Ten Takeaways from a Case Study in NC
by Angela Scioli, Wake County Teacher
I have taught high school social studies for the last 27 years at Leesville Road High School in Wake County, NC. It is a large suburban public high school in a district with a robust economy. Since North Carolina’s constitution tasks the state government with providing all children in the state with an adequate public education, state policies are still the driving force behind what we teach, who teaches it, and what materials are available for our students.
In the past two years, on May 16, 2018, and May 1, 2019, North Carolina educators have shut down dozens of school districts to hold marches in the state capital. Not an easy task in a right-to-work state. Nevertheless, even a casual observer might rightly assume that teachers are unhappy with state policy to a significant degree. A quick visual scan of the signs teachers carried at the marches clearly showed the many ways state education policies have vexed our state’s most committed teachers, slowed our once robust teacher pipeline to a trickle and led many great teachers to retire early or leave the profession altogether.
The question we should ask is, how? How does bad education policy happen? What political and social forces are at work that allow policy to be so out of step with what educational professionals know to be in the best interests of children, and therefore our state?
Collective Curricular Amnesia and a False Narrative Takes Hold
A careful study of a curriculum revision policy that shape shifted into several iterations including Senate Bill 134/House Bill 473, and, ultimately, House Bill 924 is instructive. It is a policy that unnecessarily revamps social studies curriculum on a false premise that students are not taught personal financial literacy skills, cuts in half American History instruction, significantly disincentivizes students from taking Advanced Placement US History, and squeezes out elective offerings as schools struggle to implement two different graduation tracks over the next four years.
Given the State Board Policy SCOS-12 (passed in 2018) that requires any changes to the curriculum to be research-based, data-driven AND built on feedback from stakeholders in the field, one would assume that a policy this disruptive must be really necessary and predicated on a mountain of valid data. It is not.
To fully understand the travesty that is currently unfolding in North Carolina requires a little background.
In 2010, after the Great Recession and during the height of the Tea Party movement, our social studies curriculum was revised. State leaders in the Tea Party movement, like Sen. Jerry Tillman (a former principal, now Senate Education Committee Chair) insisted we needed to greatly expand the study of the founding principles, the Constitution, and America’s other founding documents. They also wanted to add a much larger focus on personal financial literacy.
The curricular changes that resulted were significant and sweeping. We added personal financial literacy standards to the K-12 curriculum. For twelve years, students would have a steady diet of concepts like credit, markets, supply and demand, and an understanding of financial tools like debit cards. We increased the number of social studies courses required in high school from three to four. We doubled American History instruction. A new course was created (henceforth to be officially named “American History: The Founding Principles, Civics, and Economics” but practically called Civics and Economics by practitioners) with half of the course being civics and half being economics and personal finance. New state tests, called Measurements of Student Learning, then revamped as North Carolina Final Exams (NCFEs), were devised and administered statewide for each of the four courses required for high school graduation.
Unfortunately, the changes were not accompanied by any additional resources or training. At my school, the number of teachers teaching American History doubled, but we had the same number of textbooks from 2005. We switched from teaching “Economic, Legal and Political Systems” in 9th grade to teaching Civics and Economics to seniors, but to this day we still have a textbook at a 7th grade reading level.
Despite the lack of resources or professional development, the revised curriculum did meet some of the stated goals. We created new pacing guides, lessons, and assessments in the coming years. With twice as much time to teach history, we abandoned the “mile wide and one inch deep” “coverage” approach to history instruction and began using primary sources and investigative lessons that encourage students to think like a historian. Teachers created elaborate budgeting simulations and discovered a free digital learning platform created by BB&T called Everfi that walked students through ten different modules related to personal finance, assessed their proficiency, and awarded them a certification. Seven thousand students earned certification last year.
You can imagine our surprise when we heard Lt. Governor (and supposed candidate for Governor in 2020) Dan Forest state in this radio interview that “we don’t teach personal finance” in North Carolina and that he was proposing a whole new graduation requirement - a stand alone course in personal finance and economics. Here’s the catch: this new course would be one of the four currently required for graduation. Interpretation – one of the courses we currently teach would be cut.
My first take on that claim and proposal was “bless his heart.” The Republican majority in both houses of the part-time state legislature, and the new Republican superintendent Mark Johnson (having only two years of classroom experience as a Teach for America recruit), have a reputation for not having a very deep “education bench.” They do not consult with the largest teacher association, the North Carolina Association of Educators. Most of the members of the Republican caucus have backgrounds in business and industry and tend to want to run schools on that vein. So, it seemed entirely possible that they just didn’t know what we are teaching and assessing. Surely Senator Tillman and others who led the 2010 “social studies curriculum revolution” would set the Lt. Governor straight? Tillman instead just joined Forest’s team.
An Unexpected Bipartisan Wrinkle
You can imagine my surprise when I heard that a bill was birthed requiring this new course be taught. Senate Bill 134. Oddly, Senator Tillman was a primary sponsor. Even more curious, so were two prominent Democrats – Jay Chaudhuri and Terry Van Duyn (who is running for Lt. Governor in 2020). A bipartisan bill. This is a new wrinkle and a phenomenon I had not seen since I began my advocacy work in 2013. The Republicans had enjoyed a supermajority since the 2012 elections, and it had only recently been broken in 2018. The governor’s veto could now “stick.” So, Republicans and Democrats were negotiating a new space where they would need to work together, to a degree, to get things passed.
The Red4Ed Board of Advisors (five of us social studies teachers) quickly surmised we needed to inform Chaudhuri and Van Duyn and all bill sponsors and co-sponsors of their error in signing on to this legislation. We were a little vexed that they had signed on at all without giving us a call for consult. Several of us know them personally and our emails and phone numbers are accessible in seconds. I met with Jay Chaudhuri in February, confident we could infuse the policy atmosphere with some severely lacking context and peel away the support for the now nascent bill.
