Archive for September, 2014

Protests Over Anti-Protest Curriculum

September 26, 2014 Comments off

I was disheartened to read the NYTimes report about the events that took place in Jefferson County, Colorado on Tuesday where a 3-2 conservative majority on the Board is calling for a re-write of the K-12 social studies curriculum. The three conservative members of the board proposed the board create “…a curriculum-review committee to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” The wording of the mission for the curriculum review committee is revealing: it assumes that a student who exhibits “patriotism” would yield to authority, not question the adverse consequences of unfettered free enterprise, and would not be exposed to educational materials describing various anti-government, labor and civil rights movements. Which begs the question of how social studies teachers will present the American revolution against England, a revolution fought by many of the founding fathers so beloved by the conservatives. And evidently the committee wants the social studies review to include AP History! Here’s hoping that ETS isn’t getting IT’S funding from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group that helped underwrite the election of the three conservatives on the Jefferson County School board.

I found this report to be disheartening because I want to believe that informed voters will elect forward thinking and open minded board members who want to see students question the status quo in all subjects and witness a high functioning democratic institution taking action to improve their schools. I would hope that longstanding superintendents like Jefferson County’s Cindy Stevenson would be respected and heeded by newly elected board members. I would hope that when a superintendent resigns or retires that boards would conduct extensive searches for new superintendents and not appoint a district leader without public engagement.

The only good news I read: the first amendment has not been repealed in Colorado and democracy MAY be alive. The students decided to show the newly elected Board member that sometimes it is necessary to protest in order be heard and they seemingly organized and carried out a peaceful and relatively orderly demonstration. After getting feedback in the form of the student walkout, the board put off their discussion of the curriculum-review committee proposal, and Ken Witt, the board president,

…suggested that some of its proposed language about not promoting “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law” might be cut.”

A lot of those words were more specific and more pointed than they have to be,” Mr. Witt said. He said that the school board was responsible for making decisions about curriculum and that the review committee would give a wider spectrum of parents and community members the power to examine what was taught in schools. He said that some had made censorship allegations “to incite and upset the student population.”

I would hope that the “wider spectrum” promise is kept and that they will be able to work collaboratively— or at least civilly– to develop a social studies curriculum that aligns with the one ETS uses to develop its AP tests.

College Students Lose, Colleges Win

September 26, 2014 Comments off

Distressing news today for college students as reported in Huffington Post: the USDOE has decided NOT to punish colleges for “questionable servicing practices” that resulted in students being punished for loan defaults while colleges whose loan servicing caused the defaults allowed to remain open and free of any financial penalties.

Here’s the way it works for college students who need to borrow money to attend college: They can get a federal loan or grant through their college. Over the course of their education, the school they attend might change the companies that service their loans, making it conceivable that a degreed or non-degreed student might have multiple collectors seeking paybacks for the money they borrowed. This phenomenon is called “split-servicing”. As recently as November 2011 USDOE reported that “…some 500,000 borrowers with federal student loans were being forced to make multiple monthly payments to different loan companies.” If one or more of the servicers is negligent in collecting the funds, the student is penalized.  How?

Borrowers in default on at least one of their federal student loans face high collection fees, damaged credit scores, an inability to secure home mortgages or auto loans, and garnishment of their tax refunds and Social Security payments, said Cochrane of the Institute for College Access & Success.

recent federal audit revealed that the Education Department is demanding so much money from seniors with defaulted student loans that it’s forcing tens of thousands of them into poverty. At least 105,000 Americans had a part of their Social Security benefits garnished last year to the point that their monthly benefits were below federal poverty thresholds, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Here’s the way it works for colleges: as long as less than 30% of the college’s student/borrowers do not default on a loan within the first three years they are required to make payments, the government will continue to guarantee the loans. If, however, the default rate is 30% or greater, the college could lose access to taxpayer-provided student aid, and that “…would be the equivalent of a death sentence for most colleges.” 

And here’s what’s happening: at least 20 institutions should have gotten the so-called “death penalty” but they dodged a bullet because the federal government did not include students who were current on payments for ONE loan but made no equivalent provision for the students. This decision had the effect of lowering the percentage of “default students” giving the institutions a reprieve from the “death penalty” but maintaining the penalties applied to students.

