First Person

Yes, teachers do want safer schools, and ending suspensions is an important step

The author, sitting to the left of sign, at a Teachers Unite workshop for educators on restorative justice in 2015.

As an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, I applaud the mayor’s recommendations, released last week, for ending suspensions in kindergarten through second grade and reforming the Department of Education’s metal detector policy. As one of many teachers concerned about the future of New York City school children, I’m glad the city is taking this step to keep students in school. Schools are a place where children should be educated in every sense: academically, in civic participation, and in the development of social-emotional skills. All students should be encouraged to find success and support, not pushed out through suspensions or made to feel like they are criminals.

In several schools where I have worked, I’ve often heard the following rationalization for suspending students who present challenging behavior: “Should the needs of one or two students take precedence over the needs of the whole group?” Why instead aren’t we asking ourselves, “Whose needs are constantly being compromised for the needs of the majority?”

In a second grade class I once taught, five of my students were black boys. The only suspensions given to students in their grade that year were for three of these boys, two of whom were suspended multiple times by the administration for behavior like having a tantrum. Did suspensions change the behavior of these students? No. Did suspensions further alienate these students and their families from the school? Yes. Even in second grade, students realize when they aren’t wanted in a space, and it can become difficult for them to distinguish the adults’ responses to unwanted behavior from a feeling of exclusion, that they aren’t wanted in general. From talking to other teachers, students, and parents, I know this dynamic plays out in classrooms across the city. Black students in New York City represent less than 30% of the student population, yet in 2014-15 they served 53% of suspensions citywide. The lives of black youth matter, and we have to keep them in the classroom.

As I thought critically about my role as a white educator in an institution that actively pushes out youth of color, I chose to seek out instructional practices that matched my belief about children. This led me to restorative justice, a philosophy rooted in traditions that emphasize building community. In the life of a school, that means knowing our students and responding, when students misbehave, to the needs of everyone impacted by the harm done, rather than pushing out students who, often looking for community and acceptance, exhibit behavior as a result of these needs. I have successfully incorporated several restorative approaches into my classrooms, but it is challenging work that needs more district-wide support and funding.

The mayor has committed to greater funding for this work in high-need schools, including mental health supports and professional development, in addition to the policy changes recommended. But the Department of Education still lacks a comprehensive strategy for reducing racial disparities in discipline and policing. Far more schools need multi-year funding to directly hire their own dedicated, school-based restorative justice coordinators and cover program costs. Additional policy changes are also needed: We have to end suspensions for minor misbehaviors in higher grades too, like the highly subjective “defying authority” infraction, long opposed by Teachers Unite and the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York.

Even before the current conversation about institutional racism in the United States, the groundswell of activists fighting for black lives has resulted in local school district reforms in Chicago, Denver, Miami, Oakland, and elsewhere, that address the racial disparities seen in overused and ineffective suspensions. It’s about time New York City joined the list of cities beginning to answer the calls of their communities. The nation is challenging the widespread police killings of innocent black people through activism, protests, art and critical thinking, and community empowerment. Let’s ensure that New York City is really committed to the health and safety of black children. Greater investment in school climate will inspire academic success, rather than a foreboding sense of distrust and hostility.

New Yorkers deserve public schools that are adequately funded and resourced. If we want schools to be safe places for all students, we must ensure that black students are treated with dignity and acceptance.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove an incorrect reference to the school safety budget.

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.