First Person

Teaching To The Test

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

As the 10th-grade global history teacher at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, the fact that my students would have to pass a Regents exam in my subject as a prerequisite for graduation was never far from my mind. I grew to have a love-hate relationship with this requirement. I liked using the exam to motivate my students and hold them accountable to learning. But at the same time, I found many of the facts assessed by this exam to be arbitrary or trivial.

The Regents Exam in Global History and Geography consists of 50 multiple-choice questions, 12 or so short-answer document based questions, and two essays. A student must score 65 to pass. I typically found that if my students could score 30 out of 50 on the multiple-choice section, they could pass the exam (assuming they wrote both essays). This was no easy task, considering many of my students had low levels of literacy and very little factual knowledge of history or geography to start the year.

Teaching my students the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to pass this exam was a yearlong process. (Actually, the global history curriculum in New York state covers two years. However, since there were different ninth-grade history teachers in each of the four years I taught at this school, it felt like my responsibility to prepare students for the exam). Before my second year I decided to teach thematically instead of chronologically, anticipating that my students would learn more by studying a few key ideas in-depth than by exposure to a traditional survey approach. This meant I had to choose my themes carefully, so I could introduce many regions and eras under the umbrella of one big idea. My themes included industrialization, imperialism, and human rights, among others. A unit on human rights included content about the Holocaust, apartheid South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide, for example.

For most of the school year, I taught my thematic units using primary and secondary sources and requiring a fair amount of essay writing. I hoped this would prepare them for the essay and document-analysis portions of the Regents exam, and this also best reflected the way I think history should be taught, But for the last six weeks of the school year, I shifted into coach mode and drilled my students on all the facts they might need to know for the multiple-choice section of the test. I designed a program that involved making 15-20 flash cards each week, superficially covering all of the content I didn’t have time for during the rest of the year.

I’ve selected two sample questions to illustrate my issue with the multiple-choice section of the Regents exam. Here’s the first:

Peter the Great of Russia, Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, and Shah Pahlavi of Iran were similar in that in their nations they

  1. restored feudalism
  2. established programs of westernization
  3. instituted democratic governments
  4. allowed foreign occupation

Did you know the answer? My students did. They picked “2” because they learned that Kemal Ataturk westernized Turkey. They did not necessarily know the meaning of “westernization” or which choices to eliminate. But because the Regents exam often asks variations of this same question, I had prepared them for the possibility by teaching them the simple association of Ataturk and Westernization.

By contrast, many of my students got the following question wrong, despite actually having knowledge about Confucius:

Which belief is most closely associated with the philosophy of Confucianism?

  1. nirvana
  2. reincarnation
  3. prayer
  4. filial piety

Here, my students panicked. Most of them knew that Confucius believed children should respect their elders, but they did not know the term filial piety. Instead, many went with a word they vaguely recognized, such as nirvana, even though they may have known that word was connected to Buddhism, not Confucianism.

Despite the seeming irrelevance of many of the facts I asked them to learn, most of my students responded positively to my test-prep regimen. I think they liked the concrete nature of learning facts as well as the consistent positive reinforcement they received from weekly assessments. Once students saw that my system actually helped them improve their scores, most bought into it.

In the end, 55 percent of my students passed their exam during that second year. This was up from 33 percent the year before and was a higher pass rate than the same group of students achieved on their math and science exams. Even so, some of these students barely passed and benefited from generous scores on their essays (teachers grade their own students’ tests in New York). The students who did not pass the exam would have to take it again and again in the future until they did.

The harsh lesson for many of these students was that there is no way around this requirement. I tell my students each year that I can give them the “tricks of the trade” in terms of what to know but I cannot learn for them. Like it or not, passing the exam requires memorizing a lot of information and memorizing information takes work. It takes some students a long time to come to terms with this. A few never did.

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.