Teachers, flag burning, BLM

It was big news 53 years ago when the Bloomfield, Indiana, school board fired a 22-year-old teacher at the local high school. Her offense: making a controversial remark in the classroom.

This was in 1967, and opposition to the Vietnam War was in its very early stages. An English instructor at Indiana State University had burned an American flag in the classroom. Although he claimed his point was to demonstrate the power of symbols, the public was outraged.

But at Bloomfield High School, first-year teacher Patricia Reilly, a recent ISU graduate, told her students that she didn’t see anything wrong with the act. The students, most likely, were stunned. One wrote a  letter to the local newspaper, which published it without using the student’s name.

Then the American Legion jumped into the fray. In a resolution, the local post demanded that the school district “take conclusive action by termination of the teacher’s contract immediately and prevent said teacher from teaching in Bloomfield schools again.” The school board voted to fire her.

I know about this because Johns Hopkins education professor Jonathan Plucker sent me a copy of the Bloomington Tribune newspaper from April 26, 1967. His friend had come across it while cleaning out some old files. Presumably, it had been saved because of the story about the teacher.

“Bloomfield Teacher Is Fired,” blares the giant headline across the top of the front page. (For non-locals, Bloomfield is about 30 miles from Bloomington. The paper wouldn’t normally carry Bloomfield news).

The newspaper itself is a real period piece. Journalistic conventions were a bit different in 1967: The Bloomfield teacher is referred to as Mrs. James E. Reilly. The paper is crammed with local news, ranging from stories on the upcoming primary elections to a list of admissions and dismissals at the hospital. On the wire pages, there’s a hodgepodge of national and world news, including a bizarre story from Los Angeles about a “tall, husky youth” who tried to poke his eyes out after taking LSD.

Another element that dates the paper is that it includes a lot of labor news. Workers at the local Westinghouse capacitor factory had reportedly been on strike for 147 days. In Marion, Indiana, striking RCA workers had barricaded entrances and knocked down a security guard.

Which leads back to the story of the Bloomfield teacher – because this is a Labor Day story, in a way. Would the tale have played out any differently if it had occurred a few years later, after the teachers’ union movement picked up steam in Indiana?

Teachers in Indiana didn’t get collective bargaining rights until 1973, when the legislature enacted Public Law 217. Would it have mattered if the teacher had a contract or a union to back her up?

Maybe not. Even today there’s news about school districts playing politics with what teachers can say and do – like the Texas teacher who was suspended for decorating her virtual classroom with a Black Lives Matter poster and another proclaiming it a “welcoming space for everyone.”

When I first read the 1967 newspaper story, I imagined it as a tragedy: a young, idealistic teacher driven from the classroom by mean-spirited politics. But then I came across an obituary for Patricia L. Reilly, who had a 33-year teaching career in Indianapolis, Decatur Township and, yes, Bloomfield public schools. She died in 2014 in Florida at age 69.

“Her interest in theater and children allowed her to combine both passions into writing and directing plays,” the obituary says. “As well she loved constructive sewing, music, reading and writing.”

I’m glad she didn’t let the American Legion drive her from a profession she clearly loved. I’ll bet many of her students, had they known the story, would have felt the same way.

White teachers are the norm

Indiana has a teacher diversity problem. This has been an issue for a long time; and even though some school districts have been trying to hire more teachers of color, change comes slowly if at all.

Data from the Indiana Department of Education are discouraging, showing most students are missing out on the experience of learning from diverse teachers.

  • Over 93% of Indiana teachers are white. That compares with 66.4% of students in public and charter schools who are white.
  • Fewer than 4% of teachers are Black, compared with 12.7% of students.
  • Only 1.7% of teachers are Hispanic, compared with 12.8% of students.

Continue reading

‘Great day’ for teachers

Thousands of teachers rocked the Indiana Statehouse at Tuesday’s Red for Ed Action Day, demanding higher salaries, less testing and a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for their profession.

It was an impressive show of force. Now the question is whether educators can keep up the pressure through the upcoming session of the General Assembly and the 2020 election campaign. Continue reading

Teachers will show clout at Statehouse rally

Indiana legislators may have thought they fixed the state’s education funding last spring when they approved a budget that increased K-12 funding by over $760 million over a two-year period.

But judging by the enthusiasm for Tuesday’s Red for Ed Action Day at the Statehouse, Hoosier teachers and their friends aren’t persuaded that support for public education has turned a corner.

About 16,000 people have signed up to participate in the rally, according to its organizer, the Indiana State Teachers Association. Half of the state’s public school districts have canceled classes for the event — including the two largest, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis Public Schools.

Continue reading

Data raise questions about school staffing – but don’t answer them

Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for the percentage of school employees who are teachers and near the top for the percentage who provide “support services,” according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

I don’t know if those stats are perfectly accurate, but they have become a handy talking point for state legislators who claim to want to raise teacher salaries but don’t want to spend any more money.

Lawmakers have pointed to data, reported to the U.S. Department of Education by the states, that indicate only 37.7 percent of Indiana school employees are teachers. The implication is that teachers could be paid more if only there weren’t so many other school employees.

The National Center for Education Statistics is a reliable and widely cited source. The figure is based on 2015 data, the latest available. Only Ohio, at 31.5 percent, has a lower percentage of school employees who are teachers. The national average is just under half.

