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Virginia Journal of Education

It’s Time

VEA, Virginia PTA launch ‘Put Kids First’ to change the conversation about public education.

By Tom Allen

A good portion of the general public seems to think of our schools as the “Energizer Bunny” of public institutions—just wind up the kids and their educators and they go on and on, with a very occasional battery change. Public schools don’t really need much help, they keep moving ahead, and they produce, by and large, pretty impressive results.

We’ve come to expect that and, therefore, we’ve handed schools more and more responsibilities over the years.
The truth is, though, the Bunny is winded—and losing steam. A better energy source is needed: Virginia’s public schools, for shamefully long, have not gotten the support they so desperately need and deserve from most of our elected officials and governing bodies. Educators are, every time they enter the building, fighting uphill battles against underfunding, over-testing, large class sizes, and students who come to school unprepared because they’ve lacked quality (or any) early childhood education.

“It seems voters and taxpayers think the schools are doing great and need less funding, rather than more,” says Joyce Zupko of the Loudoun Education Association. “I’m not sure if it’s politics or economics, but one thing I do know is how it impacts those of us who are in the classroom teaching the children.” 

The members of both the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia PTA are drawing a line in the sand. Our state has consistently failed in one of its most critical responsibilities—to “Put Kids First.” That’s why our two organizations, representing the educators and families of Virginia, have named our joint campaign that very thing—Put Kids First.

The campaign will feature a range of initiatives, including a Put Kids First rally at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 18.

Why have such a rally, campaign and movement become so necessary? A view from some of those who know our public schools best:

Our Class Sizes are Too Large
It doesn’t take volumes of research to understand that too many young people in a classroom means too little chance for individual attention.

That’s now news to Ryan Abbott, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association: “Rising class sizes have had a tragic effect on the study and critical-thinking skills of my students, as I and other teachers have had to figure out how to find the time to give each student proper feedback on these skills when we have more students than ever,” he says. “I simply no longer have the time to provide formal, written feedback--the kind of feedback that helps students grow--on assignments other than end-of-unit assignments.”

Chuck Ronco of the Prince William Education Association faces the same kinds of struggles. “If STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] classes are supposed to be a priority,” asks Ronco, who is a high school math teacher, “why are my students only getting one/thirty-third of my focus?”

Ronco steps into classrooms every day of more than 30 students, including one that’s made up entirely of English Language Learner students. “Some of those students, when they arrived, couldn’t count past 10 in English,” he says. “Others have only grade-school educations.” In an algebra class, he has to start with concepts as basic as number lines, using the Spanish he’s rapidly picking up.

In his other classes, Ronco uses student aides to help out as much as possible. “As hard as I try,” he says, “I often find myself managing the room instead of striving for the excellence I’d like to shoot for. I sometimes think, ‘If I had just five fewer students in this class, what might we be able to do?’”

Ronco’s county, while annually ranked among the wealthiest in the country, currently has the largest class sizes in Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Education says class size is one of only four evidence-based reforms proven to increase student achievement. Studies from Tennessee, Wisconsin and elsewhere show that students in smaller classes in the early grades do better in every way they’re measured, including grades, attendance and test scores.

In Virginia, our class sizes are flat-out too big in too many places. Clearly, that’s not putting kids first.

Our Kids are Over-Tested
When the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2001, it called for a total of six standardized tests for students. Today, that number has mushroomed to 17. And those are just the federally-mandated tests. Add to that the tests now required by Virginia’s Standards of Learning program and by localities and the result is that some students are spending up to one-third of their class time preparing for and taking standardized tests.

“This multiple-choice testing feels like little bombs going off throughout the year,” says Fairfax Education Association member Lynnie Vessels. “I prepare the kids. They take the tests. Then it feels like I spend weeks cleaning up the debris, collecting data I don't really need because I already know what they know and don't know. The students I released from my care five years ago were far more knowledgeable and better prepared than the students I released this June. If I were a parent, I'd be livid that my children were being prepared for multiple-choice tests and a dumbed-down curriculum.”

