in your own words

Dear Bill Lee… ‘Respect our judgment and decisions,’ and other pieces of advice from Tennessee educators

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
At Riverside K-8 School in Memphis, teachers make sure their students get on the right buses.

After the election, we asked Tennessee educators: What would you tell newly elected Gov. Bill Lee about your classroom?

More than 50 of you answered our call.  From thoughts on state testing to personal stories on the struggles their students face, teachers across the state had a lot to say to Lee. The governor-elect will take office in January with a new administration and the chance to shape Tennessee education, especially with the recent resignation of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

Here is a collection of the letters sent in, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.

‘We are overcrowded, underfunded, and still succeed … at making students better citizens’

Jennifer Graham, Nashville teacher

At Shwab Elementary, our mission is to prepare students for success in middle school and beyond by developing problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration skills. We serve a community of students that consists of 63 percent economically disadvantaged and 33 percent English language learners. With these dynamics, we do face additional challenges to help our students meet the rigorous academic demands. The challenges include ensuring our students have basic needs such as food and clothing, and adhering to the students’ social and emotional needs throughout the school year. All of these issues have a great impact on students’ academic performance. Our educators go above and beyond to ensure our students are successful.

Lois Walker, Rutherford County teacher

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks with reporters the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition ends with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

We are overcrowded, underfunded, and still succeed every day at making students better citizens for the future. Every teacher in my building shares their classroom with another teacher because we are so crowded, and many classes are still quite large. We spent all kinds of time and money on testing for these last four years, only to have the test fail every year. We literally can’t afford computerized testing because we don’t even have a 5:1 ratio of computer to student in the high school. Use the ACT. It’s vetted and normed. TNREADY has never been ready, and the ever-changing standards void the meaning of the test even if the test LITERALLY doesn’t fail. How can we legitimately compare our students to other states when they are asking to learn so many standards for the state AND separate ones for the ACT? More is often NOT better. We lose 6-8 weeks of the school year to testing every single year: practice testing, the ridiculous number of days it takes for actual testing, and testing in April so that we have wasted time in May because students shut down when the test is over. AP students lose much of their review time for May tests because classes are disrupted by TNREADY or they even have to take TNREADY and an AP exam. It’s asinine. We need to go back to teaching to learn, not to test. Teachers are leaving in record numbers, and fewer enter the field now because they want to be creative and teach. Please stop the madness.

Rachel Johnson, Shelby County teacher

The workload put on me is too great for me to take. Children need more support for behavioral concerns before we dump millions into standards, test, and curriculum. We are failing to meet basic student needs and then expecting teachers to close the gap with little to no resources and too little pay for the workload we truly do.

Cassandra St. John, Washington county eighth-grade English teacher

My school is a small K-8 school in rural East Tennessee. Although we are no longer considered a Title I school [one  that receives additional resources from the federal government because it has a high population of poor students], many of our students come from low-income homes. And as the years roll on, more and more students live with people other than their parents. Opioids and other drugs have begun to affect our community, and our children, immensely. As with many teachers, the stories I hear about some of my students’ home lives are incomprehensible. Despite this, we have incredible, resilient students. For some students, when they have little stability at home, it’s difficult for them to focus and grow in school. I think that you should recognize that Tennessee, because it is a somewhat impoverished state, has students who come to school unprepared to learn because of the stability and structure they lack at home. Please take this into consideration.

Ronda Roberts, Rhea County teacher

We are a small rural school where most students are at or below poverty level. We try very hard to make a difference in our students’ lives. We have a clothes closet that we use to supply several students with clean clothing. We are currently trying to start our very first STEAM program after school, and funds are hard to come by. We love our students and want them to be prepared for the world when they graduate.

‘Good teachers are leaving. If you want this to stop, Pay us. … Respect us.’

Kathryn Vaughn, Tipton County elementary art teacher

I teach during the day and then work at an after-school program for at-risk youth in the evenings. We feed the students a third meal, work with them on their homework, and then teach STEM infused lessons. The students need the program for their social and academic growth. Their parents appreciate the program that feeds their children and keeps them in a safe place until parents can get home from work. Unfortunately, our budget has been cut and the program has ended at many of our schools, leaving students hungry, unsupervised, and parents struggling to make it home by 3:30 p.m. Policies determine this program’s future. As a teacher, I depend on the extra income to pay my student loans and cover medical copays. I have struggled to remain food secure this fall as the program started a month late due to the budget.

