First Person

Much Ado

Our current education policy debates have me depressed.

“But there’s so much going on! Look at all the intersecting issues we’re juggling in New York:  school closings, small and charter schools opening or expanding, our Race to the Top application, the Regents proposal expand preparation options, eliminating the charter school cap, another DOE restructuring, teacher merit pay and tenure based on student performance! Isn’t this a great time for addressing the BIG ISSUES in education?!”


Arguably, I feel this way because of deep flaws in most of the above proposals. But it’s not mere opposition that drives my ennui. I like an energized debate over real issues as much as — probably a lot more than — the next person. I was supercharged in my disagreements with the Gates-led small schools movement, cell phone prohibition, and repression of parent and community input under mayoral control. So it’s not that I am unhappy being contrary.

The problem is that current initiatives have almost nothing to do with kids. Today’s politically-driven agenda is concerned more with money and power than education. It bores the hell out of me.

Take the federal Race to the Top competition. Billions of dollars in one-shot stimulus funds are at stake. But the administration’s policy agenda tied to the money — bribes, really — is a litany of warmed-over, unproven or disproven Bush-era buzz words. Accountability, merit pay, data systems, higher teacher quality, charter schools. All sound fine, yet all have been widely tried and have failed to significantly improve student achievement, especially among our low-income, minority, ELL, and special needs students. This isn’t an educational prescription but, rather, an economic and political strategy to jump-start spending and to shore up Obama’s right flank while he fights for health care reform on the left. The “top” that politico-policymakers are racing toward is just too distant from the classroom.

State initiatives are similarly off-target. While talking the talk of higher standards, the Commissioner and Regents have signaled approval of a credit recovery system that is an open door to academic abuse. Not one step has been taken to actually tighten test standards or grading policies, let alone the primary State function of assuring a broad and rigorous curriculum.  Lacking legislative elimination of the charter cap, the centerpiece of New York’s RttT application appears to be an entirely speculative plan to permit organizations outside of higher education to prepare teachers and principals. Such training will no doubt be cheaper, faster, and narrower but will it improve teaching? Who knows? But it gives a politically attractive appearance of doing something and satisfies myriad non-college constituencies, from unions to business to philanthropy.

The City is no better. Every school that Bloomberg closes is his failure, since he has presided over the system for almost eight years. Did converting Robeson High School to small learning communities several years ago improve it? Apparently not, since it is now on the chopping block. Again and again, the Mayor’s strategy of churn and burn has proven of little help to kids yet the political noise it makes masks its substantive silence. Similarly, the shock and awe of his charter school advocacy, proposals for merit pay, and testing monomania cloud the reality that the guy has no idea how to run a school system; every restructuring exposes the vacuity of its predecessor. By his own measures of success, at least four in 10 ninth graders still fail to graduate on time and, if Regents diplomas are set as a low standard, even the grads are often ill-prepared for college and careers. These children are Bloomberg’s educational progeny; they were in elementary school when he took office.  Yet, for all the hoopla, achievement is — at best — only marginally better, following a trend line established before he took office and reflected in other districts besides our own.

There is so much BS in the current debate that I can hardly stand it. I long for the new semester so I can get back to preparing new leaders for real schools. The teacher-student relationship is where the important work takes place. But, as usual, the politicians’ focus is on the sizzle, not the steak.

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.