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

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

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.