And the award goes to

Three lessons from the Nashville English teacher who won a shocking $25,000 prize

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Misty Ayres-Miranda greets a student shortly after being surprised with a $25,000 cash prize.

At Nashville School of the Arts, it’s usually the students who are primed for the spotlight.

But on Tuesday all eyes were on English teacher Misty Ayres-Miranda, when state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and the Milken Family Foundation surprised her at an school-wide assembly with a check for $25,000 — one of thousands of awards to individual teachers that the foundation has handed out since 1987.

The foundation doesn’t share how it chooses awardees, who do not need to apply to win. Ayres-Miranda — who teaches ninth- and 12th-grade English and directs her school’s new Literacy Arts Conservatory performance program — had not heard about the prize before winning it. She said she would be giving much of the money back to her fellow teachers and her school.

“I’m so shocked,” she said. “There are honestly so many great teachers here. It could have been any teacher, and I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Nashville School of the Arts is different from most schools — students audition for admission; arts are incorporated into every subject; and test scores are in the top quarter of schools in the state. But Ayres-Miranda said she believes some of what makes it special can be replicated elsewhere.

Here’s what the award-winning teacher had to say about testing, standards, and her students:

Why the Common Core State Standards don’t limit creativity in the classroom, as some have charged 

The good thing about these standards is that they are so open-ended. They give us a lot more freedom to tailor them the way we want to use them. Before the standards were a lot more detailed and specific, and some of the things weren’t necessary. Common Core English gives us more flexibility to play around and still meet the standards the state wants us to. I’m a lot more of a supporter of our current standards than the ones we had before.

A lot of teachers — and I understand why — get set in a certain way of teaching, and sometimes they are scared of trying something new, and afraid it won’t fit with the standards. Probably not every type of art will fit into every lesson, but there is a way to adapt it. If you’re open to that it will help your scores, because it will help keep your student’s interests. I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t have some type of artistic — even if not necessarily strong — ability, some sort of love, and I think tapping into that, and making the kids care, makes everything easier to teach.

Why lessons should be guided by more than what’s on the end-of-year exam 

When I went to college, the first paper I turned in, I got a C-minus. I was really upset, because I had gotten all As in high school. I had a great college professor, and she told me what I needed to do differently. I was like, I never learned about citations, I didn’t learn about writing … I made a decision that I wanted to be a teacher, and really teach kids what they needed. Not, and I hope I don’t get in trouble for this, the stuff some tests say they have to know, but really what I know kids need.  To be honest, I don’t really focus on the [end-of-year] test itself until right before we take it, because it’s more important for them to work on their writing skills and the things they need to know for college.

This year, I am having to prepare them a little bit more for how to take a computer-based test. A lot of kids get testing anxiety when they have to scroll down and can’t see everything, and can’t mark things the same way. It’s really about telling them that yeah, you can do it, it’s just different. Honestly, it’s early in the year. I still have a lot of time to have fun with my kids before focusing on the test.

On the benefits of teaching at a school that chooses its theme and its students 

We are in a rare environment where kids aren’t judged based on their gender choices or whether or not they’re homosexual or heterosexual or different races. Our kids block themselves off based on their art. And the fact that we have an environment where everyone is accepted for who they are as a person is pretty amazing.

I would say to other schools, you know, there’s nothing wrong with a kid being who they are and being unique. And when you celebrate that, they accomplish so much. I really think we have a community that is very rare [and] that shouldn’t be so rare. It should be all across the board, at every public school.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.