Here in Virginia, the General Assembly has made some progress, reducing the number of required SOL tests by five, and the backlash against the testing burden borne by our students has gone national. The 2014 National Superintendent of the Year, Alberto M. Carvalho of Miami-Dade County Schools, says of testing, “This is too much, too far, too fast, and it threatens the fabric of real accountability. The emotional effect on students, teachers, and parents has been damaging; the manifestation of sadness and frustration is real.”

No need to explain that to Rebecca Jasman of the Louisa County Education Association. “I’ve seen my kindergartners cry at end-of-year tests that are 50 questions long,” she says. “I’ve cringed as my second-graders are being taught test-taking strategies so they can be successful on the following year's state-mandated test. I’ve watched their love of learning turn into fear of testing. I have comforted my fourth-graders with crippling test anxiety, and I’ve seen students get physically ill at the sight of the test portal on their computer screen. The amount of time I spend on teaching test-taking strategies to 8-year-olds is time that could be better spent on reading or math instruction.”

That’s counterproductive, says Jim Livingston, president of the Prince William Education Association: “Imposing relentless test preparation and boring memorization of facts is doing little more than stealing the love of learning from our students.”

Does that sound like we’re passing anyone’s test for putting kids first?

Too Many Children Don’t Get Quality Early Education
Young children experience crucial intellectual development well before they’re old enough to set foot in a classroom. 

“When schools open their doors to kindergartners, some of the most important connections in their brains have already been formed,” says Roanoke County Education Association member Nancy Chewning. Indeed, the preschool years are an important learning opportunity which, if missed, leaves children at a disadvantage from day one of their schooling.

“I teach English Language Learners and many have not had the benefit of pre-Kindergarten,” says Erin Warner, also of Roanoke County. “This really holds them back, right from the start. I have ELLs in kindergarten who come in not knowing their colors, numbers, the alphabet and more. We work very hard, but the gap starts immediately.”

And the problem isn’t limited to children with language difficulties. For a variety of reasons, poverty often foremost among them, many students begin their schools lacking basic knowledge, as retired Richmond Education Association member Lola McDowell can tell you. "When we take kids on a field trip to a farm, they often don't know the difference between a cow and a dog,” she says. “They've never been to a farm, or a zoo or a beach. They don't know the difference between the ocean, a lake or a pond." 

The benefits of quality early childhood education are known well beyond school buildings. “When you go into a pre-K classroom and a kid not even in kindergarten yet is reading,” says Tim Kaine, one of Virginia’s U.S. Senators, “that tells you something about their likely success down the line. Early childhood education pays dividends, not only for the rest of the child’s educational career, but even into adult success.”

Those dividends are financial, too: Every dollar spent on early education pays off in almost $9 in benefits to society, including lower special education and criminal justice costs, according to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

However, the unfortunate current situation is that in Virginia, a full two-thirds of our 3- and 4-year-olds in low-income households are not enrolled in a preschool program. That’s not only a critical missed opportunity for them, it’s another failure on our state’s part to put kids first.
Our Schools Are Underfunded
Money talks: “You can clearly tell what a community values by where it places its funding,” says Christel Coman, president of the Campbell County Education Association.

Here’s what our state budget says about our priorities these days:

• The state is spending 16 percent less, per student, than it did in 2009.

• Virginia is the 10th richest state in America, per capita, but ranks 39th in state funding for public schools.

• Our teachers earn $7,700 less than the national average teacher salary.

Statistics can be impressive, but even more telling is how those figures play out in our schools. Here’s Lauren Snow of the Loudoun Education Association: “I teach high school biology. My students are always asking if they can do certain things for labs or field trips—a number excitedly ask if they’ll get to do dissections. I cannot give them half of the experiences they and I want because we do not have the funding.”
In a recent letter to the editor, Amherst Education Association member Jason Fleshman said this about the schools he and his colleagues work in: “Professionals both in and out of the classrooms have worked with less to accomplish more—more for our students with special needs; more for community members who are economically disadvantaged or destitute; more to accommodate increasing demands from Richmond; and even more from our own pockets to provide supplies not covered in school budgets.”

