First Person

Same New Boss

I was teaching my precalculus class when the news broke that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor. Precalculus is one of the very few classes I have taught in my three years that is not tied to a Regents exam, and for this reason it is one of my absolute favorites. I use an inquiry-based curriculum taught in a Socratic method style, with students initiating ideas for solutions and communicating their ideas with one another. The idea is to teach critical thinking, and to change students’ conception of math from one of a large collection of “steps” or “right ways to solve problems” into the complex yet accessible system of logic that it is. I am there as a guide and as a facilitator, to provide access to the vocabulary and language of the math, and on rare occasions to provide students access to particular solution strategies used in mathematics that may not be obvious based on anything they have learned previously.

In classes that are Regents-based I am only able to do this type of teaching to a very small extent. Inquiry-based learning requires time, and it does not lend itself well to broad, shallow curriculums. Teaching with the test in mind starts in the early grades, and it is especially prevalent in schools where students struggle to pass the exams, which are also often schools dominated by low-income students and students of color. Most of the ninth-graders I am preparing for the Integrated Algebra Regents exam in June came in struggling with many basic pre-algebra topics, which means that to prepare them in one year to receive a passing grade on the exam I have to review a lot of middle-school skills and focus on particular, Regents-approved “methods” for solving particular types of problems. Almost all of my students can solve a multi-step algebraic equation by this time in the year, but few of them truly understand why the method that I imposed on them actually works. They will remember the method in June when they have to take the test, but I personally do not believe that their critical thinking skills or their understanding of the meaning or purpose of solving an equation will have improved greatly in their time with me this year. How my students perform in June does matter a great deal for their futures and for our school’s future. But what they understand 20 years from now, and how the seeds planted now have developed by that point, matters much more.

Students in my precalculus class were incredibly resistant to the inquiry-based methodology at the beginning of the year. Several of them would complain consistently that I wasn’t “telling them how to solve the problems” or “teaching them the steps.” I was feeling so much resistance that I turned to my assistant principal for advice. I am lucky to work with an educational leader who holds a social justice view of education, and she gave me a riveting speech about how I needed to be completely honest with my students about why they have that view of mathematics, that they are wrong about what mathematics is, and that it isn’t their fault. “Students who look like me and who look like them are given a different type of education than students who look like you,” my assistant principal, an African-American woman, told me. “You need to tell them that their minds have been enslaved; that they have been educated to believe that they are good students if they don’t think and just perform as they are told. That is not educating. You have a responsibility to un-teach that view of learning and support them in learning to think for themselves.”

I want to be able to teach all of my classes like that. I know that in algebra there is a place for learning skills and strategies, but I wish every day that there was a great deal more of a place for deep critical thinking, for reflection, for developing conceptual understandings that will last longer than June. As long as high-stakes testing remains as high-stakes as it is, however, it is simply a reality that the curriculum will narrow and many teachers will focus on the specific skills students need to be successful on the exams. And the stakes associated with scores on these exams, including having one’s school shut down and its space converted into a charter, will remain incredibly high as long as the reforms being pushed in New York City and nationally do not shift course.

And so, when I went on lunch and heard the news that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor, there was a piece of me that felt so much hope about a possible shift in that course. Maybe this meant real change. We had won something — we, the teachers and parents who pushed and agitated against Black’s appointment; who turned people out to PEP meetings; who created a legal case to deny her a waiver; who kept the reality of her incompetence in the press; who held Fight Back Fridays to protest her offensive appointment. This is a pretty huge and validating reality, and one would have to be a complete cynic to not take a moment to smile about that fact. If we could build, together, enough public opposition to Cathie Black and force Bloomberg to admit he made a mistake and remove her from her post, perhaps we can win on the standardized testing front. If we can win that, perhaps we can win in the fights against school closings, charter conversions and colocations, and the fundamental issue of mayoral control.

But then reality set in: the truth is that Black was just a pawn, and with mayoral control in place it actually matters very little who the chancellor is. In fact, one could argue that the choice of Dennis Walcott actually makes it much easier for Bloomberg to push his misguided, destructive reforms on the children of New York. Walcott’s personal history makes him a much less offensive choice of chancellor, even for me. I remember feeling so deeply disgusted by the fact that Cathie Black had never once stepped foot in a public school (primary, secondary or higher-ed) in her entire life before becoming chancellor. She had no knowledge of the meaning of educational terminology or the history of education that all New York State teachers must study in masters programs. These statements are less true for Mr. Walcott because he grew up in our public schools, his children and grandchild attend public school, and he has been involved in education work through the mayor’s office and as a professional before that.

Yet Walcott has already said he will still push for school closings and more charter schools replacing public school space. Teachers and parents should still be offended by the choice of Walcott because their opinions were not a part of that choice, and because according to state law he, like Black, is unqualified for the position of chancellor. He will still push for the use of high-stakes standardized tests to justify closing schools and to hold students back, and as long as he is Bloomberg’s chancellor he will do it whether he himself believes in it or not. At the end of the day, Walcott will be accountable to one person and one person only, and that is Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While we have a system in place that has no checks and balances, where one person can make considerable changes to our educational structures with no accountability, then the purpose of a chancellor is to serve as nothing more than a salesman and a talking head for whatever changes the mayor would like to impose. And Walcott will actually serve as a much more effective salesman for Bloomberg’s policies than Black ever could have been. While the mayor seems to be immune to any accountability, in my classroom and in schools across the city, the word accountability and its twisted effect on teaching is a constant in my daily life.

Over the course of the year the students in the one course I teach that is not tied to a standardized test have transformed their relationship with mathematics. I never get requests to “explain the steps” anymore. Instead, students explore various ideas and methodologies that they come up with through the process of struggling with problems. Sometimes these methodologies lead to solutions and sometimes they do not, but it is through this process that they have developed a much deeper understanding of mathematics and problem-solving that will benefit them immensely both in college and in life. The growth of high-stakes standardized testing has endangered this type of learning, and as long as such a disproportionate amount of our budget is going into pushing discredited reforms instead of strengthening teaching and learning it may even become extinct.

This narrowing of the curriculum because of the overuse of tests to make high stakes decisions predates black and will exist after her. The short-lived joy I experienced after learning of Cathie Black’s removal only reaffirmed to me, once more, that mayoral control must end. The use of test scores as a justification for closing schools and replacing them with charter schools that then underserve students with the highest needs must be stopped or we are putting at risk the deeper type of learning that we all know is what good education should be.

Yes, Cathie Black’s removal was a win, but in some ways it was an easy win because her appointment aroused so much resentment. Reforms such as school closings and the proliferation of charter schools, the central reforms being pushed right now, are generally opposed in the communities who face them, but they don’t feel so deeply offensive for the  teachers, parents and students who escape facing their school being closed or pushed out by a charter school. They are of grave concern for all of us, however, and should be fought city-wide because they undermine and disempower communities, the same way standardized tests disempower our children. The truth is we will never ‘win’ as long as mayoral control is in place because without the input and empowerment of parents, children, educators and communities, there simply cannot be the kind of change needed to move our schools forward. Becoming a member of the Grassroots Education Movement is one way to join the fight.

Cathie Black was just a face from the corporate world, but what her face represented is actually much more damaging. She represented the belief that reforms borrowed from that same corporate world, such as accountability in the form of high-stakes testing and a consumer choice model of education, will change our schools for the better. They won’t, and attempting them might well irrevocably damage much of what we hold dear about public education.

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.