Las Vegas Sun

May 25, 2019

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Teacher, student emotional well-being should be at heart of school security talks

School gun violence

Saul Martinez / New York Times file (2018)

Students roam the campus at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Aug. 8 in Parkland, Fla. The massacre in Parkland, one of the most lethal in American history, unnerved school administrators across the country, who devoted the summer to reinforcing buildings and hiring security.

Andre M. Perry has examined school safety not only as a Brookings Institution researcher but as a professor, dean, journalist, activist and adviser in the field of education.

Last week, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Parkland, Fla., shooting, Perry sat down with the Sun during a visit to UNLV to share his perspective on school security and related topics.

Perry’s previous roles included CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, positions as K-12 adviser on the transition teams of Louisiana’s governor-elect in 2015 and the New Orleans mayor in 2010, and founding dean of the College of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Edited excerpts of his conversation with the Sun follow:

Have you come across any approaches to school security that strike you as being particularly effective?

When people focus in on what makes students insecure as opposed to focusing on gun violence, those are the kind of programs that will bear fruit.

Too much of the conversation has shifted to gun control. Guns will not keep students safe like students feeling secure in their buildings will.

So there are a number of organizations that are doing good work on social emotional learning.

Guns matter, no question about it. And access to guns matters. But we tend to forget that angry students act out, or lonely students act out. Bullying has consequences, so we need to figure out ways to protect students from the inside out.

Last month, the nonprofit organization Communities in Schools of Nevada held a school safety summit that focused more on mental health services and other needs for students than on hardware solutions — guns in schools, metal detectors, secure doors and the like. So you think the summit was headed in the right direction?

Absolutely — the mental health of not only the students but the teachers. And also the curriculum, and how they report out what they’re learning. You can learn a lot from students’ writing and their discussions in class.

When we put too much emphasis on testing and standardized forms of taking in information, we lose our ability to hear how students are feeling.

So some of this is also making sure that in our writing courses and in our social studies courses — even in math — we

are giving students time to reflect on what’s happening in the outside world. And are teachers capable of responding when they do hear something?

So that kind of training should go along with mental health services.

There have been privacy concerns related to school safety — like monitoring students’ social media activity. You’re saying that intrusive methods aren’t necessarily needed?

We are moving into a mentality that we have to monitor students — surveil them — when in fact we need to develop students. We need to develop good, healthy human beings. The assumption that they are criminals and are going to act out is part of the problem. We need to always remind ourselves that students are developing, and much of what we’re doing in society is developing people who are acting out by using guns and violence. So are we going to root out those elements of society? Part of that involves includes schools.

I’m more focused on trying to get educators and communities to see that healthy students are less likely to act out.

It seems like the emotional health of teachers isn’t part of the conversation on making schools safer. Why do you think it should be?

Because students riff off of teacher feelings. Sometimes, an unhappy faculty will translate into unhappy students. So the more weight we put on teachers without giving them their own release valve and opportunities to reflect and share, you’re hurting students along the way. But again, we also need to give teachers the appropriate training — and not how to shoot a gun. We need them to pick up signals that a student is in trouble, and then they need the resources to help that student or direct that student to the appropriate resources.

Many school communities are unhappy places in general. Students come in unhappy, teachers come in unhappy, parents are unhappy. And we need to increase the happiness and wellness ratio in these communities.

What’s the key to making teachers happier?

Giving them more autonomy to teach what they like to teach, for one. We should balance that with what students need to know, but teachers want freedom. They want to breathe academically. Many teachers follow strict curriculum guides, but they need to have an academic identity of their own that isn’t the state curriculum. They need to express who they are if they want to feel fulfilled.

They also need moments of reflection. They need to build in time during the week or during the day when they can reflect on what’s happened, so they can share information to other teachers that may be critical in helping their students progress through the day.

What about class sizes?

Classrooms in schools are becoming very stressful places. You’re seeing students act out. I’m glad to see teachers demand that their work conditions improve before they stress out.

Again, teachers are in these communities, and they along with their students feel pressures because more and more demands are being placed on schools to meet the needs of the ever-expanding workforce. Our economy is demanding higher-order skills, and that’s putting demands on teachers and students that we’ve never seen before.

So we need to look at classroom conditions. We also need to recognize that there needs to be more human power in the building. There are simply not enough teachers in schools. That has a lot to do with funding issues. It also has a lot to do with the cultures in schools. But it is clear that we need more teachers. And in many places like Las Vegas, every year there’s a teacher shortage.

