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Becky Pringle on Supporting Students and Educators This School Year
Becky Pringle on Supporting Students and Educators This School Year
This week, Daniella sits down with Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, to discuss the national teacher shortage, student performance, and ways to make schools safer and more equitable.
Part of a Series
It’s back-to-school week for many American households, and National Education Association President Becky Pringle joins Daniella to discuss solutions to the nation’s teacher shortage, the causes behind recent declines in student performance, and ways to make schools safer and more equitable. Daniella also shares updates on new COVID-19 booster shots and Donald Trump’s request for a special master to review the materials seized from his Mar-a-Lago home.
Learn more about the podcast here.
Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hi everyone, welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger. It’s back-to-school week for millions of kids across the country, and that’s why I’m so excited to be speaking with the president of the National Education Association [NEA], Becky Pringle, about how we can better support educators, what’s really driving declines in student performance, and how we can make schools safer and more equitable. But first, you know we have to get to some news.
So, it’s almost fall, even though it does not feel like it in lots of the country. And when the weather starts to get colder, we all do more things indoors—not so good from a COVID-19 perspective. Luckily, over Labor Day weekend, Pfizer and Moderna rolled out a new round of booster shots for most Americans. These new boosters are specifically designed to target the most common omicron subvariants, as well as the original strain of COVID-19. The FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] expect they will help strengthen people’s immunity and help blunt a possible fall spike in cases, which is really essential.
Look, I know we’re all a bit fatigued by this pandemic. We are 2 1/2 years in, but it’s important to remember that approximately 400 people a day are still dying from COVID in this country. As I’ve been saying for weeks—look, guys—we are still in a “pancetta panini,” as I’ve been calling it. I also want to note that no matter how tired we might be, this administration has not stopped fighting for us and prioritizing our health. As Congress returns from its August recess and deadlines loom around funding the government, it’s important that they prioritize investing in the fight against COVID-19. The Biden administration has said they might have to end their free COVID vaccine program as soon as January of this coming year if Congress does nothing. And the $47 billion they’ve asked for will help also fund the fight against monkeypox and other infectious diseases too. So, if we want to keep getting necessary vaccines and boosters into arms and reduce infection and death rates, we’ll have to keep funding these rollouts.
So, let’s all go out and get this booster as soon as we’re eligible and able to, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. I personally am going this weekend. And remind our representatives in Washington that funding the fight against a pandemic is critical for public health.
Now, I’m so sick and tired of talking about former President Donald Trump and his alleged crimes. I’m going to keep this brief. As you may know, Trump got his request granted for a special master, a third party who will review all of the documents taken from Mar-a-Lago to make sure there’s nothing that should not have been seized. But we should be clear: It’s a bizarre and unprecedented ruling. And if you’re wondering how it could possibly have been handed down, look no further than the judge who wrote it.
Judge Aileen Cannon was appointed by Trump [in] April 2020. That just immediately sounds like an unethical combination: A judge ruling on a case in which the defendant got them their job. Her jurisdiction is also 67 miles away from Mar-a-Lago. Oh—and she’s a member of the Federalist Society, that group of extremist judges and lawyers Republicans frequently appoint to the federal bench when they control the White House. Simply put, Trump’s lawyers went shopping for a judge who would rule favorably, and they found one.
There are so many things wrong with the granting of a special master here. First, it’s just unnecessary—the DOJ [Department of Justice] has already looked at all of these documents. Second, it’ll continue to delay the department’s investigation into Trump’s clear mishandling of our nation’s top secrets. Third, by granting this request, Judge Cannon makes a clear special exception to the legal process for Donald Trump, who the Department of Justice was trying to treat like any other person they investigate. And four, this is so clearly an attempt by Trump and his lawyers to sow doubt in the Department of Justice yet again.
Look, you don’t have to take my word for it. Among the many legal experts who have said that this request for a special master is unnecessary is none other than former Attorney General Bill Barr—you know, the lackey who did Trump’s bidding while in office but is now on a media tour to save his reputation? Yeah, that Bill Barr. He’s even said live on Fox News—multiple times, I might add—that a special master is unnecessary. He called it a quote, “red herring.”
