Should State Farm’s Good Student Discount Serve as an #EdPolicy Model?

It’s no surprise that teachers and school leaders are “on the hook” for raising student outcomes, vis-à-vis standardized tests. But, what if there was a more effective and reasonable incentive for increasing student outcomes? What if the federal government used State Farm’s Good Student Discount as a model to offer parents and guardians a tax break, when their child performs well on standardized tests? The criteria for qualifying for State Farm’s Good Student Discount includes the following:

All assigned drivers under 25 who are full-time students in high school or at a college or university, and the scholastic records for the immediately preceding school semester show that this student meets at least one of the following:

  • Ranked scholastically in the upper 20% of his or her class
  • Had a grade average of B or higher
  • Had a grade point average of 3.0 (out of 4.0) or higher
  • Made the Dean’s List or Honor Roll

Why should State Farm’s Good Student Discount serve as a model for the federal government and the education policy domain? Well, because research is quite clear that a student’s performance on standardized tests is strongly correlated to out-of-school reading habits. In other words, reading for fun, daily, matters a great deal! So much so, education policy experts and wonks should consider adopting a similar “good student discount” for parents and guardians of school-aged children. Specifically, one that encourages reading at home, as a daily routine.

Research shows that “students who read for fun nearly every day performed better on reading tests than those who reported reading never or hardly at all.” Researchers compiled data from twenty-seven countries and found that “the presence of book-lined shelves in the home — and the intellectual environment those volumes reflect — gives children an enormous advantage in school.” Why would this be? Well, according to research, the “amount of free reading done outside of school has consistently been found to relate to growth in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information.” Furthermore, students who “read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not.” According to this study, “reading for pleasure was linked to greater intellectual progress, both in vocabulary, spelling and mathematics. In fact, the impact was around four times greater than that of having a parent with a post-secondary degree.”

Of all the shiniest school-based reading programs and strategies, researchers found that “home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status and other family background characteristics.” Yes, size does matter! According to the same report, “growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books.” The good news for parents and guardians is that “mom and dad don’t have to be scholars themselves; they just have to read and respect books, and pass that love of reading down to their children.” Which is why I’m arguing for a similar incentives model within education policy, as well. When parents and guardians pass down a love of reading to their children, and, subsequently, their children perform well on standardized exams, i.e. they meet or exceed their respective grade-level benchmarks and milestones, then perhaps these parents and guardians do deserve a tax break or discount too.

A School’s Budget Matters

The purpose of this open letter is to strongly advocate for budget assistance for Jefferson MS Academy’s 2017-2018 school year. As a Jefferson teacher, I can verify that the entire Jefferson Academy community is extremely hard-working and talented. In fact, Jefferson MS Academy is often described as one of the fastest improving schools in the District of Columbia.

But, you don’t have to take my word for it. Even the new DC Public Schools’ Chancellor recognizes Jefferson’s great work. Following his recent visit, Chancellor Antwan Wilson said the “teaching and learning at Jefferson will put our students on a path to college, successful careers, and beyond. I see that. Our teachers see that. Our students see that. Our parents see that.”

While Jefferson’s success is undeniable, that work is being threatened by a budget that simply cannot accommodate the basic needs of our school community. For example, Jefferson’s budget allocation was based on a projected number of enrolled students (277), prior to the start of this school year (2016-2017).  Currently, Jefferson has 30 more students than the original enrollment projections (277).  However, more students didn’t equate to more funds, which defies some degree of logic.

Unfortunately, this pattern – do more with less – seems likely to happen again, for the coming school year (2017-2018). In fact, Jefferson’s 2017-2018 budget is nearly identical to last school year’s budget, despite an enrollment projection that is 33 students higher than the original projection of 277.  The current budget will result in a reduction of $1600 per pupil spending as compared to the FY17 budget. If Jefferson wanted to simply maintain its current staffing model, then they would have a deficit of nearly $300,000 to start the coming school year.

Without assistance of approximately $300,000, Jefferson will be forced to cut several teaching positions, all of which are essential to the quality of the academic program and compliance with legal and district mandates. For example, this budget shortfall would put Jefferson out of compliance with IDEA, the D.C. Healthy Schools Acts, the Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) contract, and several other district mandates. Positions that will be cut without budget assistance include:

  • A special education teacher: With a special education population of 25% and a self-contained Specific Learning Disability (SLD) program that services students from around the district, the loss of a special education teacher would be devastating. Jefferson would be incapable of servicing the Individualized Education Program (IEP) hours of countless students and providing the consistent support that ensures their academic success.
  • A Reading Intervention teacher: Nearly two-thirds of Jefferson students enter 6th grade below grade level in Reading. Jefferson’s Reading Intervention teacher supports approximately 100 students each year, and these students consistently make multiple grade levels of growth on the Reading Inventory (RI) assessment. This cut would eliminate Reading Intervention as an option for nearly all of Jefferson’s students.
  • A PE/Health teacher: This cut would put Jefferson out of compliance with the D.C. Healthy Schools Act. In order to provide required PE hours for 310 students, Jefferson must have two PE/Health teachers. This cut would also increase class sizes of other elective courses to 35-40 students.
  • A STEM teacher: A hallmark of Jefferson’s academic program – and a major recruiting tool – is its commitment to Advanced and enrichment courses. Our STEM teacher provides a course in robotics and design for hundreds of students each year. This cut would also increase class sizes of other elective courses to 35-40 students.

