of the total planned local funding. Hiring and paying teachers, assistant teachers and other school-based staff are critical functions of these areas. Doing this work with significantly fewer staff will impact our classrooms.   


Q:        CMS says the funding gap is $81 million. The BOCC says they are funding at a higher rate than last year. What’s the reality? 

A:        With a $24.5 million portion of our total local funding request unfunded and the $56 million held in “restricted contingency,” we must prepare a budget as if our request is underfunded by about $81 million. The recommended county budget allocation to CMS for next year is $526.9 million. This is actually only $2 million more than the prior year. However, the prior year allocation designated $4.1 million as one-time funding (for the system modernization project and preventive maintenance) so the base ongoing amount decreased to $520.8 million. Thus the increase referenced by the county manager as $6.1 million is from that lower base amount.  The county manager outlined the recommended allocation for the $6.1 million increase, but that leaves us with $24.5 million in identified needs that remain unfunded – some of which will likely be required to provide locally funded teachers and other staff the same salary and benefit increases mandated by the state and to cover the charter school pass-through cost. As a result, we must cut or downsize programs, put off facility maintenance efforts and delay hiring or reduce staff.  We cannot budget for the school year with a deficit, and it is not fiscally sound to consider $56 million in a “restricted contingency” funding as part of our planned spend for the year until it is released from restriction.  


Q:        Is the BOCC claim that some NC counties don’t receive county funding true? 

A:        All counties receive some level of funding support from their respective county.   


Q:        Why does CMS need $551 million of county funding when the district is receiving $500 million in federal COVID relief money? 

A:        Federal funding must be used in addition to, not in place of, annual state and local funding. The COVID-related federal funding has specific allowable uses that must be directly linked to the prevention of, reduction of or in response to COVID-19.  Almost all components of our budget request for county funding are ongoing recurring expenses that existed prior to and will remain after the pandemic subsides.  The request does not include expenses incurred due to impacts of the pandemic, as those will be addressed with the COVID relief funding


Q:        Can federal dollars identified in the CMS budget request be used to pay for maintenance expenses that CMS has sought from the county?

A:        No. Federal funding must be used in addition to, not in place of annual state and local funding. The COVID-related federal funding has specific allowable uses that must be directly linked to the prevention of, reduction of, or in response to COVID-19. During the budget planning process, the list of facility needs was reviewed and items that are related to improving indoor air quality or reducing the spread of COVID-19 were identified to be included within the COVID-related federal funding. Items under the county request are preventive maintenance items that would not be allowable on the COVID related federal funding.


Q:        Is CMS requesting double-billing of funds for charter school students? 

A:        No, the district is not “double billing” for charter students.   CMS budgets for staffing, services and materials to support the district’s enrollment and operations of district schools. Then, based on the estimated local per pupil funding anticipated for the next year (using the combined district and charter enrollment to compute the per pupil amount), a budget is calculated for the charter school pass-through payments which is incorporated into the overall district budget. 

While we do consider the charter enrollment in our budget development process, we do not include the projected charter enrollment as we determine the necessary staffing and support for our district schools; therefore, we are not “double billing” for the charter enrollment in the budget request.  Furthermore, this budgeting exercise is recalculated each budget cycle to ensure we adjust for any shifts in enrollment between our schools and charters from year to year.   


Q:        If the state adopts a budget increasing salaries for state-funded employees, will county-funded employees receive the same increase under the current county budget recommendation? 

A:        It is the district’s practice to provide the same salary increase for all employees as mandated by the state for state paid employees. This was a part of our budget request from the county. The proposed county funding is not sufficient to cover the anticipated salary and benefit increases so reductions in other areas will be necessary to ensure all of our staff receive any salary increases mandated by the state that they so deserve. 


Q:        Does the county proposal reduce the CMS budget allocation from the county?

A:        The holdback of funding and uncertainty of when it will be released creates a situation for the district to plan a budget that is without that funding.  That is the most fiscally responsible action to take in this circumstance.


Q:        What about the “unbudgeted” $320 million in federal revenue in CMS’s proposed budget for FY2022? Why has no spending plan been identified for these funds?