Borrowers aren’t getting any relief or similar consideration from the Education Department,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the California-based Institute for College Access & Success, which advocates affordable education. “If the school isn’t held accountable for the default, then the borrower shouldn’t either.”

“Borrowers have no control over who services their loans. So why not remove the defaults from the borrowers’ records as well?” Cochrane said.

Of course the real winners in this are the servicers who collect the fees and the banks who collect the money even if the students default. “WHAT???”, you ask?

Jeff Baker, a senior official at the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid office, says the Education Department

…has tried to ensure that all student borrowers only deal with one company when making their loan payments. For example, it has put an emphasis on borrowers with Direct loans and FFEL loans owned by the Education Department, which it purchased under a 2008 financial crisis-era law that amounted to a $110 billion bailout of the student loan industry, according to figures cited by Baker.

I’m not a financial expert, but I BELIEVE that $110,000,000,000 did not go to colleges and did not go to students who couldn’t make loan payments… it went to banks. Oh, and where exactly did that $110,000,000,000 come from? I think my tax returns helped a little bit. Oh… and if I’m wrong and someone wants to set the record straight, please do so…

Money, Politics, and Public Education

September 25, 2014 Comments off

One of the education blogs I receive included a link to this chilling report from the NPR station in New Mexico. It seems that Kathy Korte, a school board member in Albquerque, New Mexico, launched a grassroots organization called Stand4KidsNM, “…a statewide movement and social media campaign to oppose what they see as corporate standardization and an overemphasis on testing.” Because education has become intertwined with politics in NM, the group has effectively endorsed the Democratic candidate for governor, who shares their concerns. As a result, Ms. Korte is being slimed by members of the Republican party in the state and the attention of a “GOP opposition research group” from Washington DC. Monica Youngblood, a Republican members of the NM House of Representatives,  has “…alleged that the Stand4kidsNM group is in violation of the campaign reporting act, stating that the group “Raises, collects, expends or contributes money or any other thing of value for a political purpose… advocating the election of (Democrat) Gary King”, all without registering as a political action committee.”  

There is one problem with Ms. Youngblood’s assertion: Stand4KidsNM has not made any campaign contributions to Gary King. There is another problem for Ms. Youngblood and the opposition research group: Ms. Korte is not easily intimidated:

“I’ll be damned if anybody tries to bully me into quiet and submission” she says. “If I am a voice for a lot of  people who are afraid  then so be it, I’ll be that voice, I don’t mind being that voice. There are a lot of people who are afraid ” she says.

“It’s like you know what, if you don’t agree with this then you ought to have the ability to say that, without being scared that you are going to be fired” she says.

The title of this post— “Money, Politics, and Public Education”— reflects what is happening more and more with “reform” opponents like Ms. Youngblood and, as noted in earlier posts, progressives like Bill diBlasio: the people with money are willing to do whatever is needed to marginalize or quiet those who oppose the testing and privatization movement… and, as witnessed in NYS, Democrats are as complicit in this as Republicans.

I read a recent editorial lamenting the difficulty in recruiting qualified people to run for public office. When  outspoken local school board members like Kathy Korte are the focal point of national political organizations it is not surprising that people want to avoid public service… and those national political organizations could not thrive without “dark money”. We need to get money out of politics if we want good people to run for office and if we want to have an informed and reasoned debate about public policy.


Deconstructing Reynoldsburg From a Distance

September 25, 2014 2 comments

Over the past several months I watched the conflict between the Reynoldsburg School Board and the Reynoldsburg Education Association unfold from a distance. At this juncture, I have a bad feeling about how this is all going to end for Reynoldsburg because it appears from blog posts I’m reading from 1,000 miles away that the conflict in the community MAY be a proxy for what is occurring at the State level… and if that is the case, “higher forces” may want to see a “victory” instead of a settlement. I am offering this unsolicited advice to both parties on the assumption that the Reyonldsburg community is not interested in being a proxy and wants to reach a settlement that will get children back into classrooms and get the Board and REA working harmoniously in the years ahead.

Thanks to Google, I was able to review news reports from the past several months. From those reports I identified areas where I believe the Board and the REA made some tactical errors… and an area where they both erred. After reading through this information, writing a draft of this post, and reflecting on it for a day, my conclusion is that the fastest way out of the woods would be to have the federal mediator to persuade the REA and Reynoldsburg Board to agree to binding arbitration.

