Cardona Takes Aim At Foes of Teachers During NEA Meeting
Teachers’ unions get a lot of flak from the right, but from the Biden administration, they get the equivalent of a warm embrace.
That fellowship was on full display on July 3 at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly where U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona heaped praise on teachers and excoriated those who villainize them.
Teachers should be thanked for their hard work throughout the pandemic—but instead they’re facing an “onslaught of disrespect,” Cardona told union delegates in a rousing speech.
“You went from the pandemic to persecution,” he said. “In some parts of this country, they’ve developed an intentional, toxic disrespect against teachers in public schools.”
Cardona, a former teacher and principal, and the Biden administration, have long been friends of the union. The NEA already endorsed President Joe Biden for reelection, an election for which union leaders are urging delegates to gear up, especially with schools at the center of so many political and cultural debates.
The secretary spoke to delegates the day after the conservative group Moms for Liberty concluded its own gathering. During that convention, GOP presidential candidates and others assailed a “woke ideology” they claim is being taught in schools and accused educators of “indoctrinating” students.
Cardona dismissed that type of rhetoric as “divisive drama,” slamming conservative policymakers who have pushed for book bans, restrictions on instruction about racism, limitations on the rights of LGBTQ+ students, and school choice policies that divert public money to private schools.
“There’s a toxic disrespect from so-called leaders who have gotten millions in debt relief but throw a tantrum when we’re trying to get teachers $10,000,” he said, adding, “We’re not done with that.”
“The time has come for us as a nation, along with NEA, to fight unapologetically against toxicity,” Cardona said. “Schools are the best intervention to fight against, and educators are the antidote—or dare I say in Florida, the vaccine—against vitriol.”
A recent nationally representative survey found that just about half of teachers say they’re respected and seen as professionals by the general public, down more than 20 percentage points from 2011.
Shortcomings in Sex Education Curriculum Leave Students ‘in the Dark,’ Survey Reveals
The lights are apparently out in many schools when it comes to sex education. That’s the upshot of a national survey of school nurses, psychologists, counselors, and other health workers about their schools’ curriculum.
Topics like puberty, anatomy, and physiology are commonly taught, the survey by the EdWeek Research Center found. In contrast, less than 40 percent of school health workers said students in their district learned about consent, interpersonal violence, and contraceptives. Even less likely to be taught were LGBTQ+ issues and gender identity and expression. About 20 percent said their school doesn’t teach sex education at all, while another 19 percent called the curriculum “completely” or “somewhat” inadequate.
About a quarter said the curriculum did a “very adequate” or “excellent” job at informing students.
Students are being left “in the dark,” said Nora Gelperin, the director of sex education and training at Advocates for Youth.
Gelperin cited two reasons for the state of sex education in the nation’s schools: insufficient training for teachers and the maelstrom of political and cultural debates.
“Unfortunately, I think sometimes adults overcensor themselves—they’re so worried about the pushback,” she said. “It’s really to the detriment of the students.”
In open-ended survey responses, several school health workers said they want their school to have a more robust sex ed. curriculum, but they’re stymied by district policies and fear of public backlash.
“Teaching health, especially sex ed., is very challenging these days, primarily for fear of parental interference or criticism,” one health worker said.
When school health workers were asked what topics were included in their school or district’s sex ed. curriculum, 71 percent said puberty and 60 percent said anatomy and physiology—topics, Gelperin noted, that tend to be considered noncontroversial.
But experts say other topics are important for a comprehensive curriculum—such as consent, interpersonal relationships, and information about both contraceptives and abstinence.
‘We Say Gay’: Largest Teachers’ Union Pledges to Fight Anti-LGBTQ+ Policies
As thousands of delegates of the National Education Association gathered in Florida—a state at the forefront of restrictions on the LGBTQ+ community—they defiantly pledged to “say gay.”
Educators wore shirts donning the phrase, a reference to the state’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, that now bans most instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for all grades. “We say gay,” they chanted, as they rallied in the Florida heat against similar legislation taking root across the country.
