First Person

School "urgency" and the loss of the human dimension

Sarah Fine is a former teacher and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work has appeared in Education Week, Teacher Magazine, and the Washington Post.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit a well-known charter school in a major city on the eastern seaboard. The school, which largely serves minority students living in poverty, exemplifies what has been dubbed the “no excuses” model: Students are required to wear uniforms, adhere to a strict code of behavior, and remain in school long past the two o’clock bell. The school proudly advertises its unrelenting focus on the twin goals of character education and college readiness, and in recent years almost 90 percent of its students have passed state tests in reading and math.

As I had expected, the school was a bastion of order and, in some senses, of learning. Classes were focused and goal-oriented. Teachers appeared to be genuinely invested in their students’ progress. Students moved through the halls without clamor. And yet, as I moved from classroom to classroom, I began to notice a curious pattern.

The teachers seemed stiff and preoccupied; they rushed through the material even when it was apparent that the students had more questions or needed more time. The students, for their part, were compliant but uncharacteristically solemn. The whole school seemed to be held captive by the kind of energy that I associate with the moments before a major exam: Formal, anxious, and subdued. When I asked one tenth-grade girl how she felt about the school, she told me, “The teachers are always stressing out and it’s like they put that stress on us… I guess it’s good ’cause we’ll be ready for college, but it’s just like work, work, work all the time here.”

Within this grim and filmy atmosphere were moments of minor but real disrespect. In one seventh-grade English class a gangly boy came bounding into the room with a joyous whoop; his teacher told him to “Get out and try again.” The next period, in an eight-grade history class next door, I watched as a student entered the room only to have his teacher level a brusque and critical “Tuck your shirt in” in his direction. Neither teacher thought to address their “problem” students by name before correcting their behavior. They were too concerned with starting their lessons on time, and with the gravity of the task at hand.

These interactions were disturbing not because they indicated character flaws on the part of the teachers (which they didn’t), and not because they seemed antithetical to the school’s emphasis on “character” (which they did), but rather because they were deeply familiar.

Over the last two years I have visited public schools of many varieties, and many seem to share some level of this ruthless intensity around “on-task” and “forward-driving” work. In all of them I recognize the image of the achievement-hungry school where I spent four years teaching. There, the rhetoric of urgency and seriousness loomed above all of us like a shadow. On the one hand, it cast our practices in a new light, allowing us to become more focused and driven. On the other hand, it clouded our vision, making us feel desperate to make sure that we were meeting goals and closing gaps. It was all too easy sometimes to lose track of the human dimensions that underpin the best teaching and learning: Respect, dignity, curiosity.

All of this is cast into vivid relief by an urban project-based charter school where I spent six weeks last spring. In many ways, High Tech High in San Diego is like the first one I described: it is racially and socioeconmically diverse; it does very well on conventional performance measures; and it places a heavy emphasis on college.

The first thing I noticed while observing at High Tech High, however, was how profoundly comfortable both the students and the adults appeared to be. They co-inhabited the building with the easy ownership of being at home; work and play seemed to coexist without contradiction. Teachers, for their part, held their students accountable for high-level work but gave them real flexibility in terms of how they used their time. There was scant evidence of the uneasy micromanagement that characterizes so many schools in this era, and the learning that took place seemed, as a result, more organic and authentic to everyone involved. When I asked students if they felt disrespected or overly pressured by the adults in the school, they invariably said no.

This is not to say High Tech High is perfect, or that project-based work might remedy the problems that I have described. I am all too aware that school culture is complex and contextual, and that successful models are difficult to replicate. Nevertheless, the contrast between the schools that I describe serves as a reminder that urgency, in the extreme, can be self-defeating.

As No Child Left Behind evolves into a more flexible and empowering model of accountability, schools should be intentional about reclaiming the human dimensions of their work. They should aspire to enact cultures of learning that are forward-driving but not relentless, insistent but not ruthless. They should remember that to be serious about the work does not always mean being serious, and to be urgent does not always mean to be hurried. Empathy, patience, and even playfulness might propel us father toward our goals than we can imagine.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.