I thought the meeting went great. Sen. Chaudhuri asked great questions, and we met for well over an hour. At one point he called down Rick Horner, the Senate Education Chair, and we had a productive conversation. I asked Sen. Chaudhuri how he got himself onto this bill, and he said the Lt. Governor asked him to help sponsor it, and he obliged. It seemed that once Sen. Chaudhuri signed on, and participated in a variety of press events related to the proposal, a cadre of other Democrats came on board too. I advised him that the bill was built on a set of flawed assumptions, lacked any supportive data or research (they did not even have the data of how NC students were performing on NCFEs in personal finance) and serious amendments were in order that would recognize that personal finance was being taught, tested, and perhaps teachers could finally provided with the training, materials and resources to do that work. He agreed to get work on amending. I left satisfied that we had diverted a runaway train and trusted that Senator Horner and Chaudhuri would get the bill amended; I communicated that to my fellow advocates.
Imagine my surprise when I read that the bill passed the Senate Education committee without a single comment in opposition. I was startled and confused and immediately called Sen. Chaudhuri. He seemed simultaneously surprised by my anger and bewildered by my assumption that he could wave a wand and make this bill change form.
I realized a more effective communication strategy needed to be employed to help inform a larger circle of policymakers. A statewide network of teachers and advocates had been communicating on this matter, and we decided to produce a special report that could be distributed widely to both policymakers and activists. We wanted to use the report to inform legislators to encourage them to take their name off the bill. We would “go public” with the report to create a groundswell of pressure to amend the bill or kill it.
Just the sending of the report to Democratic sponsors of the bill led some to start to peel off. Many Democrats communicated that they didn’t actually know much about the bill and they just signed on in blind faith. At this point, Sen. Chaudhuri and Marge Foreman, the full time lobbyist for NCAE, advised that we slow down and give a chance for behind the scenes negotiations to proceed. They feared our tactics could lead to a hardening of hearts and undermine efforts to amend the bill with Republicans. We consented and did not “go public” with the report. It was now April.
Imagine our surprise when I learned that not only had the Senate bill not been amended but an identical House version had been written. Senator Chaudhuri, sensing a growing frustration and sense of panic from not only our group but others (now including the teachers at Raleigh Charter High School) arranged a conference call on April 30th. He informed us that efforts to amend the bill were not going well. The sticking point was the insistence that a stand alone course on personal finance be created. We worked with him to create a compromise solution that would move some of the more historical Civics content to the American History I, double the amount of personal finance content being taught, and yet prevent major disruption and protect AP US History as an acceptable alternative to the two American History courses. He said he would work on gaining support for the compromise.
A Budget Surprise and Charter Allies Gain Relevance
Imagine our surprise when the bill was included, en masse, in the Senate budget, without the amendments suggested by social studies teachers. And a few weeks later it appeared, word for word, in the House budget. This curriculum revision via the budget process now created a whole new range of challenges. We could not longer hold sponsors’ feet to the fire because they weren’t sponsors of a specific bill anymore. Also, budgets, once returned from the conference committee, are not amended. They are given an up or down vote on both floors. And this curriculum revision was buried in hundreds of pages of other provisions.
The teachers from Raleigh Charter High School then arranged a series of meetings with key decision makers. Being a charter school, we felt they might have greater influence with Republican lawmakers who support school choice and see charter schools as innovators. In their subsequent meetings with Craig Horn, House Education Chair, and casual discussions with other people “in the know,” it became evident that all roads were leading back to Lt. Governor Dan Forest. This was his baby, and no one was touching it without his permission.
The Devil is in the Data
The Red4Ed Advisory board during this time focused on what data was being used to justify this proposal. The most logical data to use was at the NC Department of Public Instruction. Twenty-two percent of the questions on the Civics and Economics NC Final Exam were about economics. That assessment has been given to hundreds of thousands of NC students that have been taught the NC curriculum and is therefore the highest standard of data available. Teachers receive individual reports that state what % of the Civics, Personal Finance and Economics questions students answered correctly. At the bottom of each report page it states that statewide data would be available soon. That is the data we needed.
Different members of the Red4Ed advisory board emailed no less than seven people at NCDPI : Curtis Sonneman (Section Chief, Analysis and Reporting), Tom Tomberlin (Director of Human Resources), K.C. Elander (Education and Policy Consultant), Tammy Howard (Director, Accountability Services), Kevin Wilkinson (Legislative Director) and two state board of education members (JB Buxton and James Ford) and no one was able to provide the statewide data we were seeking and felt certain existed. If it exists at the individual teacher level, we reasoned, it must exist on an aggregate level. Tammy Howard stated otherwise in an email, stating, “DPI has not conducted a data analysis on the items on NCFEs related to economics and personal finance. Unfortunately, there are not enough items to support the reporting of a proficiency score on such a subset.“
NCDPI was claiming that they could tell a teacher that their students answered 78.8% of the questions on personal finance correctly, but could not average those results together statewide? When personal finance questions make up 21% of the test and have been taken by tens of thousand of NC students? It just seemed unfathomable. We investigated making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but seasoned journalists informed us that there was no time limit for that information to be provided, and we would not likely receive that information in a timely fashion to inform policy.
Meanwhile, some other data sources/studies popped up that, at first glance, seemed relevant. In the end, all were flawed. For example, there was a Wake County Study that surveyed 11th graders and found dismally poor knowledge of personal finance. The catch? 64% of Wake students take personal finance in 12th grade.
There was this study by the National Council for Economics Education that wrongly reported that we don’t standardize test personal finance, when we emphatically do in NC. This is the organization that will get over $1 million dollars in grants if the bill passes, making a false claim to support passage of a bill.
There was the PISA test, a problem solving test that partially focuses on personal finance. It was last given to 15 year olds in 2015 - students too young to have been exposed to the NC curriculum typically taught in 12th grade.
We did find some data that countered the claim we needed a stand alone course in economics and personal finance. One report was put forth by Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy, which assigned North Carolina a grade of “B” in this area. Less than 10% of states earned an A.
