First Person

School is for Humans: A Teacher’s Response To The Current Climate

I teach eighth grade humanities in a New York City public school. This week, we began preparation for the state English language arts exam — the very beast responsible for the now famous, much debated teacher data reports recently published by several city news organizations. Sitting in my classroom, I find I am also seated in the midst of a political and ideological firestorm. As various voices in the news duke this out, we teachers quietly choose for ourselves how to respond on the ground.

In my class this year, we have a motto: “You are not a number. You’re a human being.”

It’s meant to be silly and serious at the same time. Around here, we encourage 13-year-olds to embrace their silliness. So, on Monday, we took a moment to acknowledge and release a bit of the pressure created by the impending state exam. On the agenda, I wrote “Celebration of ELA-related Creativity.” I gave my students the instruction to create something that would help us kick off the test preparation unit. The only guidelines: It must be creative; it can be funny if you like, and overall, it must be positive.

Among other things, my students composed a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style singalong song, performed a re-written Shakespeare scene, showered the audience with paper airplanes containing a mathematical formula that determines the odds of getting a good score by guessing on every question, and choreographed an interpretive dance. I can tell you, for last-second projects with no grade attached and 30 minutes to create, they were awesome. This never fails: I am always humbled and amazed by the outpouring of creative energy that occurs when kids are given the space to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.

Going forward, of course, I shall dutifully instruct them on reading skills, comparative essay writing, and test-taking strategies. Is it possible to make this instruction interesting and engaging? Sure, to a certain extent. But for those moments when the boredom borders on painful, we now have a poster to point to and sing (to the tune of B-i-n-g-o), “There once was a cow who went to school and studied for the ELA…”

The score I received on my own teacher data report is based on the two years I spent teaching seventh-grade English in the South Bronx. I’m not too concerned with the results: The magical math placed my teaching abilities in the “above average” range. Lucky for me. Also quite fortunate is my current position in a school where I am respected as an educator and an individual and allowed to be thoughtful and creative with my teaching. And, certainly, there are other advantages. I tell people, “Getting this job was like winning the teacher lottery.” Due to the school’s popularity, we evaluate and hand-select each student who comes here. The parents are supportive, their kids motivated and cooperative. We have all the materials and technology we need. I readily admit that these factors make some of what I describe much easier to achieve. But I’ll ask my readers, just for the moment, to please suspend your conclusions until I have reached mine.

Teaching such academically inclined, successful students presents a different set of challenges from those encountered in many public schools. Our kids, quite frankly, are far too stressed out for their age.  The system of high school acceptance in New York City creates a focus on grades and test scores that approaches fanatical among students vying for spaces at the “top” schools.  It begins in elementary school: Fourth-graders are made aware that their state test score will be a determining factor in their middle school acceptance. If they want to come to a school like mine, they had better receive a “top” score and “top” grades.

Imagine your sweet, intelligent, talented 9-year-old child going through the following thought process: I mean, if I don’t get into the right middle school, then I won’t get into my first-choice high school, which besides proving that I’m not as smart as I’m supposed to be, will prevent me from going to the college I’ve had picked out since kindergarten because my genius older sister goes there and then my parents won’t love me as much as her and I’ll end up working at McDonald’s and my life will be ruined forever. Obvi.

An over-dramatization for effect?  Perhaps. But believe me, it isn’t so far from the truth. I watch my eighth-graders spin those wheels for months out of the year. Soon they’ll have similar thoughts about college, and on and on it goes. Some people will tell me, well, that’s just life: Be realistic — if you want to be the best, if you want to be successful, you have to be competitive. This, Ms. Lacey, is “the way the world works.”

I am so over that argument. The world is hardly static. Things change so rapidly that our slow adult brains need kids to explain the continual shifting of popular Internet memes. Yet, people still seem to think we should be educating for the way the world once was, or is right now, and so we unwittingly limit our children as we have limited ourselves. A poignant symbol of this phenomenon is the education community’s obsession with quantifying people’s value. We have been reducing students to data points for years, but now that the same has been done very publicly to teachers, people seem ready to have a real conversation about it. I have no problem with using valid data to measure performance and help us improve, if we can find a way to do it wisely; Bill Gates already made that argument for us. The consciousness of our culture is clearly tuned into this issue at this moment, so my hope is that we will use the momentum to move in a positive direction.  A possible first step in that direction?  Let’s adopt my classroom motto and begin our conversations from there.  “You are not a number.  You’re a human being.”

Teachers are human beings; usually, the types who feel compelled to do something beneficial for the rest of humanity. You can’t reduce to data the complex human exchange that occurs between teachers and students. Where do you account for the value of teaching empathy and service to community? Of celebrating a child for her own quirky personality, talents, and uniqueness? How about the building of self-awareness and esteem? Sparking an interest in something that will bring a student joy for the rest of his life? You know as well as I that this list could go on forever.

Teachers are in a position to plant seeds for a positively evolving future. We chose this job because we understand the need to educate our fellow humans in a way that nurtures their potential, compassion, and vibrant inner lives. In my school, I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to act on this understanding. Students need to be respected, supported, and appreciated in order to grow and flourish; their teachers need the same. I choose to envision a future in which we all receive those things in abundance.

Trina Lacey is an eighth-grade humanities teacher at East Side Middle School as well as a writer.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

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.