First Person

A former superintendent wonders: What’s missing from the discussion about the portfolio model?

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Sharif El-Mekki, the principal of a Mastery Charter School campus in Philadelphia. We walked the hallways and talked about how to infuse social justice, social-emotional learning, and other priorities into the everyday life of the school.

As we popped into classrooms, it struck me that the teachers all seemed to share a vision for what students should be learning and how they should be learning it. The instruction that I saw was not just excellent but also consistent. The rest of our discussion focused on how specific practices in use at Mastery might be adopted successfully by traditional high schools.

When I returned home that afternoon, I came across the Chalkbeat series on portfolio schools. I appreciated the comprehensiveness of Chalkbeat’s reporting. But having just spent some time visiting classrooms and talking with El-Mekki about what was actually happening inside classrooms, I couldn’t help but notice that the articles were devoid of any reference to teaching and learning.

As I wrote not long ago, the school reforms of the last two decades have pursued mainly structural solutions to instructional problems. To be clear, I think that structural changes — having to do with school governance, parental choice, data collection, accountability systems, and so on — can be important and valuable. But they aren’t valuable in and of themselves. Rather, they’re valuable only insofar as we put them into the service of a larger vision of what we want schools to achieve, for whom, and how.

That’s why, for example, my conversation with El-Mekki didn’t veer toward the structures that enable and hinder his school’s success (although I’m sure he could go on and on about them). Rather, he wanted to talk about the knowledge and skills his students need and the ways he works with teachers and staff to support their development. As he knows, that’s where the discussion should begin. That’s what gives context and meaning to any subsequent conversation about structural reforms in education.

When I was superintendent in Stamford, Connecticut, a very diverse system of about 15,500 students, we embarked on a major effort to de-track the middle and high schools. For generations, the system had placed black and Latino students in low-level classes and white students in honors and advanced courses. We urgently needed to make a structural change, and we did by eliminating lower level courses and changing the student assignment process.

These changes were necessary, but not sufficient. We also had to invest heavily in improving what students were learning in the classroom. Science became more hands-on, we established core texts in English and increased teacher content knowledge in mathematics. The structural changes were a catalyst for transformation, but the everyday student experience in the presence of a well-prepared teacher and rich content is what actually improved outcomes.

The core challenge we’re trying to solve in American public education is to graduate all kids with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to navigate an increasingly complex world on their own terms. In pursuit of this goal, it might be helpful to pursue the sorts of managerial tactics and decisions associated with portfolio districts: closing low-performing schools, expanding high-performing ones, and letting parents choose any school in the system. Then again, it might turn out that these tactics aren’t helpful at all, or that they’re helpful in some places and harmful in others. (After 15 years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, reformers should know better than to assert that they know the one best way to reengineer troubled school systems.)

But I know from experience that we need to focus on the substance of what goes on in schools, not just the formal structures in which those schools operate.

The other element of great schools and systems that feels missing from the portfolio approach, as described in Chalkbeat, is attention to adult learning. Advocates for structural reform often chant simplistic slogans like “Children first,” and “Let’s focus on student needs, not adult interests.” But it’s disingenuous at best (pernicious is more like it) to suggest that 3.7 million teachers and hundreds of thousands of administrators are willfully choosing to disregard students’ needs — as though they know how to educate all children to high levels but don’t want to do so.

Likewise, it’s unhelpful for supporters of portfolio schools to make one-sided attacks on the unions, ignoring the essential protections they’ve given to generations of teachers, including the women and people of color who have made up the bulk of the teaching workforce throughout our history. It’s high time to put aside the dichotomous notion that schools must serve either the interests of adults or the needs of kids. In fact, leaders of all kinds of successful organizations know that productivity increases and clients are better served when adult workers are happy and engaged.

I’ve seen schools across the country show that when teachers are paid well, treated with respect, given opportunities to collaborate, encouraged to develop new knowledge and skills, held accountable for results, asked to teach a rich curriculum, and given the resources they need to do so, great things happen for kids — whether those teachers work in a charter school, traditional public school, or a private or parochial school.

Finally, I have to take issue with a comparison made by Ethan Gray, the head of Education Cities — which helps support the growth of the portfolio school model around the country — who likens the role of the organizations in his group to that of the quarterback of a football team. Those organizations have a catalyzing effect on local school systems, he says, handing off and passing resources to those who can move the ball forward. But the analogy rings hollow to me.

As a lifelong New York Giants fan, I’m aware that a few players, like Eli Manning, manage to have long and healthy tenures in that position (his remarkable streak of continuous games as the team’s starting quarterback just ended at 210). But most quarterbacks are here today and gone tomorrow. That’s why I always tell new school superintendents that they should think of themselves as a temporary steward of the community’s values. While one can push, cajole, inspire, and fight to transform systems in support of kids, the community will exist long after the superintendent has moved on.

Perhaps the portfolio approach can be a catalyst for useful changes in K-12 education. My advice to the leaders of that movement would be to be a little more humble, a lot more willing to adapt themselves to the values and wishes of community members, much less eager to prescribe structural solutions (e.g., parental choice and school closures) for complex problems, and much more mindful of the need to ground school improvement in the everyday work of teaching and learning.

Joshua Starr is the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators. He was previously the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut. He tweets @JoshuaPStarr.

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.