The following is based on an abbreviated version of a speech given at the Franklin Rotary Club on the importance of public education and 9 critical issues policymakers will need to address in 2019.
Did you know? No generation of educators has been asked to do what we now demand of our public schools – to teach all children to high levels while addressing the stunning array of social, psychological, and physical problems that plague so many of them. Understand this is not a complaint. This is a request for help from problem solvers like you. And IF you have never been asked to help before in our schools, let me be the first to ask you here today please get involved in public education.
Let me start with what I believe based on over 30 years of working in public education. Public education is not “broken.” Public education policy is “broken,” and neighborhood public schools are suffering the consequences.
Decades of societal issues are not addressed, and unfortunately these issues get laid at the feet of public schools. Undoubtedly, there are real problems in public education, which must be confronted head-on. The culture in Tennessee schools has changed at the grassroots level, but policy has lagged at the state level at times. Rigid state and district regulations can turn out to be daunting barriers to addressing many issues in public education. In 2018 candidates for state offices must provide solutions to the laundry list of challenges for the benefit of all children. An engaging and challenging education is the proven path to prosperity and a life-long love of learning.
Below are nine of the most critical and challenging issues in public education we should address in 2019, in no particular order.
Richness of Poverty in Our Struggling Schools
Education remains the key to escaping poverty, even as poverty remains the biggest obstacle to education. According to the Southern Education Foundation, over 50 percent of the nation’s children are in poverty. Poverty is a vast and complex issue that plagues all communities in a seemingly endless cycle. No county in Tennessee is immune from poverty. Tennessee has the fourth highest food insecurity rate in the United States. More than 1 in 5 children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s 1 in 3. We know that students who live in poverty come to school every day without the proper tools for success. As a result, they are commonly behind their classmates physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively.
This means more absenteeism and truancy, bullying, and trust and engagement issues that can weaken the learning environment. This feeds the school to prison pipeline. The Nashville zip code 37208 has the highest percentage of incarceration in the nation, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
Promoting the Profession
We need to be raising the professional status of teaching, attracting the best and brightest into teaching, and restoring respect for the education profession. When McKinsey & Company compared educational performance around the world, it came to the seemingly obvious, conclusion that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Schools need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind. The issue of restoring respect for teachers is also urgently needed. Far too often the voices of classroom teachers are not included in the decisions that impact their livelihood or their students. Few occupations are given so little say in their chosen field. That must change.
We know without a doubt that teachers are the number one in-school influence on student achievement. Data indicates that in the last 20 years, teacher attrition has nearly doubled. In fact, 16–30% of teachers leave the teaching profession each year. It is estimated by some that nationally we spend millions a year to replace these teachers. The average cost to replace a teacher is about $20,000 each in many districts. One-third of today’s teachers will retire in the next five years. Shortages also persist in specific areas: mathematics, science, special education, English language development, and foreign languages. Turnover rates are 50% higher in Title I schools, which serve more low-income students. Turnover rates are also 70% higher for teachers in schools serving the largest concentrations of students of color. Teacher retention is critical. And teacher benefits are a critical component of that strategy.
We are way beyond simple community involvement. You are already involved, even if you are just a taxpayer. I firmly believe public education should focus on building community support and engagement. There is strong evidence that parental involvement and engagement can have a positive effect on children’s learning motivation, well-being and learning outcomes at school. It is hard to define the appropriate amount of engagement for parents in the education process. There is no one size fits all, and it may vary from child to child, district to district. A 1966 report titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” (otherwise known as the “Coleman Report”), concluded that the key predictors of student performance were social class, family background and education, and family attitudes toward education. Researcher Eric Hanushek, added the significance of the Coleman Report was that it “dramatically changed the currency of policy debate to student outcomes. Prior to the report, school inputs—spending per pupil, teacher‒pupil ratios, and the like—were customarily viewed as roughly synonymous with results.”
We all recognize we have a testing issue in our state. It is not debatable that thus in the new Age of Accountability students, teachers, parents and taxpayers have not fared well.
Tennessee has placed too much emphasis on testing, especially the TNReady Exam in the eyes of many educators. Since 2012, Tennessee has had one misstep after another in testing. In 2013, our tests were not aligned to our standards. In 2014, the issue was transparency, notably quick scores and test score waivers for final semester grades were the major issue. In 2015, the new TNReady online tests had issues in the post equating formula. In 2016, we fired the vendor Measurement, Inc after the online platform was botched and they were unable to get out a paper version of the test. In 2017, we were again plagued by issues due to scoring discrepancies. This year 2018, issues related to testing, included the belief by the testing vendor Questar that their data center was attacked from an external source, although it is not believed at this time that any student data was compromised. Later a cable was disabled that impacted student testing. Also, Questar attempted to upgrade the system in the middle of testing, which is also questionable. Does Tennessee have the capability to move to online testing? Even our state leadership now questions whether Tennessee should continue with Questar as our vendor, and will bid it out in 2019. To policymakers and stakeholders alike we must ask these questions and look at leaders who can address these issues:
- Why are we relying so heavily on test scores to make important educational decisions about students, teachers or schools, especially when the process is clearly flawed?
- Should we question the reliability, validity, and accuracy of testing in Tennessee since 2013? Especially when shifting between online to paper tests?
- Reliability relates to the accuracy of their data. Reliability problems in education often arise when researchers overstate the importance of data drawn from too small or too restricted a sample.
- Validity refers to the essential truthfulness of a piece of data. By asserting validity, does the data actually measure or reflect what is claimed?
- Should we look at something already developed by a company like ACT or SAT, find another vendor altogether or bring it totally in-house to be managed by the Tennessee Department of Education?
