First Person

Opinion: Why "Gen Y" teachers supported SB 10-191

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District. He is a member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative.

In the Spring of 2010 I testified, with some other teachers, to the Colorado House and Senate Education Committees in support of SB 10-191, a bill that included major changes to the way teachers and principals are evaluated and retained.  I was one of a few teachers supporting the bill who had more than five years of teaching experience.

The fact that most of the teachers supporting the bill were less experienced teachers did not go unnoticed by legislators sitting on the committees.  Every time a teacher would introduce him or herself to the committee an opponent would be sure to ask how much experience he or she had.  (They failed to ask me how many years I had been teaching. Sixteen for me.) It was obvious that the opponents of the bill felt that less experienced, or younger teachers, did not have any credibility.

The assumption by opponents that more experienced teachers were against the bill had some merit.  Anecdotally, and in my exchanges with colleagues, I would agree that the less experienced and younger teachers were more favorable towards the bill. The opponents of SB 10-191 were valuing the years of teachers’ experience, which these days, flies in the face of many reform advocates who devalue veteran teachers.  Were the legislators operating off an assumption that the younger, less experienced teachers did not know any better?

Why the generational divide among teacher on SB 10-191?

I could never put my finger on why a divide existed between the various generations of teachers on the merits of SB 10-191.  There are some stark differences in how the older, veteran teachers view their profession in comparison to younger, less experienced teachers.

My thinking is based on a report that was published last spring, called Workplaces that Support High-Performing Teaching and Learning: Insights from Generation Y Teachers, published by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Institutes for Research. While the report “seeks to avoid sweeping generalizations while focusing on the trends in workplace expectations,” it does say that Gen Y-ers tend to “attribute their successes to the educational opportunities they have received; tend to be creative and tech-savvy; are committed to creating a better world around them; and are confident and idealistic that they can make this happen.”

The report focuses on why these Gen Y teachers are leaving the profession at a “rate that is 51 percent higher than older teachers, including retirees, and left their school to work at another one at a rate that was 91 percent higher than their older colleagues.” This high teacher mobility percentage can be devastating to schools. What is it about teachers’ workplaces that are failing Gen Y teachers, particularly in high-needs schools? Here’s what the report found:

  • Gen Y teachers tend to desire more frequent feedback on their teaching and impact from peers, mentors, and principals than do their more veteran colleagues.
  • Gen Y teachers tend to be more open to, and have more experience with, shared practice than do their more experienced colleagues.
  • Gen Y teachers tend to desire differentiation in rewards and sanctions for themselves and their colleagues based on effort and performance.
  • Gen Y teachers want to be evaluated, but tend to be very concerned about equity and validity in teacher evaluation.
  • Gen Y teachers tend to be very enthusiastic about instructional and social networking technology, but expect more from technology than what many schools can deliver.

SB 10-191 addresses many of the concerns that Gen Y teachers expressed in the report. Certainly, one of their greatest concerns is for a fair and valid evaluation process. I believe with time and a great deal of care, the teacher impact on student achievement component of the evaluation can be done fairly.

Look at the other provisions of SB 10-191 and compare them to what Gen Y-ers are looking for. SB 10-191 provides regular feedback; it has a provision in it that allows for peer evaluation. SB 10-191 identifies and differentiates among teachers, which could be used for differentiated pay. And SB 10-191 recognizes the importance of collaboration.

We need to be very vigilant during the implementation of SB 110-91.Valid measurement of a teacher’s impact on student achievement is a difficult endeavor. In my view, it is not insurmountable. Measuring student growth as impacted by a teacher is probably the most controversial aspect of the evaluation process.

But let’s not forget the other aspects of SB 10-191 and the positive impact it could have on all teachers, especially Gen Y-ers—those teachers who by 2020 will make up a majority of the teaching profession.

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.