First Person

On Gestalt: A School Is More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Schools are complex environments, strewn with relationships amongst adults with a multiplicity of roles and allegiances, complicated by the volatile and competitive relationships of children striving to understand their place in the world. To work in a public school is to daily navigate treacherous political and interpersonal waters, work on various teams, alternately pressure and commiserate with parents in meetings and on phone calls, and conference with children to steer them through issues they encounter in their relationships with others.

Relationships comprise the foundation on which the real work of schools reside. Teachers meet with one another to plan curricula and assessments (or at least, they should), examine and share student work, analyze data, and share resources and ideas on how to manage children with challenging behavior or inadequate academic progress. Students often have strong relationships with multiple adults in the building, such as the security guard, the secretary, another teacher down the hall, or a trusted paraprofessional or school aide. Teachers use tricks to capitalize on these relationships, distracting students in crisis by asking them to deliver pretend “mail” to other teachers, or sending them to a corner or outside the classroom with a co-teacher or paraprofessional to “de-escalate” and engage in a problem-solving conversation.

As a special education teacher, my students often engage with a number of adults on any given day as part of their services delivered via their Individualized Education Program (IEP), such as counseling, speech-language therapy, one-on-one tutoring (SETTS), or occupational therapy. Many of my students are also English language learners (ELLs — gotta love all the acronyms, eh?), and are also pulled for small group English as a second language instruction. This year, I am teaching in an inclusion, co-teaching classroom, and my general education students are also sometimes pulled for academic intervention services (AIS) and dance practice for a school performance. Many of them also attend after-school programs most days of the week.

Now think of how many adults contribute to the education of the students I am responsible for. And the farce that is value-added accountability becomes apparent. How can you possibly disaggregate my individual impact on a student from the collective impact of the school environment and that individual student’s work with other adults?

I am tired of the endless iterations of the line that teachers are the “single most important factor in raising student achievement.” Yes, teachers matter. We are the adults that students spend the preponderance of their time with while in school, therefore we have the greatest impact on student learning. But what about all the other adults that students interact with, build relationships with, and work with? What about the practices, rituals, procedures, and culture of the school? What about the physical environment of the school?

The reality is, the whole school matters, and this quixotic exercise of attempting to disaggregate individual teacher impact on a child completely obscures the real work of a school in developing a positive environment that promotes well-being and intellectual and emotional safety, as well as in delivering a rich, coherent curriculum.

So what should we be measuring, then? How can we possibly hold schools accountable for the learning of the students they are responsible for?

My advice is to recognize the importance of relationships in a school in raising student achievement, and seek a means of measuring the context of a school, such as the trust and strength of relationships between the adults in the building, the ratio of positive to negative words used, and the quality of the physical environment. We can stop shelling out public money yearly to testing corporations, and instead adopt a randomized testing schedule, and we could put some of that money instead towards the much more important face-to-face accountability of leaders stepping foot into schools, rather than examining disaggregated data dissociated from its context. This could be coupled with some modified form of the inspectorate model currently used in the United Kingdom.

But contexts alone are not the only service that schools provide. Schools deliver content to students, and all too often, the critical importance of a strong curriculum is completely ignored. We can measure the strength of a school’s curriculum by assessing how well it is horizontally and vertically aligned, as well as in how well it targets and addresses student gaps in background knowledge.

Let’s stop pretending, therefore, that students are products. It takes a whole school to educate a whole child. And that whole school must have a strong, coherent curriculum that is delivered in an environment of trust and respect that promotes well-being, risk-taking, and empathy.

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.