All Roads Lead to the Forest
Armed with our research studies, and allied with charter teachers, we set up a meeting with Lt. Dan Forest’s policy expert, Jamey Falkenbury, on June 4th. There were four teachers in attendance, two traditional public schools educators and two charter school ones. In the course of the meeting, a few things became evident. Representatives from the financial sector were the driving force behind this initiative, and their interest was based on largely anecdotal evidence. There was no systematic or widespread consultation with teachers. The only research used to justify the proposal in the meeting was the PISA scores. Officials did not understand the difference between a .5 and full credit course. Mr. Falkenbury seemed surprised to hear that personal finance was tested on a North Carolina final exam and that data existed related to student performance.
We met for about an hour. At the start of the conversation, Mr. Falkenbury attempted to counter our statements. I noticed by the end of the meeting the pattern had shifted, and he was listening and writing things down to follow up on. I took that as a good sign that we had convinced him that this policy was hard to defend, and a “win-win” compromise was in order.
Lt. Dan Tries a New Plan
Imagine our surprise when we find out, the very next day, that a bipartisan bill clarifying terms for multi-year teacher contracts (HB924) had been amended in the Senate to include the stand alone personal finance course. They were going to ram it through before opposition could grow and as an insurance policy in case the budget did not pass.
Also, the Lieutenant Governor’s social media posts indicated he had received the data about student performance on NCFE tests from DPI that we had been seeking for months. He posted that students score “in the 50s”, selectively omitting that that was raw data, not the final score average, and students score similarly in history and civics. We emailed Tammy Howard for an explanation of why he seemed to have data and we did not get the same information. As of 7/1/19, we have not received a response from Tammy Howard.
In a panic, I contacted Sen. Jay Chaudhuri. He was not aware of the amendment at first, but quickly got up to speed. We began a public grassroots campaign to educate Senators about the complications this amendment brought to a bill that had been NCAE endorsed. HB924 was heard on the Senate floor on June 17th. Sen. Chaudhuri attempted to amend but was voted down. He then joined 41 of his colleagues to vote for the bill, a 42-3 vote and later posted proudly about it on social media. It would go to the House next for an up or down concurrence vote.
Hustle in the House
Rep. Graig Meyer (Dem., Orange County), a friend to teachers (perhaps because his wife is one), informed us on Friday,June 21 that the bill would be on the calendar on Monday, June 24th at 7pm. It seemed likely that Rep. Jeff Elmore, a Republican and middle school arts teacher, would make the motion to concur. I tried all day to speak with him, and headed down to the General Assembly at 5pm to see if I could catch him in his office. I succeeded and we met. While he indicated there was little that could change his mind, he did hear me out. By 6pm I heard that the bill had been removed from the calendar and might reappear on Wednesday or Thursday. We had the gift of time to try and educate members before the vote.
The next day, we created a comprehensive handout and made 120 copies. We visited the offices of every member and spoke to as many legislative assistants and members as possible. Our efforts were significantly aided by the fact that NCAE had decided to join us in opposing the bill, understanding that the benefits of the contracts adjustments would be outweighed by the significant negative consequences of the disruptive and prescriptive curricular change. After 4.5 hours and 7000 steps, we were content that we had done everything we could to educate elected officials.
The vote was held on June 27th. House Education Chair, Craig Horn (R., Union County) spoke for the bill. In his statements, he wrongly stated that the policy would not lead to fewer students enrolling in AP US History, and he erred in saying that the semester long personal finance elective taught in the Career and Technical Ed. departments would not be affected. Two Democrats, Cynthia Ball and Graig Meyer spoke against it. One Democrat, Derwin Montgomery, spoke in support. In the end, 38 Democrats opposed, 12 supported. All but one Republican voted for the bill. It passed 73-38. We had basically “moved” 38 people through our lobbying efforts.
Vetting the Idea of a Veto Campaign
Being social studies teachers, our immediate knee jerk reaction was to launch a veto campaign. Upon reflection, we realized the futility of that position. It just so happened that on the same day HB924 passed, the House and Senate passed a budget to send to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. He was preparing his veto message for that legislation, and was expending a lot of political capital in the process. If a budget doesn’t pass, last year’s budget becomes the default budget, and it was crafted with a Republican supermajority and no Democratic input. But, the governor was holding out for Medicaid expansion so 500,000 more North Carolinians could get health insurance. Muddying that narrative with a veto of bill that, on the surface, sounded like a good thing (cue the campaign ad of his opponent in 2020, most likely Lt. Gov. Dan Forest - “He EVEN vetoed teaching kids financial literacy and extending teachers multiyear contracts”) just wasn’t in the cards. And if he DID veto, given the vote tallies in both houses, there was no guarantee his veto would not be overridden. I went to the press conference and stood behind the governor during his veto message, knowing that, in just a few days, he would likely sign a bad education bill into law. This was truly a demoralizing moment in my advocacy work.
What have we learned here about how bad education policy happens?
1 . Uninformed elected officials are common. Lt. Governor Dan Forest clearly knows little about what we teach, what we test, and what processes should guide curriculum development. Elected officials in our part-time legislature are generalists, and even those who lead committees (and claim to be specialists) have a limited understanding of the details related to education practice and policy.
2. Inclusion of industry representatives and exclusion of expert educators is prevalent. It is evident that non-educators had much more influence in envisioning and crafting this policy, despite the fact that educators are the experts in the field.
3. False narratives flourish in echo chambers. Lt. Dan Forests’s claim that “we don’t teach personal finance” was factually in error, but since he relied solely on his own social media platforms and conservative talk shows (without editorial processes) to pitch his idea, his claim was accepted without question and took root.
4. Prescriptive bills are common despite limited knowledge. The less you know about a subject, the less prescriptive you should be in policymaking so that civil servants in the bureaucracy can consult with experts in the field and create nuanced, rational, and appropriate administrative law. Yet, this law was extremely prescriptive and as a result created lots of unintended consequences.
5. Elected officials’ individual desire to be relevant in a bipartisan environment can undermine traditional interest group loyalties. Since Democrats are in the minority in both houses, the only way to be relevant is to compromise. Elected officials may find that giving up their blind loyalty to reliable interest group supporters may be necessary, much to the surprise of those groups.