Now, the Department of Justice and Trump’s legal team have until Friday to try to come to some agreement on who to appoint as a special master. A reminder that these documents are so sensitive, this person would need to have a top security clearance to review everything. And The Washington Post reported Tuesday that some of the documents seized had information about foreign nuclear weapons programs. There’s also a good chance that the department might try to appeal this decision too. So, we’ll see what happens next. My bottom line is that while this is a setback, Trump cannot run forever. And if he has nothing to hide, why not cooperate? As I always say, watch this space.
If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod. And please let us know what you think of the show. You can rate and review us wherever you’re streaming from, and we really appreciate your feedback. Stick around for our interview with Becky Pringle in just a beat.
Gibbs Léger: Becky Pringle is president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union representing public school teachers and education support professionals. Becky is a middle school science teacher with 31 years of classroom experience. She has a long history of educational excellence and leadership, including serving on President [Barack] Obama’s Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
Becky, thanks so much for joining us on “The Tent,” and during back-to-school week, no less. I’m sure it’s a very busy time for you, so thank you.
Becky Pringle: It’s good to be with you, Daniella.
Gibbs Léger: So, as students return to the classroom this week—and in previous weeks—it’s apparent that we simply don’t have enough teachers to accommodate their needs. And many of the teachers who are still present have made it clear that they’re not receiving the support that they need to do their jobs effectively. Teachers really shouldn’t have to create a GoFundMe for school supplies, for example. So, could you talk to our listeners about what is driving our nation’s teacher shortage? And how can we better support educators?
Pringle: Let me begin by saying that I taught science—middle-level learners—for over 30 years. And, without exception, the beginning of a new school year is full of excitement and new opportunities. Getting to know new young people; getting to be back with your colleagues; having a chance to work with parents and the community; to just have that opportunity to work with young people to instill in them the love of learning; and an excitement for this year, as well as the rest of their lives—it’s just such an exciting time, and it brings a smile to my face every time I think about it—every one of my years. That’s true of every teacher across this nation. As I’ve talked to them, and they’re going back full of hope and promise, they talk about that.
One teacher from New York said to me, “You know, Becky, I look at myself as a talent agent for my students, that I get to find and talk about and showcase their incredible individual talents.” And she said it with such excitement. And then I asked her about the reality of going back to school knowing that we still had a shortage—not a shortage just of teachers, but of all of our educators. We’ve learned that about our bus drivers, our paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors. And as she shared with me her concerns about that, for sure—that the reality of last year and having to fill in and come to school sick and have double classes and not have the mental health professionals they needed—were very real for her. And it’s real for educators all over this country. And I’ll say to everyone what I’ve said all throughout the year: If we just listen to educators, they’ll tell us the solutions to the educator crisis that exists in this country.
Gibbs Léger: You talk to them constantly. What are they saying? What are they saying is the main driver of this? And then, I also want to get your thoughts on what we’ve seen in some states like Florida that are trying to loosen requirements to teach. What are your thoughts on these kinds of proposed solutions? Could they act as a temporary stopgap? Or are they drawing attention away from addressing the root causes of the teacher shortage?
Pringle: So, let me begin by sharing with you what teachers all over this country said to me—what our education support professionals told me from Kentucky to California and every point in between. It always boils down to one word, and that was respect—respect for them as professionals; respect for the critical role they play in this society; respect for their knowledge and experience, expertise they bring to teaching and learning decisions; the respect for them as the professionals—we aren’t paying them the kinds of salaries that would reflect the important role they play; respect for them as the professionals they are. That’s what it boils down to.
And so, when we think about solutions—real solutions—it comes down to that: knowing that our educators play such a critical role in our nation, its economy, its future—knowing that—[and] making sure that our students have the ability to learn the complete and true history of this country. And not just understand what happened in our history but understand its impact on what’s happening today, and how it fuels the injustices that we see in every single social system in this country, based on race and economic status, based on ability—all of those things that we know impact whether our students have what they need and deserve, so that they are prepared to come to school every day ready to learn.
