Wednesday, October 16, 2013

POP QUIZ: Juice Interviews MoCo Teachers' New Political Head // MCEA's Barbara Hueter Raps About Post, Bell Times & More

MCEA Political Director Barbara Hueter (fourth from left)
In Montgomery County, MCEA (the union representing public school teachers) has long commanded one of the more influential endorsements in Democratic politics. But last August we reported that the long-time head of MCEA's political process Jon Gerson had stepped down to make room for a successor: Barbara Hueter.

Maryland Juice blogger David Moon decided to take the opportunity to give Ms. Hueter a pop quiz about what the change in personalities means for MCEA and to weigh in on a handful of the hot-button issues that have been debated in local education policy in recent years. In our exclusive interview below, you can read Barbara Hueter's response to a range of education and political issues, including her thoughts on the long-standing endorsement rivalry between The Washington Post & MCEA, life after Jon Gerson, the movement to start school later, and much more!  NOTE: I sent Hueter these questions on 8/31/2013, and she sent back responses on 10/11/2013.  :)


MARYLAND JUICE: Your predecessor in running MCEA's political operation, Jon Gerson, spent many years managing one of Montgomery County's most high profile endorsement processes. What do you think the key differences (if any) will be between how he operated and how you might organize things? Will there be any notable changes that teachers, candidates and politicos might notice in the coming months?

BARBARA HUETER ON LIFE AFTER JON GERSON: It is a challenge to build on the record of success that we have accomplished with our political program. One of my priorities moving forward is to increase the engagement of MCEA members in the political process. We are known for putting hundreds of teachers at the polls handing out Apple Ballots. We will be working to increase that, to increase the number of our members participating in our PAC fund, and to increase the number of our members meeting regularly with elected officials. I’m focused on increasing teacher engagement in the political process.

MARYLAND JUICE: What do you think are the greatest political challenges facing MCEA in the coming electoral cycle?

BARBARA HUETER ON MCEA'S POLITICAL CHALLENGES: Our goal is to help elect the most pro-education candidates to office. During elections, virtually every candidate says they support public education: the challenge is who really has the core values so that when difficult choices need to be made, they will put the interests of our schools and our students first. We want elected officials who recognize that a strong school system is essential to the future prosperity of the entire county and the state.

MARYLAND JUICE: In the last few years, there seems to have been a bit of competition between the Washington Post and MCEA for prominence in endorsement power in Montgomery County politics. Do you have any reflections on this dynamic going forward? Does it even matter?

BARBARA HUETER ON THE WASHINGTON POST: I think that when it comes to what’s best for our schools, voters are a lot more interested in the opinions of their teachers than they are in the opinions of a handful of people sitting in an office building in downtown DC. 

MARYLAND JUICE: What are the top 3 issues that motivate you in politics (at the state/county level or nationally)?

BARBARA HUETER'S POLITICAL PRIORITIES: I am concerned with what is best for our schools and our students. Locally and nationally, our challenge is how to close the achievement gap and ensure that every child has access to a high quality education. Part of that is attracting and retaining the best and brightest teachers - which means valuing and not demeaning the profession. Part of it is investing in lower class sizes and other supports in our highest need schools. And part of it is providing the social services (health care, nutrition, etc.) that low-income families need so their students can be successful. Schools alone cannot erase the terrible disadvantages caused by poverty.

MARYLAND JUICE: Though MCEA obviously deals with school budget and labor issues, I've noticed a number of persistent grassroots education topics that continue to get attention from activists in the school arena. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on some of these:

MARYLAND JUICE: The achievement gap and standardized test disparities impacting students of color, lower income families, and immigrant/ESL students have been popping in and out of the news lately. Lots of politicians have been weighing in on this, but what do you think are some of the quickest and most direct ways of addressing this, given that parents with children in the schools now don't want to wait years to implement policy solutions? Can this problem really be dealt with without reducing class size?