A:        During the months of budget development work, we were not aware of the American Rescue Plan funding amount and only added an estimate just prior to presenting the budget – even before the state had given us an indication of our allocation. We did this in the spirit of transparency to ensure the community was aware that we anticipated having access to these COVID relief funds over the next few school years. We also discussed at length our intent to prepare a budget using a wide range of stakeholder input and thoughtful review of needs. Additional but yet-to-be-identified factors likely must be addressed in the continued response to COVID-19, and for that reason federal authorities allow districts until 2024 to use the most recent COVID-related funding. The board of education and the community will be informed once this budget plan is finalized and funding is made available for us to use for COVID-related expenses.  


Q:        Is CMS’s policy IKE still in effect?

A:        Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education Policy IKE governs student Promotion, Retention, and Acceleration and is in effect.  All components of policy IKE are still in effect. House Bill 82, which is the basis for the Camp CMS summer learning and enrichment program, prohibits the retention of kindergarten students. Students in other grades who are retained at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 and successfully complete Camp CMS must have their retention reviewed to determine if it is still warranted.  


Q:        Is CMS providing individual plans to support all students who qualify for MTSS interventions? 

A:        The individual plan requirements previously in place were based on a state statute from 2008. That statute has been updated numerous times since then and there is no current requirement that each student be provided such a plan. 


Q:        Mecklenburg County officials claim that CMS operates 166 schools and CMS says it operates 176 schools. What is the accurate number? 

A:        CMS operates 176 schools. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction website supports this fact. 

Mecklenburg County funding proposal threatens students and teachers

County Manager Dena Diorio proposes placing $56 million of CMS’s budget in restricted contingency

This week the growing beef between Mecklenburg County and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools took an unexpectedly ugly turn when County Commission Chairman George Dunlap threatened to withdraw county funding for the school district entirely.

The threat came in response to a Board of Education statement that the BOE would “pursue the avenues available to us” if commissioners approve County Manager Dena Diorio’s proposal to withhold $56 million in the FY 2022 budget until CMS provides an acceptable plan for closing the achievement gap.

County funding for CMS constitutes roughly one third of the district’s operating budget and last year came in at $530 million.

It seems unlikely that the county would take such a catastrophic step, and it’s worth noting that–despite Dunlap’s claim–there are actually no North Carolina school districts that operate without local funding.  However, so far only one commissioner has publicly opposed Diorio’s proposal to hold $56 million of CMS’s funds in restricted contingency. 

Whether it’s $56 million or $530 million, we need to have a real conversation about who is most threatened by talk of withholding funds from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  

News accounts and rhetoric by commissioners publicly supporting this approach have primarily framed this conflict as county leadership demanding more accountability from our Board of Education and school district leaders. 

But board members and executive administration don’t work in the schools that rely on that funding to do the day to day work of educating and supporting our children.  It’s our school building-level educators and students that stand to lose the most if the already insufficient resources we have to work with are reduced even further.

Commissioners who support the idea of withholding CMS funds will probably tell you it’s not punitive.  Just this week Commissioner Vilma Leake said “It’s not about taking money from the school district.  It’s about making sure that we hold you accountable for why we elected you to educate our children.” 

Let’s not forget that Commissioner Leake was actually the first one to raise the idea of placing school district funds in restricted contingency almost exactly a year ago.  At the 2020 straw vote session, Leake said CMS was failing to educate children and asked how she could take funds from the school board.

Leake proposed withholding 30% of CMS’s instructional budget, which County Manager Diorio informed her would come to $84m.  Leake then reduced her proposed amount to be withheld from CMS to $30m.

The motion was tabled when commissioners couldn’t come up with metrics that would allow for the release of the money.  One year later it’s been resurrected and nearly doubled to $56 million.

So the idea of withholding money from CMS pending the district meeting certain conditions was punitive from its inception.  Don’t say “How can I take funds?” and then turn around and say “It’s not about taking money.”

Does our school district need to be more intentional and transparent about closing the achievement gap?  Yes.  Do our leadership bodies need to do a better job at working together in general and, specifically, finding new ways to collaborate on addressing educational inequities?  Absolutely.  

This is not the way we make either of those things happen.

An incredibly difficult pandemic school year is drawing to a close–one in which students, teachers, administrators, bus drivers, nurses, and all members of our public school families have been stretched to the breaking point again and again.  

As we continue this important conversation about the Mecklenburg budget, our county leaders need to avoid the usual platitudes to educators along the lines of  “Thank you for everything you do for our children” if they’re going to threaten to take away the resources we depend on to do that work with the very next breath.  



