Candidate Survey: Melissa Ellis for Anne Arundel County Board of Education, District 4
BA Psychology, University of Maryland Baltimore County
The focus of my studies at UMBC was early child development and education. In 2009, I began homeschooling our four children after continuing concerns with the curriculum and administration in our schools. As education began moving deeper and deeper into testing/performance-based academics, we felt that the development of the child as a whole and opportunities for creativity were lacking. After homeschooling our oldest two children beginning in third and first grades, they made the decision to go to public high school to enjoy the social benefits of a conventional high school setting. Both transitioned successfully and have enjoyed academic and extra-curricular success following an elementary and middle school experience that enabled them to develop their creativity and independence. Our oldest daughter is graduating this year and has had a successful college application experience. I am still homeschooling our two youngest children in grades 8 and 6. My passion for education from the birth of our first child and continuing from my college education has led to me being an avid reader of current research and practices in education for the last two decades. The knowledge I have acquired over that time greatly influences my educational practices at home and provides inspiration for changes I would like to see in our public schools.
I have no prior political experience, but I am very excited to be a part of the very first election for the Board of Education in Anne Arundel County.
Social Media Accounts
Facebook: Melissa Ellis for Anne Arundel County Board of Education – District 4 (@melissaellisboe)
Why are you running for office?
I feel strongly that our public schools have gone off track since the demand for accountability has led to a system of performance and high-stakes testing. The focus has shifted from the development of the minds of our students to reaching numerical goals in our classrooms. At the same time, our schools have an increasing challenge of inadequate staffing as our schools suffer from class sizes of over 40 students and guidance counselors carry caseloads 2-3 times the recommended size. All of this has caused our children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual needs to be put aside. What was started with good intentions has led to an education system that is failing to sufficiently prepare students for the next step, whether that be college or employment, and tragically, a rising rate of social-emotional challenges including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. We have an urgent need to change direction and take a research-based approach to education that will develop the whole child and put us back on track to once again growing creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, leaders, skilled workers, and artists who will lead successful lives and be great contributors to society.
Who do you consider your political role model, and why?
This is a tough one for me, as I focus on policies and practices that I believe will be effective. Most would probably consider me all over the place on the political spectrum, so naming a person that would represent my personal politics would probably paint an inaccurate picture of where I stand on certain issues. There is a reason that the Board of Education is a non-partisan race, as it should be. I can tell you that I am inspired by various politicians, on both sides of the aisle and in between, at different times when their actions show that they are acting in a way to make this world a better place and not for their own advancement.
What is your favorite book about politics and policy, and why?
I don’t read much about politics short of current events. I do find it challenging to find sources that our unbiased, so I read from many different sources. I can give you a quote from my favorite book which is not a book about politics, but it gives an idea of where I stand philosophically as far as the relationship between the individual and society:
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.” – John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”
What is your favorite book about education, and why?
I would probably say, “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling” by John Taylor Gatto. Gatto was a teacher in New York public schools for 30 years and just prior to resigning was awarded his state’s Teacher of the Year. I read his book after I began homeschooling, but his concerns with our education system echo what more and more parents are feeling about conventional schooling. Homeschooling is no longer just a movement for religious conservatives, but more and more secular families have begun the practice in search of greater intellectual freedom for their children. And while Gatto’s book initially served as an affirmation for our decision to homeschool our own children, it now serves as inspiration for me to bring real change to public education.
What will be your top priority on the Board of Education?
While my long-term goals of making education a healthier and more meaningful experience in which we develop the whole child will take years to achieve and will require working with the state to make some of these changes possible, my first priority has to be the short-term goal of ensuring our budget focuses our resources into adequately staffing our schools which includes teacher retention efforts. Over the past decade, spending at the administration level in Anne Arundel County Public Schools has increased 36% while spending on teachers and staff working directly with our students has increased only 11%. This ratio reflects our school system’s priorities which is consistent with my concerns about shifting focus away from the students. While I do believe we need to work with our County Executive and County Council to sufficiently fund our schools, our priorities do need to be reflected in the budget that we present to them.
What is the biggest issue facing your county schools?
I believe the biggest issue facing our schools is the mental health and development of our students. High academic standards cannot be met when students’ most basic needs are not being met first. As described above, this is a systemic problem created by an uninspiring curriculum and inadequate staffing, as well as the unreasonable expectation for our students to check their troubles at the door as they spend over six hours each day in this institutional setting. Anne Arundel County is an extremely diverse county with all levels of socioeconomic backgrounds as well as great racial and cultural diversity. Our schools need to better address students where they are and empower each student to develop as an individual, addressing their own personal challenges rather than the one-size-fits all approach. Again, this will require adequate staffing as well as applying research-based practices in our schools.
What are the three biggest issues facing Maryland schools?