BARBARA HUETER ON THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP: Lower class sizes in high needs schools are part of the solution. MCPS has proven it. We significantly lowered class sizes in early childhood grades in our high needs schools, and now more than 90% of our kindergarteners are consistently meeting or exceeding reading targets – closing the achievement gap. Universal pre-k would be a huge step. The Linkages to Learning program that provides wrap-around health care services is incredibly valuable and would make a big difference if it were expanded to more schools.

We can’t close the achievement gap on the cheap. It will take an increased investment in our highest need schools, and if politicians say otherwise, they are badly out of touch.

MARYLAND JUICE: At a few events, I've noticed parents and students mention a perceived disparity on how disciplinary actions are used against students from different demographic groups. Is this perception a reality? If so, what can be done to address this?

BARBARA HUETER ON DISPARITIES IN DISCIPLINE: Nobody should tolerate disparate disciplinary actions. We need better systems in place to support students who need additional attention. Teachers need time for more training and collaborative planning on how to teach in diverse classrooms. MCEA is proud of a new graduate certificate program we have designed (with McDaniel College) on Excellence and Education in Teaching, which addresses teaching strategies and cultural competency that are needed to succeed in racially and ethnically diverse classrooms. Smaller class sizes make it easier for teachers to reach all their students so they are engaged – and not alienated – from school.

MARYLAND JUICE: Over the years (including dating back to when I was a student in MCPS), there has been period discussion of starting high school later than the current super-early start to the school day. There is a great deal of research showing that adequate sleep is critical to students being "ready to learn," but it seems like this issue is continuously punted into the future so that it can never actually be reformed. Do you have any thoughts on whether this should be dealt with? If so, what is the best and quickest way forward, and if not, why not?

BARBARA HUETER ON STARTING SCHOOL LATER: The recommendation from the Superintendent deserves serious consideration.  We look forward to having MCEA members involved in the process of considering the pros and cons of the proposal. We’re especially concerned about the impact on low-income families whose students work after-school jobs, or who provide after school care of siblings. 

MARYLAND JUICE: When I was in MCPS, the vast majority of students did not have an opportunity to learn a foreign language until middle school or high school. Again, research persistently shows that it is much easier and efficient for young people to learn second languages earlier in life. What would it take to make this common-sense shift in our schools?

BARBARA HUETER ON OFFERING FOREIGN LANGUAGE EDUCATION EARLIER : No Child Left Behind has driven an obsession with standardized test scores in reading in math. The result has been a narrowing of the curriculum in lots of areas. It would cost money to provide world language instruction in all elementary schools – but as I understand it, Utah is doing that now. It would also require a recognition that a good education means more than reading and math scores on standardized tests.

MARYLAND JUICE: "Tracking" students (eg: separating pupils by academic ability into segregated groups) has been a much debated topic, with research showing both positive and negative effects. But as I can recall from my own days in MCPS, this process begins very early in grade school and impacts which students are put on AP and more rigorous academic tracks. Do you think this policy is working? If not, what reforms would you make?

BARBARA HUETER ON TRACKING: For a number of years, MCEA has supported elimination of the Global Screening process in second grade. MCPS has been piloting that in two schools and we believe it has been successful. Grouping practices need to be flexible over time. No one is well served by rigid tracking: neither on-level students nor above grade level students. Over the years, there has been powerful testimony in front of the Board of Education by students from the Blair magnet program about how they benefitted from flexible grouping practices. But again, the larger class sizes are, the more difficult it is to teach heterogeneous groups of students.

MARYLAND JUICE: Do you think MCPS is providing students with adequately nutritious meals?

BARBARA HUETER ON SCHOOL MEALS: Should the system strive to do better? Absolutely. But most kids aren’t going to eat brussels sprouts and kale. It’s a challenge to figure out how to provide healthier meals that students will eat. But I don’t doubt that the folks in food services are waking up every day trying to do that. Nutrition is their business.

CONCLUSION: There you have it, folks!  This conversation is obviously just the tip of the iceberg on some of the intriguing challenges facing Montgomery County Public Schools heading into the future, and a potential sign of some of the policy debates we may see in the near future. But in the meantime, it appears that MCEA is getting an early start on organizing for the 2014 election cycle. They've placed the following ad in The Gazette this week:

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