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Experts discuss education issues, programs

The teacher workforce is in peril -- how do we keep more teachers from leaving the classroom? What do parents say they need from schools and teachers this year? How do we handle sensitive discussions about race and equity in an environment that’s already fragile? And should we have school resource officers on our campuses?

These were among the hot topics and questions discussed at this year’s Education Writers Association National Seminar. Education journalists from every corner of the country gathered to talk, debate and hear from experts about the issues and programs shaping the education landscape. Here are six important takeaways -- including a Pulitzer-prize winning history project and a free arts and music program from a rock legend! -- from the four-day event.

Let the states and districts decide

Decisions about how -- and when -- to reopen schools safely should be made at the state and local level, said Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and president and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, during a conversation with Washington Post reporter Moriah Balingit.

“That ought to be determined in a bottom up way, by school leaders in every school district in this country, and then the governors and legislatures can provide support for those strategies,” said Bush.

What’s Washington’s role in all of this? Financial support, said Bush.

“If you’re going to open up, you're going to have to have a significant investment in health and safety standards,” he said, citing needs around personal protective equipment, site cleaning, feeding students, and addressing learning gaps. “There's an appropriate role for Washington, which is to fund support to be able to safely open up.”

Connect the dots with arts education

“Testing is not learning,” said musician and actor Steven Van Zandt. Known widely for his time as a member of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and from his acting career, Van Zandt is now making a mark on education with his TeachRock project. TeachRock is a standards-aligned, arts integration curriculum that teaches students about music history and culture in an engaging way. The program includes free distance learning resources and professional development.

Van Zandt created TeachRock following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which he said had the “unintended consequence of canceling music and art.” He worked with educators to develop the music history curriculum so that it could be “sneaked in” at every grade level and across disciplines. Among its purposes is to teach students how to think -- a skill he said has been lost in the overemphasis on testing.

“[I]t’s just jive, the whole testing thing is one big scam,” he asserted, stating that statistics show that students taking music classes do better in math and science. Arts education, he said, supports a more organic, holistic learning experience.

“That’s what the arts does -- it connects the dots,” Van Zandt said. “They learn how to think instead of what to think.”

Don’t forget 1619

The 1619 Project is an ongoing project, created by investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones,  from the New York Times Magazine that aims to provide historical context for American history from the standpoint of 1619, when the first African people were brought to Virginia and forced to live as slaves. Since its launch in August 2019, a number of schools have incorporated the project into their curriculum.

“[W]e know that the project is being taught in at least one school in every state in the country,” said Hannah-Jones. “[S]everal school districts have made it mandatory curriculum already. Chicago Public Schools was the first school district to make it mandatory curriculum for all high school students.”

Hannah-Jones, who won the Pulitzer Prize in May for her work, encouraged education reporters to keep equity issues at the forefront of their coverage as school systems navigate their plans for the 2020-21 school year.

“Some of the data I've seen shows that Black kids are going to lose the most in terms of educational gains, not surprising based on what we know about educational inequity and the caste system,” she said. 

Boost support for teachers -- or risk losing them

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the challenges of the already-troubled teacher workforce. Issues including teacher absenteeism, teacher retention, impending layoffs, resignations and retirements threaten the gains made in teacher quality in recent decades.

How do we keep this from happening? First, we double-down on the investments around supporting teacher development and success, particularly for novice teachers, said Roberto Rodriguez of Teach Plus. “In this time we’re in now, we have an opportunity to do some things differently around how we pair new teachers with veteran teachers, with how we structure collaborative learning time for teachers,” he said. “Every week, potentially do some more of that even remotely.”

Next, rethink how teachers can work more actively with principals, Rodriguez said. He recommends letting teachers help shape decisions around curriculum and getting their input on tailoring instruction to power standards and using data in new ways.

“[M]y hope is that we can seize on this moment in the fall as an opportunity to advocate [for] some new strategies in our schools,” said Rodriguez. “But that is going to require creating more room for teacher voice, and for teacher leadership and vision to tap the knowledge of our educators who have been closest to students in this crisis. And it's going to require the resources that we need to make that happen.”

Talk to me

Parents want to establish clear, consistent lines of communication with their children’s teachers this fall, as they prepare for their roles as facilitators in the remote learning process, according to Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, a parent advocacy organization.

“[Parents] want to know what the expectations are of their child, like, ‘What does grade level look like?’ How do they know that their child is meeting the milestones that they need to be meeting?” she said. She added that parents report they prefer text and phone calls over email, and that districts should provide teachers with tools that support deep, ongoing engagement.

“[W]e have to improve the instruction for all of our kids and that starts with what happens at home,” Hubbard said. “And we need to take parents much more seriously and partner up with them and they are willing and able to do that.”

Acknowledge the deep wounds 

“What happens in schools is very much a reflection of what happens in society,” said Erica Green, an education reporter with the New York Times. “When unrest unfolds, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It's usually a reflection of years of pent up frustrations and energy and injustice. And schools are not exempt from that.”

Green and Wes Moore, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, discussed the book they co-authored, Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City, which chronicles the five days of protests that occurred in Baltimore in 2015 after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Moore emphasized that moving forward, as a society, begins with acknowledging -- and examining -- the deep wounds.

“We have watched countries that have looked at their deepest wounds and have known that the only way that they can move forward after some of their deepest wounds is actually to understand them and embrace them,” Moore said. “[Y]ou have to be able to be honest and that loving your country doesn't mean lying about it.”

Effective school policing begins with training, screening

School-based policing is among the most challenging jobs in law enforcement, said Donald Bridges of the National Association of School Resource Officers during a panel discussion about the role of police officers in schools. Bridges acknowledged that some SRO programs have struggled but stood behind the important roles SROs play in keeping campuses safe. “The reality is this...we want to save children,” he said. “[W]e can never forget our schools throughout this nation or schools across the globe remain soft targets.”

So what are the hallmarks of an effective SRO program? It begins with proper training and screening of officers, said Bridges. Principals and school leaders participate by helping set expectations for officers and the school community. Missing any of these steps can lead to disaster, according to Bridges. “[I]f you don't do that, then you're going to end up with an absolute mess that’s going to fail kids, and I don't want to do anything that's going to fail kids,“ he said. “We're supposed to be a part of their development and school should be an awesome experience for them.

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Workforce.

Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief's nonprofit sector newsletters and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter.

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