The use of Common Core and PARCC testing is the first big hurdle we need to address. For reasons stated throughout my responses, these standards have caused education to shift the focus away from developing our individual students. We need to find better ways to measure the effectiveness of our schools that don’t involve these high-stakes performance standards and force our teachers and administrators to focus more on numbers and less on students.
On the campaign trail I have interviewed many teachers, parents, board members, and local politicians, and it is really difficult to get a clear picture of the funding issues in our schools, whether we are funding enough or whether we are spending appropriately. It seems to be one big exercise in finger-pointing. I believe we need to comb through our budget at the local level and look for misguided spending and inefficiencies and create greater transparency between the Board, teachers union, and county government. At the state level, we need to ensure that funding reflects education as the top priority. All of society benefits when our schools are of the highest quality. It is the most cost-effective strategy for any government.
As we hopefully move away from Common Core and high-stakes testing, it is critical that we study best practices and apply research-based practices in the classroom. There are school systems across the country and around the world that are realizing the benefits of a whole-child education and revolutionizing conventional classrooms. We do not need to reinvent the wheel, but just do our research and focus on our students.
Have you read your county schools curriculum? If so, which parts do you like and which parts do you dislike?
I have read through the overview of the curriculum in the various subjects on our school system’s website. The objectives listed seem appropriate with the exception of regular testing throughout the year which is disruptive to the learning process and brings all sorts of challenges and interference to deep learning and development of the mind. With this focus on testing, I believe the curriculum has been developed in a way that is not effectively meeting the objectives stated in the curriculum overview. My own children’s experience as well as talking to many other students, parents, and teachers lead me to believe that my concerns with the curriculum are shared by many throughout our school system.
What is your position on school spending?
I believe it is imperative that every dollar spent is for the benefit of our students. If our board were to commission an independent audit and look for misguided spending and inefficiencies, we could take ownership of our budget and appeal to our taxpayers as necessary to ensure our schools are sufficiently funded. I don’t believe the type of audit our school system currently uses addresses these issues. The top priority in spending has to be in staffing our schools with high-quality teachers and other student support staff and retaining that staff. No curriculum will be successfully applied when there is constant turnover and not enough staff working with our students. Here too is where we need to study best practices and look at school systems throughout the world to find those that achieve a high level of education efficiently.
Please identify the three areas which you believe should be prioritized when it comes to school funding
Curriculum Development, New School Construction, Teacher Pay
What is your position on teacher tenure?
I believe teacher tenure is a valuable retention tool when applied responsibly. Teacher retention is one of our biggest challenges, and research shows that student achievement is tied to the effectiveness of teachers. Ideally, our school system will weed out less effective teachers and seek to retain our effective teachers. Tenure will ensure that we keep our effective teachers and they will not be lost to our school system over a political dispute or some administrator’s short-sighted attempt to save a few dollars. It is critical that we retain the ability to terminate for just cause, but the benefits of tenure as a retention strategy make this practice worthwhile for our schools.
What is your position on standardized testing?
My personal observation as well as mounting research points to most standardized testing having no real benefit to our students’ academic advancement and may inhibit the development of cognitive skills and creativity as well as having a detrimental effect on their emotional well-being. There may be value in a few tests throughout a child’s school career if used as an indicator of where we are succeeding and where we may be falling short throughout our schools, but tying student placement and advancement as well as teacher career status to a single measure has proven counterproductive in the pursuit of academic achievement for our students.
What is your position on classroom size?
This is one example of where we need to apply research to education practice. Studies have found a positive association between reduction in class size and academic achievement.This effect is even stronger for students typically negatively affected by the achievement gap. In addition, large class sizes may be a contributing factor to the increase in student social-emotional challenges, as research also shows that positive teacher-child relationships contribute to healthy social-emotional development in children. It is difficult for teachers to make these important connections with their students when class sizes are too large. In general, focusing our resources on these basic needs will likely save our school system money by reducing the need for programs that have been designed to address the challenges in our schools. We need to break the cycle of saving money on payroll and then spending money on growing our administration to manage the problems created by inadequate staffing in our schools.
Do you believe the Board of Education should have taxation authority?
I believe it is the responsibility of the Board of Education to determine and communicate the funding that is needed to provide a high quality education to all students. This requires a thorough understanding of where resources are currently going, where our resources would be best focused based on researching best practices, and presenting a comprehensive budget to our county government clearly indicating the needs that would make our schools operate efficiently and effectively for all students. It will take leadership and an ability to work well with our County Executive and County Council to effectively communicate the needs we have for our public schools. I do not believe that it is realistic for the Board of Education as an entity to have taxation authority outside of our County Council. Adequate funding of our schools is critical to our community, and it is the responsibility of all of our leaders to recognize this and to convince the taxpayers of the importance of this issue. However, there do need to be checks and balances, and a school system under poor leadership could easily go out of control in spending and taxing our citizens if they had this authority.