Luis moved to the U.S. from Mexico with his family when he was two years old. His parents speak limited English and he spoke only Spanish when he entered kindergarten four years ago. Though Luis’s English is rapidly improving, his proficiency is still limited and he requires additional support in the classroom. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that Luis’s school district provide services to overcome his language barrier and participate in district-provided educational programs. Luis has been receiving pullout services provided by an English Language Learners (ELL) teacher. Ms. Jones also supports Luis’s oral and written language development in her classroom through differentiated instruction. Over 10% of public school students in the U.S. are considered English Language Learners. Learn more about policies affecting ELL students here.
Neeta has a learning disability that causes her to process information differently than her peers. Neeta’s condition qualifies her for a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law guarantees students with special needs access to an education that integrates them into general education classrooms to the maximum extent possible so they have access to the same learning opportunities as their peers. Neeta was recently transferred into Ms. Jones’ classroom from a contained special education classroom. Ms. Jones is working with the special education teacher and Neeta’s guardian to implement her Individualized Education Plan to ensure that she is successful in her new classroom. Learn more about special education here.
Joe’s family cannot always afford to provide their children a healthy and nutritious meal. Since his family’s income falls below 130% of the federal poverty line, Joe is eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch at school through the federally funded National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs. School districts coordinate with local school food companies and receive cash subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal that they serve. In return, their meals must meet specific nutritional guidelines. The USDA also subsidizes milk and snacks for afterschool programs. Because Joe is able to have breakfast each morning, he is better able to engage in class. Learn more about federal child nutrition programs here.
Kelly lives with her mother and three siblings in a small apartment in a housing project far from school. Because of the time it takes for her to get to school in the morning, she often comes to school too tired to participate in class. She also rarely completes her homework because her mother works night shifts and Kelly is responsible for feeding and putting her siblings to bed. LEE School offers wraparound services such as afterschool tutoring and family support case management, though these limited supports may not adequately address the effects of poverty on students like Kelly every day. LEE School has received funds to become a full-service community school so that it can offer more integrated social and health services to students like Kelly. Learn more about community schools here.
Each day, Mr. Franklin ensures that his lesson matches a learning objective that is linked to his state’s standards. Learning standards are determined by each state (generally, through an agency like the Department or Board of Education) and shape the curriculum that a teacher addresses in the classroom. Student mastery of these standards is measured by standardized tests. Many states have recently adopted the Common Core State Standards, a set of annual, academic learning standards in reading and math that define the knowledge and skills students should attain to be college- and career- ready. Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Education encouraged states to adopt rigorous standards through its Race to the Top grant program and, more recently, Congress’s adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to adopt challenging state academic standards.
Every May, students in Mr. Franklin’s math class take a standardized state assessment to determine their proficiency in state standards. These tests were initially required by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which aimed to improve educational outcomes by holding states more accountable for increasing student performance. NCLB required states to assess students and disaggregate the results to show the performance of minority groups. Schools with groups of students who were not proficient faced consequences, which raised the stakes for administrators and teachers. Under the Obama Administration, many states were granted waivers to some aspects of NCLB’s requirements. In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces NCLB, but gave more control back to states and local school districts while maintaining the annual assessment requirements of NCLB.
Mr. Franklin was recruited to his school district due to his background and interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Research demonstrates that U.S. students are behind students in other industrialized countries in their knowledge of STEM content, which has raised concerns that they might not have the knowledge and skills to remain global technological leaders. Nationally, there is a shortage of qualified STEM teachers, despite a federal effort to improve STEM education and ensure that students in the U.S. are graduating from high school with the skills necessary for 21st century careers and college requirements. The Next Generation Science Standards were developed to provide a rigorous model of science education in the U.S. Learn more about STEM education policies here.
Once a month, Ms. Smith observes Ms. Lee’s classroom and then stays to debrief her strengths and areas of improvement. Typically, the availability of professional development opportunities like having a mentor teacher is determined by school districts and school administrators. Teacher professional development can be job-embedded, such as collaborative planning time or classroom observations, or it can exist as stand-alone trainings. States often require teachers to complete a pre-determined amount of professional development for licensure; however, they do not dictate the content. The U.S. Department of Education allocates funding for state and district level programs to improve teacher quality. Some states have also begun to adopt career ladders for teachers, which provide opportunities to develop teacher leadership through increased responsibility.
