The following is a re-posting of An interview with Washington State Superintendent Candidate Erin Jones originally posted on the Seattle Education website. It is posted here with permission.
Erin Jones is running for Washington State Superintendent in charge of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). According to the OSPI webpage, it is “the primary agency charged with overseeing K-12 public education in Washington state”.
Presently, Ms. Jones is School Director for Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) in Tacoma. AVID is a product sold to school districts that promises students will be able to achieve through self-discipline and focusing on the Common Core Standards. The work is done with tutors, not teachers.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Erin Jones was a volunteer in a public school in North Philadelphia, a substitute in South Bend, IN, a private school teacher, an ELL instructor, a classroom teacher in English and French Immersion in Tacoma, an instructional coach and AVID tutor in Spokane, an assistant State Superintendent (working for the current superintendent, Randy Dorn), and now a school district director for AVID in Tacoma.
Ms. Erin received the (Michael) Millken Educator of the Year Award as an educator while teaching at a high school in Spokane, WA. Today, Milken is a leading figure in the education reform movement and is one of the founders of the nation’s largest cyber charter chain, K12.
For more on K12, which is in our state now under the Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) umbrella, see:
Two years ago, Ms. Jones testified in favor of Rainier Prep charter school in front of the Charter School Commission and now says she regrets that action. Rainier Prep charter school is enrolling students for next year.
Ms. Jones largest donors so far include Teach for America, the League of Education Voters and Stand for Children but at the time of the interview Ms. Jones said she was not aware of who her donors were.
Ms. Jones attended the ultra-conservative Roanoke Conference but said during the interview she knew nothing about the conference until she arrived and found out who was attending. Ms. Jones said she went to hear the panel on education. The panel on education was titled “What strategies can work to save charter schools” featuring Chad Magendanz, Lisa MacFarlane with Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), the Chairman of Summit charter schools and Beth Sigall with the Eastside Education Network.
Erin Jones states she’s against the amount of standardized testing and teaching to the test and yet sees no problem with the Common Core Standards.
Ms. Jones stated in the interview that TFA, Inc. could be a credible substitute for districts that may have a teacher shortage and are better than substitute teachers although substitute teachers are required to be certified.
Ms. Jones sat on the Parent’s Union’s board, but did not know who the funders were.
With so much at stake and the pressure of Gates’ money that has been granted to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Gates’ $2M grant to the Mary Walker School District to explore the option of expanding charter schools in our state, we need to be thoughtful about who we want to run our schools statewide.
To follow are excerpts from the interview I had with Ms. Jones on Saturday, February 27, 2016. A transcript of the entire interview can be found here.
Carolyn Leith, my co-editor, and I spent an hour with Erin Jones, asking her questions on the following topics.
Teach for America, Inc.
Dora: The first (question) is about Teach for America. They’re your biggest contributor, your largest donor so far in your PDC file. Tell me what your thoughts are about Teach for America.
Erin: So, first of all, I didn’t even know who the donor was when he donated. So he donated I think, I think it’s Sean, who donated?
…And he wasn’t somebody that I asked for a donation from. He donated as soon as my website went up. I used to know the original director of Teach for America, Lindsey Hill. So I knew her, or I know Lindsey and I have a student that was a Teach for America student, who now actually teaches, I just hired him this year in Tacoma. I’ve done some training for them. I don’t want them to take over.
Dora: As State Superintendent how would you feel about them teaching in public schools?
Erin: So, how would I feel about them teaching? I think that we, for right now, need to figure out some ways, whether it is Teach for America…I would prefer that we in district, figure out ways to recruit, whether it’s from Para-educators, whether it’s from our substitute teachers, we’re gonna have to address our teacher shortage somehow.
Dora: You believe there is really a teacher shortage?
Erin: I know in Tacoma there’s a teacher shortage, we still have five buildings right now that I know of, and I don’t know all of the buildings in Tacoma, because I just work in middle and high school, but we still have five buildings that have had subs. This year. All year. So there’s definitely a shortage of teachers. And sixty percent of our teachers are retirement age in Tacoma. So it’s gonna be an issue that we have to address.
Dora: Okay. Well, Teach for America (recruits are) trained basically to teach in charter schools, are you aware of that?