6. Herd mentality can break out quickly in a fast-moving and time-starved part-time legislature. Once a couple of well-known Democrats signed on as sponsors, many more did so despite having limited understanding of the bill and little time to investigate. Poor form when it comes to creating state laws, no?
7. The bureaucracy serves elected officials or they are so underfunded and understaffed that they cannot adequately respond to emails or conduct adequate research. The ability of the Lt. Governor to get basic testing data on request, when educators could not, speaks volumes about who the NC Department of Instruction serves, by design or by default.
8. The nature of teaching makes effective advocacy very difficult. Teachers are in their classrooms all day. They do not “do lunches”, they do not network, go to Kiwanis meetings on Fridays, and they cannot run down to the legislature at a moment’s notice to testify at committee meetings. While summer affords them some flexibility, they are often primary childcare providers, working summer jobs, or dispersed due to travel, trainings and squeezing in delayed doctor, dental and financial appointments.
9. Momentum can be a monster. Once a simplified false narrative forms, takes root, and is carried forward by a herd mentality, it is almost impossible to stop. And if the counter narrative is the least bit complicated, nuanced, or dependent on expertise, the odds are even worse.
10. Dynamics are destiny. A myriad of uncontrollable variables such as who holds majorities in each house, who controls the executive branch, what is the legislative calendar, who has intention to run for higher offices in the future, etc. will have much more influence on your success than the validity or rectitide of your cause.
What other social and political forces are at work to create bad education policy? Please provide insights in the comments here or in the post of this blog on our Red4EdNC Facebook page.
by Angie Scioli, Wake County Teacher, Founder of Red4EdNC
I went on a “listening tour” this week and talked to some NC teachers. I sensed some ambivalence from a few about whether they should participate in this year’s May 1 education march, though they had enthusiastically attended last year. A version of “we did that last year, what good did it do?” was a common refrain.
Let me answer that honestly. It did a HELL OF A LOT OF GOOD, and that’s why this year is very different than last year. What good did it do?
But here’s the truth about power – you build it, and use it, or you lose it. That is why this year’s march is very different and twice as important:
If you hear your education friends talking about how “we did this last year”, please share this article. This year is nothing like last year, except for the fact we are asking you to gather, in May, wearing red. And if we play our cards right, every year after this one will be different, and better, because through collective action and building our capacity for leveraging real power, we will demand and create better learning and working conditions for all NC students and school workers. In this together. All out.
In my last post, I documented how one-on-one meetings were key to building a “coalition of the willing” - teachers in my building who want to stay in teaching but want to see working and learning conditions improve.
The article was written after my 10th on-on-one meeting. After that, I recruited a veteran colleague to join me in arranging and doing these meetings; I decided when we were 20 strong, it would be time to hold a meeting.
The hardest part about getting the coalition together is that they are REALLY busy. Some have kids to pick up after school, others lead meetings every day after school, and others have second jobs. I decided the best time to meet was for a potluck lunch during a teacher workday. Luckily, bad weather hasn’t hit us quite as hard as past years, and we still had one in February.
Since I now have emails and cell phone numbers of everyone in the coalition, communication is fairly easy. I emailed them about the details for the potluck and everyone coming declared what they would bring. I thought a lot about the agenda. I wanted it to be inclusive, informative, and set us up for next level action. Here’s the notes from the meeting:
On large poster paper, we each recorded a problem / solution we have identified and innovated since 1/1/2019, either in our work or home life. While some did that, others filled their plates and vice-versa.
We started the formal meeting by processing the stuff on the poster board. Things we noticed: our job takes over our.lives, it can keep us from basic self care, we solve problems all the time, etc.
Then I made some comments:
We will be tracking which events get the best attendance and building our organization from there.
Our first “capacity building” action was our first Red4Ed picture the Wednesday after the meeting. The four planning period captains texted their teachers that day and told them the time and location of the picture. They took the pics, sent them to me, and I made the digital collage for posting / sharing. It went well! During my planning period, I pulled two people into the pic, quickly brought them up to date, and one joined the coalition right there and then!
The next event was “happy hour” at a nearby pub on a Friday after payday. Eight people attended in the driving rain, and we had a great time. I decided not to have an agenda / formal meeting at that event, but we did talk about organizing in general and opportunities for collective action in the future.
Our next event will be an after school meeting. I’m going to “take back” the teacher’s lounge - it’s a space we used to use all the time but have neglected as the pace of our days have become more and more frenetic. And then, the Zoom call will hopefully allow people to engage who just can’t make the after school / workday events, largely because of childcare issues.
My current takeaway: so far, so good! I feel like we are building “people power” in my building, slowly but surely. There will be lots of opportunities this spring to flex the capacity we are building and I’m looking forward to it!
By: Angie Scioli
(This is a post from February 2019)
My path to doing grassroots organizing was documented in this article and this one. I’m a month into the work (10 one-on-one meetings) and I’ve been encouraged to write about the journey thus far.
The big picture: I want to build teacher unity and power in my building so we can act collectively to improve learning and working conditions for students and teachers. I want us to build relational trust and shared appreciation for what gifts we can each bring to that work. My goals are to find: 1) teachers who love teaching and 2) are not satisfied with the current conditions and 3) would likely keep teaching if those conditions improved. I want to form them into a group called “The Coalition of the Willing” (I made that up) and then I want us to figure out what we are going to do together.
When master organizers told me that one-one-one meetings were important, I thought there was no way I had time to do this work. The truth of the matter is, I was “playing” on my phone for about thirty minutes after school right after the kids left for the day. Now, about 2-3 times a week, I’m heading straight to meet with a colleague. Since this work is aligned with my personality / disposition, I really look forward to the meetings and interaction. I don’t miss playing on my phone.
Before I started this process, I met with my Wake NCAE President, Kristin Beller. She helped me see that my school might need to be “formally” organized, but that could more easily be achieved if I tapped into how it was informally organized. There are already natural leaders in the school who lead groups of people. They might be work related groups or social groups. But you can more quickly organize your building if you start meeting with the leaders who are likely to be like-minded.
