First Person

How I convinced my staff that state standards and PARCC tests benefit kids

PHOTO: Lana Gardner
Second-graders at Las Animas Elementary work on a science experiment.

Our First Person feature spotlights the voices of people on the front lines of the critical education issues facing Colorado. If you’d like to contribute, here are the details

A few years ago, many teachers in my rural area discounted Colorado’s new academic standards and the upcoming switch to PARCC testing as just another fad. Some suggested that we just wait it out.

I disagreed, and at Las Animas Elementary School, where I am the principal, it was a long, messy process of adjusting how we teach, what materials we use, and how we judge success. But five years later, my staff is stronger and smarter, with a better grasp of content than ever before. I see that translating to better teaching for our students every day.

How we got there feels like an important story for anyone trying to understand what it takes for big changes like these to succeed in real classrooms.

Prior to the shift, our teachers had little to no understanding of academic standards. Book publishers had educators convinced that their textbooks were “standards-based,” and as long as they covered the entire book, students would learn all they needed to know.

To this end, teachers turned in calendars before the start of each school year with lesson numbers mapped to the days. As the year went on, they were left frustrated that they were expected to keep up with that roadmap regardless of students’ understanding of the concepts. Conversations centered on “Chapter 4” or “Lesson 9.2,” instead of actual concepts or students, were the norm.

In my previous role as a high school math teacher, I saw myself that many textbook lessons lacked focus and depth, and expected students to solve problems outside of work we had done in class.

Five years ago, we changed a number of things at once at Las Animas Elementary School. We shifted to Colorado’s new state standards, began writing our own lessons, and committed to focusing on student mastery instead of lesson completion.

Understandably, my staff experienced growing pains. We had many tearful staff meetings and work sessions as teachers dove into the standards. On more than one occasion, someone commented, “We are not assessment writers. We are just the teachers.”

But teachers learned from those experiences. Some of those sessions were spent investigating those so-called standards-based textbooks, and our teachers discovered that stories in those anthologies were often considerably below grade level. Two of the stories in the fourth-grade book were at grade levels 2.7 and 3.3, for example. Those discoveries helped fuel a broader effort to make our teaching more rigorous throughout the school.

PARCC testing in spring 2015 brought out a new array of emotions. Many of my teachers said students felt prepared overall and were confident on the English Language Arts test, but expressed some frustration with math.

This verified to us that we were doing the right work. The assessments also demonstrated the need for renewed focus on math, and we have begun to focus more on number sense in all grades.

My teachers returned that fall energized and ready to deepen their understanding. Today, teachers are using the standards to do things like create project-based tests and to think together in groups about how to best teach math and English through the grade levels.

I often remind myself and my staff that assessment is only useful if it causes performance to improve. After several years of hard work, I think we’re on the right track.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
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Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens. 

First Person

My education career has focused on poor students of color. Why I’m rethinking that in the wake of Trump’s election

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
abbas-manjee

I grew up in a low-income, abusive household in Chicago. My teachers encouraged me to find my way out through college, and I reacted by taking school seriously — almost too seriously.

Once I got to college, I worked my butt off to land a job in investment banking, satisfying a need for prestige and security. I spent the next few years building complex financial models to help one mega-corporation swallow another, and made enough money to wipe out my college debt. I was also exhausted to the core and unfulfilled by my work. So I quit, opting instead to help young people from circumstances similar to mine. I applied to Teach for America, and was soon teaching math at an alternative high school in New York City.

There, I was focused on improving the achievement of black and Hispanic students, a cause Teach for America is devoted to. I’m thankful for that focus. Its teachers, and so many others, do the kind of life-saving work that helped me get to college years ago.

The results of the election, though, have me thinking about how complicated our American ecosystem really is — and whether our focus within improving education has been a bit short-sighted.

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump spoke against inclusion and acceptance, the very things that make America great. He promised to erect a wall, deport immigrants, and force Muslims to register in a national database. He went out of his way to insult women. He was endorsed by David Duke and said nothing of it.

It’s also true that voters identified by exit polls as “white without a college degree” helped Donald Trump win the election and become the next president of the United States. A whopping 67 percent of them voted for Trump.

I think we can understand this in two ways. One is that it’s unrealistic to expect rural white Americans to weather the status quo as they suffer the effects of globalization. The other is institutionalized and systemic racism.

Education is one way to address both. And so, if America continues to fail to provide everyone with an equitable education — one that puts them on the pathway to economic prosperity — we all lose. People of color like me are likely to lose the most.

That doesn’t make the choices ahead of us any less complicated. Allocating resources for one group often results in unintended consequences for others. I also know that we can’t let up in our efforts to help students of color, who need us to continue to push for college and career initiatives aimed at bridging gaps created by generations of racist policies.

But we should simultaneously redouble our efforts to improve educational opportunity for rural, disenfranchised whites. When I attended Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. last year, I attended a session called, “What is the Role of White Leaders on the Path to Educational Equity?” This certainly needs to be talked about. It’s also important to recognize that when we talk about being white in education, we tend to assume it’s a position of power. That privilege is real, but so are the limited opportunities for higher education and a sustaining career for plenty of white Americans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Our job now is to make sure that every American child has access to the best one.

Abbas Manjee is the chief academic officer at Kiddom, a platform that helps teachers design personalized learning experiences.