Here’s where I believe the Board erred based on media reports and “best practices”:

  • The Board did not conduct a wide and public search for a Superintendent: The current Superintendent, Tina Thomas-Manning, was appointed by the board without any public input or engagement. As one who was on the receiving end of several searches and one who has conducted several searches, I am a strong believer in the need to have public engagement as part of the administrative search process. An administrative search that includes public engagement provides the Board with a sense of what the community and teachers are seeking in a leader and provides the incoming administrator with a greater understanding of the context of the assignment and the community, teacher, parent, and Board expectations. Public interviews, which are often a part of the public engagement process, can be problematic for the “recruit” since they often require the release of the applicant’s name and credentials which can create some turmoil in the applicant’s current workplace. But having been in that situation on several occasions I believe the trade off is worth it. While Thomas-Manning was a known quantity to the board and the school community, her credibility as the optimal applicant would have been strengthened had she been hired using a more open process… and some of the claims about her allegiances to State level politicians I’ve read in various blogs might not have as much traction.
  • The Board delegated too much authority to the Superintendent in the negotiations process: In the six states where I served as Superintendent, in my graduate courses in the 1970s, and in many negotiations seminars I attended over three decades, I learned that the Board should “own” the negotiations process and decisions and the Superintendent should play the role of intermediary. In some small districts I served as chief negotiator for the Board, but in those cases I made it clear that only the full board could make the final decisions regarding bargaining positions. In larger districts I worked with the Board and administrators to set negotiations objectives and conferred with the board negotiations team on an as needed basis. In many instances the board hired a professional negotiator, often an attorney with a strong background in state and federal employment laws. In all cases, the majority of the board members made the key decisions regarding the bargaining process and set the collective bargaining parameters. By giving the full authority to a newly appointed Superintendent with no previous collective bargaining experience (at least none that was referenced in article announcing her appointment) they acted irresponsibly and placed the Superintendent in a very difficult position since she will ultimately be responsible for unifying the district once the strike is over.
  • The Board is stuck on one form of performance pay: The traditional lock-step unitary pay schedule is imperfect but it DOES have a “merit” component! It defines “merit” as the accumulation of years of experience (steps) and graduate credits (tracks). The board and superintendent seem to be stuck on the notion that steps and tracks should be abandoned and standardized test scores should be used to define “merit”. This notion mirrors the “school reform” philosophy of the current leaders of the Ohio State Department of Education and the current USDOE leadership. As I’ve written repeatedly on this blog (see value added entries) the use of test scores to measure teacher performance has no statistical validity and has the effect of narrowing the curriculum. I’ve also written elsewhere on this blog that there are other ways to replace the traditional pay scale that would use a more holistic and research based means of measuring “merit”, ways that MIGHT gain traction with the REA if they were considered.
  • The Board was intent on keeping schools open at all cost: Authorizing the contract with Huffmaster, whose “Strike Services” division’s motto is “when strikes threaten, no one works harder for you” and authorizing the acquisition of $200,000+ of  laptop computers to “…support lessons given by substitute teachers paid to cross picket lines” was a signal that the Board was going to try to keep school open even if it required them to pay more money for poorer services. It had two other adverse effects: it undercut the sincerity of their binding arbitration offer and made it appear that privatization might be their ultimate goal.

Here’s where I believe the teachers erred based on media reports:

  • The REA did not emphasize their willingness to explore “merit pay”: One article from a weekly Reynoldsburg News reported that “(t)he district has studied merit pay for three years and has included REA members in the discussion. More than 20 volunteered to participate in a two-year merit-pay pilot program, and hundreds have received a “student incentive award” based on student performance, for the past 10 years.”  The REA should emphasize this as evidence of their openness to exploring “merit pay”, explain why the pilot program was deficient, and explain why they do not want this kind of compensation plan even though “hundreds” of teachers received “student incentive awards” over the past 10 years. The REA could also educate the public about the preposterous way test scores are being used to measure the performance of teachers in the district now as a means of demonstrating the impracticality of basing “merit” on tests.
  • The REA did not provide a clear explanation of their rationale for refusing binding arbitration: The GFA Blue Blog, which is evidently somewhat right of center in its politics, poses a question in this blog post from earlier this week that the REA should address: “Why did the REA Reject Binding Arbitration?”. If the answer is “we wanted to retain the right to strike”, if public will ultimately perceive the REA as “causing” the strike. If there is another answer the REA should provide it ASAP.
  • The REA did not link class size caps to open enrollment revenues: From all evidence on line, Reynoldsburg is gaining students from its open enrollment plan… and gaining corresponding revenue of $5700 per student as a result. Those funds could be used to limit the budget’s impact on taxes OR they could be used to ensure that teachers have a manageable class size. It appears that the open enrollment initiative and the increase in class sizes are linked… and… if that is the case the REA is missing an opportunity to make a stronger case for their “cap” demands.