A state legislator is howling indoctrination because my 7th graders are learning the ocean is polluted

A member of the North Carolina House of Representatives held up my teaching as an example of harmful indoctrination of children this week as state legislators met to discuss a new bill which would require teachers to post their lesson plans online for public review.

The K-12 Education Committee approved HB 755, also known as “An Act to Ensure Academic Transparency.” It passed the House by a vote of 66-50 and now moves on to the Senate.  

The legislation mandates that all lesson plans, including information about any supporting instructional materials as well as procedures for how an in-person review of lesson materials may be requested, be “prominently displayed” on school websites.  

Iredell County Republican Representative Jeffrey McNeely gave the bill two enthusiastic thumbs up, pointing to my teaching as an example of the hidden indoctrination that will be exposed if the bill is passed into law:

We tend to come to teach our kids with everything with a twist to it.  And I think transparency is one of the most important things we can do, and maybe what we’ve learned from this pandemic, through virtual, some of the parents actually seeing what their children are taught and how they’re taught. 

I saw in the Charlotte Observer the other week a English teacher was complaining because he had to do remote learning and in-person learning at the same time and it caused him to shorten his English class on environmental pollution. 

What you think about that? 

So I think this putting out to me this will help the parents going to the next grade be able to look and see what that teacher taught the year before, and hopefully we’re just gonna teach the kids, we’re not gonna try to indoctrinate ’em or teach ’em in a certain way to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write the ability to read.

McNeely is referring to an editorial I published in the Charlotte Observer last week about my experiences with hybrid teaching during the COVID 19 pandemic.  In the article I discussed being in the middle of a lesson with students both in person and on Zoom when the fire alarm rang, forcing me to prematurely end class for my remote students in the middle of an important conversation.

The Iredell County legislator ignored the overall point I was making about the challenges the pandemic has wrought for teachers and students, directing his tunnel vision at my opening words:  “Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class…

For McNeely, this line, which I “prominently displayed” in the state’s three largest newspapers, exposes a sinister plot to deviate from state standards in support of the leftist agenda.  Why else would an English teacher be discussing environmental pollution with students, if not “to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write the ability to read”?

I teach 7th grade English Language Arts in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  We use EL Education’s Language Arts curriculum, which is organized into modules that last several weeks.  (The curriculum is open source, so materials are prominently displayed here.)

While working toward mastering state ELA standards, this year my students have studied the Lost Children of Sudan and the Harlem Renaissance, and right now we’re learning about plastic pollution.  Through our current module, Mecklenburg County’s 7th grade students have gained an understanding of how plastic has become an integral part of our lives over the years but also how much of it makes its way into the world’s oceans as microplastics, harming wildlife and posing a threat to humans as well.  

not “something other than the facts”

Not having a background in education, Representative McNeely may not be aware that teaching students to read and write involves selecting topics for them to read and write about

This process allows teachers to create a broad and engaging educational experience for students and enables us to integrate instruction across subject areas so that our students see connections in class content between my English class, for example, and their social studies, science, and math classes.  It’s not a leftist plot, it’s how school is supposed to work.  

This drum beating over indoctrination of students is getting completely absurd.  

The vast majority of the public trusts teachers to do their jobs and understands that we already have way too much on our plates without adding the enormous burden of posting everything we do in class online for the pleasure of Representative McNeely and the fringe handful of his constituents who are convinced they’re fighting an end of days culture war.

McNeely and his misguided colleagues need to put down their pitchforks and focus on doing what they were elected to do:  creating policies which will actually improve the lives of North Carolinians.

Hybrid COVID-19 classrooms are not sustainable for NC schools

*this article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer

Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class when the fire alarm rang. Fire alarms are a regular occurrence in schools, but this time I happened to have half my class present in the room and the other half attending on Zoom. With no idea whether it was a drill or a real fire, I was forced to tell my remote students class was ending, quickly shut down my laptop and lead my in-person students out to safety in the parking lot.

In a school year where unexpected challenges have become commonplace, this SNAFU didn’t seem to faze students. But as their teacher it struck me as a vivid example of the limitations of the hybrid model.

Hybrid teaching has been absolutely necessary this year. The COVID pandemic has killed almost 600,000 Americans and it’s still not over. It has been crucial to provide families with a remote option so they can make the right decisions for their own health and safety, and conducting business in survival mode has meant that public schools have not had the time or resources to create high quality virtual-only alternatives.