And so, when we think about solutions, we can’t talk about lowering the standards. But we do have to talk about removing barriers. So, we know how much it costs in this country right now to get a college degree. We know that that’s just untenable. For too many of our students, especially our Black and brown and Native students in particular, we know that that’s a barrier that exists. We need to remove that barrier. And part of that—we’ve been working hard at the NEA as we have been sounding that battle cry for student loan forgiveness—but we have to also do something about the cost of higher education. We can’t put people in front of our students who have not been trained; who have not been prepared in any way to be the teacher of record. That is not the solution, not short term and not long term. So, we have to think about systemic solutions to this issue.
Gibbs Léger: You know, I want to talk a little bit about student debt. As you mentioned, it’s an issue that deeply affects educators. So, the president just announced the student loan forgiveness plan, and a key part of that is shoring up the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which is meant to ease burdens on people like public school teachers, but historically, it’s failed to deliver on the debt relief that it promises. So, what do you think this announcement could mean for educators in particular?
Pringle: We, of course, have been fighting for that, for this country to keep its promise, which they made well over 10 years ago in our previous administration. They did everything they possibly could to not live up to that promise, to not forgive those loans after 10 years of service. And not just that, Daniella, our students would actually come out of school and start to pay their loans back, and they ended up in more debt because we had predatory lenders. It was absolutely immoral and horrific, what happened in the previous administration.
So, the Biden administration has been working hard to try to address those issues. But we know that there’s so much more to be done, and it’s why we push them. And President Biden lived up to his promise around not only student loan forgiveness—the program itself—but also, we were very encouraged by him acknowledging the inequities built into that system and including an extra layer of assistance for those students who qualify for Pell Grants, indicating his understanding that we know there are students who come from those communities who have been historically underserved. And to provide additional relief for them was really critical. Now, we’re not finished with that battle. We are not, but we applaud the administration for the steps they have taken.
Gibbs Léger: I want to shift and talk a little bit about test scores. So, national test scores have fallen. Our average reading score is below the level it was in 1980. And our math scores have fallen for the first time since the benchmarks were created in the ‘70s. And of course, the declines and disparities we’re seeing are even more stark in low-income communities and communities of color. Now, MAGA extremists have claimed it’s a result of Democrats’ pandemic response and the shift to online learning during the height of COVID. But obviously, there are a number of factors that lead to something like this. I don’t think you can pin the blame on policies that prioritize public health and safety. So, could you give us the real skinny here and could you talk about what factors really did contribute to this phenomenon and what it means for the state of our education system? And how do we fix this?
Pringle: Everyone in America watched as we—not just here in our country, as we know, this is a global pandemic—watched the light shining on the inequities that are built into all of the systems that impact our students’ ability to learn. And while educators have long tried to stand in every gap that shows up at the schoolhouse doors, there was no way that we could make up that gap in housing and the reality of the economic injustice in this country, knowing that too many of our students come to us from communities that have food deserts. That was all real, and we knew it, and we were living with that every day. But honestly, when that light started shining and realizing that in a global pandemic, when we had to rely—not just the education system, we know this, the health care system and other systems, companies themselves—we all had to rely on our ability to connect.
And this is not a new problem. The NEA has been fighting for increases to what we call the “E-rate” forever to try to close that digital divide, not only to broadband internet access but to digital tools—all of those things. We’ve been fighting. Ironically—let me say—we had just we have convened a group of some 60 organizations to talk about the digital divide right in February of 2020, right before the pandemic hit. So we were sounding the alarm, and then it hit and in a real way. So, when we talk about student test scores, can I just say this? We know that the testing system—not only here in this country, but in others as well—does not adequately measure what our students know and are able to do. We’ve been talking about that for a very, very long time—reducing our kids to a single, standardized test score does not begin to talk about their talents and what they know.
