First Person

Differentiated School Closure Decision-Making

Like 20 other schools across the city, Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Corporate Academy recently received word that Chancellor Joel Klein has recommended that the school be closed. In some ways, MCA outshines other schools. For example, in June 2009 MCA outperformed 74% of city schools in weighted US History Regents performance and more than 62% of city schools in weighted Integrated Algebra Regents performance. Of course, like all of the schools on Chancellor Klein’s shutdown list, MCA has real deficiencies and areas where improvement is needed. But the chancellor’s recommendation does not reflect the learning community that has been created here, and his selective use of statistics to justify his decision is upsetting.

The progress reports do show how MCA compares to other schools that share some of its characteristics, but that comparison doesn’t reflect the nuances behind MCA students’ specific needs and accomplishments. And when DOE officials visited MCA on Jan. 14 to explain the decision to close the school, they compared MCA to schools citywide. Considering the emphasis on differentiation of instruction in the classroom to meet the needs of students, it seems reasonable to ask the same of our chancellor: Differentiate your evaluation of each school to reflect the needs of that particular school. The decision to use failures to reach citywide averages as the basis to close schools is unreasonable and unfair because it fails to account for the unique needs of each school’s population.

Klein should recognize that a school like MCA (where 80% of students who entered in 2006 scored 1 or 2 on their 8th grade statewide ELA exams) is going to have a harder time getting its students to pass the English Regents exam than a school that receives a more skilled 9th grade class. The performance of an incoming 9th grade class has great influence on the expected results, especially when the numbers are not outliers, but trends. It is unreasonable to expect that students who earned mostly 1s and 2s on their 8th grade exams will graduate at the same rate as students who earned mostly 3s and 4s. Similarly, while MCA’s attendance rate is too low, it’s not fair to assume the problem lies with MCA; forty percent of this year’s 9th graders, for example, also missed more than one in 10 school days in middle school.

An educator who differentiates well might also point out that there are a wide variety of factors that can keep students from graduating in four years. At MCA those factors include (but aren’t limited to) residential transience, homelessness, health issues, incarceration, and death. Each of these factors limits what teachers and administrators can do to help a student graduate on time. What the chancellor is choosing to do by limiting “graduation rate” to the 4-year number is discouraging MCA from differentiating its program to meet its students’ needs. While the 4-year graduation rate at MCA (2009: 48.1%) is lower than the staff considers acceptable, the most recent 5-year graduation rate is 62% and most recent 6-year graduation rate is over 70%, well above the citywide average.

The use of citywide statistics is particularly unfair to small schools like MCA. Our student body (total enrollment averaging 390-420 pupils in past 5 years) means that very small events can have catastrophic impacts on our school’s performance. As an example, MCA had three students of the 2005 cohort who should have graduated in June of 2009, but they missed one of the morning Regents exams they needed to graduate in June – two due to illness, one due to oversleeping. When those students took the exams in August and passed, they received their diplomas, but their achievement did not count towards the 4-year graduation rate. If those three students had passed the exam in June, our 4-year graduation rate would have been nearly 6 percentage points higher. A similar jump in statistical performance at a larger school would require an event of much greater consequence. It is unjust to penalize MCA for being more dramatically affected by small changes.

The chancellor’s failure to account for the specific needs of individual schools when determining a school’s future is unreasonable. Arbitrary selection of statistical categories and skillful manipulation of data could be used to show the “failure” of even the strongest schools in the city. Further, the blanket comparison of unique schools to a citywide standard with no account for needs of the individual school is unfair. MCA clearly has steps to take to better serve its students. But it is only right that the chancellor do a better job of considering the individual needs of MCA’s educational community when evaluating their performance.

Instead of looking at a school and seeing the visible successes, the chancellor is looking at a school and seeing failure. And while I imagine that none on the closure list is without room for improvement, it is unreasonable to look at a school like MCA and deny its successes.

Alex Jones is a U.S. History teacher and policy debate coach at the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, a small high school in Brooklyn.

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.