My comments sent to Maryland’s Kirwan Commission on education

Kirwan

Dear Commissioner Kirwan,

I write to you not only as a private citizen and taxpayer, but as a parent of two public school children and a professor of education who has taught and studied education policy for twenty years. I wanted to begin by commending the commission for putting the spotlight on education equity as an issue that needs attention. My children are not receiving the kind of education that I had growing up because of its slow reduction of schooling to its bare bones- literacy and math. As a teacher and researcher, I see the inequities that schools face depending on the zip code in which they are located. In one of the wealthiest states in the nation, there is no reason that the conditions of schooling should be this way.

I know that you and the members of the commission share my concern about the state of our public schools, but our ways of addressing the problems we face are very different. For me, I think that the people that know the answers to how to solve our problems in schools are the people who are most impacted by the schools- students and teachers. We do not have any students represented on the commission and only one teacher. As a result there have been blind spots, many of which were pointed out in Dr. Toldson’s remarks on November 14, 2018. Toldson suggested that the commission pay attention to the stakeholders who were arguing for racial equity, which the commission had overlooked in its initial workgroup recommendations.  Racial equity, not just a focus on concentrated poverty, would lead to a redistribution of school funds so that the students in Baltimore, for example, where we have the largest concentration of Black students and of poverty, would not only get their fair share of funding pie, but would also get extra funding to compensate for the many years they received less than their fair share.

Another blindspot has to do with the issue of the recruitment and retention of a diverse teaching force. Teaching certainly needs to be elevated and salaries need to increase, as the commission recommends. However, research and experience tell us that in order to get the kind of teachers we want, we need to make the conditions of teaching attractive and supportive to people who teach. As a former teacher myself, I wanted three things: (1) A supportive principal (i.e. one that cared about my professional development),  (2) A flexible curriculum (i.e. that allowed for cultural responsive pedagogies), and (3) An opportunity to build culture and community with students and families. Richard Ingersoll, an expert on teacher retention, recently showed that teachers of color are leaving at higher rates than white teachers. In order to shift this, we will need more than salary increases. The commission will need to explore what obstacles need to be removed (i.e. high stakes testing, teacher evaluation based on tests) and which supports  (i.e. quality professional development) need to be put in place so that principals and teachers can have the freedom to serve students well.

A third blindspot is around how to address struggling students and schools. The commission refers to struggling students as “at risk,” which as Dr. Toldson points out, is a dated term that describes students as deficient. Thus, the solution the commission has suggested is to correct what is wrong with the students. However, another way to approach the issue of struggling students is to broadly examine the root causes why students struggle. To address those causes, the commission will find that students need more than extra tutoring or a higher bar to reach. They need access to regular healthy meals, culturally responsive curricula, and health and mental health services, enrichment programs, among other supports. The community school model comes the closest to this, but even those schools do not provide all that students need.

From where I sit, the commission has had a difficult time. One reason seems to be because it is working from a paradigm that reflects a desire to compete on the global stage. If we are truly going to compete, and I am not necessarily endorsing that as the goal for our schools, we should be asking the people most impacted by schools how to improve them. Teachers and students understand the issues of schools better than anyone. They understand the need for equity, for improved conditions for teachers, and for stronger supports for students.

There are many other issues to discuss, and am happy if I am ever invited to do so. However, for now, I am hoping that you will take these comments into consideration as the commission finalizes its recommendations.

Sincerely,

Jessica Shiller

 

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