First Person

Voices: Am I a proctor or a teacher?

Jessica Cuthbertson is a literacy teacher who loves achievement data about her students – until she fears she’s drowning in numbers.

I have a confession to make: I love data.  As a literacy teacher, I feel traitorous saying such a thing.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love words and poetry and prose too, but data is so … neat.  Evenly-spaced rows on spreadsheets, columns of numbers, levels and layers, bar graphs, line graphs – documents that appear organized and precise and usable.  Even if they aren’t.

Image of pencil erasing a multiple-choice test answer.Data doesn’t scare me.  I know its strengths and limitations.  I know what it tells me – this student performed in this way on this assessment at this moment in time.  And I know what it doesn’t tell me – did they eat breakfast that day?  Did they read the directions completely? Did they feel comfortable in the environment?  Did they know what they could (and couldn’t) ask the proctor?  Did they go into it thinking it was easy or hard?  Did they think about it at all?

Information about our students at the beginning of the school year is a gift.  Like the action-packed trailer of an anticipated film, such information offers teachers a “sneak peek” at the strengths, possible challenges and potential needs on their rosters.  But it is just a snippet of what our students can do.  Nothing more.

I received the gift of one-on-one 45-minute assessment appointments with my students the first two days of school. Our building decided to pilot an in-depth reading assessment system that was rolled out district-wide in kindergarten through fifth grades with our sixth- and seventh- graders, so that we would all have critical information about our readers right away.

In that time, I heard nearly 20 students read fiction and nonfiction texts at various levels.  We talked about their summer, their genre preferences and their hopes and dreams for sixth grade.  Beyond the academic snapshot, these appointments gave me the opportunity to begin building rapport and relationships with these readers before the first “regular” day of school.  It was heaven.

And then the school year really started.  And with it came … more assessments.  More data.  More information on my 65 students.

By the fifth day of school, my students had been assessed three times in my content area via the one-on-one reading assessment, a building-wide two-day writing assessment and an in-class pre-assessment outlined in the district unit-planning guide.  And then an email arrived in my inbox with an attachment for an assessment schedule for the following week.  Diagnostic computer-based assessments touted as “TCAP predictors” in reading, writing, math (and science at state-assessed grade levels) for all students with an end-of-August administration deadline.

Three assessments within the first five days of school and three class periods (or 270 minutes) zapped out of the following week’s schedule for more testing.

It was then that I began to wonder if I would be the first teacher to actually drown in data.  Worse, I wondered and worried that my students were going to think that in art you create, in Spanish you speak, in science you experiment and in literacy … you take tests!

Sadly, if my students gauge their literacy learning based on the first two weeks of school, they are likely to believe that assessment is the equivalent of learning and that reading and writing is about performance, prompts, timed tasks and rubrics.  And that’s just not okay with me.

Recently, an EdNews commentary reflected on the angst teachers feel at the beginning of the year awaiting TCAP results from the previous spring.  Truth be told, I haven’t even begun to dig into TCAP data.  Why would I?  The results are months old, and sitting before me are piles and piles of fresh data.  More data than I know what to do with.  Easily a semester or even a year’s worth of teaching points.  That is, if assessments subside long enough for teaching and learning to actually take place.

I love data.  But in our quest to measure student learning, we waste valuable instructional time and then wonder why our students aren’t progressing further faster.  And we pile data onto teachers and give them no collaborative time to dissect it, make sense of it and do something meaningful with the information.

We must ask ourselves: are we proctors or are we teachers?  Are our students test-takers or are they learners?

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.