Teacher talk

New federal education laws can re-establish respect for teachers, union chief says

PHOTO: NEA
Lily Eskelsen Garcia president of the National Education Association.

Teachers across the U.S. and Colorado have fanned out this fall to knock on doors and make phone calls for Hillary Clinton. That includes Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.

Eskelsen Garcia stumped for Clinton last week in Denver. While she was in town, Chalkbeat sat down to chat with her about a variety of topics including the nation’s new federal education law, the shortage of qualified teachers in some areas and the union’s new interest in the concept of community schools, which incorporates programming such as health clinics in schools to address issues of poverty.

Eskelsen Garcia has been a huge proponent of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new education law. She sees it as a chance for teachers to claim a leadership role in their schools and in shaping statewide policy. That, she said, could lead to a greater respect for the profession and a renewed interest among the nation’s young people to step in front of the classroom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How is the Every Student Succeeds Act going to help make the teaching profession better for educators?
One of the things that has been conveyed to us is that teachers feel like their hands are tied when they get to school.

One of the things we got in the new law is that as you develop your plans for schools you must include practitioners. You must include the people that actually know what they’re talking about. That’s hugely different than No Child Left Behind.

There are going to be some states who take that to heart. They’re going to say, “The reason we missed the boat is because we didn’t ask that third-grade teacher. We didn’t ask that AP Algebra teacher. Let’s sit down and talk about how we’re going to collaborate and not just amongst the professionals in the building, but among the community, the parents.”

We believe that if people take the spirit of the law that you must include the people who know the names of the kids, that some of that discouragement will go away. Having that collaborative authority to do your job — you wouldn’t think you’d need a federal law to do that. But that’s the hope that we have.

And we also know that sometimes people don’t know what they can do without needing permission. We have another motto: proceed until apprehended. You know, just do it. Parents are excited about things that make their kids excited and want to go to school. Usually, you have a great principal who will say, “You’re making me look good.” Don’t wait for permission. Just do what’s right for those kids.

You’re very optimistic about ESSA. Some our state lawmakers and members of the State Board of Education aren’t. They think we’ve been sold a bill of goods, especially around more local control. Why do you think you’re right?
I’m not sure the vision has caught on with all the bureaucracies that have to manage it. They actually have to look at their own laws. Do we have some test-and-punish laws on the state levels — if you’re saying there’s not enough flexibility, even with our educators in the building, ask what’s in the way. A lot of times it’s the state and local bureaucracy.

There’s nothing stopping a school community from doing something creative and wonderful for kids. That’s at the building level. We’d say the same thing at the state level. What’s holding you back? Come up with that vision of what a great public school should look like.

So what we’ve said is take a good old-fashioned clipboard and walk into the best public school in Colorado — the to-die-for public school that someone would sell a kidney to get a house in that neighborhood to send their kid to that public school. Go in there and take an inventory. You’ve got a science department. You’ve got computers. You’ve got a theater department and great sports teams for girls and boys. You’ve got counselors and social works and nurses. You have everything — foreign languages — everything those affluent parents insisted on. And they’re right — their kids do need those things to have an edge. And that becomes your standard school in Colorado. And you say that what the most affluent kids who have everything possible — what we did for them — we will do for everyone.

I’ve seen people roll their eyes and say, “Well, we can’t afford that.” Of course you can. You did, for those kids. So what you’re saying is that we can’t afford it for the kids who have so little. And that just sounds wrong when it comes out of your mouth — because it is wrong. What we’re telling people is, look at resource equity. And what are you doing to recruit and retain the most highly trained professionals.

But isn’t this beyond the scope of ESSA?
You can fit all of this in there. And whether it’s in ESSA or not, the secret sauce is to have those resources with talented and creative people and give them collaborative authority to design something that works for those kids.

What is NEA doing, what should we all be doing to address the teacher shortage?
This is the next crisis that is hitting us. We used to see colleges of education where that was the cash cow. Now you’re hearing deans of teaching colleges saying, ‘We’re not getting applicants.’ It’s cut several ways: First of all, we’ve seen hits on the respect for education. It’s been very frustrating. We’ve lost a lot really talented people because they feel like they’ve been disrespected. And because they were so frustrated because they felt they couldn’t do their jobs.

The second thing is, we’re seeing parents, even parents who are teachers, discouraging their kids from going into teaching for one reason: the crushing student debt. The price of education at a university level is so outrageously high, parents are saying, ‘We’d love you to be a teacher, but I know what you’re going to make. And I’ll be paying off your student debt. You’ll never be able to pay off that student debt. Please go into something else where you’ll make more money.’ And they’re making a very practical decision.

