First Person

Success Academy teachers don’t plan their lessons, and other teachers shouldn’t either

I have taught English at the same school in the city’s public school system for the last six years. I interviewed for a teaching position with Success Academy this summer. While I didn’t accept the offer, seeing the charter network’s approach to curriculum made me think about what it would look like if my school—and others—tried its approach.

At Success, teachers do not spend time crafting the plans and materials for every class—a core expectation of teachers at most schools. When this was first explained, I couldn’t help checking that I’d heard correctly: “So you’re saying teachers don’t lesson plan?” My interviewer’s response was prompt and confident: “Lesson plan? Our teachers don’t have time for lesson planning.”

I was stunned, but I shouldn’t have been. They realized it worked better to dedicate a team of qualified people to developing lessons, who give the lessons to teachers with the expectation that they will be modified. (My interviewer even emphasized the poor results of teachers who simply delivered the lessons without taking ownership of them.)

In short, Success sees the foolishness of having teachers, on a daily basis, reinventing the wheel when there are people within the school who understand how things should work. It’s time traditional public schools admit the same.

I certainly understand the resistance that many teachers feel at the idea of being given lessons. They understandably fear being “forced” to teach lessons that are uninspiring or poorly planned. Many resist using someone else’s lessons out of fear the lessons won’t cohere with the expectations of their school or with the needs of their students (or following experiences with pre-packaged curriculum materials that failed to do so).

It’s also rare to see lessons that are comprehensive enough to be useful. For example, it is easy to find teaching guides for particular novels or plays, but quite rare to find actual lessons. It is also hard to find assessments—and I don’t mean a multiple-choice test or a description of a project. I mean the handout describing the assessment, the assessment’s rubric, the graphic organizers that break down steps, and a completed sample assessment. Teachers have a lot of well-founded doubts about how useful and complete someone else’s lessons are going to be.

Perhaps most of all, teachers don’t want lessons based on someone else’s passions. As an English teacher, I know how difficult it can be to teach a text that I don’t love.

But at the end of the day, when I think of all the time I spend creating and modifying lessons, I know I would give up lesson planning if I could. In fact, I get nearly giddy at the thought of having more time for the other demands (and joys) of my profession: talking to students, giving students feedback (both so time-consuming and so important, particularly at the high-school level), communicating with parents, organizing and leading clubs. With so much time no longer devoted to planning, I could also focus on the delivery of lessons—on becoming a master presenter and facilitator.

Of course, I wouldn’t give up my planning for just any old lessons. They would have to be

  • Developed by teachers or former teachers from the school
  • Tested and found to be successful with similar populations of students
  • Common-Core aligned
  • Easy to follow and detailed
  • Challenging, engaging and differentiated for students with different needs when necessary
  • Student-centered, with opportunities for students to take ownership of their own learning
  • Comprehensive, with supplements like accompanying handouts and rubrics included (ideally in modifiable, digital form)

In other words, what each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.

I could have so much more confidence in lessons developed by a team of people who know my school, rather than just by me, myself and I. I don’t mean to say my own lessons are terrible. Some are very strong, but—let’s be honest—some were made in a terrible, anxious rush. If I taught from a team-made curriculum, there would be no need for lessons made the day before (or, dare I admit it, the day of) a class. I would have quality lessons every day.

Additionally, I would have a clear road map. I would know today what I would be teaching in three weeks—not just that we’ll be finishing “The Crucible,” but that we’ll be focusing on Scene X and doing a Socratic seminar on Y. I could rest assured that by the end of the year, my students will have had repeated practice with all the standards.

It is true that such a team would be costly, both in terms of money and time. The team would need to be made up of teachers with reduced teaching loads or teachers who are focused solely on curriculum, not the outgrowth of one more meeting in some teachers’ already over-filled days. I can think someone who would be perfect for this position: A phenomenal teacher who relishes planning, but often finds herself frustrated in the classroom. Her lessons and projects are complex, creative, and well thought-out. Eventually, a team made up of people like her would need to spend less time creating and could spend more time tweaking.

The new union contract already mandates more time for professional development than ever before. Why not use this time for curriculum teams to work? (Again, the key would be not staffing them with teachers who already have full teaching loads.) A school like mine could start small, with one team focused on just one subject or grade level.

It is clear to me that the achievement of charter schools like the Success Academy schools is in large part due to their recognition of the importance of letting people do the things at which they are best. Let’s follow their example. Let’s free more teachers from the burden of planning, and see what happens when they can focus on their most important job: teaching and connecting with students.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.