First Person

The idea of the American Dream works against my students. Here’s how ethnic studies could help.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A recent study laid out an uncomfortable paradox: For students of color, believing in the American Dream — namely the “bootstrap theory” that hard work and perseverance lead to success — predicts a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors during middle school.

As Melinda Anderson put it in The Atlantic recently, this belief can become a liability for students “once they become keenly aware of how institutional discrimination disadvantages them and their group.”

That research only looked at a few hundred students in the southwest, and it’s always risky to draw broad conclusions based on a single study. But as a white teacher of mostly black students in Brooklyn, I’ve seen this firsthand.

My students reliably pick up on nuance, particularly when it comes to issues of fairness. If you are told that your world is a meritocracy, and your neighborhood looks like a disaster zone, you may reasonably come to the conclusion that your options are limited and internalize the idea that they should be.

Educators have a responsibility to confront and fight against these beliefs. This is where our own curriculum can work against us — and it’s time for that to change.

New York’s students deserve a class dedicated to ethnic studies, focused on the historical struggles and social movements of ethnic minorities, conscious of the ways in which race and ethnicity intersect with power and oppression. For too many young people, white students as well as students of color, school rarely connects to these critical concerns.

I’ve seen the promise of this approach, thanks to my experience working with children who do not look like me. Their engagement in lessons that deal explicitly with ethnic studies content convinced me that this emphasis should become part of my curriculum in every course. In addition, I am grateful for mentoring from a number of brilliant, experienced teachers and administrators, most of whom are black. They have convinced me that good teaching for all students must be approached in a culturally responsive way.

During my economics class this past semester, we looked not only at Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, but also at labor organizers such as Dolores Huerta and A. Philip Randolph. This did not require an overhaul of the curriculum, but it necessitated reflection about how best to connect with the students in front of me. This was a simple first step, wholly insufficient.

In San Francisco, where full ethnic studies courses have been offered to ninth-grade students for several years, a study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis demonstrated a remarkable, significant positive impact:

“Assignment to this course increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching … can provide effective support to at-risk students.”

In the past year, California passed a law that will bring ethnic studies to every school in the state, building on popular programs in many of the state’s largest districts.

The most controversial discussion of ethnic studies at the K-12 level has taken place in Arizona, where state legislators banned a popular Mexican American studies program in the Tucson public schools in 2010. That ban was just overturned last week — making this an important moment to discuss how these classes could help students across the country.

Meanwhile, for my students of color in New York City, racist violence animates their lives to a degree many fail to appreciate.

I was struck recently by two stories in the news — reflections on the death of Mike Brown, three years ago on August 9, and a look back at the brutal assault of Abner Louima by the NYPD, 20 years ago on the same date. Sadly, the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville will join our collective memory, to be filed next to these two important parts of our history, along a continuum that also includes Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and the victims of race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wilmington, North Carolina, and so many others that do not appear in our standard history books. These omissions must be corrected.

White students as well as students of color will benefit from ethnic studies courses, which expand on the core curriculum by including diverse voices and perspectives. Most importantly, these courses analyze power structures in a critical way, empowering students to challenge the status quo.

That’s what the state of New York should want for all young people. The 44 credits now required for a high school diploma, including courses in economics and a foreign language, are missing this component that is key to creating good citizens. In 2017, we can no longer suffer public schools that fail to meet this crucial obligation.

Will Ehrenfeld is a social studies teacher at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn.

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.