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

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.