I teach in a trailer in the school bus parking lot, isolated from the main building, and there has been some teacher turnover at my school, so I’ve lost track of “who hangs with who” in the building. So, my first meetings were with more veteran teachers who have taught in lots of different classrooms in the building and gotten to know lots of people. They also are strong mentors and know the younger teachers better than most. They provided lots of great insights and I value their opinions. They thought my organizing strategy was worth a shot and they suggested who I should meet with. And so, I started reaching out. The first people I met with were younger teachers I did not know that well. I emailed them something like this:
“Hello! Hope you are well!
I am doing some soul searching about how to be a better teacher advocate and I could use your insights and advice. I'm in need of diverse perspectives and you immediately came to mind! Would you be willing to meet for a half hour next week? I can do second period, B lunch any day but Tuesday and I'm here every day after school until 5pm.
If we can find a time, I'll send you an article I've drafted to provide some background. If you have time to read it, great, if not I can bring you up to speed when we meet.
Thanks for considering!!
They were surprisingly enthusiastic to be contacted, which was nice!
The meetings have taken on a certain “flow”. Here’s the sequence that seems to be working best right now and the directions I would give a colleague wanting to help conduct these meetings:
6. I ask them who they think I should meet with next and why. I write those ideas down for later consideration. I’m finding they are usually on point!
7. I thank them for their time and tell them I will follow up with an email.
8. I go to a spreadsheet I have created. I record their name, phone number, private email, what challenges they mentioned in the meeting, their strengths / gifts and if they are a member of a professional organization.
9. I send them a thank you text and an email to the Coalition introducing our newest member and reiterating when the upcoming events are.
I’m only ten meetings in, so it’s early to declare any kind of victory. But in the words of Oprah Winfrey, here’s “what I know for sure.” I am enjoying this work. I feel like hope is growing in the building.
And that, for now, is enough. See ya down the road : ) Thanks for reading!
Searching for the “Easy” Button
for Teacher Unity and Power
By Angie Scioli, Wake County Teacher & founder of Red4EdNC
We were waking up, but we didn’t quite know how to put our feet on the floor. It was the summer of 2013, and a critical mass of talented teachers at my school had just awoken from our fairly privileged oblivion to realize that all was not well in education policy in North Carolina. The new supermajority was eviscerating cherished assets in our educational establishment: pre-K seats, the Teaching Fellows scholarship, valued teacher assistants, precious instructional materials.
In a flurry, we established an advocacy group, Red4EdNC and I wrote an open letter to NC suggesting we all wear “Red4Ed on Wed.” to show our collective anger and force change. I recall Wake NCAE president Larry Nilles meeting with us that first week. He suggested that we should embark upon a grassroots organizational strategy at our school. It would entail holding one-on-one meetings with our teachers, building relationships across departments, and constructing capacity for future collective action.
After he left, we were kind of confused and incredulous: “Who has time for THAT? We’re busy teachers for goodness sake!”
“Why do all that when we can just form a website and Facebook page and wear our new t-shirts on Wednesday?”
The opening salvo in the search for the “teacher unity easy button” was declared.
And so we did those very things: we started a website, sold 500 t-shirts statewide, wrote articles, and attended protests. For good measure, I agreed to be a primary subject in a documentary, where the producers shadowed me for a year and made a movie. The film pulled back the curtain on a teacher’s daily struggles, raising awareness of the unsustainable “hero teacher” narrative that infuses the public discourse on teaching. It seemed certain we would achieve great things by informing the public who would then vote in a manner reflecting that new insight.
The 2014 election cycle, however, provided little consolation or reassurance; nor did things not improve in 2015. Attendance at protests faltered. The crowd at our weekly Red4Ed picture noticeably waned. We regrouped. Maybe these “outsider tactics” were overrated. So we embarked on developing an “inside game.” I accepted a fellowship with the Hope Street group, learned more about policy, served on work groups and commissions; we decided a specific bipartisan policy proposal for creating career pathways for educators could build “inside networks” that could lead to better education policies. “Project Ignite” was born. A different easy button was conceived: skipping unity altogether and going straight to power and policy.
At first, lobbying was surprisingly easy. An actual classroom teacher lobbying for a specific policy proposal is somewhat of a unicorn, so I was welcomed and granted a hearing. Republican leaders set me on a path to gain key supporters in the Senate and House, and I was checking them off off my list at a good clip. I met with the Superintendent’s office - they were supportive. One senator suggested we should get the proposal to bill writing! Was it really going to be THIS easy? I was getting smug.
Then the phone stopped ringing and General Assembly leaders no longer returned emails. I was eventually called to a meeting and told there were no funds for the $1.7 million pilot project. The next week, however, I read in the paper the General Assembly had a $357 million surplus. I was confused. Where had we stumbled?
I floated a theory by a General Assembly staffer who works closely with elected members: Was it possible that when Republicans saw our group name, Red4EdNC, they assumed we were REPUBLICANS for better ed policy in NC? And then someone Googled us, figured out our mission, and they “ghosted”? “Entirely possible,” she said. That is how deep our echo chambers are; the protest group we founded in 2013 was entirely outside the awareness of the people we sought to influence. Amazing.
Back to the drawing board - with a new appreciation for unity. Finding the “teacher unity easy button” was really not so easy! But wait, they were finding it in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona . . . we could see the throngs of teachers in their respective state houses, wearing red, taking collective action and forcing concessions! How were they doing this? Through what process were they determining and articulating demands? How could we replicate that in NC?
One realization we came to is that NC teachers must unite and demand change. And though collective bargaining is technically illegal in this state, those laws, under the right circumstances, could be changed in a matter of days. It was up to us to create those circumstances.