If that’s the problem, what’s the solution?
I’ve had a chance to sit and talk with Hillary Clinton about that problem — about how do we get qualified and career teachers, and not just people who say this would be a great way to give a charitable contribution for a year or two. And what I’ve said is, “What about loan forgiveness for people in public service?” And there is no greater public service than education. She’s intrigued by that idea. She’s looking at something very comprehensive in student loans, and the ability to pay back that student loan.

NEA took a massive survey of educators early in their career, teaching no longer than 10 years. And we were alarmed by the information we got back. Basically, when we asked, ‘How do you feel about being a teacher?” the overwhelming answer was, “I feel I made a mistake.” We’re looking at the analysis, they think they should have gone into something else. And when you dug into it, they said, ‘I know what I need to do and I’m in a system that won’t let me teach.’ They felt very isolated, like they have a lack of authority and a lack of collaboration.

I remember when I started teaching during the Reagan administration. I loved teaching. I got up every day saying, ‘We’re going to have a great day,’ and we did. And what I saw in that survey was those teachers don’t feel that. They feel like they made a mistake. I never felt like I made a mistake. I felt like I had the best job in the world.

Maybe I was lucky, but luck is not a smart business plan. So what we’re seeing from systems like Finland and Singapore is the dynamics of really empowering people to design something and own it. They’re going to make it work. And they’re appreciated.

The question is what can we do right now, without an act of Congress, to bring that feeling that teachers are in charge, that they’re problems solvers, not the problem. That’s our challenge.

NEA and the state’s teachers union have recently taken a big interest in the community schools model. Why?
To me, community schools are the North Star. It’s where we need to be heading. When you take a look at our education system, we have really never had a system where students have had what they needed. For our minority kids, for kids in poverty, for disabled kids, for gifted and talented kids, we’ve always had this system that said, ‘Here’s the average and that’s what you get.’ What we think we need to do is go back and look at what it means to have a good public school.

We’ve hit a very shameful number in this country: 51. Fifty-one percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. That means the majority of our families are struggling financially on some levels. You have moms and dads who don’t make a living wage. They’re struggling financially. You always thought of inner-city schools as the place you have poor children. Now every community has a hefty group of kids whose moms and dads are working two or three jobs just to make the rent and put food on the table.

Community schools would make that school the hub of the neighborhood. The reason they work is because they take care of the whole family, not just the child. There is usually some sort of health service. I’ve seen a dentist chair just off the (school) library. They all have a parent resource center. The other thing they always do is beef up the academic program. It’s not enough just to stick the dentist chair in the office. More and more, community schools are looking at the International Baccalaureate program. The teachers love it. There’s energy there. The parents love it. No one can sell these kids a vouchers or a charter school. They’re going, ‘This is where I live. I walk to this school. It’s got everything from the best academic programs to the things that really serve my family like English classes for the moms and dads, counselors, and everyone feels welcome.’ Those schools become a safe place for everyone who feels marginalized.

Isn’t it also a solution to what so many educators have said is a problem — that we put too much of society’s problems on schools?
I hadn’t thought of it that way. I taught in a homeless shelter, but I’ve also taught in working-class neighborhoods, where we were expected to pick up where the parents left off. You can’t call a mom working two jobs to say we have a problem with your kid’s behavior today. She could get fired if she takes too many phone calls during the middle of the day. She can’t take off and pick up these kids.

In one sense, we want people to know that we’ve been asked to do a whole lot more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic. We’re asked to be the substitute parents sometimes. But we’re not complaining about it. We just want people to know it takes so much more to educate this child and to care for this child than you think.

3-K for All

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces plan to expand universal pre-K to 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to offer prekindergarten to every 3-year-old child in New York City, he said Monday in one of his most ambitious education announcements to date.

Calling the initiative “3-K for All,” de Blasio said the plan will start by expanding pre-K seats for younger children in District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn over the next two years and encouraging more families to enroll in existing seats. The plan builds on de Blasio’s signature education initiative — a push to provide free pre-K to every 4-year-old in New York City — which he highlights as a major success.

“We have proven through the growth of Pre-k for All that it can be done, and it can be done quickly,” de Blasio said at a press conference Monday at P.S. 1 in the Bronx.

But the initiative will take a while to reach every 3-year-old in the city. The city plans to fund eight districts on its own by 2021, but also wants to raise enough outside funding to make it universal by that time.

Over the past two years, the city has enrolled at least 50,000 additional students in pre-K programs, bringing the total to more than 70,000. Still, research has shown the city’s program is highly segregated — a reality schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has described as a product of parent choice.

Officials cautioned the roll-out would probably be even more difficult than expanding pre-K to 4-year-olds and suggested they would need state and federal funding to make it a reality. The city anticipates adding 4,500 new teachers to staff the effort. In order to reach all city school districts, the city will need to raise $700 million in outside funding, de Blasio said.

“This is going to be a game-changer,” the mayor said, “but it’s also going to be hard to do.”

You can read the city’s announcement here.

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”