Put 350 Los Angeles teachers in one room and the conversation is guaranteed to get heated. It certainly did at Sunday's taping of Education Nation, the four-part NBC news special focused on figuring out how to improve schools in America. Veteran NBC reporter Raheema Ellis moderated, and although she did her best to steer three sets of panelists and the audience toward hot-button ed reform issues—teacher tenure, using test scores to evaluate educators, training students for the jobs of the future, and closing the achievement gap—it was clear that the crowd was fired up about the implications of making long-term policy decisions about those issues at a time when education budgets are being gutted.
Ellis set the tone by sharing dismal statistics about how California has defunded education—$20 billion slashed from schools and 30,000 educators laid off over the past three years. Ninety-six percent of the teachers in the audience said more cuts will have have a "huge" impact on their ability to succeed with their students and will keep America from being globally competitive.
One teacher called for the return of classes that teach high school students tangible career skills, but noted that those classes can't exist without funding. Another teacher broke down in tears when she shared how an innovative program at her school, which had gotten great student achievement results, disappeared after almost all of the teachers who worked on it were laid off. Several educators explained that, since custodial staff has been laid off at their schools, teachers are the ones picking up mops and brooms and cleaning campuses.
When the conversation turned to tenure, the majority of teachers said they're willing to be evaluated by something other than seniority, but school districts don't have the money to spend on multiple-measure, holistic assessments of student progress. And, because of layoffs, older teachers are being pitted against younger teachers for jobs, ending the collaborative spirit that used to exist at schools. Many educators said they're discouraging their own children from becoming teachers, and one panelist shared how college students are shying away from entering teacher preparation programs—classes that used to have waiting lists now have only eight students.
The dismal financial state of American education also infused a debate over charter schools. One audience member angrily noted that billionaire Eli Broad swooped in to save nearly-bankrupt charters in Los Angeles with a multimillion dollar donation—money that's generally not being given to equally cash-strapped regular schools. After the cameras stopped rolling, one teacher began shouting at attendees that she was "ashamed" that the educators in the room had ended the broadcast portion of the program attacking each other. "We are not the problem!" she yelled.
Even though the event ended on a slightly negative note, at least this year the public got to hear first-hand from teachers—you can watch the entire program here—about the challenges they're facing, something that rarely happens and certainly should more often. None of these teachers were making excuses or saying that because of budget cuts they won't work hard to ensure students learn, but it was clear that getting to the goal of all students being college or career ready is so much harder if we don't fully fund education.