While NCAE / Organize 2020 began planning the May 16th March, Red4Ed launched the idea of holding a NC Teacher Congress soon afterwards that would meet and articulate demands. We rebranded, relaunched with a new (incredible) statewide board of advisors, and handed out 5000 cards at the march to drive people to our website. We followed up with Facebook Live videos, issued a Declaration in Defense of NC’s Public Schoolchildren, and obtained teacher signers from 104 different school districts in NC. Throughout the summer of 2018 we planned for statewide press conferences, polished our Teacher Congress plan, and conducted outreach. We would follow up the press conferences with a big campaign to have each school start a faculty Facebook page, where collective action would be planned and carried out. The teacher unity (not-so) easy button was in grasp!
Imagine our surprise at the low teacher attendance at our eight statewide press conferences (though media coverage was significant) and, after a week, only thirty schools had formed faculty Facebook pages. Thirty. There are over 2500 schools in NC.
Participation at my own school was particularly instructive. We planned our press conference for noon, during the lunch hour on a teacher workday, on the sidewalk right outside our K-12 school. We had worked hard all week to make teachers aware of the event, handing out handbills at our opening meeting and leafleting cars in the teacher lot. All they had to do on Friday was step outside and wear red. With over 250 teachers on our campus, getting 100 to come out should have been a snap. When the day was sunny and a mild 80 degrees, it seemed destined the event would be well attended. About thirty showed up. I walked through the halls of my school, amazed that so few of my colleagues wore red or had any intention of participating. Clearly, I had missed something.
The hard truth is, there is not an “easy button” to teacher unity and power. Unity and power does not come from social media nor is it solely idea-driven. Instead, it comes from real RELATIONSHIPS--shared vision and action spring forth from those authentic connections. In all the writing, lobbying, strategizing, I had failed to forge authentic relationships in my school that would have propelled us to collective action. In the end, Larry Nilles (and the other talented organizers I have met with since) was right from the start.
Collective action must begin at our schools. We need to meet, one-on-one and together. We need to know what our shared vision is and what gifts we each can bring to the work. We must build capacity for collective action, training new leaders and bringing people to an awareness of the potential power of a membership-based union that represents a majority of teachers in NC.
Once we build a firm foundation at our schools, unity across organizations is equally important. This is why Red4EdNC, NCAE / Organize2020, and North Carolina Teachers United leaders are meeting and working together in a concerted effort to leverage our collective abilities to lead teachers in this grassroots organizing work.
Ironically, maybe all our hard work has led us to finally finding the easy button. Setting aside a few minutes each day to talk with the talented teachers in my school, getting to know them better, old friends and new, and discovering the varied perspectives and abilities they bring - that is going to be energizing and thought-provoking work. Getting together more often to share the small victories we experienced with our students in a given week will bring joy and camaraderie to our building. And, working across organizational lines with other dedicated and amazing education advocates is already proving to be rejuvenating.
Be brilliant, not just smart. Smart people learn from their own experience; brilliant people learn from the experience of others. If you are just waking up to the need for collective action in NC, trust me. The “easy button” to teacher and unity and power in NC is not a new and shiny object, but an old reliable tool that takes the shape of concern, care, relationship, and shared vision. And you can use it to reach out to the teachers in your building to build a movement that will ultimately result in a strong, powerful union capable of getting real improvements in teaching and learning conditions in NC.
Won’t you join me on this new journey? Red4EdNC, NCAE / Organize 2020 and North Carolina Teachers United are holding joint regional meetings in January. There will be a meeting near YOU. Can you reach out to a few teachers at your school and plan to attend? We would love to meet you, join hands, and walk forward together to forge a new level of unity and teacher power in NC, with deep roots and unlimited potential.
By Nancy Snipes Mosley, Wake County Teacher
Women of my generation all fondly remember pretending to be Wonder Woman when we were little girls, spinning around like Lynda Carter in our Underoos. For that moment, we could be both princess and hero.
With her recent resurgence into our popular culture, I have acquired new Wonder Woman swag from my family. Some days, I look at myself wearing Wonder Woman PJs in the mirror and think, “Well, this is ironic. I don’t feel like a strong role model, a source of inspiration and power. I feel tired and stressed and hooked on caffeine.”
What’s the big deal about Wonder Woman, anyway? She’s warrior and diplomat, goddess and human. She’s strong-willed and compassionate, with an unwavering moral compass. She does have some vulnerability and has suffered loss, but her willingness to make sacrifices for the common good keeps her strong and focused on her mission.
But can she get teenagers to understand the Electoral College, navigate the red tape of organizing an overnight field trip, check a big stack of essays for plagiarism, feed a family of picky eaters, coordinate the sports schedules of a young gymnast and baseball player, and help them both with their homework before bedtime?
Let’s see how Wonder Woman and teachers really compare:
Teachers aren’t superheroes, but they have power to be strong role models for young people. This means showing them what it means to listen to others while also speaking up for yourself. Serving the community while also taking care of your own needs. Bearing your responsibilities while also staying in control of your life. Doing what is best for your own family and other families too.
So, go ahead and wear that Wonder Woman symbol with pride. Let it be a reminder that we do something heroic when we take care of the next generation, and that we must be strong enough to demand what we need for the job. If you don’t have anything with the WWs emblazoned on it, any red shirt will do.
By: Anne Mayer, a former teacher
Do you miss it?
That is the most common question I am asked when people find out I used to be a teacher. Former colleagues still in the classroom ask it a lot, too. The answer, without a doubt, is yes.
I miss kids every day. I miss their proud smiles when they recognize their hard work paid off; their laughter at a corny kid joke or a pun they thought of with their friends; looking over when they asked me to watch them dance, cheer, throw, or successfully complete a hard math problem; and partnering with amazing parents to set the path straight. Most of all, I miss the connections.
I miss teaching the way I used to teach. I used to be able to collaborate with peers to create meaningful projects. I used to be able to brainstorm ways to make learning fun and engaging. I miss the trust I was given to teach children what they needed to know to be successful. I miss the liberty to take a few extra days to teach the really hard concepts. I miss the art of teaching.
