First Person

Success Academy teachers don’t plan their lessons, and other teachers shouldn’t either

I have taught English at the same school in the city’s public school system for the last six years. I interviewed for a teaching position with Success Academy this summer. While I didn’t accept the offer, seeing the charter network’s approach to curriculum made me think about what it would look like if my school—and others—tried its approach.

At Success, teachers do not spend time crafting the plans and materials for every class—a core expectation of teachers at most schools. When this was first explained, I couldn’t help checking that I’d heard correctly: “So you’re saying teachers don’t lesson plan?” My interviewer’s response was prompt and confident: “Lesson plan? Our teachers don’t have time for lesson planning.”

I was stunned, but I shouldn’t have been. They realized it worked better to dedicate a team of qualified people to developing lessons, who give the lessons to teachers with the expectation that they will be modified. (My interviewer even emphasized the poor results of teachers who simply delivered the lessons without taking ownership of them.)

In short, Success sees the foolishness of having teachers, on a daily basis, reinventing the wheel when there are people within the school who understand how things should work. It’s time traditional public schools admit the same.

I certainly understand the resistance that many teachers feel at the idea of being given lessons. They understandably fear being “forced” to teach lessons that are uninspiring or poorly planned. Many resist using someone else’s lessons out of fear the lessons won’t cohere with the expectations of their school or with the needs of their students (or following experiences with pre-packaged curriculum materials that failed to do so).

It’s also rare to see lessons that are comprehensive enough to be useful. For example, it is easy to find teaching guides for particular novels or plays, but quite rare to find actual lessons. It is also hard to find assessments—and I don’t mean a multiple-choice test or a description of a project. I mean the handout describing the assessment, the assessment’s rubric, the graphic organizers that break down steps, and a completed sample assessment. Teachers have a lot of well-founded doubts about how useful and complete someone else’s lessons are going to be.

Perhaps most of all, teachers don’t want lessons based on someone else’s passions. As an English teacher, I know how difficult it can be to teach a text that I don’t love.

But at the end of the day, when I think of all the time I spend creating and modifying lessons, I know I would give up lesson planning if I could. In fact, I get nearly giddy at the thought of having more time for the other demands (and joys) of my profession: talking to students, giving students feedback (both so time-consuming and so important, particularly at the high-school level), communicating with parents, organizing and leading clubs. With so much time no longer devoted to planning, I could also focus on the delivery of lessons—on becoming a master presenter and facilitator.

Of course, I wouldn’t give up my planning for just any old lessons. They would have to be

  • Developed by teachers or former teachers from the school
  • Tested and found to be successful with similar populations of students
  • Common-Core aligned
  • Easy to follow and detailed
  • Challenging, engaging and differentiated for students with different needs when necessary
  • Student-centered, with opportunities for students to take ownership of their own learning
  • Comprehensive, with supplements like accompanying handouts and rubrics included (ideally in modifiable, digital form)

In other words, what each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.

I could have so much more confidence in lessons developed by a team of people who know my school, rather than just by me, myself and I. I don’t mean to say my own lessons are terrible. Some are very strong, but—let’s be honest—some were made in a terrible, anxious rush. If I taught from a team-made curriculum, there would be no need for lessons made the day before (or, dare I admit it, the day of) a class. I would have quality lessons every day.

Additionally, I would have a clear road map. I would know today what I would be teaching in three weeks—not just that we’ll be finishing “The Crucible,” but that we’ll be focusing on Scene X and doing a Socratic seminar on Y. I could rest assured that by the end of the year, my students will have had repeated practice with all the standards.

It is true that such a team would be costly, both in terms of money and time. The team would need to be made up of teachers with reduced teaching loads or teachers who are focused solely on curriculum, not the outgrowth of one more meeting in some teachers’ already over-filled days. I can think someone who would be perfect for this position: A phenomenal teacher who relishes planning, but often finds herself frustrated in the classroom. Her lessons and projects are complex, creative, and well thought-out. Eventually, a team made up of people like her would need to spend less time creating and could spend more time tweaking.

The new union contract already mandates more time for professional development than ever before. Why not use this time for curriculum teams to work? (Again, the key would be not staffing them with teachers who already have full teaching loads.) A school like mine could start small, with one team focused on just one subject or grade level.

It is clear to me that the achievement of charter schools like the Success Academy schools is in large part due to their recognition of the importance of letting people do the things at which they are best. Let’s follow their example. Let’s free more teachers from the burden of planning, and see what happens when they can focus on their most important job: teaching and connecting with students.

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.