But the reality is, the tests—certainly after a pandemic—are not a measure of that. They’re a measure of—and it showed up, it showed up—on whether or not our society is investing in closing those gaps that we know have existed forever. And it showed up during the pandemic. And then, all of those things were exacerbated, everything. All of the crises that were spawned from COVID-19, in not just health care itself, but certainly parents that couldn’t meet the basic needs of their families. More of our students were homeless. More of our students had lost parents, especially in our Black and brown and Indigenous communities. Those realities impacted whether our students were able to continue to learn or not. And that’s what those tests were measuring. That’s why it’s so important that we stay focused on closing those gaps that existed—have existed—but just grew worse.
Gibbs Léger: You talk about health; mental health and safety are two major issues in our school systems right now. With the recent wave of gun violence incidents across the country, including at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, [Texas,] we saw a lot of debate about how to make our schools safer. And during the debate about the Safer Communities Act, which went on to be passed as the first significant piece of gun legislation in decades, there was a lot of debate about how best to do this. Some wanted to arm teachers and fortify school entrances, for example. Some wanted to expand mental health resources in schools, claiming that that alone would solve the problems. What do you think? How do we make our schools safer? Does the Safer Communities Act do enough?
Pringle: We, of course, have been fighting alongside our students, who have been amazing in this fight. We here at the NEA really focused on supporting their activism, their energy, and their dogged determination to continue to push elected members of Congress, elected members of their state legislatures—passing laws at the state level—to ensure that we were doing everything we possibly could to keep our kids safe; to finally, as a nation, take on reducing gun violence not only in our schools, but in our communities. We can of course, turn a blind eye to the reality that far too many of our students and their families deal with gun violence every single day of their lives. And so, the Safer Communities Act went along far—much farther than we’ve gone in decades. But we know it’s not enough. And so, we will continue to fight those issues.
We also know that any efforts to arm teachers or to turn our schools into prisons, that’s not what our students are asking for. That’s not what our parents are demanding. They are demanding that we finally as a country take on the issue that we have far too many guns that are readily accessible, that we have not done anything to address the flood of assault rifles into our communities and into our schools, that we have not done what we needed to do to pass legislation to make sure that guns are stored safely, that the red flag laws that some of our states certainly took on—but that that we that we didn’t take on as a nation prior—were addressed. So, all of those things go into those issues, into the issues that we need to address.
In addition to the piece that you mentioned, about mental health, and not just in our schools but within our communities—and again, we applaud the Biden-Harris administration on their focus and the initiative that they took on to really focus in on mental health issues in this country, [which is] something that we have been asking for a long time, as educators consistently were asked to step up and address those issues as it came into their classrooms.
Gibbs Léger: Going back to the racial and economic disparities that we mentioned previously, I know that the pandemic-era universal lunch program recently ended. And I feel like this is something we’re not talking enough about. And it’s hard for people without kids to imagine what an impact—to measure what impact—something like this actually has. So, could you talk about what this program does, and what happens now that it’s gone?
Pringle: So, again, I think more people in this country saw the incredible amount of hunger in America that is very real. We see it every day. Our food service workers in our schools see it firsthand, as they see students at lunch eating only a portion of their lunch and packing it up and putting it in their backpacks so they can take it home to their families. We saw it during a pandemic, when we had the funding to prepare school lunches and deliver them to our students and realizing that there are students who are showing up with their entire families. And we were trying our very best to meet those needs. Certainly, some of the funding that the federal government ultimately ended up passing helped us to step into those gaps. We reached out to partners to try to feed our families, not just our students. It is very real. And that has not changed. And so, the lunch program in our schools is vital to our students and their ability to learn. We know that students who are hungry cannot learn. We know that. And by the way, that’s inhumane—that we know that we have kids who will go hungry over the weekend, because their last meal is their school lunch on Friday. That is not okay. In America, it’s just not. So, the school lunch program is vital, but it goes so far beyond that. We have got to address in this country the reality that we have far too many of our families living in poverty. That means far too many of them are not eating.
Gibbs Léger: We like to end our interviews on a positive note. So, I want to ask you, through all of this, what positive change are you seeing, especially as kids and teachers go back to school for the new year? And how can we keep up that momentum?
