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Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed (Aug. 26, 2019)

August 27, 2019 9 min read
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New School Year Picks Up Where Last Ended: Teacher Agitation Brewing Already

With school just beginning in most places across the country, the specter of teacher unrest is again cropping up before some students barely have had time to crack open their texts.

Unions in two of the biggies—Chicago, and in Las Vegas environs formally known as Clark County, Nev.—have drawn their line in the sand. Teachers in Clark County have already scheduled their strike, for Sept. 10. Chicago teachers could walk out as early as Sept. 25.

The strife between labor and management seems like a continuation of the upheaval that has roiled districts—and states—for the past 1½ years. Statewide strikes occurred in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Teachers walked out in a number of districts in Washington state. They struck in Los Angeles and Denver. Demonstrations and unofficial walkouts took off in North Carolina and Kentucky. And that’s just a partial list.

At first, teachers took to the streets for higher pay and more school funding. As the turmoil spread, they sought smaller class sizes, charter school moratoriums, and other socially minded initiatives.

A majority of the public wants some of those things for teachers, too. On the subject of higher pay, 72 percent of the public favor it, says a new report by the journal Education Next. That number did drop, to 56 percent, after survey respondents were told how much teachers in their state already earned on average. Curiously, the number went up, when informed, among Republicans.

In Clark County, the union and district agree on raises. They are poles apart, though, on pay for completing professional-development hours and regaining some of the teachers’ losses during a pay freeze.

In Chicago, the two sides can’t even agree on the length of a new contract.

Chicago teachers aren’t afraid to strike. They last did so in 2016. Plus the Windy City can lay claim to the first-ever strike by charter school teachers.

Charter School Opinions, 2019

Charter School Opinions, By the Numbers

An annual poll conducted by an education research and policy journal reports an increase in public support for charter schools—but also for teachers’ unions, which are often among charters’ biggest antagonists.

The 2019 survey from Education Next also shows the public backing higher teacher pay, as it did in 2018 following a series of high-profile teacher strikes over salaries and working conditions.

Referring to both President Donald Trump’s school choice proposals and teacher-pay hikes floated by 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Education Next’s introduction of its results states that, “The tenor of these provocative ideas is resonating with the American public.”

Another Official Falls in Contract Scandal in Puerto Rico

Nothing could have prepared Puerto Rico for the devastation that Hurricane Maria wrought in 2017. In the education community alone, schools were destroyed or so severely damaged they were unusable. If they were habitable, there was no electricity or plumbing. And with roads washed away, neither teachers nor students could reach the schools.

That disaster in the U.S. territory was the work of Mother Nature. Another calamity that keeps widening is man-made. Allegations of corruption in the education system—one of the largest in the United States—keep unfolding.

The latest to get swept up in the scandal is Aida Díaz. The president of Puerto Rico’s teachers’ union announced last week that she will step down after 17 years following news reports highlighting her husband’s education contracts.

Díaz said she had already planned to resign before questions surfaced in the Puerto Rican press about her husband Eusebio Rodríguez Oquendo’s contracts with the island’s Department of Education. Díaz denied that her husband’s work represented a conflict of interest for her and her union leadership.

She is far from the first high-profile official to be enmeshed in the swirl of charges stemming from Education Department contracts. Julia Keleher, the island’s former education secretary, was arrested last month on federal fraud charges related to department contracts. Keleher has pleaded not guilty.

Then massive political protests forced former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to step down last month. Problems within the education system played a role in the public’s calls to oust him, though his woes ranged beyond that.

A report by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general cemented concerns about the territory’s education contracts. It found numerous problems with how the island’s department oversaw post-Maria disaster aid and contracts.

All of which keeps the glare of attention on a school system still working to rebound from the hurricane’s damage.

Lots of Principals Unprepared to Offer Support to Students Across Racial Lines

You’re the leader of your school. Chances are you are white.

Now look at the students in the hallways as they change classes. Chances are they are increasingly black and Latino.

Have you been prepared to address the needs of these students whose culture and background are largely different from your own?

The RAND Corp. recently asked principals that very question. What the researchers found was that nearly 40 percent of white principals felt their leadership-preparation programs left them unprepared to support students of color. Even 21 percent of nonwhite principals felt that way.

