First Person

What student protesters can learn from history

It seems that you can’t turn on the news or open a paper without seeing something about a protest movement somewhere around the world. People are rising up at an unprecedented rate, demanding that their voices be heard.

So it’s no surprise really, given that standards and standardized tests often take on the face of the “oppressor” within education, that we see students standing up and walking out of classrooms refusing to take part in “The Man’s” testing game.

It’s easy to be dismissive of these students—especially when they hold signs that read “Too cute 4 standardized tests.” But as a social science teacher, I can’t help but assign meaning and context to it all, and what I see is a group of young adults who desperately want to be a part of change, but don’t fully understand what it takes to make that happen.

Let me be clear, this isn’t entirely their fault. Pop culture, the media, and even much of education teaches us that if we stand up for what we believe in, and what we believe in is “right”, the higher moral ground will win the day and all will be well.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, people marched and boycotted, and suddenly the city of Montgomery saw the error in their ways and ended bus segregation. The 13 Colonies were tired of being “overtaxed,” they refused to pay, went to war, won, and now we have America.

All it took were groups of people to say “enough” and change happened. But it is this non-contextual lens by which we view history that leads to shortsighted solutions.

In this particular instance, the students didn’t want to take a standardized test—for whatever reason, good or bad—so they walked out. If the only goal of the walkouts and demonstrations was to bring to light the problems of over-testing, then I guess they can hang it up and move on. They have brought the issue to forefront of the conversation across the state.

People heard about the walkouts, students and schools made the news, district employees had to make statements, but now it’s back to business as usual. Each district that has experienced walkouts still has given, or plans to give, statewide standardized tests. And the overwhelming majority of students will take them. So if the students’ goal was real and systematic change, we aren’t quite there.

To revisit Rosa Parks, people often forget that the boycott lasted 381 days. Thousands of blacks and whites had to walk, carpool, bike, or whatever it took to be able to get to and from work or wherever they needed to go in whatever weather condition presented itself. They had to face death treats, and some lost their lives. They had to spend countless hours working with members of the city and state government, to negotiate and finally bring resolution to bus segregation.

The American Revolution lasted 18 years and when it was all said and done 50,000 American soldiers had been killed or wounded. And the American democracy we know now would not begin to take full form until those in charge did a decade of post-war work to establish something similar to the government we now enjoy and these students wish (and have the freedom) to challenge.

If students want to be taken seriously, it is critical that they come to the table with solutions, not just problems. They will have to realize that walking out, making signs, and protesting for a day or two is not the best approach if they are interested in more than just making the nightly news.

Students will have to come to a concrete understanding that authentic change takes time, effort, failure, and compromise. We will never eliminate statewide tests, because they do serve an important purpose. But how can we have accountability and information on student learning that everyone can feel good about? Students are a critical voice as we seek to find that balance.

I am confident that the students can rise to the challenge. I see in my students a growing awareness of the power that they have, and they are very much interested in leveraging that power to shape an education that THEY feel prepares them for THEIR future.

If adults—educators, parents, and policymakers—are serious about guiding students to be independent, critical thinkers who can advocate for themselves, then we have to make a more concerted effort to include students as we shape the policies that affect their lives, and students need to engage with the process long term.

Instead of opting out of the current tests, students need to be opting in to being a part of meaningful change.

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.