And here’s where I believed BOTH parties erred: they wanted a victory instead of a settlement.

One possible way to get teachers back into the classrooms without either party “losing face”: have both parties agree to binding arbitration. This would clearly require a concession by both parties, but concessions are necessary for a settlement to be reached and having an impartial third party resolve the conflict in this case seems to be the best way out of the woods.

The REA apparently didn’t want to enter into binding arbitration because it would prevent them from striking… Well… they’ve had a strike and from what I’ve read in some alternative media sources, the results aren’t good. The REA could “save face” on this issue by accurately claiming that their members are dismayed at what they are witnessing in the schools during the strike and want to get back into their classrooms and spend time with their teachers. After proving their point about the right to strike they are now prepared to let an arbitrator decide who is right. If, on the other hand, the REA remains closed to the idea of arbitration to “save face” they could appear to be stubborn and unyielding and, as note above, be perceived as causing the strike in the first place.

By agreeing to re-offer arbitration offer to the REA, the Board would “save face” by using that action to demonstrate its desire to achieve a settlement quickly so that teachers and administrators can get back to work educating the children in the community. If, on the other hand, the Board wants to withhold its binding arbitration offer because of the REA’s vote to strike, they would effectively be advocating that what is happening now in the classrooms is OK and insisting that the REA be punished for striking.

Will a settlement occur after Sunday’s scheduled session? Has the strike softened positions or annealed them? I would hope that the majority of the public would be on the side of the students who want their teachers back in the classroom and, sensing that community will, BOTH sides will soften their positions… forget about “winning”… and get a settlement.

Why Rank High Schools?

September 24, 2014 Comments off

Vox recently posted an article titled by Libby Nelson titled  “Ranking High Schools Tells You Which are Rich or Selective“, a title that reveals the content of the article and reveals what any educator in America can tell you even though no politician or major media outlet will never admit as much. As the article demonstrates, the great majority of the highest ranking high schools in America based on metrics devised by the Daily Beast, have two commonalities: they have selective enrollments or they are located in affluent communities with few students on free and reduced lunch. Vox ultimately poses and answers the question at the end of the next paragraph:

Publications know they’re mostly ranking on wealth and selectivity. It’s why there are separate lists for schools that actually enroll low-income students in both the Daily Beastand Newsweek rankings. So why do it?

Because everybody loves rankings. And because nearly everybody went to public high school. And because most people are friends with high school classmates on Facebook, where they will eagerly share lists of where their alma mater is ranked. For all of their complex statistical methodology, high school rankings are really just sheer entertainment.

In other words, nobody should take these rankings seriously — and nobody should expect them to go away any time soon.

I think Vox missed one important point in their response to this question, a point they made in justifying college rankings: when something is ranked one assumes it can be acquired on the open market. Nelson writes:

College rankings, at least in theory, are responding to a need in the market. Students applying to prestigious, selective colleges — particularly students who have the academic qualifications and the financial means to go to college anywhere — have quite a few to choose from. Enter rankings, a way to sort through it all. 

Later in the same section of the article she notes that this isn’t applicable to high schools because:

…knowing what the best high school is doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to live in its attendance area or if you don’t have the test scores to get in.

From my perspective, the idea of ranking public schools is a way to subtly reinforce the notion that if parents had a choice they could get their child placed in one of these schools… and the whole issue of providing an equal opportunity for learning is solved.

