It Can Get Better Now: Improving the School Climate for LGBT Students

Mar 23, 2012Jessica Morris

classroom 309As part of the 10 Ideas: A Millennial Lesson Plan for Education series, a proposed law that would make schools a safe place to learn for students of all orientations.

classroom 309As part of the 10 Ideas: A Millennial Lesson Plan for Education series, a proposed law that would make schools a safe place to learn for students of all orientations.

Two years ago, Constance McMillen, a lesbian student, was told she couldn't take her girlfriend to her high school's prom and wear a tuxedo. After U.S. District Court Judge Glen H. Davidson ruled that the Itawamba County School District violated the First Amendment at the court hearing, outraged parents organized a secret prom without sending an invitation to Constance. She ended up transferring to another high school. On July 20th, 2010, the school district settled by paying her $35,000 and agreeing to implement a non-discrimination policy that would include sexual orientation.

This story immediately spread like wildfire to the Facebook community, as well as to major news networks including CNN and USA Today. People furiously questioned the level of protection lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students actually have in public schools. Along with the bullying Constance faced from the students, the school board members aggravated homophobic discrimination by keeping her from attending the prom due to her sexual orientation. How could this happen? Currently only 11 states, including DC, protect LGBT youth in public schools. This means that in 39 states, LGBT students are not protected from harassment.

Homophobic harassment, especially from peers, is often present in schools. In a Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study from 2009, 84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed. Over 60 percent of these students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, while 39.9 percent felt unsafe because of their gender expression. A majority, 63.7 percent, reported being verbally harassed, while 27.2 percent reported being physically harassed and 12.5 percent reported being physically assaulted at school because of their gender expression. This is a call for reforming policies in the education system nationally. These students need support.

The It Gets Better project is a collaboration of videos from celebrities, young people, and even politicians, including the president, telling LGBT youth that their lives will get better and that suicide is not the answer. Though these tearful, uplifting videos provide a sense of community and positive messages for LGBT teens, they cannot promise actual protection. A national law prohibiting the discrimination of LGBT teens can fulfill that promise.

Check out the new special issue of The Nation, guest-edited by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act can help assuage homophobic and transphobic harassment in school and forbid schools from discriminating against LGBT students. It was introduced in the 111th Congress in 2010, but was rejected. Now it has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions after being introduced in the Senate by Senator Al Franken and in the House by Representative Jared Polis and cosponsored by 152 members of Congress. It forces federal departments and agencies to curtail any financial assistance for public schools that prevent students from participating in programs because of their sexual preference or gender identity, or those that condone homophobic and transphobic harassment.

In addition to the enforcements this bill would provide, workshops on sensitivity to homophobia should be required for all public school teachers and administrative staff. Through these workshops, teachers and staff members will have the resources to combat homophobic and transphobic behavior in and outside of the classroom. There are already examples of successful programs for these kinds of trainings. The Rochester school district and the New York City Department of Education have a program called "Respect for All," hosted by GLSEN, and the American Civil Liberties Union has "Making Schools Safe." GLSEN's survey reports that the grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students were less often harassed. These developmental trainings, which take place prior to the beginning of the school year, will not only boost morale, but they can lead to higher test scores.

A few days ago, I read an article on the Huffington Post introducing a program called "Stories Project: NOW" from GLSEN Greater Cincinnati. It focuses on ensuring the safety of LGBT students by offering training to create a better climate in their schools. A teacher in the video critiqued a staff member for being unsupportive and sending ignorant messages to a LGBT student:

"I was recently talking to a student who said, 'When I went to my guidance counselor to talk about why I was being bullied, the guidance counselor repeatedly said, 'well what can you do to change the situation?'' The idea that a student should be changing their behavior because they're being bullied is a problem and that doesn't come from the students, that comes from the adults."

Why should LGBT students wait to have their lives get better? They should be protected from being bullied either from fellow students or staff members now. Policies should be implemented immediately to ensure the safety of our youth and so that the stories of them taking their lives can end.

Jessica Morris is a Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member and a first -year student at Mount Holyoke College. She majors in politics and minors in law and public policy.

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Using Work-Study to Help Students Who Need Guidance

Mar 22, 2012Angela Choi

classroom 309As part of the 10 Ideas: A Millennial Lesson Plan for Education series, a proposal that would reward student mentors and help more young Americans prepare for college

classroom 309As part of the 10 Ideas: A Millennial Lesson Plan for Education series, a proposal that would reward student mentors and help more young Americans prepare for college.