That lack of preparedness doesn’t help when most public school principals—and teachers—are white and most public school students aren’t. It also doesn’t help when research shows that students’ academic performance improves if they have a teacher of the same race.

Many school districts talk a big game about increasing staff diversity, but one in Oregon is making it clear in job postings that it really, really wants underrepresented groups to work there.

An ad for an upper-elementary teacher in the North Clackamas district made the plea explicit by encouraging candidates who do not think they meet all the qualifications for the job to apply anyway, or call the district’s human-resources department to discuss their application.

The job listing was posted on Twitter and quickly generated buzz among educators.

Mark Moser, the head of human resources for North Clackamas, said the district just started adding the explicit language to a few openings. In the future, it will be added to postings for every vacancy, he said, from janitor to principal.

Can State Tests’ ‘Proficiency’ Live Up to NAEP Standards?

How tough is it to pass state tests? Are they just as rigorous as the well-regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress?

The answer is no, but dive a little deeper and you’ll find states are tightening up their standards.

A report by the National Center for Education Statistics, out last week, shows that most states have raised their cutoff scores for demonstrating “proficiency” on state tests in the past decade. NCES came to that conclusion by converting each state’s cutoff score into an equivalent score on the 2017 NAEP in math and reading for 4th and 8th graders.

In 2007, states’ cutoff points for proficiency in 4th grade reading were as low as the equivalent of 163 on NAEP’s 0-500 point scale. By 2017, no state’s cutoff point was less than 200. In 4th grade math, states had cutoff scores as low as 198 in 2007. By 2017, no state’s threshold score was lower than 220.

Similarly, in 2007, cutoff scores for proficiency on state tests in 8th grade reading were as low as 211, but by 2017, all states had thresholds of 245 or higher. In 8th grade math, the lowest cutoff point in 2007 was 252, but by 2017, it had risen to 277.

Even as states raised those thresholds, though, most still had definitions of proficiency that fell below NAEP’s. Overall, their cutoff scores for proficiency fell mostly in NAEP’s “basic” range.

As is often the case when it comes to research, the study has its detractors. Assessment experts contend that states’ own tests are different enough from NAEP that putting them on the same score scale is misleading. They’ve also noted that NAEP’s achievement levels have always been considered aspirational.

Replied the NCES’ Peggy G. Carr: States typically aim for grade-level proficiency, while NAEP’s idea of proficiency reflects “a more challenging standard.”

Rethinking How Slavery—and History—Is Taught in U.S.

What happened on July 4, 1776? Just about any American knows it’s the founding date of the United States.

Now, what happened on Aug. 20, 1619? It’s guaranteed that question will elicit a lot of blank stares. That’s the day the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil. And a searing project from The New York Times Magazine alters that founding date embedded in our minds to that date more than 150 years earlier.

The 1619 Project is a collection of essays and literary works observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery: “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.”

As Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s lead author, writes, the prevailing narrative taught in schools is that black Americans’ history begins with enslavement, and they had contributed little to the founding of this nation. Instead, she writes, “it is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.”

To bring this groundbreaking project into the classroom, the Pulitzer Center crafted a curriculum for teachers of all grade levels. It asks students to examine the history and the legacy of slavery in the United States, as well as our national memory.

A report last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization, found there’s no systematic approach to teaching slavery in schools—and lessons often miss crucial components to understanding this fundamental American topic. It’s taught as a Southern phenomenon, rather than something originally sanctioned in the Constitution, and the voices and experiences of enslaved people are generally left out.

Just over half the teachers surveyed for the report said they spoke about the continued legacy of slavery. Many teachers surveyed said they were concerned about terrifying black children or making white children feel guilty.

The Pulitzer Center curriculum offers discussion questions and guided reading, as well as activities that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Fareed Mostoufi, the senior education manager for the Pulitzer Center, said Hannah-Jones and editors at The New York Times were eager for educators across grade levels to reconsider how slavery is taught.

Mark Schulte, the K-12 education director for the Pulitzer Center, said the organization is planning a tour with Hannah-Jones, where she can talk to high school and college students about this work. “I have to believe that this is going to really change the way history is being taught in this country,” he said.

Briefly Stated contributors: Catherine Gewertz, Denisa R. Superville, Andrew Ujifusa, and Madeline Will. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2019 edition of Education Week

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