For teachers in unionized school districts, teacher compensation is determined by a contract that is negotiated by the teachers union and the district. Traditionally, teacher compensation has been based on experience, academic credentials and time spent in the specific district. Recently, some districts have developed pay-for-performance compensation models to recognize highly effective teachers. Such models may include factors like student performance on standardized tests, classroom observations, or adoption of leadership roles. Learn more about factors that contribute to teacher compensation here.
Today, Ms. Smith will begin the process for Ms. Lee’s end-of-year evaluation. Like compensation, the union-district contract details the way teachers are evaluated. Teachers may be evaluated on planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities. Evaluations are generally conducted by administrators or trained assessors who observe teachers in their classrooms, conduct room environment checks, and maintain records of teacher responsibilities. Recently, many states have changed how they evaluate teachers to take into account data on student performance, as demonstrated on standardized tests, classroom observations, and/or student feedback. There has also been increased focus on improving principal evaluations. Learn more about educator evaluations here.
Mr. Roberts’ students began kindergarten with a wide range of skills; some could read while others did not know the alphabet. Preschool and prekindergarten programs aim to expose students to basic skills they need to be successful in kindergarten, which is particularly important for children who haven’t had as much exposure to vocabulary through reading and conversation at home. Public prekindergarten is not guaranteed, though the U.S. Department of Education has identified it as important for achieving educational equity. Head Start is a federal program designed to provide early childhood education for children living in poverty. Learn more about early childhood education here.
As Mr. Roberts’ students are learning on the carpet, a parent volunteer is preparing materials for the next part of the lesson. Mr. Roberts frequently invites parents into his classroom to ensure that they are engaged in their child’s learning, which is particularly important at a young age. For parents who aren’t able to volunteer, he sends regular updates home and schedules home visits. Many schools have programs to encourage families to become more involved in the school community. Learn more about family and community engagement in public schools here.
According to research, the return on investment of providing early childhood education may range from $4 to $7 for every $1 spent; this outcome may be particularly significant for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the return on investment is contingent on having a high-quality program. While approaches to early childhood education can vary, some evidence-based quality factors include the existence of highly qualified, certificated teachers, the use of a rigorous curriculum that integrates social-emotional learning, and student participation in classrooms with a low pupil-to-teacher ratio. Every state has different requirements of early childhood programs; the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offers a list of states with the highest standards.
Ideally, Ms. Rivera would like her students to complete a math worksheet for their “Do Now,” but the school ran out of copier paper this morning. She will have to buy some of her own paper after school. Since funding for classroom materials comes from school budgets, the availability of materials varies among schools, and many teachers end up spending their own money on classroom materials. Funding for public education comes from a combination of federal, state and local sources. Because districts may allocate funds differently, per pupil spending can significantly vary across schools. Learn more about school funding here.
Ms. Rivera has 32 students in her class, which is five more than last year, so she had to bring extra desks into the classroom to provide all of her students a place to sit. Ongoing reductions in state funding for education, combined with a diversion of many students to charter schools, have led to school closings and reductions in the number of staff in some districts, which increase class sizes. While research supports the link between smaller class size and increased student achievement up to third grade, there is mixed evidence of a relationship in higher grades. As a result, the topic is a subject of intense debate. However, the leading teachers unions have advocated for class size caps.
When students misbehave, Ms. Rivera disciplines them in an age-appropriate manner that will help them develop social skills necessary to succeed in school. Her district recently changed their code of conduct to ban suspension of students in preschool and kindergarten, based on guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. However, this guidance was not mandated and, therefore, many public schools still implement zero tolerance policies and suspend students at high rates, which critics believe contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This term describes the trend of school discipline policies which have disproportionately affected certain student populations and contributed to their involvement in the justice system. By devoting more resources to improving the school climate and adjusting discipline practices, this trend may be halted. Learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline here.
Unions have played a significant role in the history of the teaching profession. Teachers unions were created to protect against unfair labor practices, poor working conditions, and many other issues that made it difficult to teach effectively. Today, the primary role of the teachers union is to set the terms of teachers’ contract with the school district, which includes salaries, employment benefits, school calendars, disciplinary policies, and more. The process of negotiating the terms of their contract is called collective bargaining. Learn more about the two largest teachers unions by visiting the AFT and NEA websites.
Today, Kevin is talking to the teachers about a proposed revision to the layoff clause in their new contract. Layoffs occur when a school or district faces budget cuts, a decline in enrollment, or another reason for reduction in staff. Most public school districts follow a “seniority-based” layoff system, which means that the newest teachers in the building are the first to be laid off without considering job performance; this policy is commonly referred to as “last-in-first-out” (LIFO). LIFO has historically been a contentious aspect of union/district relations. Proponents of LIFO believe it protects teachers and argue that seniority is a reliable indicator of performance, while opponents seek to base layoffs on performance-related factors, rather than seniority.