The result has been teachers doing the best they can to teach both online and in-person students at the same time. This approach has had definite drawbacks. Students who are learning from home are often not getting the individual attention they need, and those in the classroom are still spending way too much time staring at screens. With the added chaos of regular technology challenges, it has been far too easy for unengaged students to slip through the cracks despite the valiant efforts of their teachers to hold it all together. And the time and energy required to teach two different ways at once has many educators on the edge of burnout.

Too often our practice as a society is to put more and more on the plates of classroom teachers without sufficient attention to how our actions are impacting staff morale or the quality of instruction. As this school year draws to a close, it’s time to talk about how we will handle remote learning going forward to ensure that it’s a good experience for all stakeholders.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the innovation this health crisis has required has revealed things about all of us that we didn’t previously know. Virtual learning has worked very well for some. Certain teachers have developed amazing online teaching skills, and some students have flourished with the added responsibility and independence that it takes for successful learning from home. Having had a year to watch things play out, public school parents in many North Carolina counties are calling for an expansion of remote alternatives beyond the pandemic.

Durham Public Schools has already announced the launch of a new all-remote academy for the 2021-22 school year. Wake County is in the planning phase of a similar move. For its part, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is getting ready to survey parents to gauge interest. Legislation has been filed in both the North Carolina House and Senate which could also impact how virtual schools operate in the fall, so there are quite a few balls still in the air. All of which will cost money. Lawmakers should be prepared to help districts pay.

As our decision makers wrestle with how to chart the right path forward for virtual learning, the starting point must be acknowledging that hybrid learning is a “break in case of emergency” only option. Remote learning should require a long term commitment by families, and virtual schools need to be staffed by teachers who are skilled at that work and are able to focus on it exclusively.

Good teaching requires continual reflection on what’s working and what isn’t in an effort to continually improve. Here’s hoping that approach shapes policy decisions on virtual schools as well.

Standardized testing during a pandemic makes zero sense

*this piece was first published by USA Today

When Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump for the presidency in 2020, many of our nation’s pandemic-weary educators had reason for optimism.  The change in leadership meant an exit for the spectacularly unpopular Betsy DeVos, a Secretary of Education whose lack of ed credentials and support for privatization had galled public school teachers for four years.  It meant we’d have a real teacher as First Lady in Dr. Jill Biden, someone with first-hand knowledge of the plight of educators who could hopefully encourage President Biden to live up to his lofty campaign promises about education.  

One such promise had to do with standardized testing.  

In December 2019, at an MSNBC public education forum for Democratic presidential hopefuls, Biden was asked if he would commit to ending standardized testing in public schools.  His answer was emphatic and clear: 

“Yes. You are preaching to the choir.  Teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.”

One month into Biden’s tenure as president, that educator optimism took a big hit recently when the Department of Education released a memo clarifying its position on standardized testing for spring 2021, saying the department would not consider “blanket waivers of assessments.”  

As Biden pick for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has not yet been confirmed, the memo was written by Acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum. Rosenblum has been a strong supporter of the use of standardized tests and a vocal critic of those who opt out of such tests in his role as Executive Director of education reform nonprofit The Education Trust–New York.

The Department of Education memo explains that standardized testing is necessary at this moment because “it is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning.”  At the same time, the DOE acknowledges that “the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year,” and suggests that remote administration of tests is one approach for districts to consider.

As a teacher who has been teaching online in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the last year, I find it hard to believe that the Department of Education can talk about the importance of accurately measuring the impact of the pandemic on learning and suggest remote administration of standardized tests with the same breath–and keep a straight face while doing it.

Questions about the general legitimacy of this form of assessment for measuring student learning aside, the results I’ve seen from formative standardized tests administered online this school year as a classroom teacher have been all over the place.  

Some students are repeatedly flagged for “Rapid Guessing” by the testing software, indicating they aren’t spending enough time on each test item to actually be reading the questions and answer choices.  Those students’ results are generally significantly lower than I know their abilities to be from my own classroom level assessment data.  Other scores are so high and out of line with results from previous years that they raise questions about who might actually be taking the test on the other end.  

As a result, much of the test data is highly suspect and has to be taken with a huge grain of salt when making instructional decisions.

