First Person

Once Central, City’s Progressive Educators Now Outnumbered But Still Fighting

Appearing before about 600 educators at a recent conference on progressive education, Deborah Meier threw away her prepared speech. In an inspired request, the MacArthur Genius Award winner and prominent advocate for progressive education asked attendees who started teaching in the 1960s to stand up. Then she called on educators who began their careers in the 1970s. She continued decade by decade to the present until a good part of the audience was standing.

Meier’s gesture made visible the long history — into the present — of progressive education in New York City’s schools. But it also raised the question: Where — in an era of high-stakes tests and number crunching — is progressive education?

Most progressive educators trace their roots to John Dewey, the early-twentieth-century philosopher who wrote extensively about the connection between education and democracy and proposed an educational model that was intellectual, pragmatic and applied. Over the past 25 years, the term has come to describe interdisciplinary instruction; alternative ways of gauging student learning, like performance-based assessment; project-based learning; advisory or guidance groups as part of the school day; small classes sizes; a full measure of art and music classes; and time set aside for teachers to plan and work together. For progressive educators, a shared vision of the purpose of education and how students should be taught unites all of these features.

At one point in the not-too-distant past, New York City was a center of progressive education. And it wasn’t just in the two schools that Meier founded and ran, the Central Park East elementary and secondary schools. From 1983 to 1997, Stephen Phillips served as the superintendent of alternative schools. Largely unknown outside of New York City education circles, Phillips oversaw 62 schools and programs that enrolled more than 120,000 students when he retired. He received a lifetime achievement award from Meier at the progressive education conference, along with the late Theodore Sizer, one of her intellectual mentors and later a colleague in the Coalition for Essential Schools, the umbrella organization for progressive schools.

Yet in the current era of standardized test-based accountability, progressive education has fallen off the radar in New York and nationally. High-stakes tests are being used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools, and charter schools — a lightly regulated alternative to traditional public schools — are seen as a panacea. Through its Race to the Top competition, the federal government is rewarding states that promote these policies with large gobs of money.

Ann Cook is the founding principal of the progressive Urban Academy High School and the head of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 28 schools whose students do not have to take Regents exams but instead demonstrate proficiency through portfolios and presentations. Cook takes no prisoners when describing the current moment in education policy.

“A lot of people who make policy provide a certain education for their children but don’t think other people’s children can benefit from it,” she said, pointing to wealthy suburban school districts and private schools such as Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., which President Obama’s daughters attend.

“They all have small classes, electives, take trips, do project-based work, try to get kids involved in a discussion, present the students with multiple perspectives — those are all hallmarks of progressive education,” Cook said. “There’s no time for these things in regular public schools. It’s all about how they do on the test.”

And yet a small contingent of educators, many who attended the conference, continues to try to apply progressive education principles in the face of mandates and constraints from the city and federal education departments.

Brady Smith is the founding principal of Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, which incorporates expeditionary learning, where students are given experiences out of the classroom to help them learn and develop personally. Ninth-graders travel to Harriman State Park to explore and learn from the environment, and tenth-graders work closer to home on a long-term project planning how to use a vacant lot next to the school. They have to come up with their own vision for the use of the land, do the calculations and schematics, and make a proposal to the Port Authority, which owns the land.

“We use data quite a bit,” Smith told me. “But we have a broad definition of data. We look at student work quite a lot. My stance is — what does student performance look like? There are ways to measure it authentically … more than any one test.”

Smith says he hopes eventually to have his school accepted into the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the group Cook runs. The purpose of joining would not be just to get his students out of having to take Regents exams, Smith told me, but because the consortium offers extensive professional development to its member schools and provides a rigorous peer review process to make sure students get challenging alternate assessments.

Smith said he developed his educational philosophy while teaching in both traditional and progressive schools in Portland, Ore., and Seattle before moving to New York. For the younger teachers in his school, without the range of experiences, developing their own perspective on education can be harder, which is why Smith said he brought them to the conference.

“Many of my staff members don’t have a sense of history,” he said. “It was valuable for them to see they are part of a larger movement.”

One young teacher who attended the conference graduated from both of Meier’s Central Park East schools before beginning her teaching career. Alexis Carrero came to Lyons Community School in Brooklyn after teaching for five years at MS 37 in the Bronx, where she experienced a shift in what administrators valued.

“It all became focused on testing,” she said. “It was all about the numbers and they didn’t pay attention to the social and emotional needs of the students.”

At Lyons, Carrero and her colleagues create thematic units and focus on field studies, taking students out of the classroom, for example, to museums to learn. But they also have worked together and made changes in the school based on what they see as student needs. After some problems of aggression between boys, they rearranged the schedule and established a boys’ group and a girls’ group to talk about their own issues. (Carrero runs the girls’ group and a dean runs the boys’ group.)

“I think we’re doing great things at our school but still our test scores aren’t great,” she said. “We have to find a middle ground. We’re not teaching to the test. We’re trying to teach them skills on how to take tests. We’re still working on it. We’re a work in progress.”

Whether Carrero and her colleagues at Lyons will have a chance to figure things out remains to be seen. Although the city is encouraging principals and schools to innovate, it eschews practices that don’t center solely on improving standardized test scores.

“Good gardeners know they have to set up borders around flowerbeds in order to help them grow,” Phillips said at the conference. “If progressive education is going to be a factor in education, it has to be protected in a zone where it is safe to try things.”

Jessica Siegel, assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College, taught in the city’s public schools for 12 years. She is the subject of Small Victories by Samuel Freedman (HarperCollins, 1990).

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.