According to the Board of Regents, only 23 percent of high school students in New York City graduated ready for college or careers in 2009, and Rachel Cromidas of Gotham Schools reports that only 13 percent of black and Hispanic students were prepared. Through research at various New York City public high schools, our policy team at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network (including Maryam Aleem, Oronde Tennant, Yahanna Jenkins, Silvia Durango, and myself) found that there are far too few college preparedness programs available to meet the needs of students.

To cite a personal example, I did not meet with my guidance counselor until my senior year at Bayside High School in Queens. I had an extremely difficult time applying to colleges because my guidance counselor was seldom available to assist me due to the copious amounts of students scheduled to see her. When I finally met with her, our meeting was rushed because she had to meet with so many other students after me. If it were not for my parents assisting me with my college applications, I would have never completed them.

I was lucky to have parents who were able to devote attention to my education. Unfortunately, there are many students who are not so lucky. Some of these students come from low-income communities or first generation families in which parents work two or three jobs and do not have the time to provide necessary assistance. The predominantly African American and Hispanic students who come from these communities struggle to close the achievement gap due to wide disparities in educational resources. Additionally, the city's public high school students tend to be less advantaged than the average private school student and do not have the specialized attention and support needed to apply to colleges and prepare for career readiness.

Having experienced these problems firsthand, our policy team wanted to make guidance more accessible to students applying to college and bring awareness to the achievement gap in private and public high schools in New York City. In order to do this, we have proposed a program that would allow college students to obtain work-study credit for mentoring high school students.

In an effort to gain further insight into the achievement gap and the necessity for further support, our policy team interviewed Gerry Menegatos, who is both an assistant principal and guidance counselor at A. Philip Randolph High School near the City College campus. Our research revealed that there was only one college guidance counselor for 500 seniors, which exceeds the 250 students-to-one guidance counselor minimum ratio established by the National School Counseling Association.

According to Menegatos, students have to wait up to two weeks to see a guidance counselor because of his heavy caseload. Imagine if you were a first generation student or a black or Hispanic student in need of some direction for applying to college or scholarship opportunities and found that help impossible to obtain. Not only do students have an extended wait time, but the average guidance counselor only provides 38 minutes of college advisement per student per year, according to a Department of Education study. A lower student-to-counselor ratio that reduces the case load of counselors could result in more students from New York City public schools going on to two- and four-year colleges.

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There are several college mentorship programs throughout New York City, such as the Student Success Center and Latino Youth for Higher Education, which provide mentorship services to high school students. However, in most cases, mentors do not receive financial support for participating in these programs despite the fact that mentorship is a cost-effective tool that could provide professional development and personal growth for students. This was the purpose behind the creation of Federal Work-Study, a federally funded program that assists college students who work part-time at college campuses to develop career readiness skills.

College students possess valuable knowledge that they can pass on to high school seniors and juniors when applying to colleges, so recruiting them to serve as mentors could be an effective way of raising the number of college- and career-ready students in the United States. Furthermore, mentoring programs can empower students to serve their communities and reduce the work of over-stretched counselors. Therefore, we propose that colleges in New York City partner with low-performing high schools and organizations like National College Advising Corp to establish mentorship programs.

According to a study in Mentoring & Tutoring Journal, "at the end of the one-year mentoring experience, mentored students had a higher GPA, completed more units, and had a higher retention rate." Since Federal Work-Study delivers over "$1 billion in funds to nearly 700,000 students each year," according to an article by Thomas Bailey, "Strategies for Increasing Student Success," Federal Work-Study can utilize this fund to create an effective mentorship program. Students who receive work-study funds would be encouraged to apply to important leadership roles, as opposed to the usual, mundane administrative jobs they are often required to perform under work-study.

College mentors would be required to commit one year to high school students. Training would be mandatory to ensure mentor proficiency. Qualified mentors would receive work-study funds and applicants who do not pass the initial training session would receive school credit for training and mentorship. High school juniors and seniors who participated in the mentorship program could also become mentors to sophomores and freshmen and receive community service credit for school as well as recognition when applying to college. Additionally, all mentors would receive the personal benefit that comes from giving back and providing solutions to the disparities that exist in the U.S. educational system.

