In the last two columns, we’ve seen Baltimore City’s schools through the eyes of local teachers, and it’s no pretty picture. What would it take to reshape such a struggling system into something great? Just five little things, according to a man named Kirwan and his pals. Ok, five huge things made up of a lot of big things. Let’s take a look.
The Maryland Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education (usually called the Kirwan Commission for its chair, former head of Maryland’s university system and owner of the whitest name I bet you’ve seen today, William English “Brit” Kirwan) was charged by the state in 2016 with looking at the best school systems around the world, figuring out how we could make their practices work here, and pricing it out.
They’re finally completing their work now, and these are their big recommendations, summarized (source: https://www.mabe.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Pres-on-Kirwan-FINAL-10-10-19.pdf):
- Free full-day pre-school for low-income 3-4 year-olds,
- Higher teacher standards and pay,
- Improved curriculum with a focus on early college and/or technical education,
- More resources for high poverty schools and high needs students, and
- An accountability/oversight board with teeth.
Since I was talking to teachers for this series, I asked them for their thoughts on the details of item #2, including:
- Requiring future teachers to take courses on things like research skills, racial awareness, and effectively managing student behavior, and to complete a year of practical experience,
- Providing additional scholarships and loan assistance for teaching students,
- Increasing teacher salaries 10% over the next three years and studying salaries of other professionals with similar education/experience for future increases,
- Creating career advancement tracks in which teachers with strong performance gain greater responsibility and autonomy.
Not everyone had time to weigh in on the policy stuff, so extra thanks to those who did! Here’s what they had to say, lightly edited for length [content warning for mention of murder and sexual violence against a minor, sigh]:
A first-year middle school science teacher at a city school:
I have complicated thoughts about Kirwan. I am definitely optimistic about their findings/recommendations, specifically the fact that they have proposed hundreds of millions of new funding for Baltimore and PG county, which are HIDEOUSLY underfunded.
Requiring teachers to be trained in basic research and racial equity, as well as having practical experience would be fantastic. I definitely think that this training should be district- or state-provided, NOT an expectation of future teachers’ previous education. As a career-changer, I had no teaching experience or technical education before the week-long New Teacher Summer Institute, which was definitely not sufficient for my first year of teaching ever. If we want to draw in new, well-equipped teachers, the best way to do that is to not rely on people spending their own money and time getting a four-year degree with no guidance: we should be paying people to get this vital job training.
Increasing salaries would certainly be nice, but it is faaaar from all we need. It’s nice to get a bigger check, have more financial security, feel appreciated, etc. But the majority of the reason we have abysmal teacher retention is because teachers aren’t getting the support we need. We need curriculum materials. We need smaller class sizes. We need comfortable classrooms. We need an abundance of PSRPs [paraprofessionals & school-related personnel] (social workers, therapists, etc.) to help with student wellness. We need an environment that uplifts teachers and students, instead of trying to keep us in line.
In terms of administrative advancement, I would like to see school administration be a more democratic affair, possibly with administrative duties shared among the staff members, rather than a district-assigned taskmaster.
A former middle school music teacher at a city charter school that has since closed:
I think there should be multiple pathways that can lead toward teaching in the public schools, and that training should be able to be integrated and balanced with other responsibilities as a new teacher. Supporting teachers with more resources and pushing for higher pay is definitely huge. I also think there should be more freedom at a local level for teachers and individual schools to be able to shape their approach, based on the needs of their students.
A third-year high school technology instructor at a city charter school:
Apart from the 10% salary increase and additional scholarship opportunities, pretty much all those recommendations are already implemented as far as I am aware. I have colleagues who have been in the system for over 14 years who make twice as much, and who have been taking advantage of those advancement opportunities all along the way. Of course those same professionals will tell you about their trauma of watching a child stabbed to death by another child in the hallways, or a gang rape by middle school boys of their classmate.
A part of the problem is that we keep talking about it like there is some magic bullet that will address all this, when the myriad issues we deal with are the result of decades of neglect, and perhaps more importantly that the general public has absolutely no idea of what it is like, or how outstandingly qualified so many of the people working in the system already are. Teachers keep getting pressure to be better somehow. We are training constantly, and part of our constant recertification process is to keep growing our skills each and every year.
The public is offensively clueless, which means the legislature is offensively clueless, which means the top level leadership is offensively clueless, and their incompetence damages a system overflowing with top tier talent that is struggling against burnout on the daily.
A long-time art teacher who taught for one year at a city elementary/middle school:
All of that will definitely help. Getting student teachers in the classroom from day one would be good. The federal government setting education as a priority for the future well-being of this country and funding it is critical (and not where we are headed at the moment). And definitely this needs to be a well paid profession.
Part of the problem with what is listed by the Kirwan Commission is that it puts all of the expectation on the teachers as the solution to the problem of education. Some other problems that need to be solved for education to work is for parents and their students to have the following: a place to live, regular and healthy meals, work that pays the bills and provides health insurance. Secondly, parenting classes as part of high school education or certainly required by doctors tending to pregnant women.
It is critical to understand that the onus is always put on the teachers to improve things when it all has to work holistically. And frankly one doesn’t need to throw a lot of money at it.