Tenure is a set of rules that protect teachers who have taught for a certain number of years from being terminated without significant cause. After receiving tenure, teachers can only be terminated through a multi-step administrative process. The high cost and effort associated with terminating a tenured teacher means that only those who have committed serious misconduct violations are let go. In recent years, some states have tried to raise the bar for receiving tenure or eliminate it altogether. Learn more about teacher tenure in your state here.
As public employees, teachers are eligible for a pension, which provides them with retirement funds as part of their compensation. Public school teachers typically participate in a defined-benefit pension plan, which guarantees a predetermined retirement benefit based on the employee’s earnings history, years of service, and age. This type of plan differs from a defined-contribution plan, which most private sector workers participate in today. Because pension costs are rising and state budgets are tight, many states are now struggling to honor their pension obligations as well as make critical long-term investments in education and other social services and ensure state solvency. Learn about some of the issues surrounding teacher pensions here.
All of the seniors graduating today have completed the requirements to receive their high school diploma. Graduation requirements, which aim to prepare students for college and the workforce, are determined by state Departments of Education. In recent years, some states have enforced more stringent graduation requirements, including aligning exit requirements to college admission standards, increasing the number of math and science courses required to graduate, and administering standardized tests to all seniors across the state. Learn more about college and career readiness here.
After graduation, John is headed to community college to pursue an associate’s degree in automotive technology. In his junior year, John began participating in a vocational program, coordinated by the LEE School, which allowed him to take classes at the local automotive mechanics school for academic credit. John is now on a career pathway that suits his interests and will give him the opportunity to earn a living wage. Vocational programs, which include federally-funded programs implemented by states as well as locally-funded partnerships, offer students the chance to pursue career and technical education opportunities. Learn more about career and technical education here.
Jasmine is not graduating with her classmates today. Over the past several years, Jasmine has become less engaged with school, failed multiple classes, and maintained a poor attendance record. Unfortunately, her school did not have in place an effective system to support her. Despite a few invested teachers who tried to intervene along the way, Jasmine ended up dropping out last year. Learn more about evidence-based strategies to reduce school dropout rates here.
Although Katarina is graduating from high school today, she is not immediately continuing on to college. Her parents moved to the U.S. without documentation when she was two years old. She is unable to afford the tuition for her state university, and laws in her state do not provide undocumented students access to in-state tuition and federal financial aid. However, several states have passed a version of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which provides undocumented high school graduates who meet certain residency criteria access to in-state tuition and financial aid. Learn more about the DREAM Act here.
Students at LEE School leave at 3:45 p.m. each day. The minimum number of hours that students need to spend in school is set by the state and associated with the funding that districts receive; the time teachers are required to work is typically negotiated between the union and the school district. As long as these requirements are met, districts can establish their own guidelines for the length of their school days and years. Teachers’ contracts have very specific guidelines about how time is allocated across teaching, preparation periods, and breaks. Some districts have implemented extended learning time, either through longer school days or years, as a means to raise student achievement. Other districts have implemented balanced school calendars to combat summer learning loss.
At the end of the day, some students head straight home while others stay for afterschool activities, such as tutoring, sports, theater rehearsals, and arts and crafts. Afterschool programs are an important part of community life, as many students don’t have adult supervision during this time and unsupervised afterschool hours are peak times for juvenile crime and teen drug and alcohol use. Afterschool programs can help structure this free time and enrich students’ academic, physical, and social growth. Furthermore, effective extracurricular programs not only support working families, but also increase students’ attendance, behavior, and engagement during school hours. However, many schools have limited funding for afterschool programs. Some districts partner with local non-profits to help offer afterschool activities. Learn more about afterschool policies in your state here.
Malik walks home from school every day, while his friend Julia takes the bus home. State law requires school districts to provide transportation to all students not within walking distance of a school or in a hazardous area, as determined by the Department of Transportation or the school district. Students with special needs and homeless students are also guaranteed busing to and from school, regardless of how far away they live. Some districts also provide free busing to students in charter schools that lie within their district, and many states require that students who transfer out of a failing school receive busing to their new school regardless of location. Other districts have used busing to strategically desegregate their public schools.
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This resource is intended to provide objective, nonpartisan analysis that is both fair and evidence-based. Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) does not endorse or support specific policies or policy positions. This resource was last updated in January 2016.