Candous Brown, Shelby County teacher

Raleigh Egypt High School is part of the Innovation Zone of schools within the district. As such, we attend for an extra hour daily in hopes of improving student performance. However, as it stands, we have lost so many teachers due to either lack of support or student numbers. We need qualified mentors in the building to support the new staff. But the veteran teachers in the building are not being used to their full potential which is why they are seeking other opportunities. Rapport between the staff needs to be a priority so that teachers can be retained.

Theresa Wagner, Nashville teacher

Our classes lack textbooks, technology, and appropriate infrastructure to support the technology that we do have. Our district is grossly underfunded and cannot offer competitive salaries to attract enough teachers to fill all of our needs. We do not have adequate support staff in the form of ESPs, nurses, school psychologists, social workers, etc. We do have what I think is an excellent career preparation structure through our high school academies where students can graduate with a large variety of industry certifications and go right into the workforce.

Haley McNabb, Achievement School District teacher

Teachers working long hours, outside of what we are asked, and not getting paid for the work we do. We are on the front line to mold our future leaders and we don’t get compensated fairly for all of the work we do. Good teachers are leaving the classroom. If you want this to stop, Pay. Us. More! Respect us more. Respect our judgment and decisions.

‘One test … does not measure my effectiveness or my students’ readiness.’

Heather McCall, Nashville seventh-grade ELL teacher

I work at a great school. However, teachers are more and more being treated as less than professional. We need to be given the freedom to educate students and be treated as professionals. All of this stems from the performance treadmill we are on to make adequate yearly progress on some high-stakes test that has failed us multiple years in a row.

Testing. My students are more than a test score, and the issues related to testing in recent years have reminded us of the over-reliance on testing. We need to actually teach our students and end the testing machine.

Amber Wylie, Munford Schools elementary science/math teacher

TN Ready and teacher scores loom over my heart every year. I watch my kids pour their hearts into a test because they know how important it is to “show what they know,” only to end up crying because of unfair time limits. One test on one day does not measure my effectiveness or my students’ readiness.

David Talley, Blount County Schools teacher

Testing. Every single day. Unfortunately, state testing drives what happens in the classroom. As an educator, I am rated by how my students do on one single test that I don’t even get to see. I am graded on students who come from a diverse background, some of whom don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. Quite frankly, they are not worried about a test. There has to be a better way.

Regina Jones, Lake County kindergarten teacher

I was the secretary/bookkeeper/took-care-of-sick-children in the office for five years before going back to school at the age of 35 to become a teacher. I believe that there has to be a framework to hold teachers accountable, and I have experienced how helpful it is to students’ learning and my teaching. The problem is that just when we begin to get in a productive rhythm, everything is changed. The standards, the curriculum, the portfolios, the evaluations, all of the paperwork that goes along with all of the changes, lesson plans and finding the time to run off or gather materials, and yet, there are still students needing our attention and needing to be taught. There is only so much time in a day. We spend so much time on the “paper trail” that our teacher hearts and minds are too stretched. I have seen where some states are giving teachers one day a week without students to prepare. If this could happen, it may would help.

Jodi Amado, Manchester City Schools first-grade teacher

Testing in TN has been setting the students up for failure and making public educators look inadequate to the public. Furthermore, the state department of education fuels the fire by not accepting responsibility for their failures. I submitted a portfolio that wasn’t scored last year and received a 4 (if scored it would have been a 5). There is a lack of trust and respect between the education department and school systems. When the former governor met with teachers he was presented with “yes sir” teachers. I hope Mr. Lee appoints a public educator as Commissioner of Education and not one who is looking for status or money — one that cares about the school systems and the STUDENTS of Tennessee succeeding.

Choose an education commissioner ‘with extensive experience in our field.’

Shelly Misenheimer, Collierville Schools teacher

Newly Elected Gov. Lee — As an educator in the state of Tennessee, I have witnessed firsthand the woes of overtesting, the lack of leadership at the state level as well as the fiasco that has gone on the past three years with TNReady testing. As you select our new Secretary of Education, I implore you to choose someone with extensive experience in our field. Someone who was a seasoned teacher, supervisor, and administrator within an actual public school district, possibly even a current superintendent who has been in the trenches with us these past few years of never-ending evaluations, mounds of additional paperwork, and the constant accountability of tests that have proven to be completely unusable in determining a student’s progress.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.