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 we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.