As a middle school on the rise, Jefferson and its students deserve the resources and staff to maintain the quality of its program. To be clear, Jefferson MS isn’t for anything extra; it’s simply asking to maintain current staffing and non-personnel allocations as enrollment increases and Jefferson’s success grows. The Jefferson Academy community requests and deserves the support of DC Public Schools, the D.C. City Council, and the Mayor’s Office. The district regularly points to Jefferson as a model for schools around the district. It would seem to be in everyone’s best interest – most importantly Jefferson students and families – to help Jefferson maintain the quality of its rich, rigorous academic program.

Experience Matters

The new Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, is receiving quite a bit of slack for this recent interview. Although the interview covers a variety of education-related topics, I want to focus solely on the question and answer regarding her visit to Jefferson Academy Middle School, in Washington, D.C. Full disclosure, I have the privilege of working at this school and alongside a talented group of school leaders and teachers. Now, as much as I can take offense to her unfounded critiques of my colleagues, I rather focus my attention on the question and response, itself, through the lens of a five-year, public middle school teacher.

Before I analyze her response, I want to first evaluate and unpack the interviewer’s question.

Question: “There have been many programs to improve public education through Democrat and Republican administrations. And yet American students continue to lag behind in areas like math and science. Why haven’t those programs worked? What has been the missing piece in these noble and sometimes very expensive efforts?”

This question is dependent on the following assumption: there is a single missing piece or simple solution to “fix” the American public education system. Unfortunately, the interviewer is not the only person who suffers from this logical fallacy. In my professional opinion, both political parties fall victim to the silver bullet narrative in education reform. For liberal leaning education reformers, this assumption is often promoted by the “teacher as savior or superhero” narrative, where we (wrongly) celebrate the teacher who works 100 hours a week or until they “burn out” and leave the profession, altogether.

For conservative leaning education reformers, this fallacy is used to promote the idea and policy of school vouchers and/or school choice. Even though this policy makes for great campaign rhetoric and talking points, school vouchers and/or choice, albeit a parent’s right, is not a strategy for “improving” public education. Think of this policy “solution” as more of an “out,” than a evidenced-based approach to improving a “failing” public school. In fact, this approach feeds off the following narrative: if a school is failing then it must be due to bad leaders, teachers, unions, etc. This rationale is either too disconnected from reality or too simplistic in scope…or a combination of both.

But, this is a discussion for another day.

For now, let’s turn our attention to the Secretary’s response.

Response: “Because top-down solutions never work in anything. I think the more states and locales are empowered to innovate and create and are unencumbered by unnecessary regulations and sort of beaten into a compliance mentality vs. a can-do and results oriented mentality …(the more what?) It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that any type of top-down solution, no matter where you try to employ it in government, it’s not successful. This department just invested $7 billion trying to improve failing schools and there were literally no results to show for it. I need to stress that I could not be more supportive of great teachers and great teaching, no matter what kind of delivery vehicle they are teaching through. We have to support great teachers. They just have to be freed-up to do what they do best. I think in many cases they are limited by the top-down, one size fits all approaches, either at the school level, the district level, the state level, or in all too many cases, the federal decree.”

Believe it or not, I agree with the Secretary’s opening statement, i.e. top-down solutions can be counter-productive. As an experienced classroom teacher, I’m all-too-familiar with how often last school year’s “hottest” district-wide initiative is replaced by this school year’s “shiniest” one.

That said, I’m not sure what the Secretary means when she says teachers “have to be freed-up to do what they do best?” In my opinion, this statement needs more unpacking. Does it mean we should do away with teacher and/or school accountability? It’s important to note that school and teacher accountability, in principle, is welcomed by school leaders and teachers. The “accountability” debate isn’t a matter of semantics, but an issue of implementation. That distinction is missing in the Secretary’s response, and is critical to understanding the current education reform (national) debate/discourse surrounding school and teacher accountability systems.

For example, teacher accountability is generally welcomed by school leaders and teachers so long as it’s reasonable and holistic, in design and implementation, and not heavily-based on standardized tests results. As far as I’m concerned, neither political party holds a monopoly on how to “fix” our public schools or create a fair school and teacher accountability system. In my professional opinion, what needs “freeing up” is education policy from the political/campaign arena – a sort of separation between campaign season and everyday classrooms, if you will.