Pringle: I traveled across the country on what I called my joy, justice, and excellence tour last year and throughout this summer. And, can I just tell you that in those 30-plus years that I talked about at the beginning, I have never been more proud to be an educator than I have been in these last two years as I’ve seen our educators stand up for our kids. We’re seeing it now, as they’re demanding that our states and the federal government, our localities, provide what our students need and deserve; as they stood up to try to make sure that all of our students were safe as they return to school; as they supported each other as colleagues—as they lived through the pandemic, too—and tried to take care of their own families; as they championed our profession. Can I just say, I’m so proud of the work that some of our states are doing to attract more students into the profession of teaching, in particular? And trying to remove those gaps with the student loans and trying to make sure our high school students consider our profession in teaching. Our educators were doing all of that and taking care of other people’s babies every single day. I am so proud of the work they have done for our students, for each other, for our schools, and for this country. And I want everyone to join me in lifting them up, showing their appreciation, and just saying, “Thank you.”
Gibbs Léger: I wholeheartedly second that, not just as a mom to a five-year-old who just started kindergarten.
Pringle: Oh, yay, congratulations.
Gibbs Léger: Thank you. But also, my husband and I like to joke that his family has an inordinate amount of teachers in it, from new teachers to former superintendents and principals. Shout out to my cousin Alexis. So, beyond just the fact that teachers got us to where we are today in our lives, we have a very deep appreciation for the teaching profession in this household. So, it’s been an honor for me to talk to you, Becky, and I want to thank you so much for joining us on “The Tent.”
Pringle: Thank you, Daniella. Thank you so much. And thank your family—that’s fabulous.
Gibbs Léger: Thank you.
Gibbs Léger: As always, thanks for listening. Please be sure to go back and check out previous episodes. In closing, I want to chat a little bit about the U.S. Open. Queen Serena Williams lost in the—I forget—third round, maybe, of the U.S. Open last Friday in a match where she really gave her all, and it was really emotional for me. I was crying. My friends were crying. She was crying. The impact that she has had on the sport, I just don’t know that you can put it into words or measure it. But you can see it in people like Frances Tiafoe—who beat Rafael Nadal—and Coco Gauff, and all these other young players who were babies when Serena started playing and started winning. So, I’ll miss seeing her on the court. I am excited to see what she does next. But it really won’t be the same without her.
Next up, you know, we’ve got to talk about “The Bachelorette.” This week saw two episodes. Thankfully, they didn’t try to cram this all into one episode of overnights. And with me to discuss, as always, is Sam Signorelli. Hello, Sam.
Sam Signorelli: Hey.
Gibbs Léger: So, lots of drama. I mean, not surprising at all. But wow … Gabby … I felt bad for Gabby. And then I didn’t.
Signorelli: Yeah, she was going through it.
Gibbs Léger: She was definitely going through it with her guys who were just waiting until now to tell her that they think that they could see themselves getting engaged. Do these people not know when they sign up for the show that two things happen at the end? One, you do overnights. Two, you get engaged if you make it to the end. Okay, the devil’s advocate is: Well, maybe they know that, but then they get there and are like, “Oh, I didn’t think I would feel this way. I really like this person. But I really don’t think I can do it.” Nah, I’m not buying it. I’m really not. Weak sauce.
Signorelli: Yeah, I agree. I don’t know, I can certainly empathize with them being nervous about wanting to get engaged at the end of it. But Jason specifically, it seemed like he didn’t even like her that much at all. It was just so strange. Again, I totally understand being like, “I care about you so much. I think our connection is so real. I just want to make sure that we can make it out of this in the real world. So, I want to take this seriously when we leave, even if we don’t get engaged.” But she was like, “Well, do you see us being serious and committed outside of this?” And he was like, “I don’t know.” Why did she meet your parents?
Gibbs Léger: Exactly. It made no sense to me at all. It boggled my mind, and actually it reaffirmed my thoughts that I really didn’t understand how he made it to the end anyway.
Gibbs Léger: But wow, what a jerk. And then Johnny like, “Oh, she’s such a dope chick.”
Signorelli: “She’s the dopest chick I’ve ever hung with.” That’s what he said. He’s so funny.
Gibbs Léger: Well, I guess we’ll see him on the beach in “Bachelor in Paradise.”
