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.

Behind the numbers

New York City is touting grad rates at its lowest-performing high schools, but far fewer students are graduating from them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

When education officials announced this month that New York City had achieved the highest graduation rates in history, they made a point of highlighting the gains in high schools that have struggled for years.

At the city’s 31 “Renewal” high schools — historically low-performing schools that receive extra social services and academic support — graduation rates have increased 7 percent since 2014. That growth is greater than the 4.2 percent average boost across all high schools over the same timeframe (though at 59 percent, Renewal schools’ average grad rate is still still far below the city’s 72.6 percent average).

The city touted these figures as evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program, which is projected to cost $850 million, is having an effect — good news for education officials who have struggled to point to clear signs of progress in the face of decidedly mixed results.

But despite the increase in graduation rates, Renewal schools are graduating far fewer students than even one year ago, according to a Chalkbeat review, and roughly half of Renewal schools have higher dropout rates than when the program started — a sign that the city is still struggling to persuade students to enroll and stay in them.

Just 3,371 students graduated from Renewal schools last year, 10 percent fewer than the previous year, and 18 percent fewer than the 4,121 who graduated three years ago, immediately before the program started rolling out.

August Martin High School, for instance, has boosted its graduation rate by nearly 14 percent over the past two years. But the Queens school also shed nearly a third of its 679 students over the same period.

“In one sense, it can almost be framed as a marketing problem,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Even though many Renewal schools have been losing students since before they were placed in the program, “schools that are struggling and have been identified [as Renewal schools] are not as attractive to families.”

Enrollment problems pose an existential threat. School funding is partially dependent on the number of students in the building, and as that number slips, schools may need extra cash just to offer core math and English classes — let alone extracurricular activities or art classes. And last month, the city cited low enrollment as one factor in its plan to close or merge nine Renewal schools.

Department of Education spokesman Michael Aciman acknowledged the enrollment drop-off, but pointed out that the rate of decline slowed across Renewal high schools this year. “We are explicitly working with school leaders and families to highlight improvements and help them get the word out about the strong work that is happening in an effort to reverse those trends,” he wrote in an email.

The new data also reveals that while a greater proportion of students at Renewal high schools are graduating, dropout rates have remained stubborn: Sixteen of the 31 Renewal high schools posted higher dropout rates last year than when the program started.

Partly due to enrollment declines, the raw number of students dropping out was about 25 percent lower last year than when the program started. But the overall dropout rate at Renewal schools has increased to 19 percent, about one percentage point higher than it was three years ago, and more than double the city average of 8.5 percent.

Aciman noted several efforts designed to shepherd high school students to graduation, including prep for high school exit exams, and tools that allow educators to better track students who are chronically absent or falling behind on credits.

And he pointed to data that shows progress in reducing in rates of chronic absenteeism and boosts in attendance — signs of engagement, he said, that could ultimately affect future graduation and dropout rates.

“Decreasing the dropout rate at Renewal schools will take time,” Aciman wrote, “but we’re putting the necessary structures and early interventions in place to make sustainable improvements.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.