Do any other professions require their practitioners to buy their own supplies?

Adding insult to injury, Fleshman went on to note that, “For six years now we have worked without a legitimate cost-of-living adjustment,” adding, to county authorities, “You employ people — living, breathing, human beings — who are waiting in line at food pantries because of your economic negligence. Your employees are taking out payday loans to cover the cost of their utilities because the price of these services has risen while take-home pay has decreased.”

This is the financial situation of many educators across Virginia, if you can believe it: While Frank Cardella, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association, is an 18-year classroom veteran and a National Board Certified Teacher, his three children qualify for free or reduced lunch at their schools.

When our public officials don’t allocate the money our students, educators and schools need to thrive, they’re coming up short of putting kids first.

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


Four Issues, Four Facts

  What’s often pushed aside in the rush for better standardized test scores are creative and critical thinking skills and the individual needs of students.

  Reducing class sizes in the early grades can reduce achievement gaps by about 38 percent, according to the Brookings Institution.

  Two-thirds of Virginia’s 3- and 4-year-olds in low-income households are not enrolled in a preschool program.

  The state is spending 16 percent less, per student, than it did in 2009.


Rally Details
The Put Kids First rally will kick off at 3 p.m. at the Bell Tower on the grounds of the State Capitol in Richmond on Saturday, April 18. At 1 p.m., pre-event staging and plenty of entertainment begins at the Richmond Convention Center.




We’re Rallying in Richmond!

By Meg Gruber

The time for rhetoric is over. Actually, it’s been over. It’s time to step up and do something, something that will really make Virginia take notice. Something that’s just the right thing to do. Now. Because, as well-known educator and historian Diane Ravitch says, “When teachers speak up, it’s game on. And when parents and teachers stand together, it’s game over.”

Through Put Kids First, the campaign launched by VEA and the Virginia PTA, we’re standing together like never before. That’s why we need you to be in Richmond for the Put Kids First Rally at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 18.

Our schools and our kids have had to deal with being put aside for too long. The conversation about young people and public schools in Virginia desperately needs to change. And we’re going to change it. Now.

Our very future is at risk. Our elected officials love to proclaim themselves “friends of public education.” But they’re not acting like it. The Put Kids First campaign is all about holding officials accountable for their actions, long after the sound bites have faded away. Here’s how Virginia “Puts Kids First” now:

• We rank 39th in the country in state funding for K-12 education, per student. Funding is actually down 16 percent from six years ago.

• We’re 45th in the nation on the measure of preschool poverty gap and we are also below average on access to full-day kindergarten.

That’s not all. Education Week rates each state annually on its commitment and results for students on a “Chance for Success” index. It measures things like access to quality early childhood programs, percentage of students in poverty, achievement in reading and mathematics and other variables.

In 2007, Virginia ranked #1 on the “Chance for Success” index: Number one in the nation in terms of the opportunities afforded our children. In Education Week’s latest rankings, Virginia has slipped to 9th in the country. How things have changed.

Our elected officials are not putting kids first. Our children attend class in many buildings that are long overdue for repairs and renovations; they use out-of-date resources; they take too many standardized tests; and our classes and schools are too crowded.

Virginia is on its way to becoming a second-tier state. I won’t stand for that, and I don’t think you will, either. Why should we? Why should anyone?

Come to Richmond on April 18! The rally begins at 3 p.m. Bring your families, friends and colleagues. Bring everyone you possibly can. When members of the General Assembly see VEA and Virginia PTA working in unison on this campaign, it will rock their world!

Putting Kids First is the right thing to do. It’s not the easy, expedient thing to do, so it won’t be an easy victory.  But it’s one that’s worth fighting for, because it’s for our young people, our schools, our educators and our very future.

I’ll see you at the Capitol in April!


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