Erin: Well, they’re not though. They’re trained here…and I understand other places in the country…but I have worked with their training model, because one of my students that I’ve taught as a middle school kid who went to Whitworth, became Teach for America, and so they actually had me come in and teach Cultural Competence to them. And it wasn’t to teach in charter schools, they were to teach in, they were teaching in Federal Way, they were teaching in Seattle at the time.
Dora: Well, you understand that they have about five weeks of training before they go into basically high needs schools.
Dora: You think that’s okay?
Erin: No, I don’t think that’s the best thing at all…I think people need to have years of training and being in buildings. I guess what I’m saying though, right now, in Tacoma I’m saying that subs who’ve had zero training who are teaching outside of their field, and going in for two and three weeks without any lesson plans… That also is not a good solution. So, my preference would be that we… So right now what we’re doing in Tacoma is that we’re actually training our subs over the summer. So, I led training this summer for substitute teachers…so that at least we’re sending people in, with more training than they’re getting. Most districts don’t have any training for subs, which I think is criminal.
About the League of Education Voters (LEV) and charter schools
Dora: The third person on your list of donors, another one of your larger donors, is Kelly Munn with the League of Education Voters. They also feature you on their blog occasionally. So, what are your thoughts on that organization?
Erin: So, I have done a lot of work…when I first went to OSPI after my last year in the classroom, I ran their Center for the Improvement of Student Learning … it used to be the family and community engagement arm of OSPI, but it was defunded. From that I met Kelly Munn for children and family engagement work. And so, I did a lot of speaking for them (LEV), especially with immigrant families, and particularly talking about the transition from middle school to high school, because that’s my expertise area. I taught middle school and I moved to high school, and at the time I had three kids that were middle school transitioning. So, that is my connection to them. I think they do really great work around community engagement, with a population that is not served well by PTA. Now, at the time that I was doing work with them at OSPI, charter schools was not part of their big push.
Dora: It has been for a long time.
Erin: Right, but… the part of the work that I did, had nothing to do with charter schools. It was all around transition, it was all around, how do we engage families who don’t speak English, or don’t feel like they connect with school. And so, Kelly Munn is, it’s ironic because she had an event, maybe about eight months ago, and one of the things she said is, “you know I love Erin.” “She doesn’t support our charter school work.” And it was funny, because she started out…the introduction of me, with the group by saying, “Erin and I don’t see eye to eye on everything, she doesn’t support charter schools, and yet I still think she wants what’s best for kids and teachers.” And that’s why I support Kelly. Now, I’ve been pretty vocal about being anti charter schools, so I have an email from her that I could show you, that she is pretty upset with me right now. Which I’m fine with. I she knew from the beginning, I don’t support charter schools. And, she was clear about that in the very beginning.
About testifying for Rainier Prep charter school in 2014
Dora: Well, you were in front of the Charter School Commission in 2014.
Erin: Mmm. In front of their leadership team…
Dora: …where you spoke in support of Rainier Prep charter school.
Erin: Yes, in support of Maggie, yes…
Dora: No, you said you were in support of Rainier Prep.
Erin: Yes, who’s Maggie. Maggie is one of my principals.
Dora: Well okay, but it was a charter school, you were in front of the Charter School Commission.
Dora: So, you’re against charter schools but…
Erin: And that’s probably the most unfortunate presentation. To be really honest with you. Maggie and I have talked about that, many times. She is one of probably the best principals that I worked with in Federal Way. Do you know Maggie O’Sullivan?
She hired me. Yeah, she was my principal at Wildwood Elementary too.
Erin: One of my favorite principals. And I should not have done that. Because I realized, and at the time I wasn’t thinking about this work, and so it was just really supporting her and I feel really badly about that. I’ve told her, I love her as a principal, and I think she is going to do great work. The movement itself I don’t support. And it’s really unfortunate, that was a mistake for me. Politically that was a mistake that I made and it is really unfortunate and she and I have had many conversations since then, about that, and I felt like I was going to support a great friend, who took an entire year off, didn’t take a salary, to plan a school. And what I told her is I wish every principal had the opportunity to take a year, to plan a school, and, not have regulations…
Dora: It (Rainier Prep) could have been under the ALE umbrella.
