First Person

The State Education Department and the Politics of Distraction

Teacher preparation programs long ago abandoned (if they ever embraced) theory-centric instruction in favor of research-based clinical methods. Further, they have championed a middle way independent of the changeable pedagogical and curriculum priorities promoted by individual districts and funders. While popular practices are often addressed, either unilaterally or in partnership with outside entities, education schools’ academic independence protects them from being swamped by political and financial forces driving others.

Now comes a pronouncement from the New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department commissioner that higher education will no longer be the sole route to teacher and leadership certification. The Regents, who appoint the commissioner, are themselves appointed by our state legislature, that dysfunctional body more famous for patronage than policy competence.

Not surprisingly, then, the Regents have rejected the fundamental role of independent inquiry in professional preparation in favor of faster, cheaper methods based on proprietary ownership. Whether these programs are run by non-profit, for-profit, or school district organizations, their aim will be to brand grads with a particular skill set, antithetical to preparing able, agile, open-minded professionals for long-term teaching effectiveness.

Though many claims against schools of education depend on phony stereotypes, some criticism is valid. Higher education governance makes it hard to quickly adopt new programs and courses. Its dependence on credit hours toward completion of degree requirements creates a temporal uniformity inimical to more flexible arrangements based on subject content and mastery. But higher education itself has heeded these critiques, responding with a plethora of governance, course, and degree reforms that meet market demands while preserving academic integrity and independence.

Expansion of educator preparation to other providers is simply a political response by SED to a growing constituency of educational entrepreneurs who, often lacking certification themselves, seek clones rather than independent-minded professionals to staff their similarly branded schools. There is nothing inherently wrong with training in such methods, if successful, but state-granted professional certification should guarantee greater flexibility than the ability to teach in a KIPP charter school or to navigate the city Department of Education’s ARIS database.

More important, the Regents’ policy will distract SED and the public from the Department’s core mission: to set and oversee standards for certification, curriculum, and student performance. Ever since its politicization under former Commissioner Richard Mills, when the state took credit for increasing test scores and graduation rates through dumbed-down tests and looking the other way on bogus credit recovery strategies rather than monitoring district performance and compliance, we have seen a steady decline in SED’s reputation and credibility. This recently reached a new low with the state’s first-round Race to the Top application which neither the commissioner nor Regents seemed to realize was bloated with furniture purchases and high-priced consultants. Steven Brill’s recent New York Times Magazine piece purporting to document “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand” was more important for revealing SED’s deliberate lies designed to secure Race to the Top money. The Regents’ charter initiatives, their commissioning of a study on testing standards, and the expansion of certification providers are less about improving education than diverting attention from its core failures.

If there is a problem with higher education certification — and there is because diploma mills abound — then SED should take steps to improve or eliminate the bad actors that it already supervises, not race to expand the pool. Long the subject of drastic budget cuts and poor spending practices, SED does not have the resources to adequately monitor the work of colleges, school districts, charter and nonpublic schools under its present control, let alone determine if a new category of providers is meeting its obligations.

In his previous campaign for governor, Andrew Cuomo favored putting SED under gubernatorial authority. While his current comprehensive platform, “The New New York Agenda,” fails to specifically address the issue, it states a strong preference for giving the Governor unilateral powers over State government consolidation and reorganization. Cuomo’s call for a new Spending and Government Efficiency Commission and a State Government Reorganization Act provide canny vehicles for further politicizing SED, cited at page 64 as a prime example of organizational chaos. But what difference would it make as long as SED continues its shameful codependent relationship with the state’s political branches, school districts, charter and private schools? In abdicating their fundamental role of independent oversight, the Regents and commissioner have sown the seeds of executive annexation since they have become handmaidens of the very constituencies they were created to constrain.

Housecleaning is in order, but not the kind the new education elite have in mind. With its workforce already substantially reduced and more cuts on the way, SED needs to use its constitutional independence to set standards and monitor district and school compliance with a reduced, essential set of regulations regarding students’ academic performance, health, and safety. SED should be the public’s educational ombudsman, keeping accurate, transparent data so that parents and taxpayers can assess schools’ academic and fiscal activity. If the State Education Department continues to indulge in political distractions from its laughable failures in this mission, it will have squandered its obligations to a public desperately in need of square dealing and educational candor.

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.