First Person

Garrulous Mr. Gates

It’s been a busy week for Bill Gates. While the NEA featured brilliant Diane Ravitch as its most prominent guest, AFT President Randi Weingarten and company chose Gates, who’s done many remarkable things.

I’m not an education expert like Gates, so I’ll comment only on a TED talk he gave last year that’s available online. My experience is limited to teaching 25 years in New York City. Still, several of Gates’ comments did not sit well with me.

How does that [KIPP charter school] compare to a normal school? Well, in a normal school teachers aren’t told how good they are. The data isn’t gathered. In the teacher’s contract, it will limit the number of times the principal can come into the classroom — sometimes to once per year. And they need advanced notice to do that.

My principal can and does visit my classroom whenever he golly goshdarn feels like it. He offers no advanced notice, and walks around the building visiting my colleagues in exactly the same fashion. Gates’s version of what happens in a “normal school” sounds more like a crass stereotype than any contract I’ve ever heard of.

So imagine running a factory where you’ve got these workers, some of them just making crap and the management is told, “Hey, you can only come down here once a year, but you need to let us know, because we might actually fool you, and try and do a good job in that one brief moment.”

I’m having trouble imagining a teacher who lights up only once every year. If you can’t teach, you don’t give a sterling lesson on command. If you hate kids, you don’t instantly learn to love them when the principal walks in.

Gates claims a top quartile teacher will increase the test scores of students by over 10 percent in a single year. Thus, he reasons, if all students had this teacher, we’d be doing fabulously. I don’t know if I’m in the top quartile, but I raise scores when I have to. Yet when I do, I’m not as effective a teacher.

I try to inspire kids. I try to trick them, for example, into loving any book I teach, with high hopes they’ll love not only that book, but another, and then another. Will those kids get higher test scores? Maybe. But isn’t it possible a love of reading might pay off in some as-yet undetermined future? Isn’t it possible they might make career choices, pivotal decisions, based on something gleaned in my classroom?

Gates suggests teachers lack motivation, perhaps because we’re not getting merit pay, or because too few administrators tell us how wonderful we are. Why, then, do we write glowing recommendations for kids, pushing for them to be admitted to universities, special programs, or new careers?

Teachers have intrinsic motivation Gates can neither measure nor (apparently) conceive of.  I appreciate money, and I’ll say thanks to praise from almost anyone. But I especially treasure it from kids. Last month I told my class I’d miss them. They shouted, “We’ll miss you too!” They asked me if I’d teach them next year. I was honored, far more than by anything Gates could do or say.

But Gates proves things with charts, one of which says:

Once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not improve thereafter.

That’s preposterous. Many societies value wisdom and experience, but if they don’t drive test scores, Gates’s charts are unaffected.

But charts don’t face 34 teenagers at a time. I do. You never know what can, what will happen next. Live kids do unimaginable things, things that constantly perplexed me in year three. Even now, I steal any trick, any tip, anything from anyone if it sounds practical.  My bag of tricks is considerably larger now than it was 22 years ago, and I learn new things every day.

Says Gates’s chart:

A master’s degree doesn’t raise scores.

But if I hadn’t studied bilingualism, language acquisition, and the structures of English (that we all know instinctively but have likely as not never thought about), I’d be unqualified to teach ESL. I’d also never have passed the grueling Board of Examiners test the city required back in the day.

For my kid (and yours), I want a teacher with the deepest possible subject knowledge. Teachers compete with cell phones, iPods, and Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 (on which teenagers play some of the most sordid and vulgar war games I’ve ever seen), and need all the help they can get.

Maybe you don’t need a master’s to move kids from 55 on one test to 65 on the next test. A more worthy challenge is developing a kid who derives joy from class, one who eagerly participates and will continue studying it even when force is not involved. I will give that kid a better grade than test scores indicate, even if charts disapprove.

Anybody who has access to a DVD player could have the very best teachers.

That’s because he wants to film what he considers to be good teachers, and amass a video library. But doing that would mean only that anyone with a DVD player would be able to watch the best teachers.

There’d be no interaction, and certainly no assessment of the kid’s work by these best teachers. It’s not the same as having someone in your face. Gates seems to know that when it suits his purposes. When he describes his experiences at KIPP, he becomes giddy with excitement:

The teacher was running around, and the energy level is high … and the teacher was constantly scanning to see which kids weren’t paying attention, which kids were bored and calling on kids rapidly, putting things up on the board …

… keeping people engaged and setting the tone that everyone in the classroom needs to pay attention.

Here, I agree with Gates. But in my school, these things happen every day. And of course everyone needs to pay attention. Were someone to make a statement like that to my 14-year-old, it would merit an unhesitating, “Well, DUH!”

96 percent of KIPP’s high school graduates go to four year colleges.

That may be true. Or it may not. KIPP hasn’t been around that long, and mostly runs junior high schools, so KIPP students in college represent a very small sample. More to the point, the 96 percent figure, if true on any level, doesn’t include kids who don’t finish the program — which at some schools could run to more than half. Who teaches the kids who fail KIPP, and who does Gates blame for that? (I’m thinking me.)

Why not give the high schools the kids attend after KIPP some credit? Are they the “normal” public schools, the schools in which Gates claims administrators are contractually forbidden to observe teachers? Maybe Gates should sponsor that contract.

Charts don’t show underlying problems with poor performers. What if the kid has interrupted formal education, shuffled back and forth from one country to another, and by high school cannot read or write? What if there is abuse, neglect, or who knows what waiting for the kid at home? Gates seems to think if only we could raise that kid’s test score by 10 percent, all would be well.

Gates’s employees can’t be bothered with rudimentary fact-checking, nor can American print reporters. They’re all too busy fawning over him.

It broke my heart to see 3,400 teachers in Seattle doing precisely the same thing.

Thanks to Caroline Grannan for her sage counsel and invaluable advice.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

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.