In a perfect world, politicians, businessmen, and voters would look at the rankings, look at the correlation between poverty rates and rankings, and conclude that schools serving children raised in poverty need more funds. But, to paraphrase the concluding sentence of the blog post, nobody should expect this to happen any time soon!


The 1% Starts a Bogus Generational War

September 24, 2014 Comments off

Dean Baker, a progressive economist who writes for Common Dreams, deconstructs a recent Washington Post article by Catherine Rampell that would typically have garnered sympathetic coverage in this blog had I not read his analysis first.

Here’s what’s happening relative to this issue— and relative to too many arcane economic issues in our country: a neo-liberal or conservative Think Tank issues a white paper full of persuasive statistics that “distract people from the upward redistribution to the rich” in this case by misrepresenting spending on the elderly, which purportedly “…threatens to crowd out spending on our children.” Baker not only asserts that “just about every claim in the column is either seriously misleading or outright wrong“, he proves it by presenting facts to the contrary or by illustrating that the spending comparisons are bogus. A clear case in point is illustrated in these paragraphs from Rampell’s article:

Spending on kids as a share of the budget is projected to decline dramatically in the coming decade — to just 7.8 percent by 2024. If you exclude health spending, spending on children falls in raw, inflation-adjusted dollars, too, not just as a percentage of total spending.

“‘Kids’ share of federal spending isn’t tumbling because children are suddenly becoming a smaller fraction of the population. Nor is this happening because we live in an “age of austerity”; the sizes of both the economy and tax revenue are at all-time highs, after accounting for inflation, and are expected to keep growing. Federal spending overall is likewise projected to swell in coming years.”

And this rejoinder from Baker:

Okay, why would we exclude spending on health care for kids, unless we are trying to deceive readers? After all, the piece doesn’t exclude spending on health care when it discusses spending on the elderly. Also, we know that the main avenue for spending on kids is education. This is done primarily at the state and local level. Rampell acknowledges this point later in the piece, but then why the histrionics over the age composition of federal spending?

Also saying that we are not in an age of austerity is bizarre. Tax revenues as a share of GDP have fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s. Yes, the economy is growing and the budget is growing along with it, but what matters are the shares of the GDP going to tax revenue.

Ms. Rampell also uses the federal government’s increased social security spending as evidence that children are being short changed but neglects to mention one key point that Baker emphasizes:

The numbers for spending on seniors might sound dramatic, but it is important to remember that they paid for their Social Security benefits in full. In fact,according to the Urban Institute, which provided much of the basis for this column, the typical senior will have paid somewhat more in taxes to Social Security over their working lifetime than what they can expect to receive back in benefits. Complaining about what seniors get paid out without noting what they paid in would be like complaining about the interest payments that rich people get on their government bonds without noting that they paid for their bonds.

By the time Baker finishes with his analysis, both Rampell’s column and the Think Tank White Paper it is based on are exposed as flawed and inaccurate. Alas, Baker’s arguments are more sophisticated and less dramatic than those advanced by the think tanks that generate these seemingly shocking statistics… and they are also not picked up by the mainstream press or the Sunday talk shows… and so we should expect to be reading more articles about how the elderly are stealing from the children but should NOT expect to read articles about “…the upward redistribution to the rich.”  Oh… and the hidden message is this: we don’t need to raise taxes on the wealthy, we can solve our problems by reducing spending on the elderly.

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The Strike in OH

September 23, 2014 Comments off

Late last week I wrote a blog post offering advice to my niece who was about to go on strike in an  unnamed school district in Ohio. I decided NOT to list the name when I wrote the post because I help out some hope that there might be an 11th hour settlement in which case my generally universal concerns about strikes would be applicable. But…

The strike occurred on Friday and over the weekend she— as a parent in the Reynoldsburg School District where the strike is occurring— received the following email (with my emphases added) over the weekend:

Notification from: Reynoldsburg City Schools

Dear Reynoldsburg families,

My administrative team and school principals have spent the weekend adjusting our plans to engage students in learning at school while their teachers are on strike. Although it is understandable, the heightened emotional state and corresponding behavior of some of our older students demands that we structure our school days differently to help everyone focus on academics. Students’ cooperation is absolutely essential. Please review these plans and talk them over with your children ahead of time.

High Schools
At the high schools, we will introduce a highly structured environment until students are more comfortable with the situation and regain their composure. We have reassigned some administrative staff to the high schools in order to facilitate our plans for the next few days. 

