Teachers Sound Off on Challenges Facing Schools At ‘Education Nation’

The third annual Education Nation summit, hosted by NBC, got underway on Sunday, highlighted by the Teacher Town Hall. Held at the New York City Public Library and moderated again by news anchor Brian Williams, the town hall was a freewheeling and far-reaching discussion in which educators seized the chance to voice their concerns and ideas about the state of education in the United States.

Earlier in the day, students had their turn at the microphone at the Student Town Hall, hosted by MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. The panel included NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen.

Over two hours, the Teacher Town Hall covered four major topics: teacher evaluation, the Common Core standards, poverty, and working with parents.

Helping lead the discussion on evaluation was Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan. Asked by Williams to define effective evaluation, Ball responded that too many systems are about merely “weeding out” ineffective teachers, when the focus should be on discovering ways to support teachers and use evaluation to improve student learning.

Ball said it was hypocritical of many politicians and others who, on one hand, acknowledge the complex challenge of preparing students for the 21st Century, yet espouse simplistic, one-size-fits-all tools to evaluate the nation’s classroom teachers.

So, asked Williams, what would be fair? Audience members who took to the microphone were practically unanimous in calling for more support and training for teachers but also more effective classroom observations – not, as one teacher put it, “drive-by visits by principals.”

A survey of the audience revealed that more than 70 percent believed that student test scores should form the basis of only on-third or less of teacher evaluations.  Moderator Williams noted that, according to another NBC poll, the general public believes scores should be weighted more heavily to determine teacher effectiveness. How do you account for the disparity? Williams asked.

Audience member and 2011 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Kristin Ann Record responded that too many people “do not understand the realities of being a classroom teacher.” She doubted that the average person does not realize how problems outside the classroom affect student performance, namely socioeconomic background.

Called “the elephant in the rom” by another teacher in the audience, poverty’s impact on student learning factored heavily in all the discussions. With more than 1/5 children in public school living in poverty, its devastating effects aren’t left at home, which is why some school districts are partnering with business and other community leaders to provide “wraparound services” – programs that help schools in effect become

full-service community centers for students, parents, and other family members. Two districts that provide these services showcased their programs at the town hall. (Visit NEA Priority Schools to learn more about “wraparound service” success stories.)

High school English teacher Selina Alonzo at the 2012 Teacher Town Hall.

Teachers in the audience seemed mixed in their response to the Common Core Standards, described by Brian Williams as “the big train coming down the track.” According to the audience survey, 39 percent of teachers said they were “very prepared” for common core and 32 percent said they were “somewhat prepared.”

Phoenix high school teacher and NEA member Selina Alonzo joined Williams on the stage to help lead the discussion on parental involvement. Alonzo said getting parents engaged in their child’s education can be a challenge, as it is for many teachers, but the issue in Arizona is a more daunting due to the high immigrant population. The recent wave of anti-immigrant laws is only making it more difficult to reach out to parents whose legal status makes them more afraid to communicate with anyone from their child’s schools.

Still, Alonzo said the best way fundamentally to break barriers and reach parents is to engage students.

“My direct line is the child,” Alonzo explained. “If I can engage and inspire the student, he or she will go home and tell their parents. Maybe fear and apprehension go out the door if they are moved by what their child tells them. And then we can become a unified team.”