in their own words

As crisis over Trump’s immigrant order mounts, what America’s teachers of refugee students want you to know

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with six-year-old Ngae Reh in 2015.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order late Friday that blocked refugees from coming into the U.S. for 120 days and bars refugees from Syria from entering indefinitely.

The order — and subsequent detentions of refugees and other legal immigrants arriving in U.S. airports — prompted dramatic protests across the country and an emergency, late-night court ruling temporarily suspending part of Trump’s decree.

Among the many people who will spend the coming days trying to make sense of the shifting, uncertain terrain facing refugee families are the teachers who, in increasing numbers, have been working with their children.

Before and after Trump’s order this week, we asked several of those teachers to tell about their jobs, their students, and what has them worried right now. Here’s some of what they told us.

Louise El Yaafouri helps teachers learn the best ways to reach refugee education in Denver and Aurora, Colorado. She recently wrote this piece about teaching a student who had come to the U.S. from Iraq.

“I was just visiting some former students who are now in middle school, and they’re very cognizant of what’s going on. Families come in waves [to the U.S.], and many have family members that are still in that process of being approved. That creates is a lot of anxiety around, am I going to get to see my family again.

For our students, it’s not safe for them to go back. That saying, ‘Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark,’ that’s the situation. None of these families would volunteer to come to America. These aren’t families that that was their goal. None would have chosen to lose their homes, their culture, language, food.

I’ve been [around] refugee camps and watched this process of resettlement. It’s often long and terrifying ordeal. The U.S. is known for having a long and stringent process. And in the Denver community, those [countries targeted by Trump’s recent executive order] are seven populations we receive the most.

"Most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country."

A lot of students I get from those countries are not Muslim to begin with! And most of the families from Iraq are not refugees but asylees who volunteered to help the U.S. in their country.

We’re just starting to see our first Syrian kiddos here. [My former school] Bridge Academy got about five.

Our families, they have such a deep love for their home country. I’m an American and I love my country. This is different. It’s the idea of community and family so embedded in every aspect of life. To come to a place like the States … I feel, from my families, there’s a deep sense of isolation and detachment. The Syrian students tend to exhibit more symptoms of traumatic shock.

Syrians are also among the most literate people anywhere. Academically, it doesn’t take a long time for them to be ready to go. Even with disrupted schooling, the chance of them having literacy in their home language is really high. Kudos to those parents.

I work with the whole field of service workers in the refugee context. Working with people from the State Department, Lutheran Family Services, our African Community Center — having a network of people is crucial. We share all this information as it’s coming out and brainstorm and problem-solve. This community is really mobilized to dedicate ourselves to the people we serve. If it were me as an island, it would be too overwhelming.”

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Emily Ramirez teaches English as a second language in a diverse Dallas high school.

“We had an influx a few years ago from Myanmar, more recently we’ve received students from the Congo. Just in the past year, we’ve had a lot of placements from Syria and Iraq. Most of those students have refugee status. And then there’s a pretty sizable community from central America, a lot who are fleeing pretty violent situations.

"A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true"

I do have a few students [from Syria and Iraq] who are here, but they might still have a brother or an uncle they’re hoping they can come here. For one student, that might be changing — the likelihood of his brother being able to join his family.

We talk about ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. So, why did you leave? And, why did you choose America? For the descriptions of why people left, I got a pretty wide variety. A lot of people from Syria wrote, civil war, war, dying, dead people. When I asked, why America, why not Canada, France, Turkey? They say, I don’t know. We just ended up here.

The placements happen so fast. I had a class that reached 38 students speaking 17 languages. You just keep on welcoming people. A lot of people complain that refugees put strain on schools. That is true, and it can be difficult on schools. But it’s what I do, it’s what I love.”

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Tonya Powers is a long-term substitute teacher near Lubbock, Texas.

“I’m a speech and debate teacher. This is a fairly wealthy district, so a lot of this is about teaching them how to accept and communicate with people who are not like them. Lubbock is the home of Texas Tech, so there are graduate students especially who have children and go to school in the area. I’ve had a student whose family was in the process of applying for political asylum who has been trying to figure out how that would affect his chances at college. This area is built on cattle and farming, which means a lot of migrant workers.

Most days are pretty normal, but this last week has been rough on them. After the election, we had a horde of eighth-grade boys walking down the hallway chanting ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’

I want people to know that these are just kids. Kids don’t make the choices they’re so afraid of. Even teenagers don’t. None of these kids I have ever been afraid of becoming terrorists.

It worries me when people talk about immigrants and refugees in broad strokes and have never even talked to one. If you could look your own child in the eye and say they didn’t deserve an education, you’d be heartless. And I think most people are better than that. But I think people don’t remember that immigrants and refugees are kids, too.”

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Carol Salva is a teacher and consultant working with newcomer students in Houston.

“In one of our more affluent areas, one of the apartment complexes struck a deal with Catholic Charities to resettle refugees there. Before [the nearby high school] could realize what was happening, they were flooded. There were over 30 kids who were coming from Somalia, Burundi, Egypt.

"For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched."

They’re middle schoolers, full of hormones, there were all kinds of issues with behavior. We had refugees in in-school suspension every day. They kept loading them into this one class, and they had no good models for how you act in schools.

These kids are so mad by October. And in October, I went back into the classroom, and took over the class.

One of the teachers quit. But it all turned out really, really well. We watched tape of class, like football players. What did we do wrong? What did we do right?

The kids are learning more English every day, so you can explain things. You start talking about perseverance and grit. ‘You could help prove how fast refugees can learn.’

Most of the school is scared of them … then they started learning. And they bring perspective that you don’t have and I don’t have. Who wouldn’t want that for their child? I moved my kid to this school so he could be part of it.

I don’t mean to romanticize their hardships. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But their perspective is huge and what we want for every classroom.

Their appreciation for education kept blowing us away over and over again. I don’t know if you know any middle schoolers, but their appreciation for education can be rather low. To have a student ask, why do we have a week off? And I would say, it’s spring break, it’s what we do. And he actually said, I don’t need a break. I’ve been on break my whole life.

I teach brand-new newcomers in high school now, and over half the class is from Syria. Their math and science is way beyond ours.

I’m deeply saddened. For the last year or more, so many people in our community have been enriched. You would want these people to be your neighbors.”

Do you teach refugee students? We’d love to hear from you. Tells us where you work and what you’d like other Americans to know about that experience at [email protected]

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.