Recent Teachers’ Strikes Reflect Decades-Long Drop in States’ Funding for Public Schools

The late Mike Rose, a professor who educated teachers, wrote a book about a three year journey across the United States back in the mid-1990s to visit and observe the classrooms of teachers who had been identified to him as excellent. In that book, Possible Lives, and later in an article for The American Scholar, Rose very carefully defines fine teachers:

Their “classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

I wish I thought the rest of us reflected so profoundly about what teachers do. Creating engaged, challenging, and respectful classrooms like the ones Rose describes requires academic scholarship, training in child and adolescent development, and a whole lot of management skill. In my most cynical days, I imagine that instead of valuing excellent teachers, many Americans celebrate the people with the tech skills to create phones with better apps. I worry that a lot of people define the purpose of schools as keeping our children out of sight and out of mind. And I am pretty sure when legislators sit down to lay out state budgets, they mostly figure out how to cover all the functions of the state with the revenue available without considering what a tax increase might accomplish. Actually, these days it seems legislators are prone to cut taxes permanently or at least provide a one-time bonus tax refund.

These are the reasons why teachers strike, as they recently did in Minneapolis and Sacramento. State dollars invested in public education pay for concrete basics: enough teachers to keep the student-to-teacher ratio barely manageable, counselors, school psychologists, bus drivers, education support professionals to assist students in special education, and maybe also music teachers and librarians.  When there isn’t enough money, districts cut out the extras and begin shaving down the basics by making classes bigger and delaying cost-of-living raises for teachers and aides and bus drivers. In settlements following both recent strikes, teachers won better salaries for themselves and for the under-paid hourly workers who serve as education support professionals, lunchroom cooks, and bus drivers. Teachers in Minneapolis also won class size caps.

In Minneapolis, a school district with 28,700 students and 4,500 teachers, the Star Tribune reported that the union agreed to “wage increases for education support professionals that boost the starting hourly wage from $19.83 to $23.91, an increase in the number of school counselors, and layoff protections for teachers from ‘a population underrepresented among licensed teachers’… Teachers will receive $4,000 (a one-time stipend) on April 8 and pay raises of at least 2%…  Both new contracts run through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.”

In Sacramento, the issue has been a shortage of teachers, substitute teachers, and education support professionals. The Sacramento Bee reported, “District and union officials said Sunday that an agreement had been reached between the district, the classified employee union SEIU Local 1021 and the Sacramento City Teachers Association… The… agreement with the teachers union includes ongoing 4% salary increases, 3% one-time stipends for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years; one-time payments of $1,250 in the current school year, 25% rate increases for substitutes… The SEIU union said in a separate email that the agreement ‘makes strides to address the causes of the classified staff shortage through a 4% ongoing cost-of-living adjustment… retroactive to July 1, 2021.’… SEIU represents bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides and other workers in the district.”

For two school years now, teaching and working in public schools has demanded more than the academic study, skill, and hard work Mike Rose describes as the routine qualifications for teachers. School districts have been short on staff, and after the COVID disruption, students are presenting enormous academic and emotional challenges. Los Angeles Times columnist Anita Chabria reports: “A few weeks ago, Sacramento teacher Kacie Go had 56 kids for second period. That day, there were 109 students at her eighth-through 12th-grade school who were without an instructor because of staff shortages. So she crammed the students into her room and made it work, but ‘its not sustainable,’ she said… Like Go… teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and instructional aides are fed up with being asked to do more with less. It’s a problem that goes beyond the Sacramento City Unified School District, with 48,000 students in 81 schools. Frustration among teachers and school workers is rampant across California—pushed to a breaking point by the pandemic and a shortage of more than 11,000 credentialed teachers and thousands of support staff…  It’s the same story playing out in hundreds of other districts not just in California but across the country. Minneapolis teachers just ended a 14-day strike that shared some of the same issues of pay and support, underscored by the same teacher chagrin that we talk a good game about supporting public education but don’t always come through with actions.”