When I was teaching, I was in it. I worked hard day in and day out for my students. I led many extracurricular activities in my 21 years in the classroom, from Spell Bowl to Science Olympiad to Student Council to yearbook to mentor. I obtained my National Boards. I was grade chair many times. I was Teacher of the Year a few times. It was my life and my identity. Since I wasn’t blessed with my own children, I poured what I had into other people’s children.
Leaving teaching was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I never wanted to turn into one of those teachers just counting down to retirement. With only 9.5 years in North Carolina of my 21, I knew I had to make a decision. My decision to leave was not solely based on the lack of a competitive wage. I could not put my head on my pillow at night knowing I was causing such pressure and anxiety in 9-10 year olds with tests I did not want to give, after delivering a scripted curriculum that I did not write. I taught at an extraordinary school my last few years of teaching, and I thought if I was feeling the way I did while at a great school, I was not going to make it. Morale was at an all time low, the economy was still shaky, and with the direction lawmakers were headed, no retirement benefits would be left by the time I got there. I was also frustrated students’ parents were not angrier about what was happening. Combining this with the roaches and mold, broken heat/air conditioning, non-functioning windows, locks that wouldn’t lock, and spending my own money for classroom materials – all troubles I encountered over the years – was more than enough to make me ask myself what I was doing.
So, in September of 2013, I walked into my principal’s office and told her I was leaving at the end of the school year. Several teachers that year had left after school started with a short notice, but I promised I would stay until the end. I knew it would be an emotional year for me and I wanted to savor every moment, good or bad. I wanted to enjoy the last field trips, the last field day, pajama days, and all of those corny kid jokes. It was going to be a process for me to leave. When I got an interview invitation on the last day of school at 2:00, I knew it was meant to be that I leave.
In June of 2014, at 45 years old, I started at a biotechnology company in RTP in an entry-level position, and I am so glad I did. I didn’t know what I was doing or if I could even do it well, but I did believe in this company and what they do to help people. From the beginning I was in awe. The professional development was amazing; the technology was fantastic; even small things like the copy machine/printer only printing my work when I swiped my badge. I didn’t have to rummage through dozens of other papers on the printer to find mine? Amazing. Oh, and in four years, we have never run out of copy paper. Not once. Even perks like free coffee (with an assortment of creams and sugars), tea, and soda were available. We have never run out of this once, either. All of the equipment works – all the time.
More importantly, however, the feeling of service that teaching provided me was still part of my new day to day. In a short time, my hard work was recognized and I received a promotion. I moved to managing a territory where I could connect with patients, their doctors, and a field team. I was given opportunities for development like Emerging Leaders, Introduction to Project Management, Managing within the Law, and Manager Essentials. I earned my Six Sigma Green Belt. I’ve had a few more promotions and I now lead a team of 14. After four years, my salary is about double from when I left teaching, and I have work/life balance. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and learn so much, and I appreciate the new challenges that come my way. My feedback is comprehensive, specific, and meaningful. My leaders cheer me on and continue to mentor me. The praise I receive is genuine, and the opportunities given me prove that good teachers have transferable skills that can make us successful in most places. My financial status now allows me to prepare for my future instead of tutoring after school to supplement my income.
When comparing teaching to my current experiences, I get angry. Yes, I clearly understand the difference between taxpayer money that funds schools and working for a publicly traded company. I know it is comparing apples to oranges, but the reality lies in feeling valued. As time went on, I did not feel valued as a teacher. My leaders in education, just as frustrated and stressed out about even more than I was, did not have time to provide the support they wanted to offer. Working with impossible budgets, broken buildings, and unrealistic standards didn’t leave much for building morale at a school. Lawmakers were denying a competitive wage and making decisions via shady processes. Teachers and administrators continued to get more and more burdens put on them, and the testing pressure mounted. It seemed that everyone in charge had more concern for test results than allowing students to experience the journey of learning. The funny thing is, in the “real” world, the journey drives the results.
Do I miss teaching? Yes, but I know I did a good job of leaving when a former student told her new teacher that I must have left because I would be too sad without our class. She wasn’t wrong, but even more so, I love that that is what she believed.
by: John deVille, Macon County Social Studies Teacher
In the August 29th edition of The Franklin Press, Lynn Martin, mother of a child in the third grade, wrote of her dissatisfaction with having to purchase school supplies for other children in her son’s classroom (“Don’t force parents to provide supplies for all”). Ms. Martin wrote that her “family works hard to ensure bills are paid and food is on the table.” Ms. Martin was upset her son may have to forgo the “cool Captain America notebook” because the school was asking her to purchase more generic notebooks so they may be distributed throughout the classroom without generating envy or slight.
I completely agree with Ms. Martin — she and her family should not have to subsidize the purchase of school supplies for the other students in her son’s classroom. Period. Full stop.
More and more, Ms. Martin and other North Carolina middle and working class parents like her, are unfairly being asked to subsidize the shortfalls in North Carolina classrooms because:
1. The economic recovery from the 2008 recession has resulted in greater economic inequality with many North Carolinians below or near the poverty line. Macon County workers make 25% below the state average, in line with the trend of rural North Carolina lagging in the recovery.
2. Shifts in North Carolina’s tax policies put in place the past few years by the General Assembly which have favored wealthier citizens over working taxpayers.
3. North Carolina public education funding on a per pupil basis is 7.9% lower than it was in 2008 when adjusted for inflation and the increased number of students in our classrooms.
4. There has been a failure of the General Assembly to comply with their constitutional obligation and disburse $730 million of civil fines and penalties which have already been collected but not disbursed to school systems. A court ruled in 2008 that these funds must be distributed but the state agencies failed to comply. Just last month, the North Carolina School Board Association filed yet another lawsuit demanding payment. Macon County alone is owed over $2 million — funds which must be spent on technology which would, in turn, free up more funds for other classroom supplies.
5. After being wined and dined by Apple and completely without consultation with teachers, school boards, and superintendents, State Superintendent Mark Johnson thought it would be a good idea to purchase iPads for all K-3 teachers at the cost of $6 million which the previous state superintendent was not permitted to disburse. Many North Carolina K-3 teachers would have appreciated the $500 per teacher for classroom supplies rather than technology which might be redundant or unable to be integrated into classroom use.