Continue reading

Kentucky educators and supporters try to reclaim state

The nation’s eyes were on Kentucky in the spring when Bluegrass State teachers walked off the job because of low pay and threats to their pensions. We should all be watching again on Nov. 6, when teachers and their supporters try to take the state back from ALEC-aligned Republicans.

Over 50 active and retired teachers are seeking seats in the Kentucky House and Senate, part of what veteran Courier-Journal political reporter Tom Loftus calls “an unprecedented wave of educators running for the General Assembly this fall.”

It’s happening across the country. HuffPost, citing National Education Association figures, reports over 500 educators are running for state legislative seats. Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider highlight the phenomenon in episode 52 of their “Have You Heard” podcast.

Empty House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse

But nowhere are teachers running with more enthusiasm, or is more at stake, than in Kentucky, as members of Save Our Schools Kentucky made clear last weekend at the Network for Public Education conference in Indianapolis. Four of the activists led a panel titled “How Grassroots Can Stop the Kochs in Your State,” arguing that citizen activism can check big-spending outsiders like the Koch brothers.

Continue reading

‘A Nation at Risk’ redefined purpose of education

A common take on “A Nation at Risk,” the government report on education issued 35 years ago, is that it had its flaws but at least it provided much-needed attention to America’s schools. But it sure didn’t look that way from the trenches, said Ray Golarz, a long-time Indiana school administrator.

“The end result of ‘A Nation at Risk’ was that teachers, administrators and schools were seen as the enemy,” he said. “Now tell me that was a good result. I don’t think so.”

The 1983 report, by a commission created by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, claimed the United States was falling behind foreign economic competitors for the first time since World War II and laid the blame on the nation’s substandard educational system.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” read one of its best-known lines, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

Continue reading

Indiana teacher pay shrinking

Average teacher salaries in Indiana have declined by over 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation. That’s according to an interactive analysis produced last week by Alvin Change of Vox, drawing on data from the National Education Association.

Indiana’s pay cuts, Chang writes, are “worse than the nation as a whole, where teachers have had their pay cut by an average of 3 percent when we adjust for inflation. And since 2010, teachers in Indiana had their pay cut by 9.7 percent.”

They’re also worse than in West Virginia, where low pay and a lack of raises touched off a two-week teacher strike that pushed state officials to approve a 5-percent raise for educators. Clearly, lagging teacher pay is an issue across the country. The West Virginia strike could be a harbinger of things to come. Kentucky or Oklahoma could be next.

Chang quotes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to explain what has happened:

Continue reading

Educators give thumbs-down to school choice

Teachers, principals and superintendents don’t much care for charter schools and vouchers. Not even the ones who voted for Donald Trump for president.

That’s a key take-away from a survey conducted by Education Week and reported by the publication last week. The survey was administered to more than 1,100 educators in September and October.

It found that 74 percent fully or somewhat oppose the creation of charter schools. And 79 percent fully or somewhat oppose publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition.

Among educators who voted for Trump, 64 percent oppose charter schools and 70 percent oppose vouchers — even though Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, have made expanding “school choice” a centerpiece of their education rhetoric.

Continue reading

Listening to teachers

Teachers are passionate about their work. They love their daily interactions with students, value collaborating with each other and feel strongly about the importance of public schools. They’re also frustrated by accountability mandates that make it harder to do their jobs. But they see value in some required tests, and they aren’t letting the annoyances keep them from doing their jobs.

Those are a few take-away messages from a panel discussion this week by seven Bloomington teachers: Sheila McDermott-Sipe and Kathleen Mills from Bloomington High School South, Kathy Loser and Greg Chaffin of Bloomington High School North, Megan Somers-Glenn of Marlin Elementary and Erika Peek and Ben Strawn of Summit Elementary. Some highlights:

      • Support is important. McDermott-Sipe said the local district’s adopting of Professional Learning Communities to facilitate collaboration was “a wonderful, wonderful development.” Mills said reading intervention staff, funded by a 2010 tax referendum, have been “life changing in high school.”
      • Panelists feel strongly about public education and fear it’s threatened by forces that, as Somers-Glenn said, “want to make money from our children.” Loser urged people in the audience to read Diane Ravitch’s book “Reign of Error” and vote for candidates who support public schools.
      • Strawn, who teaches third grade, said rounds of standardized tests and a state-required 90-minute block of uninterrupted reading instruction don’t leave enough time and flexibility for creative teaching. He said IREAD-3, the state’s third-grade retention test, puts “incredible stress on teachers.”
      • At the high school level, high-stakes assessments for sophomore English and algebra produce stress. But McDermott-Sipe said NWEA tests help tailor teaching to student’s needs. Mills said standardized tests don’t drive her teaching. “I definitely don’t feel I’m living a life of test prep,” she said.
      • Loser and Chaffin highlighted the fact that schools are about more than academics. Both talked about the importance of clubs, activities and informal relationships in keeping high-school students engaged – and not just sports and band but book clubs, groups for LGBT youth and international students, counseling groups, etc.
      • Teachers like talking about why they love their jobs and how much they enjoy their students. In an anecdote that could only happen in a public school, Mills said she overheard two students talking about their parents. One’s father went to Harvard; the other’s mother went to hairdressing school. The students, she said, were genuinely curious about each other’s families and their experiences.

The Monroe County Coalition for Public Education sponsored the discussion because teachers’ voices are often missing from public debates over education policy. Teachers are busy and many don’t have time for politics and public advocacy. They won’t all agree with each other. But when they talk about their work and their schools, those of us who claim to care about education should listen.