Red Maryland Candidate Survey: Joanna Bache Tobin for Anne Arundel County Board of Education, District 6
Joanna Bache Tobin
B.A. Cum Laude, Wellesley College: Master of Arts in Liberal Arts, St. John’s College: Ph.D in Political Theory, Georgetown University
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Independent scholar and consultant
1995-2000, Doctoral Fellow and Teaching Assistant, Department of Government, Georgetown University: 2002-2006, Tutor, St. John’s College, Annapolis: 2006-Present Senior Moderator, Seminars Program, The Aspen Institute: 2010-2015 Member and Chair, Board of Trustees, Chesapeake Montessori School: 2012-Present, Accreditation Site Visit Team Chair, K-12 programs, The American Academy of Liberal Education: 2017-Present, Vice President, Parent Teacher Student Association, Annapolis High School.
This is the first time I have run for government office.
Why are you running for office?
I am running to be a voice for accountability, equity and transparency for students and families of District 6, as well as all of Anne Arundel County. Our teachers and schools need support, and students and families deserve to see results. My long experience as a parent and an educator, which includes education governance and oversight, have given me the knowledge and skills to meet today’s challenges.
Who do you consider your political role model, and why?
Abraham Lincoln is my political role model. I have studied Lincoln and, over the years, taught some of his speeches to students. I remain in awe of Lincoln’s intelligence, thoughtfulness, and integrity. Most of all, I am struck by his willingness to do the hard work of learning all he could as a part of his commitment to public service. He was remarkably resilient. He fought his own depression and his own failures, but found ways to learn from them to come back stronger and with a deeper understanding of who he was and what he was doing. The qualities of intelligence, thoughtfulness, integrity, willingness to learn, and resilience are essential attributes of a great political leader.
What is your favorite book about politics and policy, and why?
The writings that I find most illuminating about politics and policy are Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and addresses, particularly “The American Scholar,” “An Address to the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge” and “History.” He writes from the perspective of an individual living in what was then a young democracy, struggling to develop and find its own voice. In doing so, Emerson’s character brings to light what it takes for a democratic society to successfully function, and what it means for an individual to be a citizen. He insists that as individuals participate in their government, they also need to retain the ability to think for themselves, and to not simply fall prey to the power of conformity. With this in mind, I believe a strong public education system is essential to a sound functioning democratic society, and that every child needs to emerge from school knowing how to learn so they can make the decisions necessary for self governance.
What is your favorite book about education, and why?
My favorite book about education is Emile, or On Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, first published in 1762. It is a treatise on the nature of education, specifically as it relates to human nature as seen through the character of his student, Emile. Rousseau considered it to be the best and most important of his writings. Many contemporary writers on education are still responding to Rousseau’s arguments in one way or another. He takes on what I believe is the most important and challenging aspect of education–the need to educate the whole child. First and foremost, Emile, his student, is a person with all the attributes, both general and specific, that come with being a human being, but also a distinct individual. Through the story of Emile, Rousseau demonstrates that education is not simply about transmitting pieces of information in isolated subjects. Education is about helping individuals to grasp what they are learning through the lens of their own experiences and perspectives. This point rings true today as school systems, including Anne Arundel County, continue to grapple with developing and refining teaching techniques and curricula that focus on the student as a distinct human being. Education, at its core, must be about helping each child find their way into society as a whole human being so they can grow up to lead a healthy, fulfilling and productive life.
What will be your top priority on the Board of Education?
Accountability is my primary focus should I be elected to the AACPS Board of Education. The central function of the Board of Education is oversight. With over a decade of experience in education governance and oversight, I understand that asking the right questions, sometimes repeatedly, to get real answers is a most critical skill for a person in an oversight position. This skill is essential when examining the effects of all policies, evaluating budgets and in reviewing reports and data presented by the AACPS Superintendent and his staff.
For example, when AACPS leadership does not bring salaries and benefits for teachers in line with salaries and benefits offered by surrounding Maryland counties, in order to attract and retain the best teachers, then we need to hold AACPS leadership accountable for what our students are losing. Similarly we need to work to close the opportunity gap. When it is not happening, then we need data and information on why it is not happening, and to learn of the proposed solutions and how we will measure their success.
What is the biggest issue facing your county schools?