And the NEA delegates passed a measure to address “the prevalence of discrimination and violence targeted” at those in the LGBTQ+ community, which includes mobilizing against legislative attacks, providing professional development on LGBTQ+ issues for educators, and strengthening contract protections for LGBTQ+ educators.
The new business item, which was voted on during the union’s annual representative assembly, carried a hefty price tag of more than $580,000. (NEA delegates have spent more than $1.2 million this week in new business, with this measure being the most expensive by far.)
Over the past two years, state lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills prohibiting classroom discussions on LGBTQ+ issues, limiting transgender students’ ability to participate in school sports or use bathrooms that align with their gender identity, and restricting the use of pronouns that don’t match students’ or teachers’ assigned sex at birth.
The consequences for LGBTQ+ students and teachers have been devastating, NEA delegates said.
Delegates said the goal is to provide state and local affiliates with the resources they need to be able to combat anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and policies from both state legislatures and school boards.
NEA President Becky Pringle said in an interview that she’s not sure yet what the implementation of the measure will look like—but she thinks it’s work that needs to be done.
“Even for us who are staunch advocates for LGBTQ rights, there’s still more you have to learn,” she said. “That’s why it needed to be as expansive as it was, because we’re still on our learning journey.”
Educators Question Length Of Closures During COVID
“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” Huh? The famous Yogi Berra quote might be perfectly apt to describe what occurred as the education community wrestled with shuttering schools during the pandemic.
Little was known about COVID-19 in 2020, and experts believed steering clear of groups of people was a key means of slowing the disease’s spread. But it took a while before it became abundantly clear that children were the least likely to get seriously sick or die from the virus, and they were suffering—and still are—major academic and developmental blows from online classes and prolonged isolation.
A recent survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders indicates many educators—40 percent—now believe schools were closed too long. About half the respondents said their schools were closed the “perfect” amount of time, while just 11 percent said shutdowns were too short.
Forty-three percent of district leaders and 40 percent of principals said closures were too long, and about half of each group said they lasted for the perfect amount of time, according to the survey from the EdWeek Research Center. Teachers were the most likely to characterize the closures as too short (13 percent).
Still, Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said she was surprised that about half of respondents found the closures lasted the right amount of time. Some other groups, including parents and researchers, have begun analyzing the cost-benefit of the closures and feel in hindsight they cost students too much, she said.
“Now is the time to reflect and second-guess those decisions because there could be another reason for closures in the future, and we just want to learn from this,” Lake said. “We don’t need to judge anybody for the decisions that were made, but we should definitely learn from them.”
In Poll, U.S. Students Give Schools Passing Grades
Schools are lousy. Schools are great. OK, maybe mediocre. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Rarely, though, are those beholders the institutions’ main consumers: students.
So the polling firm Gallup decided to ask. Students, what grade would you give your school?
The answer? Not bad. A B-minus on average from more than 2,000 responses from grades 5-12 at the end of this past school year. Still, students pointed out there was plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to supporting their mental health, making them excited to learn, and preparing them for potential careers.
The highest grades schools earned, a straight B, were for keeping students physically safe and respecting them for who they are regardless of race and ethnicity, gender, and identity. Three-quarters gave schools an A or B in those categories.
But that is the high-water mark. No other topic got an A from more than 30 percent of students.
How students rated their school varied based on several factors. Hispanic and white students tended to give higher grades to schools for respecting students regardless of race/ethnicity, gender and identity than did Black students.
Students who earned good grades were also more likely to give their school an A for making them feel included than were students who struggled.
Schools fell short on supporting students’ mental health, teaching in ways adapted to students’ unique learning needs, teaching about potential careers, and making students excited about learning. They earned a C-plus overall—the lowest grade assigned.
Slightly more than half of students rated their schools A or B on supporting their mental health, teaching about potential careers, and adapting teaching to students’ needs. Nearly a quarter gave their schools either a D or F on those three fronts.
Fewer than half of students said their school earned an A or B grade on making them excited to learn.
Caitlynn Peetz, Staff Writer; Arianna Prothero, Assistant Editor; and Madeline Will, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: July 12, 2023