First Person

Voices: For this teacher, TCAP spells ANGST

Melissa Verdeal, a veteran Denver teacher, describes the anxiety of waiting for the annual state test results that will label her school – and her students.

I always have mixed feelings this time of year.  I have to admit that I have the end-of-summer blues, and I will miss having a leisurely cup of coffee on the patio every morning.  At the same time, I love the beginning of a new school year.  I can’t wait to go back-to-school shopping, set up my classroom and fill my new planner with fun and engaging lessons.  And, I really look forward to seeing the faces of my new students in their back-to-school outfits sitting in my class. It is a fresh start for all of us.  Sort of.  The end of the summer is also fraught with anxiety because it is the time when I get the results of the TCAP that my students took last March.

The results will determine what color my school is. Trust me, in Denver, your TCAP color means everything these days. Being Blue or Green is good.  Being Yellow, Orange, or (God forbid) Red is bad. There is a lot riding on the color designation determined by TCAP.

I teach language arts at an Orange school according to the 2010-2011 DPS Performance Framework.  It is not easy being Orange. Being Orange means that there is tremendous pressure on teachers to get the scores up. It is the most important priority. All year we worry. We study and dissect the data. We provide interventions for students who score Unsatisfactory or Partially Proficient. We plan professional development to help us drill down on the skills that didn’t score well. Every decision is made through the Orange TCAP lens. And then, in March, two months before the end of the school year, we administer the test and pray to the assessment gods that we have prepared our students to kick some TCAP butt.

Now, in the middle of August, five months after the test, I await the results. If the students did well, after the scores are disaggregated in multiple ways, maybe we will become Yellow. If the students didn’t do well, we might maintain our Orange. Or worse, we will become Red. While I believe our faculty worked to the Blue standard, I have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing Blue. It would be statistically impossible.

I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders as I await the release of the scores. Since I teach a tested subject (reading and writing), I feel responsible for the fate of my school. If our scores don’t go up, we may be subject to all sorts of bad things. We may be the next school to be turned around, closed or privatized. Our staff may be replaced with “better” teachers. However, if we did well, we can start the school year with our heads held high. We can walk tall into the first staff meeting without shame or self-blame.  We can sleep easy knowing that we are safe for at least another year.

I am also anxious to learn how my students did. After all, it is the indicator of my effectiveness. If they did well on that one battery of tests in March, then I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I am an effective teacher.  If they exceeded the expectation, I will get a bonus. I can’t even imagine the stress I will feel when Senate Bill 191 is in full effect, and my students’ performance will be a determining factor in my employment status.

Lastly, and most importantly, I am anxious for my students as they get their scores in the mail. They will open an envelope and they will be labeled. For some, it will be good news. I worry for the others who will open the envelope to learn that they are Partially Proficient or Unsatisfactory. I have seen the negative impact these labels can have on a student.  It makes them believe that the only thing that matters in school is how they perform on this one test. Sadly, they start believing that they are only as good as their TCAP rating. It begins to define their sense of who they are as learners and as members of the community.  Yep, I have lots of anxiety about that. I don’t think it is fair or right to do that to kids.

Now, I know that there are readers who will interpret my TCAP angst as proof that teachers don’t want accountability.  Let me dispel that notion. Of course teachers need to be accountable for the learning of their students. We cannot hope to improve the quality of education for all students without it. However, accountability must be meaningful, reliable and shared by all stakeholders. I am not at all sure that one test in March is a true measure of the quality of a school, or a teacher, or a child.

Nevertheless, it is the current reality of the test-crazy world of education. So, as summer vacation comes to a close, I will drink coffee on the patio, plan for the first days of school, say a few more prayers to those assessment gods, and try to keep my TCAP anxiety under control.

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.