First Person

Polls convinced me Hillary Clinton wouldn’t lose. As an education researcher, the result was a wake-up call

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Neon Tommy
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Like a lot of Americans, I watched the election returns in shocked disbelief. All of the major polls had offered me confidence in a Hillary Clinton victory.

But while I was surprised by the results, I should not have been. I study school segregation, and my research has taught me one thing over and over: numbers alone are not enough.

To get an accurate understanding of situations, qualitative researchers like me believe that we must talk to humans. We must be out in the field forming respectful relationships, conducting ethnography and in-depth interviews. This effort to understand people’s lives and circumstances, interactions, beliefs, and social processes is important so that researchers — often ensconced with like-minded individuals and within liberal cities and universities — don’t miss what is actually happening on the ground.

I’ve seen the importance of this time and again in my own work. When conducting research for my book, “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City,” I wanted to understand why some groups opted out of their neighborhood school while others did not. To do that, I had to be deeply embedded in the community, talking to people about their complicated feelings about race and class and schooling.

If I had conducted a survey with questions about parents’ desire for “diversity” in their children’s schools, the results would have been misleading at best, since people use that word in so many different ways.

As I work to understand school segregation, I’ve also seen how the constant reliance on test scores to describe schools can alter the schools themselves and affect people’s choices. I have found that while advantaged parents in gentrifying communities would like to send their children to schools with “good” test scores, they also do not want their children in schools that are explicitly test-centered. This puts administrators of schools that must improve test scores in a bind and can reduce opportunities for integration.

Yet in education, we continue to place great value in numbers to judge the quality of schools, teachers, and student learning. We discount other factors and make decisions about teacher tenure, merit pay, the creation of charter schools, and school closings based on these flawed measures. Parents leave cities, buy real estate in certain communities, and select schools based on numerical school rankings.

We do that because numbers are powerful in their ability to convince us that they represent the truth.

That’s what happened to me this election cycle, when the poll numbers lulled me into missing the whole story. My parents had reported to me that wealthy, well-educated friends from their country club in the swing-state of Ohio, where I grew up, were Trump supporters. I heard about large parts of North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania with nothing to see but Trump yard signs; of Catholic-educated, one-issue voters from my childhood parish choosing Trump; and of a friend whose black grandson and his roommates were for Trump, too.

I paid this no attention. The numbers were very clear.

I don’t share these anecdotes to imply that they were valid research findings. But they do remind me how much qualitative research, done in a systematic, neutral way, might have contributed to the conversation before the election.

Pollsters, pundits, and I placed too much value on numbers alone while discounting the nuanced feelings on the ground in parts of middle America. We failed to explore this dynamic and how it could result in a Trump victory.

We can’t lose sight of this truth as it connects to education research. We must do our best to create new ways to understand school, teacher, and student success that are not oversimplified or misleading, and then advocate for their use.

We also need to support the work that gets us there. In education research, grants are far more lucrative and jobs far more plentiful for those who use quantitative methods. That data, when used well, has real value. But qualitative research cannot be overlooked.

Qualitative data is often wrongly disparaged for its alleged subjectivity, lack of reliability, or its cost. I would argue that the over-reliance on quantitative data in this election proved incredibly costly. Let’s not make the same mistake in education.

Molly Vollman Makris is assistant professor of urban studies at CUNY’s Guttman Community College. She holds a doctorate in urban systems and is the author of “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City: Youth Experiences of Uneven Opportunity.”

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.