Friday, April 12, 2019

What I Learned From The Senator Kamala Harris Teacher’s Roundtable by Phil Sorensen

Last week I was contacted by the state teacher’s association president.  Being a full time teacher and a local association president, I was invited to a teacher’s roundtable Q & A with Senator Kamala Harris. I confirmed that I would attend and began imagining what this experience would be like.

I have only attended two presidential candidate rallies ever, one 30 years ago (Jesse Jackson) and one less than two weeks ago (Bernie Sanders).  I have never attended a candidate town hall or roundtable. I was excited for this new experience, but I was also well aware that I needed to be prepared to interact.

After posting about the invitation online, my good friends reminded me that the Network for Public Education has questions for candidates and candidate ranking resources on their website.  This came as a relief because I was struggling to develop thoughtful questions to ask Senator Harris.

I printed NPE’s  “Questions to Ask the Candidates” and went about selecting questions that I felt were relevant to teachers in Nevada, where I work. After reviewing the resources on the NPE website I discovered that Senator Harris had no ranking in the area of high stakes testing. With this knowledge, I selected two questions concerning testing:  

          1. Do you believe that teachers should be evaluated by student test scores?
          2. Do you believe that student test scores should be used to determine teacher salaries?

After picking my priority questions, I went through the list and selected a few others. I really didn’t know how many questions I would be able to ask or anything else about the format of the session.  I felt prepared and comfortable, though, because the issues surrounding high stakes testing are what got me into educational activism in the first place.

The day of the event arrived on Tuesday, April 2nd and I hurried to leave my school to drive to the event which was 30 minutes and a mountain pass away.  Upon arriving at the location shared with me I learned that the event was at a different school. I rushed to get to the correct place, stressing about being late. I hastily parked my truck and hurried inside, not realizing that I had left my phone behind.

As I entered the school I was directed to join the other 20 or so invitees in a classroom to wait until it was time for the roundtable discussion to start.  While we waited Senator Harris held a brief press conference that was filmed and distributed by Sinclair Broadcasting Group. When that was finished, we were invited into the school library.  By this time I had realized that I had no phone to take pictures or record with, so I pulled out my hard copy of questions and got ready to take some notes.

Senator Harris entered the room, introductions were given, and the Senator gave a stump speech highlighting her plan to increase teacher pay.  Then the questions began. The first two questions asked revealed how the Q & A was going to work. The question would be asked, followed by a response that quickly veered from the question and circled back to her teacher pay plan.  There would be no follow up question unless the next person called on asked for clarification.

Now it was my turn.  I asked about tying student test scores to teacher evaluations and teacher pay.  The response I got was about a minute long and boiled down to “we can’t get to that conversation until teachers get the resources they need … it’s myopic … it’s not a fair question … it’s actually quite simplistic.”  She dodged my question.

See the response here:

As I listened to the Senator’s response, I noticed that she had both a tense tone and agitated body language.  Those cues, coupled with her response, made me feel like her pay raise deal had a cost: Test-based accountability and merit pay driven by scores.

Since I wasn’t able to follow up with another question, I was left to ponder how I may have phrased the question differently to get a definitive answer to my questions.  With hindsight being 20/20, I think that I should have payed more attention to her focus, which was her pay raise plan. Perhaps if I had asked, “Do you think it is reasonable to attach test-based accountability and merit pay as a condition to be met for your teacher raise plan?”, I may have received a specific answer to the inquiry.

Besides mine, questions that afternoon included ESP raises, early childhood and public school, supporting teacher unions, and the teacher shortage. It was not a long session, perhaps 45 minutes. The small group atmosphere would have been perfect for an organized group to support each other, following up on one or more questions.  Before the event, an attendee told me that although he thought that Senator Harris was holding this as a PR event, he felt that tough questions were fair game. An organized group could have steered the responses toward more revealing answers.

Because I had left my phone behind, my plan to audio and or video the event had fallen apart.  I did my best to take notes during the event so I could share it in our networks. I had enough information, coupled with an AP article, to post about it that evening.  In the post I mentioned that I was unable to record the event. One of the attendees who I am connected with had captured my question and response on video. So I was able to pass along a much better description of Senator Harris’ answer to my question.

My take away is that presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris does not have a full understanding of issues affecting public education.  I also feel that she hasn’t discounted neoliberal leanings toward using financial compensation as a lever for teachers to accept test-based accountability practices.

In regard to logistics, clear directions to the location, travel timelines that allow for delays, planning for audio/video documentation, and a coordinated group of people supporting common questions are all methods that public education activists can utilize to direct public meetings to provide clearer information about candidate stances on issues.  With the election season only beginning, my hopes in sharing these lessons learned is that collectively we can have many successes in candidate forums.

I hope that this has been informative and an experience for all of us to learn from as we continue our activism in support of public education.

In Solidarity,
Phil Sorensen

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