Erin: It could have. No and I agree with that now. I realize that, I realized that afterwards. I talked to, also to the superintendent, why am I blanking of Highline, oh my gosh, Susan?
Dora: Susan Enfield
Erin: Yes, Susan Enfield. So Susan and I have talked about that over time too… probably the board could have taken that school…she loved Maggie, and the board probably should have taken that school and made it part of, and made it an alternative learning environment, and so Susan and I have had long words about that too because now it’s really tarnished Maggie’s reputation and even Highline, it’s put them in a complicated position.
About the donations given by Stand for Children, Don Nielson and Greendot charter schools
Dora: Okay, now you’ve got other supporters, you’ve got Stand for Children, Green Dot, Don Nielsen…
Erin: They are people…
Dora: Yes.. I understand they are people…
Erin: But I have 400 some odd thousand contributors.
Dora: But the thing is that these people expect a return on their investment.
Erin: If, okay, if I’m gonna make $300,000, their little $200 or $300 or $1500, is not gonna buy…I didn’t ask for the money. People gave me money.
Dora: Well, would you give it back to them? Would you say, “You know what, I really don’t want to be, at all related to your group at this point. I think it would be better, if you just took the money back.”
Erin: So I guess, I guess what I would say is if I lived my life…I know what I stand for and I’ve been pretty clear verbally and in public about what I stand for, and there’s nobody that can buy me. It’s just, there’s nobody that can buy who I’m gonna be and what I’m gonna stand for.
The Roanoke Conference
Dora: What about the Roanoke Conference? Did you attend that?
Erin: I did, yeah. So, and my whole purpose of attending is this is a non-partisan position. I need to hear from both sides. And actually I’ll be really honest, I was mortified by what I heard. So their whole conversation around education, I just went for one hour to hear their education panel. Because actually the organizer of Roanoke …was my former pastor’s son, out in Spokane. And he invited me to speak on the panel, and I said, “Well, you know, I’m not a Republican, and I don’t support charter schools.” So suddenly I wasn’t on the panel anymore. And I said well, I’d be interested in hearing though, what they had to say because, I was just curious…I was more mortified by what they had to say than I was before I arrived. And one of the pieces that I think people need to know, Chad Magendanz is really open about, “I’m going for vouchers.” And I’m glad I was sitting there, because, people could say, “oh, vouchers aren’t coming up.” But to hear him physically say it in front of a whole audience of people was, um, pretty profound and disturbing. So I did go.
So I used to train with the students and Teri Hickel was the director of that program in Federal Way. And she happened to be there, and so she invited me to sit with her, and I did. And I’ve been mentoring her student(s) through Federal Way for the last four years.
About the Common Core Standards
Dora: There was, on the Teachers United site…a couple of quotes that they attributed to you. One was on the Common Core Standards. You said, “As a teacher, I don’t think that Common Core necessarily will help or hurt us,” Jones said in an interview. “The content is fine, but really it’s all about the teaching. People are really panicking about Common Core. While I don’t think that Common Core is the right thing to panic about, it’s become a distraction.”
Erin: And I still believe that. I think that the test is a problem. So I think for me right now what I worry about, because I’m with teachers all the time, I’m worried about changing the standards yet again, in four years. I would prefer to have different standards right now, but I feel like right now the test is the thing that we’ve really got to worry about, and the test and the standards are two very different things in my mind. Standards are just a road map. They’re not curriculum, they’re not content, it’s the roadmap for, here are the different elements that you, that need to be covered in a year. At some point. The test is I think what’s putting undue pressure on teachers, and on students…When I’m called in to talk to third graders who are crying because they’re stressed out about a test…if we could take away the high stakes of testing, so that people don’t feel like we’re on this crazy path to “I’m gonna be evaluated by this”, and yeah, evaluation also shouldn’t be associated with testing, but I think the test is really for me, the biggest, the bigger problem than the standards. We need to have standards, at some level. Are Common Core the best? I don’t think they’re the best, but I think right now, where our focus needs to be is paring back the test, and making sure that it’s a usable tool for classroom teachers, and it gives them information to help them inform their practice.
Dora: Well the SBAC can’t be modified. It’s trademarked. It’s registered.