The Department of Education memo argues that standardized testing during the pandemic is also essential for equity purposes, saying the data will help us to “be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs.”   

This virus has disproportionately impacted people of color, and that fact has led, unsurprisingly, to students of color choosing remote instruction in higher numbers.  Given the alarming lack of validity of test data when assessments are administered at home, it makes zero sense to proceed with remote administration out of an urgent need for accurate data.

That’s not to say that students should all have to come to the physical school building to take standardized tests.  In the absence of guidance from the Trump administration, North Carolina schools required students to report to buildings to take required first semester End of Course tests–even if their families had opted for full remote out of health concerns.  The Department of Education memo acknowledges that’s not the right approach to take, saying, “We do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test.”  

In a district like Charlotte Mecklenburg, where more than 40% of students are attending school remotely due to the ongoing high rates of community COVID spread, that doesn’t leave schools with any good options for testing in school year 2020-2021.

We all agree that understanding where our children are academically and devising a plan to meet their needs is critical.  That’s what our public schools do every day, pandemic or no pandemic.  Forcing students to take standardized tests in the middle of a public health crisis will not enable us to do that work better.  Such an exercise would only exponentially increase the stress that students and staff already face in order to generate data that is largely unusable.  

If the federal government is truly interested in finding out what resources and supports public schools need at this moment, why don’t they try asking us?  We’d be more than happy to tell them.

Mecklenburg County judge officially dismisses lawsuit against CMS and NCAE

A Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge has officially dismissed all claims in a lawsuit filed by a group of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools parents who were unhappy about the district providing remote instruction during the pandemic.

Judge Karen Eady-Williams found that the plaintiffs had not established a Constitutional violation of the right to a sound basic education since the district was simply utilizing an instructional approach authorized by the governor.

She noted the facts as presented by the plaintiffs did not support “an illegal contract” between CMS Board and the North Carolina Association of Educators and also said facts didn’t show that remote instruction constituted an illegal work slowdown.

The judge’s order was filed today, and you can read it in its entirety below:

KEW-Foy-et-al-v-CMBE-et-al-FILED-ORDER

Free speech is still alive–court dismisses lawsuit against CMS and NCAE

A Superior Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education by a group of parents who are opposed to remote learning.

The suit stated that COVID-19 is less dangerous than the flu and that remote instruction is unnecessary and harmful. Plaintiffs argued the constitutional rights of students to a sound basic education and statutory right to uniform public schools are being violated by denying them in-person instruction, which they referred to as “Active Instruction.”

They asked the courts to force CMS to “reestablish Active Instruction to the fullest extent permitted by the Governor of the State of North Carolina.”

You’re probably wondering, what does this all have to do with NCAE?

Last July I was among a number of educators and community members, some NCAE members and some not, who voiced COVID safety concerns to the board and district leadership via email and public comments at a meeting of the Board of Education.

After that meeting, our school board decided to forego a planned two week in-person onboarding period and instead begin the school year in Plan C.

This lawsuit claimed that the action of educators speaking up about our own safety and that of our students constituted a violation of North Carolina state law prohibiting strikes, defined in law as “a cessation or deliberate slowing down of work.” It said “NCAE has coordinated a deliberate slowing down of work of CMS by way of denying and/or delaying Active Instruction to CMS Students.”

In the likely event that you didn’t follow that absurd logic, plaintiffs were arguing that educators speaking during public comments at a board meeting and then board members voting to open in Plan C amounted to an unlawful strike.

The suit singled me out repeatedly by name, accused me of having a “clear bias against Active Instruction” and claimed that “members of the NCAE organized a campaign to improperly influence and intimidate the Board members and Mr. Winston into issuing the Suspension of Active Instruction.”

Obviously NCAE has no authority on decisions about schools reopening, but the suit asked the courts to prohibit NCAE from advocating its position to the Board and to compel NCAE–a nonprofit organization supported by the dues of its members–to pay court costs.

In his Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss, NCAE’s attorney Luke Largess noted that CMS’s actions were authorized by Governor Cooper’s executive orders and that under the separation of powers doctrine it’s not possible to declare the school district’s selection of an instructional option approved by the governor unlawful.

As for the claims specifically against NCAE, he pointed out that the same statute cited by plaintiffs prohibiting strikes also says the following:

nothing herein shall limit or impair the right of any public employee to express or communicate a complaint or opinion on any matter related to the conditions of public employment so long as the same is not designed to and does not interfere with the full, faithful, and proper performance of the duties of employment. 

