BOSTON — As the 2019 National Principals Conference wound down on its final morning, a panel of education leaders dished on everything from the heated presidential race to the cost of retaining top teachers to help principals nationwide contextualize how policy decisions and politics impact the way they do their jobs.
What follows is a rundown of some of the major topics discussed.
Bob Farrace, communications director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, brought up U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Education Freedom Bill, which he described as "designed to shift federal dollars, through a back door, away from public education into private education.”
Menlo Park City School District (California) Superintendent Erik Burmeister expressed criticism of school choice efforts' tendencies toward providing opportunities for charter schools, whether they be nonprofit or for-profit, and while vouchers are also often on policymakers' choice-related agendas, they haven't gone far in California.
Saying that he fundamentally believes in public education's role in the "American dream" and the reason for the system's creation, he said some states have seemingly wholesale given away their public education systems in favor of outside interests running schools because the reality is that it’s hard work and becomes more difficult and expensive the more diverse the nation becomes — and the more divisive the nation becomes.
He called for a national and state-level conversation about the role of public education and the nation's commitment to it, adding that public educators must also do a better job of providing options for parents within the system they operate.
Reach Consulting CEO Aimy Steele, who joined via videoconference, said some people are being "bamboozled" around how vouchers work, and that when parents choose to use those public dollars to go to a charter or private place, they also have to understand what resources are not available as a result of that choice.
In an environment of choice and opportunity, she said leaders need to market their schools.
Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister added that all schools have to be top choices, but that leaders have to be “huckish” about the perceived erosion of public education. Transportation needs and the resources to download an application, for example, have to be considered.
School leaders have to figure out in what ways they're not delivering, then intervene and advocate for what is needed. "There’s got to be transparency with what happens with those dollars [in vouchers]," and in Oklahoma they don’t have that right now, she said.
Farrace referenced last year's final report from the federal school safety commission led by DeVos, noting it recommended a number of things NASSP wasn’t crazy about, including removing Obama discipline guidance.
Teach Plus President and CEO Roberto Rodriguez said young people, who have experienced and been victims of assaults and traumatic violence in schools and communities are calling the country to action to do better.
He said the school discipline guidance that was rolled back was an effort by the previous administration to work with school leaders, resource officers and others to remove disciplinary practices known to have a negative impact and feed the school-to-prison pipeline, opting instead to embrace restorative practices.
"We still need that effort to take place," he said, noting that educators are still working to implement these measures and that they "overwhelmingly" oppose being armed in schools and being called to charge to be armed. They view it as "further militarization" of schools, he said.
Instead, there must be social-emotional learning, reduced class sizes so students are visible learners, mental health support, and other proactive measures, Rodriguez said, adding that 95% of teachers surveyed by Teach Plus want stronger gun laws.
Farrace asked for show of hands on the panel to show who really believes arming teachers is part of the answer. Nobody raised their hands.
Hofmeister said investment is needed in training and placing people in schools who can serve as professional mental health counselors. The recommended ratio is 250:1, and Oklahoma would need 1,100 more counselors to meet that.
This isn’t about having therapy sessions parents don’t know about, she said. It’s about meeting crises, like students who are contemplating suicide or are in a home where someone had to be removed by law enforcement.
Ultimately, it's about getting past the thinking of “What’s wrong with that kid? I’m going to expel that kid,” asking instead, “What’s happened to that child?”
Teacher and principal shortages
Steele, a former principal of Beverly Hills STEM Elementary School in Concord, North Carolina, said she's researched how a principal is the most important component in their school. Having a qualified leader who looks and acts and behaves as if they can represent all of those students is essential, she said.
As an African American principal, she found that having mentoring programs in place to help guide new administrators was key.
"We are not making teaching a very attractive career for individuals to choose."
Superintendent, Menlo Park City School District
There were certain things she needed, and educators have to be honest with themselves that with a diverse student body, those students look for people who look like them in some part of their experience in school. They link their fate to the success of that person in whatever that position is.
To get more people of color in these spaces, administrators must be intentional with how and where recruitment occurs, how training happens, and what’s being done to retain.
Of course, cost of living in many areas of the country is becoming a barrier to entering and remaining in the field.
Burmeister said that in his Bay Area district, they overlay teacher salaries on a map of the area each year and find an outsized commute distance for teachers. One teacher next year is commuting from as far as Portland, Oregon.
"That’s obviously an outlier," Burmeister said. But looking at the indicators and statistics, fewer individuals are going into teaching. "We are not making teaching a very attractive career for individuals to choose."
“If we want to be a dynamic economy, political system and global economic competitor while saving what's left of the middle class and hoping to grow it again someday," there must be more investment and an end to treating educators as punching bags, he said.
Lowering the bar for entry to the profession isn’t a sustainable solution, either, Hofmeister said, noting there are thousands of educators who continue to re-up their certification but are no longer teaching in public education. You have to be able to afford to stay in the profession, you have to feel like your principal has your back, and you have to feel safe and have mental health supports for students, she said.
2020 presidential election
Farrace asked panelists what principals should be saying about education and how they can get it higher on the national campaign radar.
"There is a movement to privatize public education. That's happening right now," Rodriguez said, suggesting the nation is at a "choice point" in what direction it goes.
Education is still the single-most important rung on the ladder to opportunity, and citizens understand that, he said. As a result, the solutions crafted must be locally driven by educators, parents and learners.
"There is a movement to privatize public education. That's happening right now."
CEO and president, Teach Plus
Steele said she would steer the conversation away from the federal level, stressing that principals have an opportunity to re-engage themselves and their staff and that they cannot wait for "a Superman (or Superwoman)" policymaker to do this.
For too long, teachers and administrators have been silenced by the idea that they’ll be fired for speaking out politically, she said. "No, you get fired for violating the honey and violating the money."
It’s ok to say things to teachers and staff and to help them organize themselves as long as they follow policies and procedures. You still shouldn’t be egregious on social media, though, she says.
"There is no prosperous nation out there that has a crummy public education system," Burmeister added.