Erin: Well we don’t have to use it then. We don’t have to use it, then.
Dora: It’s kind of a gray area, right now.
About Gates money and OSPI
Dora: How do you feel about Randy Dorn and OSPI accepting money from Bill Gates?
Erin: So I think, Gates money is everywhere. And so I feel really conflicted about that. I think there are things Gates does that are good, and I think there are things Gates does that are bad. I don’t think it’s all around, Bill Gates is evil, but I think what’s dangerous about Gates is this assumption that because I’m rich, I know everything about education. He’s not an educator. I think, he does live in Washington State, so this notion that he could give money to the state is…but when it becomes such large sums that it now drives what’s happening, politically, that’s a problem.
Dora: If you ever can get ahold of one of their grant summaries, like we did for the Mary Walker School District, there are a lot of strings attached. He (Bill Gates) doesn’t just give money. He wants, what he expects is very clear, very clearly defined.
Erin: And I’m not sure, what did he recently give money for, besides Mary Walker?
Dora: He’s been giving millions to OSPI (over) the last several years.
Erin: I mean, I think that’s problematic, when there’s, there’s a person who’s giving millions, I think there’s an assumption then that there’s something he wants.
On McCleary and the funding of education
Dora: Another quote attributed to you on their website about McCleary… “It’s important that we fund education at a higher level. Washington being 40th in the nation is to me criminal. But money is not our biggest issue. It’s how we spend the money we have and how we will support our teachers.”
So, do we have adequate funding here (in Washington State)?
Erin: No. We don’t. No. But what I guess what I’m saying though is untiI…I don’t think the legislature’s gonna move, to be really transparent, until, we actually value teachers, and that’s the, culturally, as an American culture, that’s where I think our biggest problem is. I think we have a bunch of legislators, who think this is not an issue they need to deal with. Because they don’t see teachers as being really all that important. And that’s what I think we need to get to, is how do we value teachers and see them as the most important adults in the life of our children? And when we can see that… So, do we need funding? Heck yeah. But I don’t see the legislature really feeling any crisis or urgency until they actually see our profession as one that’s the greatest profession on the planet. And that’s really what I was trying to say with that.
About standardized testing
Carolyn: How could you restructure testing to help people gain some time during the day for less coverage the (class) material. So, instead of covering five chapters, we would be back to the normal two. …So those are things that you would be in control of.
Erin: Well, not exactly. The legislature’s more in control of that.
Carolyn: With the ESSA, roughly, you’re supposedly going to have more control if you’re the head of the OSPI.
Erin: Hopefully they will not have made those decisions until I get there. You know what I’m saying, because a lot of those decisions are being made right now, by the current state superintendent. And what I’m hoping is that they will all not be made. Every day there are new changes being made by OSPI. And so it remains to be seen what will be left open. But I guess my opinion as a classroom teacher, is, we’ve gotta pare back on the testing… In Tacoma took us 4-6 weeks on average to test kids. And so, for example, kids would take a test for two hours in the morning. Well, guess what, kids aren’t doing any work after that. So if I’m a second grader and I’ve been sittin’ at a computer for two hours, you are not getting any more learning outta me. So we’ve now lost that entire day. And so one of the things that I, I wanna talk about, is how do we pare that back.. My preference would be two days of testing a year. That would be my dream, my dream length: a pre-test in the fall, and a post test in the spring. And something that’s usable by teachers. I think what pains me right now, being at a district level, is the tests don’t even come back until kids are gone. And so what is the point? Right? So we’ve just spent 4-6 weeks testing, and you don’t even get that data back until after kids have gone home for the year. So what’s the point? …We’ve gotta have that honest conversation. What’s the point? What is the test for then? ‘Cause it’s not helping me as a teacher with the kids I have right now. And if I’m just getting those kids, what does that test even mean for me? As I get them for the next year. That is problematic.
Carolyn: So my ten year old has a question…She wants to know, what you’re going to do for recess.
Erin: Oh, yay. I love that question.
Carolyn: For actually kids getting recess… when it comes to recess, it doesn’t happen. So how are we going to do that for every kid?…So, in the state, so they all get recess, and we document it, and it if there’s a problem, we come to you, and what do you do?
