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’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.