I believe the biggest issue facing AACPS is a teacher shortage, including teacher turnover. Additionally, AACPS has a severe shortage of substitute teachers. These issues are tied directly to the fact that Anne Arundel County pays its teachers less than surrounding counties pay teachers. A teacher shortage is tied to many other challenges, including large class sizes that do not allow teachers to give one-on-one instruction, and other staff, such as resource teachers, being pulled from their own work to substitute in classes where teachers are not available.
What is your position on the Kirwan Commission recommendations?
I support the Kirwan Commission recommendations and look forward to seeing funding proposals by the Maryland legislature and how the recommendations will be enacted over the next 10 years. I particularly support bringing teacher pay in line with surrounding Maryland counties and other states, for reasons previously stated. Additionally, I believe providing pre-K for children whose families can’t afford it is critically important because investing in children’s education early on is more cost effective, with far greater return on investments, than spending money later to help them catch up. Finally, I strongly support the portion of the Kirwan Commission recommendations that emphasize the need for formalized oversight of school spending.
What are the three biggest issues facing Maryland schools?
1. Maryland school systems are functioning on an out-of-date funding formula. Our current funding is based on 22% of students across the state living in poverty. But currently, 44% of Maryland students are living below the poverty line. Clearly Maryland schools are underfunded as evidenced by the drop of Maryland schools’ national ranking in recent years.
2. Maryland is experiencing a teacher shortage but not producing sufficient numbers of graduates from Maryland education programs to fulfill the needs of Maryland schools.
3. Vocational training has not kept up with the demands of the job market. At present, Maryland has more public alternative schools serving students who have not had success in traditional public schools, than it does public vocational schools. Students planning to enter the workforce upon graduation need trade and other skills. We need to expand vocational training and to integrate it more fully with academic curricula.
Have you read your county schools curriculum? If so, which parts do you like and which parts do you dislike?
I have read the AACPS curriculum. My concerns around AACPS curriculum have less to do with the specifics in each section, and more to do with the increasing centralization of the curriculum development process. Too often teachers are handed a curriculum developed by centralized curriculum development specialists without having had the opportunity to contribute. Teachers have sometimes been given incomplete curricula with the promise of more to come. In my experience this process can undermine good teaching. Teachers interact with students daily, so they have the best sense of what lessons will work most effectively in the classroom. While it is important to have people on staff who are current on curriculum-development best practices to work with teachers to develop curricula, a top-down approach does not contribute to good teaching. To teach effectively, teachers need to own what they teach, and should not feel that they are being handed something to simply transmit.
What is your position on school spending?
Value is the most important aspect of school spending, as with all public spending. Are we investing our money in the most effective way possible? We need to examine carefully, at every education level, where and how our money is being spent, and to what extent it is or is not fulfilling the central purpose of education, which is to give all our children the best access to education opportunities.
Currently, it is clear in Anne Arundel County that we need to raise our teachers’ salaries to levels that are comparable with the surrounding Maryland counties. At the same time, the centralized staff working at the Board of Education building on Riva Road in Annapolis is large, and many of those staff positions command considerably higher salaries than many teachers. While some of these central office positions require significant experience and serve critical functions, not all do.
Please identify the three areas which you believe should be prioritized when it comes to school funding
What is your position on teacher tenure?
I agree with the current tenure policy for AACPS teachers that states that after three years of successful evaluations a teacher can be granted tenure. Three years is a reasonable amount of time to determine if a teacher has had a successful trajectory. Teachers with tenure can be dismissed, but they are guaranteed due process.
What is your position on standardized testing?
While I believe that standardized tests can be useful tools for measuring general outcomes and trajectories for students and schools, I do not think they should be used as the singular, final measure of success. Standardized test scores should be considered as one of many indicators of how a student and a school are doing in learning and teaching. But there are many other factors including student GPA’s, narrative evaluations of students, students’ project portfolios, when available, and, for schools, issues like teacher turnover, administrative turnover, and student outcomes such as graduation.
What is your position on classroom size?
Limiting classroom size is one of the most critical components in helping students to achieve better learning outcomes. When a teacher has to teach to a class of 35 students, it is simply not possible to provide the one-on-one instruction that many students will need at some point. We also know from anecdotal evidence and studies that a relationship formed between the student and the teacher is one of the most important parts of successful teaching, jeopardized by large class sizes. Classes that are too big also discourage and exhaust teachers and can contribute to high teacher turnover in schools.
Do you believe the Board of Education should have taxation authority?
I am comfortable with the current fiscal structure in Anne Arundel County.