First Person

Voices: My not-so-good school accountability experience

Littleton mom and author Angela Engel says parents and teachers need to be involved in solving schools’ problems in a meaningful way, not just reviewing data.

As a children’s advocate and education innovator, I’ve been a strong proponent of school decision-making at the local level. So much so in fact, I designed the Colorado resolution to oppose No Child Left Behind and put an end to federally centralized control over neighborhood schools.

The Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, known as CAP4K, required new state academic standards. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

The resolution had bipartisan sponsorship and was passed in the Senate 27-3. The resolution was adopted unanimously by the House Education Committee but never brought to a floor vote.

So last year, I decided to put my time where my mouth is and join the School Accountability Team at the Littleton middle school my two daughters attended. These teams are selected by the administrator and comprised of parents, teachers, students and the principal.

We met once a month for an hour and a half. Our team had three parents, three teachers, the principal and two students. One representative then serves on the District Accountability Team. This was a role I shared with another parent, alternating each month for the two-hour district meetings.

My expectation of the team was that we would make collaborative decisions and explore solutions to various challenges with the education experts – teachers, parents and students. Instead, the SAT served as a function for reporting, not problem-solving. Littleton has prided itself on decentralized management and school-based decision making.

However, when I got to the District Accountability Team meeting, it was even worse.

What about the kids?

The first meeting was a full room of approximately 50 people representing the various schools in the district. We were given a Power Point presentation on everything including district budgets, enrollment, ratings, policy compliance, testing data and calendars.

The first district meeting dealt with how Littleton was complying with the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind. The second meeting was about how Littleton was complying with the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, the state law.

It was obvious department folks had spent a lot of time and money on point systems, labels, timelines and pie charts. Each meeting I came away with pretty, colored handouts attempting to explain overly complicated, conflicting and redundant policy mandates.

So at the last meeting I attended, I held up my hand and said, “You know, I joined this committee to support kids learning. All I’ve heard about is how the district is managing federal, state and department requirements. I feel like this is a waste of my time and more importantly my daughters’ education. When do we get to talk about children?”

I think we could do a lot better in education if we spent more time listening to kids and parents too.

There is a major disconnect between what we value as parents and what is passed in department policies and legislation. That disconnect became more evident when I attended the school district policy meeting.

These are the meetings where the decisions are made about which of the 80 education bills introduced by the Legislature will be opposed or supported. At the 7:30 a.m. meeting I attended, there were four school board members, two district personnel, the superintendent and the district lobbyist. Public input is not allowed.

Parents need to be part of policy decisions

There are all these efforts to engage parents, except for the most important decisions. Even more shocking was the absence of teachers – those who know most about students and education.

Here the education priorities and policies were being determined and not a single professional educator was present. I began to see first-hand why many of the state and federal education policies work counter to the goals of schools and the needs of children.

For example, the Colorado Legislature, with unilateral support, passed the law known as the Colorado Achievement Plan 4 Kids or CAP4K. The first two phases will cost $384 million to implement revised standards, new databases and more tests.

Meantime, due to budget cuts over the past four years, $1 billion has been cut from what school districts would otherwise have received.

So while the Colorado Department of Education’s management budget has doubled over the past 10 years, district budgets have been significantly cut. In the last decade, the state department has grown its staff by up to 41 percent as districts have been forced to lay off teachers, in some cases by 30 percent.

What this means is that we are trading teachers, smaller class sizes, computers, counseling services, transportation, after-school programs, athletics, arts, student services and electives for department ratings that can now tell us our children are worse off than before.

The school accountability team was a frustrating experience. By the last district accountability meeting, there was one-third the number of people who had attended the first two meetings.

Schools and communities do not get better through neglect. Parents and teachers need to focus efforts at the policy level for real investments, opportunities and resources instead of punishments and sanctions, innovation instead of standardization and the educational well-being of every child.

Engage, engage, engage. It is the only way.

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.