To provide a snapshot of increasing economic desperation, consider the percentage of students in North Carolina on free & reduced lunch increased over 15% in one year going from 52% needing the program in 2016 to 60% in 2017.
Income taxes in North Carolina have been cut but mostly to the benefit of the top 20%, especially the top 1%, which receives an average of $21,780 in tax breaks a year, which is 59 times the average cut for people in the middle fifth of the income scale and 1,361 times the average cut for people in the bottom 20%.
Under the new tax system which went into effect in 2016 & 2017, a taxpayer making $30,000 a year saw a $50 cut in income taxes but one $750 car repair (and the working class is far more likely to be driving a car in need of frequent repairs) results in a new tax of $50 which would wipe the income tax cut away and put those notebooks a little further out of reach.
Income taxes were cut, and revenues to the state coffers reduced, but the costs of funding schools adequately remains the same. That has resulted in either larger classes, missing classes, lack of textbooks and so on, OR it has resulted in counties such as Macon having to kick more in to the current operating expense budget, OR asking parents like Ms. Martin to subsidize the classroom. One gobsmacking story in student/parent subsidization of what is supposed to be a free education is Wake County raising the parking permits for high school students from $80 to $200. Thankfully, FHS remains at $5.
Under the umbrella of the 7.9% public education funding gap, North Carolina students have suffered a 50% cut for classroom supplies.
Parents like Ms. Martin aren’t the only ones subsidizing the lack of classroom supplies. North Carolina teachers are spending on average $500 to $1,000 of their own money on classroom supplies — ask any Macon County teacher for details. Budget cuts necessitate more student fundraising — guess who are the first people students ask to buy a $2 candle or a $2 tin of candied popcorn for $10? And then after us, they ask their cash-strapped parents.
Representative Kevin Corbin and I discussed this very issue on the evening of August 23rd. He pointed out that he keeps hearing teachers say “we have no supplies” and he noted that statement distresses him because he knows the General Assembly does in fact provide school supply money but that sometimes it doesn’t find its way to the classroom because of issues at central offices (an issue that we do not have here in Macon County). While I told him I appreciated his commitment to ensure those funds to find their way directly to the classroom, I reminded him that school supply monies were HALF of what they were in 2008. He agreed with that statement and committed to work on improving those funding levels. If we can restore that funding, then the sort of unfair subsidization Ms. Martin rightly denounces, should become less necessary.
Another hit to the Macon County Schools budget arises from the fact that we are compelled to pay $90,000 a year to Summit Charter in Cashiers for students from Highlands who attend that school. By law, operational dollars follow the student, and on the surface that seems eminently fair, but charters tend to attract the least expensive students to educate and leave more costly special needs students to the traditional public schools. $90,000 taken off the top for an exceptionally well-heeled charter school would purchase a lot of school supplies if those funds were left in the Macon County Schools budget.
In addition to the cuts to classroom supplies have been the cuts to textbooks, which currently stands at 37% below 2008 funding levels — this actually represents a rebound as we had several years of zero or near zero funding for textbooks since 2011. That shortfall resulted in school systems burning up their copying machines and their meager school supply budgets just to get some sort of relevant instructional materials in the hands of students.
As I see it, the problem isn’t with the “families who have figured out the system” but with the donor class which has created the system which has systematically redistributed wealth from working and middle class with new taxes and new demands for subsidization while cutting essential services.
The student and her parents who are struggling financially, likely stuck in minimum wage jobs without full-time hours, are not the oppressors — they don’t have the power to oppress. We need to focus on those who do....just like Captain America would.
by: Shelly Reathaford, Science Teacher
As I closed out the first week of school, I logged onto Facebook feeling great. It was the weekend, I received a pay raise (that I didn’t have to beg, strike, march, or quite frankly, ask for), my class sizes are easily manageable, and my classroom is fully stocked for the new year. As I was scrolling through my feed, I came across a post from a former colleague where he mentioned he would greet 102 students on Monday. I couldn’t believe what I had just read. ONE HUNDRED AND TWO STUDENTS? In three classes? You’ve got to be joking. As I posted my own comment, I couldn’t help but reflect on the degree that my own life as an educator has changed by simply moving to a new state.
I remember when I announced I would be moving to South Carolina. Many of my dearest friends had smiles plastered on their faces and deep concern in their eyes. Why would anyone leave North Carolina Public Schools for South Carolina Public Schools? The state of education had to be worse, right? I have to admit I, too, was a little concerned but it only took one month for me to see that I was going to be so much better off, both personally and professionally.
Starting with money (because whether we want to admit it or not it really does make the world go ‘round) the set-up is much better for me. I make enough to meet my needs. I get paid twice per month, twelve months per year. I am coming off the best summer of my professional life as I didn’t have to work two jobs to keep afloat (because let’s admit part-time gigs do not make ends meet when you’re running a household). In fact, I didn’t work at all. I truly took the time to recharge and refresh. I’m confident my kids will thank me for this as we continue through the year and I can definitely tell a difference in my attitude and outlook as I return to the daily grind.
Professionally, I have seen the many ways in which I am more supported as a SC educator. As a science teacher, I used to spend a lot of money on my own lab supplies and I no longer spend anything; the district provides us with everything we need. I used to spend countless hours working at home, researching content due to having outdated books, and writing intricate test questions that would scaffold depth of knowledge to ensure content mastery. While working at home does go hand-in-hand with teaching, my new district provides updated textbooks and test question banks, so I am more efficient at home. I am also provided with curriculum maps that are updated annually; they provide accessible resources aligned with state standards and the supplies / activities we have available in our classrooms. While I never thought I’d admit to this, I am now a huge fan of technology in the classroom, as students and teachers are provided with devices that truly engage our students and prepare them as 21st century learners.
Taking all of this into account, it is imperative that NC educators continue fighting the good fight. Stand up, stand tall, and make your voices heard!