implementation mess

At Common Core talk, a principal says his reality includes vomit

Joseph McDonald, a professor of English education at NYU Steinhardt, (pictured far left) was the moderator for Friday morning's NYU Steinhardt Education Policy Breakfast Series. Pictured from left to right: Randi Weingarten (president, American Federation of Teachers), James Cibulka (president, National Council for Accreditation of Teaching Education), Okhee Lee (professor of teaching and learning at NYU Steinhardt) and Ramon Gonzalez (principal of M.S. 223).
PHOTO: Megan Quitter
Joseph McDonald, a professor at NYU Steinhardt, (pictured far left) moderated Friday morning’s NYU Steinhardt Education Policy Breakfast Series Common Core discussion. From left to right: Randi Weingarten (American Federation of Teachers president); James Cibulka (president, National Council for Accreditation of Teaching Education); Okhee Lee (NYU Steinhardt professor) and Ramon Gonzalez (M.S. 223 principal).

Principal Ramon Gonzalez has been a principal for ten years, but this week, he said, he’s experienced a lot of firsts.

“I’ve had my first experience of students vomiting on a test. After we cleaned off the test, we had to call testing security to make sure it was still valid,” he said. “I have to tell you, I was happy to submit that test to the testing authorities.”

Gonzalez, the principal of M.S. 223 in the South Bronx, joined education policy makers at an NYU Steinhardt breakfast meeting Friday morning to talk about the Common Core learning standards. Some presenters talked about standards’ role and development, but Gonzalez focused on his frustration with implementing the new standards and the shock that students and teachers faced this week when they saw the first Common Core-aligned state exams.

“They didn’t know it would be a test of endurance. They thought it would be a test about what they knew,” he said. Teachers were visibly upset by the test’s length, he said, and some students cried because of the exams.

Gonzalez began implementing the Common Core at his school two years ago and started a summer “bridge” program last year to give students more time to adjust to the higher standards. He said he supports the more rigorous standards but thinks important other issues, such as how to teach to the standards and assess them, were not carefully thought out.

He also said the way the standards are written is so dense that he had to hire consultants to help explain what they mean.

“I wonder who was at that table, who wrote the standards, because it sure wasn’t folks like me,” he said.

Another panelist, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, also supports the standards but has been vocal in her criticism of New York’s implementation of the Common Core.

“What has happened here is we have the cart before the horse,” she said. “How do you put $350 million of federal money into assessment development and not put any money directly into preparing teachers to do this?”

Her question was met with applause as she went on to single out New York and Kentucky — the first two states to tie their exams to the Common Core — as doing the worst job of implementing the standards.

“Frankly, no one in business would ever do this if they were rolling out a new product,” she said. “No one would just say to employees, ‘Just do it.’ No one would say to customers, ‘Oh, by the way it’s really not gonna work the first time.'”

Weingarten said she would release a survey of AFT members’ opinions on the Common Core next week. That survey included an extra-large sample of New York teachers.

During the question and answer period, former State Education Commissioner David Steiner defended his successor, John King, and King’s implementation of the Common Core. Steiner listed some steps the state took under King’s leadership to try to help teachers better understand the new standards, such as creating free Common Core curriculum materials and training educators during multiple summer sessions.

“My concern is the effort is never enough,” Steiner said. “Are we going to lose the reform because we can never do enough? I urge us for the sake of underprivileged children … not to let this go because we haven’t done enough.”

For now, principals such as Gonzalez have to figure out how to get their anxious students through the next week of testing, this time in math.

“I don’t think we really understood how stamina was going to play  a role in this test,” he said. He added, “I wasn’t expecting to deal with all the emotions. That surprised me.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.