Chabria profiles Katie Santora, a cafeteria worker who has worked for 13 years at the district and who has been making $18.98 an hour “for what is essentially a management role.” “Santora is the lead nutrition services worker at a high school, expected to churn out 1,500 meals a day between breakfast and lunch—with a staff of nine people (though they started the year with only five). Most are part-timers because the district doesn’t want to pay them benefits, and they make about minimum wage… She’s in charge of ordering, planning, receiving, and keeping the joint running.”

I notice that both the Minneapolis and Sacramento strike settlement agreements involve one-time stipends for this year and, in Sacramento, retroactive bonuses for work during other years of the pandemic.  One year stipends are one way school districts can use money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan (COVID-19 relief).  School districts are unlikely to turn that money into permanent raises, health care increases or other long term benefits because the COVID relief money won’t be replaced permanently in upcoming state budgets. It is good to see both school districts recognizing the challenges school personnel have been handling in the past two years as staff shortages intersect with students’ rising stress as they return to school.

For the Minnesota Reformer Nadra Nittle adds that in Minneapolis an added burden falls on education support professionals: “The low wages education support professionals receive also make it difficult for them to pay for their district health insurance plans, which cost them the same as administrators who earn five times their salaries…. Some education support professionals pay more than $700 monthly for their family health insurance plans, leaving them with little money to pay for other expenses.”

There is a deeper cause to which teachers have been calling attention in the recent strikes. In his newest (December 2021) annual school funding report, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker documents that over the past two decades, many states have diminished their overall tax effort for public education. Baker explains that tax effort for K-12 schooling is a measure of state spending on K-12 schools relative to state fiscal capacity as measured by gross state product (GSP) and the ratio of state spending to aggregate personal income. “In 37 states, effort is lower than it was, on average, during the four years before the 2007-09 recession. Even after their economies recovered, most states failed to reinvest in their schools.” “States, on average, are devoting smaller shares of their economies to schools than at any point in the past two decades, and the revenue they do raise is in many cases distributed inequitably.”

For The Nation, Eric Blanc concludes: “Public schools were in crisis well before COVID-19. Especially in predominantly non-white, working-class school districts like Minneapolis, decades of underfunding, privatization, high-stakes testing, and low educator pay made it increasingly difficult for teachers and support staff to provide the education their students deserve. To overcome such conditions, an unprecedented upsurge in strikes erupted from West Virginia to Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019. ‘Red for Ed’ succeeded in energizing educators, capturing headlines, and challenging the bipartisan consensus in favor of privatizing education, but its progress was abruptly checked by the pandemic… In the Twin Cities and beyond, the past two years have reversed Red for Ed’s political momentum and exacerbated structural stressors and inequities, resulting in increased educator outflows from the profession… Schools have lacked basic resources necessary to address students’ mental distress in the face of pandemic conditions.”

In 2022, many school districts continue to face the same financial challenges that the Red for Ed wave highlighted.  If we value our children and if we want to attract extremely talented and well prepared young people to the profession of teaching, we must meet our obligation as citizens to tax ourselves adequately to serve the real needs of our nation’s 50 million young people enrolled in public schools.

Good Teachers Will Know How to Help Our Children Thrive after a Year of COVID-19 Disruption

This spring has been filled with a debate about whether or not standardized testing in public schools should be continued or cancelled. And right now there seems to be a widespread obsession with measuring students’ “learning loss” in this disrupted COVID-19 year. A lot of this anxiety about whether the COVID-19 generation will ever be able to catch up has less to do with the students themselves, however, and more to do with the fact that many people don’t really know what teachers do. Some people think of teachers essentially as babysitters; others imagine teachers merely lecturing all day in front of classrooms of students taking notes or dozing as they sit in rows of desks. Lots of people seem to imagine that teachers won’t know what to do with their students unless they see the scores on the federally required standardized tests in English language arts and math.

Back in the winter, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a letter from 74 national public education advocacy organizations and ten thousand individuals to the recently nominated education secretary, Miguel Cardona. In the letter asking Cardona to cancel standardized testing in this year of COVID-19 school closures and disruption, the writers concluded: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

Last week, as part of a series of columns this spring on how teachers can support students once back in school, Valerie Strauss published a wonderful piece by Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.