- Clearly there is a problem with testing in Tennessee. It isn’t because of our students or our educators. It is a flawed testing system. Teacher Evaluation based on results from test scores must be re-evaluated and discontinued at least until we get the testing component correct. That is common sense.
Art and Music
Art and music programs are likely to be among the first victims of budget cuts in financially-stretched school districts already fighting to meet other academic demands, and they are rarely restored. The College Board, found that students who take four years of arts and music classes while in high school score 95 points better on their SAT exams than students who took only a half year or less (scores averaged 1061 among students in arts educations compared to 966 for students without arts education).
It is important for policymakers to understand that art, music, and literature improve problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. President John F. Kennedy reminded us: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” President Ronald Reagan added when speaking about the humanities in 1987: “The humanities teach us who we are and what we can be,” he said. “They lie at the very core of the culture of which we’re a part, and they provide the foundation from which we may reach out to other cultures. The arts are among our nation’s finest creations and the reflection of freedom’s light.” Education must nurture the whole child, and arts are vital in this endeavor. It is vital for our children to have critical and hands-on engagement with art, music, and literature, all of which help foster our basic humanity — creativity, critical thinking, and empathy for others. Cultivating these values, are the deeper purposes of education. We must not lose sight of this.
Just Read Tennessee
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has accurately called “literacy attainment the equity issue of our time.” Tennessee has started to address this issue during her term as Commissioner through Read to Be Ready, and that effort must be continued. The Tennessee Department of Education’s own statistics reveal that “Overall, less than half of our third and fourth graders are reading on grade level based on state tests, and more rigorous national assessments suggest that only one-third of our fourth graders are proficient – an unacceptable outcome in a state that has prided itself on being the fastest improving in the nation.” Achievement gaps are also striking: “only one-third of economically disadvantaged students and just one in every five of our students with disabilities achieve proficiency by the end of third grade. English learners are not advancing as quickly their native-speaking peers. On top of that, too often, students who start behind stay behind. State data tell us that less than three percent of students at the lowest reading performance level in third grade catch up by grade five. Over the long term, national research shows that children who are not reading proficiently by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19. Dropping out of high school severely damages earnings and job market appeal, and it impacts chances of leading a healthy and productive life, in addition to increasing odds of incarceration, poverty, and single parenting. This cripples not just our students’ future, but our state’s as well.” Classroom instruction is just one component, but perhaps the even more needed element is getting parents, businesses and communities engaged to improve literacy in Tennessee for the success for all students. Tennessee is also one of the states that has started to address Dyslexia. One in five students may have some form of dyslexia according to research. Much more training is needed for educators in identifying and teaching dyslexic children. Along those lines, is social promotion, the practice of moving kids along each year even if they are not ready, must truly come to an end in Tennessee. Literacy must remain a priority in Tennessee.
Make Our Schools Safe
Schools must be safe zones for students and teachers. That means the first step in school safety is securing the perimeter of a school. It seems like simple logic that we should keep intruders out and also make sure the area inside those boundaries is safe for children and adults. The last line of defense that we can have for our kids is an armed person willing and ready to defend them if the unspeakable should happen. That is why it is critical that we look at expanding the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. This is a highly effective program that serves many purposes during the school year and is invaluable where it now exists. It is important that the program be directed by a local law-enforcement agency, working in conjunction with the local education agency. The school can employ and utilize additional security, but the primary responsibility should fall to local law enforcement. In a 2018 Professional Educators of Tennessee survey, educator responses showed strong support for increased focus on student mental health, and lower school-counselor ratios, as support for increased SRO presence and improved school safety infrastructure (eg. Bulletproof glass, door locks, intercoms, panic buttons, use of retired military and law enforcement, and cameras). There was both strong opposition to and support for allowing educators to carry firearms in schools. It is critical that Tennessee address institutional safety from an evidence based best practice approach focusing on the social, emotional, mental and physical factors.
Get Political Donations Out of Education Policy
Teachers’ unions consistently rank among the top spenders on politics. Their goal is not improved public education, but rather power, money, and influence. Leo Doran wrote in How Liberal Politics and Teachers’ Unions Got So Entangled: “Experts long active in the upper echelons of education research and policy-making say that the politicization of the teachers’ unions has gotten more intense in recent years.” Doran then adds about the teacher unions that the structure of the unions “make their lobbying platforms susceptible to mission creep. The end result, however, is a Gordian knot of politics and labor battles that have ensconced the teachers’ unions…” For groups like Professional Educators of Tennessee, it is simple, we must advance public education without the divisive tribalism of partisan politics, and we will only get involved in education related issues. (Note: In Tennessee, the teacher union endorsed Craig Fitzhugh and Beth Harwell in each respective primary. Both candidates finished at the bottom). The National Education Association made recommendations for the November elections in 289 U.S. House of Representative races. Only 10 of the recommended candidates were Republicans. Such partisanship hurts public education. Since joining or refraining from joining a public sector union is now a First Amendment issue, and since different states and different unions open and close windows in a variety of ways, expect to see more litigation at the state level until it inevitably coalesces around a single case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Collaboration at all levels is critical, and we must work together for public education to improve and deliver on its promise of a better future for all. We must get our education policy right. Public education is essential to expand freedom of opportunity and economic security.
Policymakers and stakeholders, along with the public, are searching for a balance of idealism and pragmatism. It has long been acknowledged that a strong educational system is essential not only to the successful functioning of a democracy, but also to its future. Some schools and districts do this better than others. And let’s be clear, whatever measure or metric you use to determine quality of schools, many schools and districts across the state are among the finest in our nation. And my guess is they would also tell you it is community support that has helped elevate them. Unfortunately, not all schools in our state have that community support. But it is clear in communities across the state we must have serious discussions about public education as we move forward. In the end, we will only be as effective as those who teach our children and need our community support.
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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.