We have already convinced the City College of New York to partner with a low-performing high school nearby to create a pilot for this proposed mentorship program. College students will be allowed to receive work-study funds for mentoring high school students throughout the college application process. Ultimately, we hope to expand this program throughout New York City.

Angela Choi is a Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member and a student at City College of New York, where she studies political science and public policy.

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Bridging the Divide Between School Reformers and Teachers

Mar 21, 2012Seth Taylor

<br />As part of the 10 Ideas: A Millennial Lesson for Education series, a call to improve evaluations so that they better reflect teachers' skills while holding them accountable.

<br />As part of the 10 Ideas: A Millennial Lesson for Education series, a call to improve evaluations so that they better reflect teachers' skills while holding them accountable.

If you were asked to choose the teacher that had the biggest impact on you, how would you make your decision? Would you base it on his engaging teaching methods, the academic improvement you made under his tutelage, or the positive atmosphere of learning he created in the classroom every day? Education policymakers around the country are trying to tackle a similar question: How should we evaluate and compensate teachers fairly?

When it comes to evaluating teachers, America's educators have tended to focus on the inputs involved in the education process. These inputs include teacher education level, teacher experience, and the size of the classroom, among other things. Although an emphasis on inputs makes sense intuitively, recent studies (such as the above) have shown that they actually don't bear strong correlations with student achievement. There are some nuances to this, such as the significant improvement in teacher quality in the first several years of teaching experience. But these studies as a whole have shown what some people might know intuitively: just because a teacher has a master's degree and experience does not mean that she will be good at her job. This fact has led many researchers and policymakers to argue that teacher compensation should instead be at least partly outcome-based, or based on student achievement.

In fact, even in an increasingly polarized political realm, many policymakers on both sides of the aisle seem to agree that outcome-based methods of teacher evaluation should be an important component of teacher evaluations. The specific mechanism that many policymakers have chosen to use as the basis is the value-added model of measuring student achievement. These models use standardized testing to assess students' baseline level of knowledge. They are then able to calculate the value added to student achievement scores by teachers after controlling for variables such as socioeconomic status and race.

On the surface, the incorporation of these value-added measures into teacher evaluations (alongside principal evaluations, portfolio reviews, and more) seems ideal. After all, these value-added models ostensibly allow school districts to sort teachers based on effectiveness, reward the good teachers, and develop or replace the ineffective teachers.

Buy a copy of The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, featuring a chapter by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler.

In reality, however, value-added models are not categorically beneficial and should be incorporated with caution. The key reason that value-added models can be ineffective is that their standard errors can be worryingly high due to the low sample size involved. In fact, in discussing the instability of the distribution of students' test scores over the course of several grades, researchers at the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote, "the bottom line is that there is substantial inconsistency across grades, years, and cohorts in the means and standard deviations of Wisconsin test scores." For this reason, policymakers who employ value-added models should exercise an awareness of the potential problems involved and proceed with corresponding caution.

In addition to the currently excessive focus on the inputs of education, teacher evaluations (involving qualitative assessments by school principals) are also often flawed. In Georgia public schools, for instance, less than 1 percent of teachers are rated as performing their jobs in an unsatisfactory manner, although the true figure of unsatisfactory teachers who ought to be developed or replaced is significantly higher. Principal evaluations may be flawed because they have personal connections with the teachers, because they have no control over the teacher's salary or assignment, or because they are afraid of a potential lawsuit in the event that they do fire a teacher. In any case, principals appear unwilling to give teachers accurate qualitative evaluations, and this inhibits the school system's ability to deal with teachers effectively.

To solve this problem of poor qualitative evaluations by principals, I have suggested that the Georgia General Assembly use a portion of its allotted Race to the Top grant funding to create an independent body of teacher evaluators to provide unbiased qualitative assessments of teachers. This body of evaluators would be part of the Georgia Department of Education, and it would begin as a small pilot group to evaluate teachers using established principles of high quality teaching. The evaluators' methods would involve classroom observation, informal student interviews, and possibly more. The evaluators themselves would ideally be former teachers with many years of experience and who demonstrate high teaching ability. Each evaluator would only assess and provide comprehensive feedback to teachers in his or her area of expertise; former music teachers would evaluate music teachers, former middle school science teachers would evaluate middle school science teachers, and so on. Importantly, the body of evaluators would also have the funds and wherewithal to deal with potential lawsuits brought by teachers who are fired or replaced.