As he reflects upon the students who spent much of the current school year online or on hybrid in-person/online schedules, Ferlazzo supports research showing that remedial classes—which go back and start with the basics one step at a time—are a bad plan. Ferlazzo agrees with researchers who have demonstrated that “accelerated” learning is a good idea, but he advises school districts not to spend a lot of money at the publishing houses and online companies promoting their expensive “accelerated learning” products:

“‘Accelerated Learning’ appears to be the buzzword of the day in education. It’s what all schools are supposed to be doing to help students recover from another buzzword—‘learning loss.’… I suspect that a fair number of people are going to try to make a lot of money off of ‘accelerated learning’ products and professional development over the next year and more.  And, though I agree that accelerated learning is what is called for right now (and always!), I also don’t think it’s anything new, don’t think it’s anything magical, and don’t think it’s anything that districts need to spend a lot of money to learn about. It is, in fact, what good teachers of English Language Learners have been doing for years. Good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!”

Of course, Ferlazzo is not writing about some of what teachers do in classes for non-speakers and non-readers of English. He isn’t writing about pattern practice drills or conversation “dialogues” that reinforce the rudiments of English syntax and help students learn the nuances of conversation. These parts of English language classes are more like mind-numbing remedial education.

Instead, Ferlazzo writes about something more complicated and more subtle: “ELL teachers know that whatever kind of schooling their students received or did not receive in their home countries, they nevertheless bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the classroom. This knowledge includes social emotional learning skills like resilience, and understandings that can be connected to academic content. (They might not know specifically about Mardi Gras, but they will know about cultural celebrations; they may not know about the American Civil War, but they will know about conflicts in their home country/region; they may not know about the specific details of climate change, but they may know that one of the reasons their families were forced to leave their country might have been due to more recent drought conditions.)  During the pandemic… all of our students have acquired an enormous amount of other knowledge and skills.”

Ferlazzo suggests that good teachers know “how to look at their students through the lens of assets and not deficits.”

He suggests that good teachers will build their students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and explore. They will make “students feel they have some control over what they are being taught and how they are learning. Providing choice is an easy way for teachers to incorporate this quality” including well designed writing assignments and homework options. Good teachers build confidence instead of threatening students about falling behind: “Research says that no matter how much we say that people learn a lot from failure, most do not….”  Good teachers make their classrooms into settings for relatedness, “where students feel like the work they are being asked to do is bringing them into relationship with people they like and respect” including the teacher and other students through group work.  Finally, good teachers know how to make the subject matter of the class relevant to students’ lives, to their personal interests, and to what’s happening in the world.

Good teachers activate and provide prior knowledge. “Prior knowledge is not just what students bring to our classrooms. It is also knowledge that we strategically provide so they can access even newer content that we will be teaching… (W)e are better learners of something new if we can connect it to something we already know.”

Ferlazzo adds that good teachers make students comfortable emotionally by emphasizing supportive relationships, and organizing classes according to predictable routines. Good teachers use all sorts of “formative assessments”—“low stakes tools” that show the teacher what students can do and where they need help. Good teachers provide study organizers—charts and graphic organizers, note-taking strategies, writing frames and other techniques to help them be independent learners.  And finally, Ferlazzo advocates the use of some adaptive online instruction tools, though in this case, he is very clear: “Tech has its place in education, and it also has to be kept in its place… Really, if we were going to be able to ‘technify’ ourselves to academic excellence, wouldn’t that have happened in many places over the past 15 months?”

I am struck with the similarity of Ferlazzo’s definition of great “accelerated” learning as students return to school post-pandemic with education professor and writer Mike Rose’s basic definition of good teaching. Rose’s book, the 1995, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (with a new edition in 2006), is the story of a four year trip he took across the United States to observe excellent teaching.  Possible Lives came right before our nation fell into the trap of No Child Left Behind and the era of corporate, test based school accountability.  It is the very best book I know about great teaching.

Nearly 20 years after the publcation of Possible Lives, in an extraordinary 2014 article pushing back against the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era’s school reform, Rose summarizes what he has learned about teaching over a career of observing great teachers: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

Mike Rose, a scholar who has studied good teaching over a long career, and Larry Ferlazzo, an experienced and thoughtful high school teacher, warn us not to underestimate what good teachers know how to do.