Amid Staffing and Mental Health Crises, Teachers Say Test Prep Is Wrong Priority

Six fights brokeout at Lawrence High School, Massachusetts in the middle of October. Police were called and arrested. This was shocking for those who were inside the school, but not surprising.

“The unrest is the students’ way of screaming out, ‘We need help,’” said high school English teacher Kristin Colucci. “Their social and emotional needs are not being met.”

Teachers and students alike have reported feeling the stress and fragility since September’s return to school buildings. Lawrence High is so short of staff that students sometimes show up in a classroom to find no teacher. Bathrooms are locked because staff is not available to supervise what’s happening in the hallways.

This school had 42 teachers left when it opened in the year 2000. As more teachers leave or become overwhelmed due to Covid or stressful, unsustainable conditions, this number has only gotten larger.

Although the district is supposed to have a core of substitutes in each school who are full-time employees, the pay is so low that it cannot attract or keep hires — and the district will not hire per-diem substitutes. Teachers and paraprofessionals must use their preparation time for other classrooms.

Unmet Emotional Needs

Lawrence, 30 minutes north of Boston, is perhaps best-known for the 1912 Breads and Roses strike by immigrants. It is still a city of immigrants, with low wages. 40% of the population was born in the United States and 24% live in poverty.

“Lawrence has always been a district that is undervalued,” said Shaun Steele, a 10th grade English teacher, “but it has reached a breaking point under pandemic conditions. It is no longer tenable.”

Because so many residents are essential workers, Lawrence has had some of the state’s highest Covid numbers. Students stayed home with their siblings for over a year.

The district increased the school day by 45 minutes to compensate for the loss of learning time.

The administration has been unrelenting in its focus on improving student scores on the annual standardized test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) — a marker, according to the state, of how well a school is doing.

“We are about test prep and assessing for test prep — and that means a lot of needs are not being met,” said Lawrence Teachers Union President Kim Barry.

While the administration is focusing on test scores, educators speak of student “dysregulation.” That is, students seem emotionally fragile and are having difficulty managing their anger, sadness, and anxiety. “We cannot pretend this should all be about raising MCAS scores,” said Masha Stine, who teaches math at Lawrence High School.

Teachers say schools should instead be focusing on building community and making sure students feel safe.

National School Crisis

This year, educators face major challenges in the United States due to a shortage of staff, emotional vulnerability, intense stress and safety concerns.

Burbio, a site that tracks data from K-12 schools, says that as of December 1, there have been no incidents. 3,393 schools had been disrupted this year due to mental health concerns, meaning they were temporarily closed for in-person classes because of issues like “teacher burnout” and “stress on students.”

Many of these closures were made around Thanksgiving and Veterans Day. But others — such as in Bedford, Ohio, Fairview, Oregon, Nelson City, Virginia — were cool-down periods on the heels of student fights.

Under State Control

What’s different about Lawrence, though, is that its public schools have been held up by education reformers as a shining example of the success of undermining collective bargaining and taking away local control.

In 2011, Lawrence became the first Massachusetts district to be put in receivership under a law that allows the state to take over districts deemed “chronically underperforming.” The receiver has broad latitude to change the collective bargaining agreement and little obligation to bargain.

Initial test scores were higher, but they have since declined. Under the control of the appointed receiver, Jeff Riley, the teacher retention rate dropped, along with the percentage of “highly qualified teachers” — that is, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and a Massachusetts teaching license who have shown subject matter competency.

These effects have only gotten worse since the pandemic. Steele, a representative of the building industry, claims that more than half of the 60 teachers he represents have only three years of teaching experience.

Riley was praised for improving test scores in Lawrence and was named Massachusetts Commissioner of Education in 2018. The problems behind these scores are now more apparent than ever. “Everything that was a problem before the pandemic has now risen to the top,” says Steele.

Local Control is Required

After the October fighting and arrests, educators and community members organized to demand more staff, counseling, and more input into decision-making.

Teachers were joined by parents, students, and local politicians at a mid-October walk in/walk out (where educators enter the building and leave together at the end of the day). The school committee, which is equivalent to a school board, passed a resolution requesting that the state return control of the local area to the community.

Later that month, students and community members joined teachers in a four-mile march through the city to the superintendent’s office, where they delivered a petition calling for more support. They also demanded to know how the $84 million in federal aid that Lawrence Public Schools received was spent. The superintendent “never showed her face,” Colucci said.

Teachers want to return to their regular workdays, more staffing support, wraparound services for students, families, paraprofessionals, and the hiring substitutes. Students agree with their demands. As ninth-grader Yebriana Castillo told me, “We want more people to be more understanding and trying to help us.”

Working through Fear

Despite the hardships, “it is “an exciting time to be in Lawrence,” Stine said. “There is fear, but I’ve never seen so many people ready to go.”

Still, the teachers I spoke to are not naïve about what it will take to build power. Organization is difficult because of the constant churning staff. “I am organizing alongside people who have been here for weeks,” said Steele.

Stine attributes the ability of teachers to take part in actions to the unusual longevity of her department’s teachers (everyone has been teaching at least seven years). Teachers with three years or less in the district do not have any protections. The climate is one of fear. “We don’t feel valued at all,” Colucci said. “We feel like we have to fight constantly to keep our positions, like we are constantly being judged.”

There are also sections to bridge. Lawrence High is a single building, but divided into separate “schools” for each grade level, so teachers (and students) don’t naturally interact across grades. Teachers are developing plans to reach out across grade levels at the high school—and then to connect to the elementary and middle schools.

Steele stated that he constantly checks in with his educators and asks them to help others. But, said Stine, “the union has to do a better job of teaching the rank and file about the power we have.”

Kim Barry, the local president, acknowledged the difficulties of organizing newly-minted teachers in a climate that is fraught with fear. But the teachers I spoke to are looking for, in Colucci’s words, “strong voices at the leadership level.”

“It is about how we use our labor power,” Steele said. Some are even more blunt, and say it’s time to strike.