Gibbs Léger: “Good Lord” is right. Then, we have Rachel. Listen …
Signorelli: Not her pulling a Clayton.
Gibbs Léger: Okay, thank you. So, you said it for me. I’m sitting here watching this, saying, “Now, wait a minute. Isn’t this what she got really mad at Clayton for? The exact same thing? So, you’re falling in love with Aven. You tell Tino you love him.” And then, the Twitter people were not really with it. And I kind of understand, because it literally was exactly what she was upset about with Clayton. And I don’t see how that’s going to necessarily end well for her. But what’s the other guy’s name?
Gibbs Léger: Zach—what did she say to him?
Signorelli: That was crazy.
Gibbs Léger: That was bonkers.
Signorelli: I thought it was going to be him and Tino. And then she just flipped a switch and decided that she did not like him anymore.
Gibbs Léger: Right, and it was like, you’re trying to get him to break up with you because you don’t want to break up with him? I’m very confused by that. And also, the whole, “Are you ready?” They’re the same age. She’s maybe a couple of months older than him.
Signorelli: Yeah, it’s definitely giving—she was racking her brain trying to find a reason for them to not be able to work out and for them to come to that conclusion together. And when he was like, “What are you talking about?” She was like, “I don’t know.”
Gibbs Léger: Yeah, and it’s funny, because the previews made me think that that was going in a very different direction, where it looks like him like saying, “I’m not ready.” But no, no—he was ready. He loves her. So, I don’t know. He was like, “Can we talk?” It was the way he said it. There was a lot of bass of his voice. I was like, “Oh, [censored].”
Signorelli: He does. He has a very deep voice. You can see. I guess it makes sense that him and Patrick Bateman are related. I guess bass booming runs in their family.
Gibbs Léger: Exactly. Oh, man. So, next week, is it two episodes or just one? Are they going to do an “After the Final Rose”?
Signorelli: They said it was on Tuesday. So, I guess it’s one.
Gibbs Léger: Really? Oh, you know why? Because [hums Monday Night Football theme] “Monday Night Football” is coming back. That’s why.
Signorelli: Oh, nice background.
Gibbs Léger: You like that? So, I am very worried about what happens with Erich and Gabby, but I have faith that they can overcome this. I have to believe.
Signorelli: Yeah, I want to believe it, too. I think so. I’m really hoping, again, that it was strategic editing. I don’t know.
Gibbs Léger: Yes, I hope so too.
Signorelli: Also, correction: His name is not Patrick Bateman. His name is Patrick Warburton. Patrick Bateman is a fictional character.
Gibbs Léger: I was about to say. I was like, “Wait a minute, from ‘American Psycho?’”
Signorelli: No, no. Patrick Warburton, the guy who plays Kronk [in “The Emperor’s New Groove”].
Gibbs Léger: Yes, I know who that is. But isn’t Patrick Bateman the character from “American Psycho?”
Signorelli: Yes, yes.
Gibbs Léger: Okay, alright. Which, by the way, is one of the most amazingly bonkers movies I have ever seen in my entire life. And I frequently quote lines from it randomly and people will be like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And I’m like, “It’s ‘American Psycho.’” Anyway, I’m excited for the finale. Oh, it’s next Tuesday.
Gibbs Léger: Oh, I’m not going to be able to watch it live. I have things to do. Anyway, that’s a me problem. But best be sure that by the time we tape, I will be ready to talk about it.
Signorelli: Yes, yes. We’ll make it happen. I’m in charge of your schedule. I’ll clear room in your schedule.
Gibbs Léger: Okay, thank you so much. Alright, folks, that’s all we got for this week. Again, take care of yourselves. Go get that bivalent, whatever it’s called—get the new booster. I’ve never been so excited to get a shot in my life. And we will talk to you next week.
“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. Tricia Woodcome is our booking producer, and Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Politics. Policy. Progress. All under one big tent. Produced by CAP Action, “The Tent” is a news and politics podcast hosted by Daniella Gibbs Léger. Listen each Thursday for episodes exploring topics that progressives are focused on.