But, I digress. Let’s return to the Secretary’s response…

“I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”

I’m not sure how the Secretary can draw this level of analysis based on a brief conversation with a select number of teachers. For me, this represents an example of searching for “evidence” to confirm one’s original bias. As a teacher at Jefferson Academy Middle School, I can attest that we have some of the most dedicated and talented leaders, teachers, and support personnel on planet Earth, let alone within the U.S. Sure, one can view our standardized test-based “numbers” and, illogically, infer that the we – as a community of educators – are not holding our weight. But, if you solely depend on this data point to base your evaluation, then your approach and analysis is flawed from the start.

Although I’m sure the new Secretary of Education means well, her narrative – or her view of public schools – is severely flawed and simplistic, at least as evidence by this response. However, I’m not surprised that the new Secretary of Education demonstrates a disconnect from the realities “in the classroom.” And, to be fair, Betsy Devos is not an exception to the rule. In fact, since 1980, there have been four of twelve Secretaries of Education that have experience as a school leader or classroom teacher. With such a dismal track record for selecting experienced leaders, why do we expect anything more from this new Secretary of Education? Ladies and gentlemen, experience matters across all careers and industries. If we want an effective Secretary of Education then we must insist that experience, and not political contributions or connections or abstract buzzwords, matters most for this post. Anything else will produce the same mediocre results and disconnected narratives. We can and must do better!

It’s Time to Get Real About Education

Teachers and school leaders are tired of being scapegoats for political ambitions and campaign talking points. We’re tired of photo ops and symbolic gestures.

It’s time we get real about education.

It’s time we recognize that concentrated poverty has adverse effects on student well-being and learning. Education reform leaders and politicians must develop a more comprehensive plan to address certain issues, such as the lack of healthy food choices in poor neighborhoods or business/job opportunities.

It’s time we recognize that the school-to-prison pipeline is really a neighborhood-to-prison pipeline. Education reform leaders and politicians must address government housing policies and policing policies.

It’s time we recognize that school leaders and teachers are not scapegoats but are the very people who sacrifice their own lives to help improve the lives of students, on a daily basis. Education reform leaders and politicians must move beyond repeating the “bad teacher” or “bad school” narrative and more towards a posture of listening more and blaming less.

It’s time we recognize that top-down bureaucratic policies tend to stifle innovation and creativity, and not foster or cultivate it. Education reform leaders and politicians must shift their focus away from “serving” as resource or content creators/curators to resource distributors based on actual bottom-up – or dare I say differentiated – demands.

It’s time to recognize that school choice and vouchers are not an actual strategy to improve neighborhood public schools. Education reform leaders and politicians must be accountable for designing policies that are developmentally appropriate and scientifically sound.

It’s time to get real about education. It’s time to have a serious conversation about the state of our neighborhoods. If the current education reform leaders and politicians cannot do so, then it’s time for them to change or leave the business of educating our students to the real experts, on the ground.

2016: Teacher Appreciation Year?

Last week, I visited my former school, colleagues and students. Although I anticipated an enjoyable reunion, the visit proved worthwhile, to say the least.

As soon as I walked through the front door, I was quickly greeted by former colleagues, ranging from administrators to security guards. The main reason for this camaraderie is easy for educators to understand. However, for those who have never worked within a school building, the school year, inherently, nurtures a sense of community between most, if-not-all, educators. I’d even argue that this educator camaraderie is necessary. Needless to say, I expected to exchange hugs, smiles and stories with my former colleagues, and, to a large degree, I also expected a similar outcome when I ran into my former students.

To my delight, my kiddos did not disappoint.

Although I planned to spend time with my former students, during their lunch period, a few students “caught wind” that I was in the building. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy seeing my kiddos press their faces against the classroom door window while trying, in vain, to open a locked door so they can say hello. Or, being greeted by a mob of kiddos, during their recess period, on the outdoor basketball court. Both scenes, and others, are now permanently stored in my memory bank, FOREVER!

After my visit, and during my walk home, I learned a valuable lesson: Regardless of the current education reform dialogue, both in terms of policy and politics, teachers do, in fact, make an enormous difference in all of their students’ lives.


Well, it comes down to simple mathematics.

For teachers, 180+ school days is more than enough time to make a meaningful impact in their students’ lives, which is precisely what all talented teachers do best. For 180+ school days, these teachers wake up, even before the sun “rises,” determined to “make a difference”. For 180+ school days, these teachers often sacrifice their personal lives for the lives of their students. For 180+ school days, these teachers are your child’s/children’s parent, away from home.

Put simply, all talented teachers deserve more than a token celebration, such as “Teacher Appreciation Week.” They deserve more than a lack of professional trust. They deserve more than a “seat at the table.” They all deserve a teacher appreciation culture and mindset, within the education reform landscape, throughout the year.

So, as we approach a new year, I kindly ask you to add one more item to your 2016 New Year’s Resolution(s) list: Appreciate your child’s/children’s teacher(s) throughout the year.