I visited/taught in schools in Uganda where students were poor but well behaved and attentive in class. I taught a class of 120 high school kids.115 of them were attentive and working and the others were napping. So culture plays into it too. Those parents are paying for their kids education. A friend from India said he routinely had 70 kids in his classes and they learned biology from books (didn’t have fun experiments, etc).
A long-time arts teacher at several city elementary schools:
I think more teacher education is imperative. Our country has fairly low expectations for initially starting education jobs. The Urban Teachers Institute give teachers a year of experience under the tutelage of mentor teachers before they enter the classroom. Much better than Teach for America.
Teachers are only required to have two special education classes. After asking around I found out that the teachers feel as though the classes are good, comprehensive. But still not enough. We need more education about trauma, what it does to kids and how it affects us. We definitely need more stuff about privilege and race and how we all fit together. I am a teacher that never wants to do administration, even though I took all the classes.
I think autonomy and oversight should go hand-in-hand with reasonable ways of evaluating teacher performance. If I were to do it all again I would probably rethink my career path not because I don’t love teaching but because I am also a therapist and a parent and a social worker and it is very very difficult. Teacher education needs to take into consideration what teachers actually do, so yes definitely a full year of practicum and more training prior to.
I appreciate the point that more money can’t solve all our complex woes. That said… wow, it really wouldn’t hurt. There’s a statistic that Fox 45 (which is all-in on bashing Baltimore: http://baltimorebeat.com/2017/12/21/building-case-sinclair-broadcastings-project-baltimore-offers-right-wing-news-coverage-city-schools/) and Governor Hogan like to quote about how we already have the third-highest per-pupil spending out of America’s 100 largest school systems… but when you look at all the nation’s systems, we’re in the middle on spending while dealing with way more issues than most, including way more ancient buildings. If you’re unconvinced about the need, listen to the stories of the families involved in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the state for letting students get sick in freezing classrooms and otherwise leaving them without basic resources (https://www.aclu-md.org/en/bradford).
So, what’s the price tag, Kirwan my man? For Baltimore City specifically… about an extra $832 million per year (as compared to the 2018 City Schools budget of $1.4 billion per year), once the full spending increases are phased in over the next decade. The price tag for the state as a whole would be $3.8 billion more per year by 2030.
You can probably guess how Hogan reacted to that, if you haven’t heard. He’s called it “half-baked” (rude to say about something that took 26 people three years to write), refused to show up to meetings (https://www.marylandmatters.org/2019/10/29/tempers-flare-over-school-reforms-kirwan-urges-hogan-to-address-panel/), and taken to calling it the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.” Meanwhile, he’s holding fundraisers with VIP tables at $25,000 each (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-pol-hogan-kirwan-cordish-20191014-lpeokeov25btpnbam3kburoapq-story.html), pouring money into his PAC in preparation to fight it out when the legislature takes up the plan this coming year.
Of course, our own lawmakers are dubious too. Of the extra funds that would go to City Schools, Kirwan recommends that about $329M come from the City government, more than double what we currently spend. In the Sun article cited above, southeast Baltimore State Senator Bill Ferguson calls it “definitely an undoable number”. State Delegate Maggie McIntosh of central-north Baltimore is a little more optimistic, talking about raising revenue by legalizing and taxing marijuana (yes plz), sports betting, taxes on online sales by out-of-state companies, etc.
I’ve got an idea to add to the list for making Kirwan feasible — how about police reform? We spent $47 million on police overtime in 2018, that’s a good chunk right there. $6 million to the family of Freddie Gray. $9 million to James Owens and $15 million to Sabein Burgess, both wrongfully convicted by BPD (https://www.propublica.org/article/baltimore-to-pay-largest-settlement-in-city-history-9-million-to-man-wrongfully-convicted-of-murder)… if we stopped all the brutality and wrongful arrests, the savings would really add up! Oh, and think how much less we’ll eventually have to pay out to Keith Davis, Jr., another wrongfully convicted man, if we free him now, versus waiting longer?
Cultural Events of the Week: It’s officially The Holidays, and that means that our arts & crafts friends are out there tryna get us to Shop Local. Don’t miss the Small Business Saturday events this week offering drinks, reusable bag giveaways, and other enticements. There’s a pop-up shop at The Alchemy of Art on Eastern Ave. featuring all queer and women creators (https://www.facebook.com/events/729205147580354/), another pop-up at Found Studio on Harford Road (https://www.facebook.com/events/1006895912998309/), a multi-level art crawl at the Mill Centre Artist Studios in Hampden (https://www.facebook.com/events/526433814846742/), and Highlandtown Main Street is doing a “walking pastry tour” (https://www.facebook.com/events/3098303563577335/).
Environmental Event of the Week: This Tuesday, 11/26, AIA Baltimore (the local chapter of the American Institute of Architecture) is holding an info session on “The Climate Take Back Plan and Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Buildings.” Experts will share research and a plan for reversing global climate change, focusing on how to cut down on carbon emissions in building construction and operation.
Song of the Week: “Hello Young World” by Fashawn
No thoughts of failure your future is clear / The young world is now before you / Because the old world oh it couldn’t hold you / You can tell others to sit back and watch it all unfold / See young world you must be patient and ready / And it’s essential to keep on believing in you