He added, “Calling support of a lawful instructional plan an illegal work slowdown is not a cause of action – it is rhetorical flourish born of the palpable disdain of Plaintiffs and at least one board member for NCAE/CMAE support of remote instruction as a safety measure.”

Fortunately the judge agreed.

This pandemic is taking a toll on all of us.  It’s turned our educational system upside down, ruined people financially, and cost far too many families their loved ones.  It’s not surprising that we would have major disagreements over how to proceed as we try to find our way through to the other side.

With that said, the ability of public employees to petition their elected representatives and to speak out about workplace safety should be something that we can take for granted in a democratic society.  We cannot allow our legal system to be used in ways that result in people being afraid to do either of those things.

I’m grateful for the efforts of NCAE’s legal team in standing up for the rights of its members and successfully arguing for the dismissal of this frivolous suit.  There has never been a better time to join NCAE than right now.  For any North Carolina educators who are interested, please feel free to reach out to me for more information, or visit this link.  

Want more in-person classes? Vaccinate educators

*This piece first appeared in the Charlotte Observer

On the day North Carolina’s first COVID vaccine was administered last month, Governor Cooper tempered optimism, saying, “Seeing vaccinations underway gives us hope at the end of a hard year. But this virus continues to be extremely contagious and deadly.”

In the six weeks since, we’ve seen a frightening nationwide spike in viral infection rates and hospitalizations.  A change in guidelines by the CDC expanded early vaccine eligibility to include everyone age 65 and older.  The new criteria placed a lot of people ahead of essential workers, effectively moving North Carolina’s educators further back in the line.  There are currently no vaccines on the horizon for the vast majority of CMS educators and the rest of Group 3, and Mecklenburg County has yet to announce how it intends to vaccinate such a large group.

The lack of educator vaccines hasn’t stopped those advocating for an immediate return to in-person learning.  A recent opinion piece by CDC staff is being used as ammunition in that battle–despite the fact that it calls for a number of approaches that aren’t currently in place, including closing restaurants, ensuring outside air ventilation and using screening tests in schools to identify asymptomatic carriers.  

The rocky vaccine rollout has been confounded by factors such as limited supply and logistical snags.  But for many local educators, returning to in-person learning at a time of double digit positivity rates without being vaccinated first is a risk they’d prefer not to take.

Last week Alabama’s State Health Officer expanded that state’s vaccine eligibility to include educators.  The move came shortly after the deaths of four Montgomery Public Schools teachers led the state’s fourth largest district to draw a line in the sand and say classes would remain remote until vaccines were available for employees.  

That kind of support for North Carolina educators is sorely needed from decision makers at all levels.  Instead, having faced tremendous backlash from reopening advocates after recommending virtual instruction, County Health Director Gibbie Harris made one key change last week when extending a county health directive through February:  language advising remote learning has been removed.  The county’s announcement of the modified directive paraphrased the same CDC opinion piece as saying “with appropriate safety measures in place schools can be a safe location for students to learn.” It failed to mention that the safety measures in question are not actually in place.  

Harris’s 180 paves the way for the Board of Education to return students and staff for face-to-face instruction in February.  To be clear, the board has no control over vaccines beyond advocating for student-facing staff to be prioritized–which it did before vaccines were even available.  But it is responsible for deciding whether to resume in-person learning at a time when CMS dashboard metrics for public health are still well in the red and vaccines are not on staff calendars.

North Carolina’s educators have grown accustomed to feeling underappreciated in a state that has valued tax cuts over education for years.  Time and again we’ve heard lip service to the sacrifices we make and gratitude for our willingness to do more with less.  But in this moment the stakes of doing without a vaccine are life and death.  That’s a scary prospect.

Imagine if all stakeholders involved in this pandemic education struggle were to unite around a shared goal of calling on federal, state, and local officials to solve supply and distribution problems and begin Group 3 vaccinations.  Imagine if those utilizing lawsuits, harassment, and financial resources to push for an immediate return to face-to-face learning were to instead use their energy to make that return considerably safer for all involved, including their own families.  

Like so many things about this pandemic, remote learning has not been ideal for anyone, and teachers want nothing more than to be back in the classroom where we belong.  Let’s get our educators vaccinated so we can do so safely.