First Person

Anticipating Fight Back Friday

One of the major reasons I became involved in educational advocacy work was because I saw the ways in which relentless focus on standardized testing was creating schooling environments that were less and less conducive to real learning. My first year I worked with a set of 30 or so 11th-graders who had struggled to pass the Regents math exam they needed to graduate; that test became my entire life as I struggled to find ways to prepare students whose math proficiency level was far below a ninth-grade level. I was successful with 28 of them, but not because I taught math in a way that made me proud. I thought constantly about ways in which I could make my classroom a more engaging learning environment where students could grapple with complex ideas, and while I was lucky to have a supportive administration I felt that so much of the broader direction in education reform was actually pushing education further from this ideal.

But as I have become more involved I now see that the problem is not just standardized tests. In fact, it seems that so much of the education reform agenda is not about creating engaging, enriching school environments but is instead about privatized management of schools that employ a non-unionized workforce and about attacking the very teacher protections that allow schools to be dynamic places where all staff can contribute opinions without fear of retribution. Tenure, for example, came into being so that teachers could not be fired by principals without due process. Tenure protects teachers who defend their departments from harassment, inform parents or DOE officials about negligence in their school, or who have personal or political disagreements with principals. Protections and contractual agreements make schools better places to work, which means lower teacher turnover, happier teachers and thus happier students in turn. A sign outside the capital in Madison, Wisc., last week made the case for teacher protections clear: “My Working Conditions Are My Students’ Learning Conditions.”

In response to the relentless attacks, Sam Coleman, a member of both the Grassroots Education Movement and NYCORE came up with the idea of supporting schools in organizing school-based actions for educators, parents and students across the city who wanted to push back. He named his intitiative Fight Back Friday. The idea also developed because there was an urgency for more actions at the local level, yet the UFT leadership seemed unwilling or unable to take on organizing of that kind.

On Friday, Jan. 21, members of my school community participated in our first Fight Back Friday. We joined parents, school staff and community members across the city to raise awareness about, and stand in solidarity with, schools facing closure and co-location votes at upcoming Panel for Educational Policy meetings. The theme for the day was “Wear Black and Take Our Schools Back.” Nearly all of my colleagues wore black on that day. It was an incredibly unifying experience that was better for staff morale than anything I could have anticipated. Over 30 schools have participated in Fight Back Fridays since the movement began last year. Each individual school’s action takes on a different tone depending on the particular concerns that are most pressing for that school, but they all heighten dialogue and raise awareness about critical issues facing education right now.

The next Fight Back Friday is planned for March 25, and it will focus on some of the most pressing issues facing public education. These include the devastation that would be caused by layoffs and budget cuts, plus the importance of teacher protections like tenure and seniority in making schools stable and rich environments for children. The message for the day is, “We are all Wisconsin! Same Struggle, Same Fight.” I have heard this sentiment, which refers to the battle against union rights started by Wisc. Gov. Scott Walker, expressed repeatedly from teachers in my school, and we have decided we don’t want to wait any longer to start educating our communities and mobilizing ourselves.

The truth is that parents, students, and all school workers have been feeling incredibly demoralized and my school is not unique in this sense. It’s depressing to hear so much focus on the “bad teachers” when it is such a tiny minority of us, and the focus on seeking out such teachers essentially amounts to witch hunts in some places. Teachers also feel like they have no voice in the conversation, and are finding themselves in heated debates with friends and family members who have taken in the general media sentiment that often lacks teacher voice. A friend recently had such a conversation in which her friend stated that he believed teacher unions, and many teachers in them, “don’t care at all about children.”

I know that I often feel like there is little that can be done on a personal level to stop the relentless attacks on schools, with the union leadership offering us little more than the suggestion to call or fax our elected officials. Fight Back Friday is an opportunity for school communities to take back the conversation surrounding education that is being pushed by the Gates Foundation and others who are trying to profoundly alter public education in ways that I do not believe will benefit students. Instead of making schools into socially just, enriching and rigorous learning environments, they would strengthen the focus on standardized tests, increase class sizes, and create school communities in which the very livelihood of teachers is dependent on the whims of a principal.

This is why participation in Fight Back Friday next week for my school community will be more than just wearing black. At the end of the day we’ll have signs and picket across the street from school while wearing stickers that say things like, “I’m wearing black to stop ALL layoffs” or “I’m wearing black because teacher protections protect children.” We’ll have informational leaflets to hand out explaining how the attacks here in New York City are much like those in Wisconsin: They are part of a national effort to weaken public sector unions and public services such as education. I’m excited because Fight Back Friday will also offer us the rare chance to have conversations with each other and with members of the local community about the issues facing our school system. I’m looking forward to those conversations, and to standing together with the members of my school community.

Politicians who are pushing for corporate-oriented reforms and are lobbying against teachers and their unions, whether it is Walker in Wisconsin or Bloomberg in NYC, have ideas about education for our children that do not align with what most parents want for their kids, nor what many teachers know is right for their students. It is time for the people to stand up and fight back in a way that creates a visible, mobilized and educational response to these attacks.

Email Sam Coleman for more information, or to get resources and register your school as participating in the upcoming Fight Back Friday on March 25.

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.