By incorporating the assessments of this independent body of evaluators into each teacher's assessment, Georgia public schools will be able to make more informed decisions regarding the compensation and development of teachers. This policy could also act as a middle road between the reformers who want to evaluate teachers with value-added models and the educators who feel that their work cannot be described by a standardized test administered to their students. By proceeding cautiously and evaluating teachers fairly, we ensure that our schools' most important resource is utilized properly.

Seth Taylor is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's chapter at the University of Georgia, where he is studying history and political science.

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Reforming the Education System from the Bottom Up

Mar 20, 2012Grayson Cooper

<br />Millennials are committed to providing all children with quality educations by empowering the communities they live in.

<br />Millennials are committed to providing all children with quality educations by empowering the communities they live in.

Though many of us are still in the midst of completing our own educations, Millennials are engaged with education policy and dedicated to ensuring quality through accountability for all. In an era where employment opportunities and the vitality of the nation depend on access to quality education, schools cannot be left to chance, nor can just a few be burdened with the responsibility of high performance. Rather, a diversity of stakeholders must be held accountable for ensuring improvements in educational opportunity and access.

Even with loud calls for educational reform, we've seen few improvements at the federal level. Perhaps the most influential initiative in the past few decades was No Child Left Behind. It introduced accountability based on student performance on standardized tests, with corresponding repercussions for schools including school choice provisions and restructuring models that require actions like firing half the staff or closing the school entirely, even in the face of parent protest.

The Obama administration has released its proposal for reforming No Child Left Behind, but no forward progress has been made on the legislative level. In the interim, the Department of Education offered waivers from performance standards in exchange for enacting prescribed reforms, such as lifting limits on the number of charter schools and instituting teacher evaluations based at least in part on student test scores. This action echoed Race to the Top, a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided money in exchange for reforms. Yet Race to the Top and the waiver program were both criticized for their lack of research justification and adoption of special interest driven ideas.

Equity, in addition to quality, has also come under attack in recent years, with Supreme Court decisions prohibiting race-based desegregation efforts, effectively undoing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. In the process, courts have been stripped of the power to desegregate their schools. Without the protections of the Brown decision, and with local school elections that are increasingly dominated by special interests but garner low voter turnout, there has been a resurgence of segregation in American cities.

Buy a copy of The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, featuring a chapter by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler.

Meanwhile, our education system is threatened by slashed state budgets, requiring teacher layoffs and cuts to programs like guidance counselors and public higher education. Quick action is needed to prevent a deterioration in the quality of education that America currently enjoys while simultaneously building accountability, the impetus to sustain and continuously improve.

The Campus Network has re-defined educational accountability in our 10 ideas for Education, going beyond the simple set of sticks and carrots for teachers and schools to also focus on college students, elected officials, and higher education institutions as driving forces in educational improvement and opportunity. Reflecting our belief that education is a local issue (even with its national implications), most proposed accountability measures are targeted at engaging local stakeholders, rather than federally mandated measures. This year's 10 Ideas for Education represents the thought leadership of our organization on the future of education. This week, on New Deal 2.0 the authors of three of our most forward thinking pieces will offer an inside look at their ideas.

Seth Taylor, a student at the University of Georgia, challenges Georgia lawmakers to look beyond test scores in evaluating teachers. By creating an independent body of teacher evaluators, Seth aims to simultaneously improve teacher quality, meet the requirements of Georgia's Federal Race to the Top Grant, and preserve teaching as a profession.

Angela Choi, a student at CUNY City College, describes a plan to engage college students in work-study outside of the university in a service-learning program that provides mentoring high school students. Her mentoring program leverages federal student aid to increase high school completion and college attendance.

Jessica Morris, a student at Mount Holyoke College, proposes sexual orientation sensitivity workshops for high schools across the country, as well as a national bill to protect LGBT students at school, to make sure that students don't have to wait for their lives to get better. Her suggestions create a comprehensive response to the recent rash of suicides among gay teens.

These state and local solutions sustainably protect the progress of education improvement efforts by reinvesting power at the local level. They target those most affected by educational quality and those most empowered to improve it. Rather than reforming from the top down, an approach dominated by special interests, these students have identified implementable reforms.

Grayson Cooper is the Senior Fellow for Education Policy at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a graduating senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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