Erin: So I think there are a couple things that I think about recess. Number one, I think it’s problematic how we’re instructing right now. So, we’re asking kids from early on to high school to sit for five to six hours a day. Which, just development…even for adults, it’s just, that’s criminal. We can’t, we as adults, know how to play that game. So we can play the game, but even if we’re asked to sit for four or five hours or two hours, we’re not listening, we’re checked out, right? And so, one of the things, I didn’t need to read research about this, I just needed to have my own children, is every ten to fifteen minutes, we need as teachers, to be getting kids up and moving. So I think that’s part of the problem, that we’re asking kids to sit all day. And so, you know what, they’re squirrelly now, right? If we are, we’re just squirrelly inside. We know how to hold it down really well. So I think part of the problem is that we are not moving kids around, enough. And so I learned that, as a French immersion teacher, my kids were dancing…I knew. Like every twelve minutes a bell would go off and if I hadn’t moved my kids, I was moving my students, and we were doing something physical. So I think that’s problem one. We need to talk about the importance of physical movement, and not keeping kids, sitting in a chair, for five hours. That’s just crazy-making. Problem two: they’ve gotta get outside. I mean it’s just, it has to happen. And really the younger the kids, probably the more times in a day they need to get outside. And so that needs to built into every system. And that’s something again, I don’t get to make those laws, but as the bully pulpit, this is stuff that’s important to me, because I watched my own kids. I have a son who’s ADD, he’s not ADHD. But he needed that, like just get up and move. He’s also dysgraphic. He can’t physically write. So imagine what it’s like for a kid like that, who can’t physically write, is now frustrated, ‘cause I have to sit here for six hours. I can’t do this well, and now you’ve got me stuck. And guess what, I’m staring out the window, ‘cause now I’m not engaged. And so I learned from my own kids, we need to be up and moving, and we need to create spaces for every kid to feel successful. And that’s what I want to talk about, as the state superintendent.
Carolyn: What would you say about withholding recess as a punishment?
Erin: Oh, it’s ridiculous. That is, that’s criminal. Because the very kids that we tend to withhold it from, are the very ones who need to move. And I believe the kids who get in trouble, right, are the kids who don’t do well sitting still. I, we’re over diagnosing ADHD, and ADD. And part of it is because we’re asking kids to sit still for so long. We wonder why they get fidgety. Well maybe that’s your sign that they need to be moving. But again as administrators, we need to give our teachers permission, and encourage them, get kids up and moving. This is how our brains learn.
Carolyn: I think there’s a problem though that teachers feel like they have so much pressure…to do all the curriculum, that they’re stuck in the middle… and they’re behind, and to do more work so the kids are sitting for an hour…and they’re second graders. And then they act up…and then they miss recess…
Erin: Exactly. And that’s criminal. And now you’re compounding the problem. I think the other reality is…um, we just know this as adults too… So, we’ve got all this curriculum to get through, right? That we have five pages we’re supposed to get through today. I’m just gonna push through. Have the kids learned any of that? No. ‘Cause they’ve just sat still, and they are taxed out. So maybe you got to page five, but nobody learned page five. Actually people stopped learning after about page three. And so really having those honest conversations about what, how does, how do we learn, as human beings, both as children and as adults?
Carolyn: How would you solve that problem though, ‘cause we are confined by the amount of money we have for teachers, by the length of the school day…So part of the problem I think with recess is people feel this pressure to cover the material, and we only pay for so much time, and so recess is lost…or eroded. Lunch is lost or eroded… So I think from the upper level, things need to be changed.
Erin: Right, and I think at the top, as the state leader, I need to model, and talk with…so I’m not in charge of building administrators, but you know what, the leader at the top models what superintendents do, and then that trickles down. And guess what? This is not a conversation that Randy Dorn is having. He’s not talking about this stuff. I think this is stuff that needs to be talked about. I think we need to have professors come and talk about the actual brain chemistry that happens when kids…I mean we’ve got all of it, right here at UW, we have folks who could talk with us about the fact that just covering material is not, it’s not doing us any good. It’s killing our kids, and we’re frustrated as teachers. ‘Cause we, we know our kids aren’t learning.
Submitted by Dora Taylor