To educate one student who’s well below grade level and another student who’s above, for one person to do that is just too much. But teachers are asked to do that every day. We eventually need to fashion our budgets to reflect the need for more human power in schools.

But part of the problem is that fewer people are getting into education as a career. How can that be addressed?

I used to joke that if the WWE could convince people that wrestling is real, we can certainly get the marketing genius from organizations like that to convince people that teaching is a great profession to jump into.

There’s definitely a marketing issue in play. We also need people to understand that teachers aren’t going away like a lot of other jobs. Jobs that require higher-order skills would require people in them. So there’s opportunity in teaching.

And finally, we have to make sure that teachers’ base pay keeps pace with cost-of-living increases.

But also, the charter school vs. public school wars have taken a toll on the teacher profession. These battles turn off potential teachers.

How so?

I know as a former charter leader that part of the strategy to increase the number of charter schools was to blame underachievement among kids on teachers. And teachers in traditional schools and traditional districts took a beating in those battles.

We know that student outcomes are a factor of multiple things, most of which occur outside the classroom. Inside the school, teachers are the most important factor. But most of the predictors of success fall outside that classroom.

So it’s important that we recognize that teachers aren’t completely to blame for underachievement. But that’s what you heard, and naturally you saw a backlash. That back-and-forth is ongoing, and it’s keeping people from getting into the profession. No one wants to fight. So if you’re thinking about a career and you see one where people are fighting in the media, fighting in meetings, fighting here and there, you’re not going to go there. You’re going to do something else.

How do you feel about giving extra pay to teachers in lower-performing schools?

The teacher strike in Denver is really about their pay-for-performance structure.

Now, I’m against giving bonuses for things like professional development and degree attainment — those things should be part of the job. To me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

But another part of the Denver strike is about paying people in hard-to-staff schools. I actually agree with that. It’s the one thing about differentiated pay that I agree with. We’ve got to incentivize teachers in lower-performing schools.

Let’s shift into an area that you’ve been studying — the devaluation of assets in black neighborhoods. Can you summarize what you found?

Actually, this is also related to education. One of the things I hate hearing is, “If we can only fix the school, things will be better.”

One of the reasons why schools underperform is they are stripped of the finances needed to succeed. I worked with Jonathan Rothwell at Gallup and David Harshbarger at Brookings, and we set out to look at housing prices in majority black neighborhoods and those where the share of the black population is less than 1 percent.

And what we found was that, yes, homes in black neighborhoods are on average worth 50 percent less, but after you control for housing structure, neighborhood conditions, including crime, education levels, access to restaurants, walkability and so forth, the price difference goes up to 23 percent.

But 23 percent on average is about $48,000. And that accumulates to $156 billion in losses in majority black neighborhoods.

You know, you constantly hear this narrative that black people are hurting their own communities. But what our findings show is that racism is robbing homeowners of the wealth to put in their kids’ education or start a business. It’s also taking money away from school districts and municipalities to invest in infrastructure. What we found in Las Vegas was that the metro had an insignificant value as far as negative values. But inside the city proper, there’s significant devaluation in black neighborhoods.

With those black neighborhoods, the blacker it gets the lesser its value. And it’s an issue here as well.

What’s driving the devaluation?

There are several factors. Clearly, there are dynamics within the housing market that create lower values — assessors and lenders and real estate agents. There are people whose actions are lowering the price.

But then there are everyday unconscious biases that people have about majority black neighborhoods. When they look at those places, they see more crime than actually exists. They see less education than there actually is.

But the reality is that homes in black neighborhoods, if you’d put it in a white neighborhood it would increase in value automatically.

My research is not just about housing, it’s how we devalue people in the main.

There’s a hopeful line in my work, though, and it’s that we’re giving people a sense of the price of their home. In black neighborhoods, they can see that their homes are actually worth more than they’re priced and can animate their assets in ways to push a market upward.

In addition, it’s just good that people can see what they felt — that my home, my community is worth more than other people price it.

People need that kind of validation psychologically.

But it goes back also to schooling and municipal services. We’re taking away opportunities every day from school districts and municipalities in that we’re devaluing property.

So there’s less tax revenue because of an artificially lowered valuation.

That’s right. So my goal is to work with housing experts to figure out ways to make adjustments or create policies to prevent this from happening, but also find ways to bring wealth back into communities.

We need to have a bigger conversation about how to build wealth beyond housing, particularly in black communities.