  • Students will be greeted on the bus or at the door by an administrator or Reynoldsburg staff member who will escort them in groups of approximately 30 to a classroom, where they will spend the day together.
  • Students will be provided assignments to complete – which will count toward their core course grades. Over the next 1-3 days, all students will receive a laptop and online curriculum. The online work will be much more customized to their individual learning needs.
  • Breakfast and lunch will be delivered to students in their classrooms.
  • Restroom and exercise breaks will be provided on a schedule.
  • Students who are insubordinate will be suspended.
  • Shuttles between the two campuses will be suspended for at least Monday and Tuesday. Students may take a bus home from whichever campus they are on. Students who need to know their home bus assignments will be able to get them from administrators on Monday, but it would be helpful if you looked up your student’s route ahead of time:

In an effort to assist us with our plans for safety, Reynoldsburg police will begin actively enforcing truancy laws on Monday. If you as a parent decide to keep your child out of school for any reason, please keep them home. Students who are causing distractions, especially near any schools, may be taken into custody by police. Police tell us that they will attempt to contact the students’ parents first. If unsuccessful, they plan to take students to Children’s Services until parents can be reached.

Middle/Junior High Schools
Beginning Monday morning, administrative staff will assign students laptops and assist substitute teachers in accessing online curriculum. The software provided will be highly personalized to each student based on their academic needs, so it should seem more relevant and challenging to the students. Students’ work and participation will count toward their grades in core classes. More structure will be introduced where necessary. Students, for example, might not change classes until they are more settled and comfortable. 

Elementary schools
Elementary schools will be the highest priority for new substitute teacher placements until all children can be returned to their regular classrooms. Principals have provided lesson plans for all grade levels and subjects and will focus on ensuring that those plans are being followed. Grades on those assignments will be recorded and turned in to principals. We expect to reintroduce engaging learning activities for students. We are working with some of our long-time partners to bring activities to the schools as soon as this week. 

Despite what you may have read or seen on TV, it is important to know that as I toured buildings on Friday, the first day of the teacher’s strike, there were many students who were highly cooperative and supportive to their peers and substitute teachers. They handled this very confusing situation with the pride and respect that we expect.  

Please understand that my top consideration is the safely and well-being of our students. In a structured environment, we expect to be able to help students acclimate to the situation more quickly so that they do not fall behind academically. We look forward to returning to a more normal schedule as soon as possible. This is a difficult time for everyone and a confusing one for some students. Parents play an important role in making sure that students come to school focused and ready to learn. We urge parents to remind their students that the most important thing they can do during this time is to continue to learn.


Tina Thomas-Manning, Superintendent

I was a school superintendent for 29 years so I have a certain degree of empathy for the position the Superintendent is in. She needs to do everything possible to keep the schools functioning while the strike is going on. I understand the pressure she faces on all fronts.

But I was also an adjunct teacher who trained administrators at a SUNY Graduate School of Education … and in that capacity I offer this feedback to Dr. Thomas-Manning: re-read this memo and look carefully at the messages and meta-messages.

  • Laptop computers can replace high school and middle school teachers. Computers provide students with lessons that are “…much more customized to their individual learning needs” at the high school level and “…more relevant and challenging” at the middle school level,
  • Structure is important. A more structured environment is needed to ensure that students “do not fall behind academically”
  • Elementary education is more important than high school education. Computers won’t be used at the elementary level and elementary schools will receive “…the highest priority for new substitute teacher placements”.
  • Principals can write lesson plans as well as teachers can
  • We’re going to be tough and uncompromising during this strike: We want the police to arrest your child if they are “causing a distraction” during school hours, so you better make certain that if you don’t send them to school that you keep them in your home… and… We will suspend your child if one of our substitute teachers believes your child was “insubordinate”
  • “Community partners” are supporting us in this strike
  • Substitute teachers without certification or training can do as good a job as certified, qualified, and experienced teachers.
  • We’re expecting this to last a while 

Here’s my concern for Dr. Thomas-Manning: the strike WILL end at some point and teachers WILL return to their classes. Re-read this memo, look carefully at the messages and meta-messages, and start working on the message you will deliver when the doors open and the REA teachers return.