In the Classroom

Teachers tackle new standards but worry about tests

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

It’s no longer a surprise to Indiana teachers when the state decides to change its expectations for what kids should learn.

But this year’s switch to new academic standards did have one new element: a political battle in which the governor, state legislature and even the public wanted to weigh in.

The four-month standards debate didn’t end until Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, political foes in most education debates, jointly endorsed new standards and pushed them them through two state boards last April. That left teachers just more than three months to learn the standards, alter their lessons and prepare for big accompanying changes to the state’s ISTEP test that will affect all students in grades 3 to 8.

“It’s literally like preparing for a football game and then you go play basketball,” said Shari Switzer, director of curriculum in Franklin Township. “We can prepare with what we have, but we haven’t played the game yet.”

And it’s not just a new style of learning teachers and students have to get used to. This spring, students will see an ISTEP test with questions unlike any they’ve seen before.

That has teachers, who must raise those scores to qualify for pay raises, on edge.

It’s not like teachers haven’t been here before. They usually have to adjust for new ones about every six years. But this year is different. Indiana spent three years getting ready to use shared Common Core standards along with other states, and now has decided to abruptly switch directions for new Indiana-specific standards. Teachers who’d usually have at least a year to transition now have had only a few months.

Even so, teachers across Marion County say they’ve embraced the challenge and, so far, it’s going OK.

“We learn from it, and tweak it, and make it ours, and pretty soon it feels like normal,” said fourth grade teacher Sonya Weber of Washington Township’s John Strange Elementary School. “The change seems big today, and in two years, it’ll feel pretty normal.”

Few, if any, of Weber’s students or their John Strange Elementary classmates have probably heard a word about standards and the debate that made headlines and sparked passionate disagreements among adults.

But when standards change, kids are affected.

A change in guidelines can prompt teachers to switch teaching strategies or try new approaches, which means children definitely come away from the school year learning some concepts differently than the way their parents, or even their older siblings, learned them in the past.

Embracing, then rejecting, Common Core

Weber knows standard have impact because she’s seen a difference in her own children.

When her twin son and daughter were in kindergarten three years ago, they came home using mathematics words she’d only ever heard third- and fourth-graders using before, such as calling the corner of a shape a “vertex” or a dot a “decimal.”

The change was born out of work Lawrence Township schools, where her children go to school, had done to adjust after Indiana’s 2010 adoption of Common Core standards, which were designed to try to better prepared for college and careers after high school.

“I found it encouraging,” she said. “At first, I didn’t think it would happen, but watching my own kids come home and do it — how about that? They truly rise to expectations.”

Indiana was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core State Standards under then-Governor Mitch Daniels and then-state superintendent Tony Bennett in 2010. Eventually 45 other states signed on to implement Common Core.

Those standards were endorsed by a group of mostly Republican state governors, who hoped they would push American children to better compete with children in other nations, who increasingly out-score the U.S. on international tests of math and language.

Soon after President Obama took office in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education began encouraging states to follow Common Core, eventually even asking states to agree in writing to adopt Common Core or other “college and career ready” standards.

That’s when critics began to raise doubts.

In Indiana, a backlash sparked a legislative debate in 2013 about whether the state should stick with Common Core or return to crafting its own standards as it had done in the past. Opposition to Common Core grew this year to include Gov. Mike Pence and key legislative leaders, who said following them gave too much power to those outside the state in deciding what Indiana children should learn.

Ritz, who had mobilized teams of educators to evaluate Common Core, joined with Pence in asking those teams to instead craft new standards. That process drew unusual attention, as the backlash against Common Core grew nationally and focused more attention on Indiana. Common Core protesters thought they too closely resembled Common Core. Former allies of Daniels and Bennett, who wanted to keep Common Core, thought the Indiana standards were a just watered down version that would weaken their impact.

For teachers the political debate was both baffling and frustrating.

Eric Nentrup, the e-learning coach at Center Grove High School, said Indiana’s battle over Common Core is, and always has been, entirely political. That debate wasted valuable time that teachers could’ve spent better elsewhere, he said.

“It just demands more efforts of the teaching staff,” Nentrup said.

Politicians and those outside of education also don’t understand how standards function in schools — they change all the time, and they don’t dictate what kids are taught he said. They are guidelines.

“It feels like the argument is that we’re going to get it right this time and it will be right forever,” Nentrup said. “But it’s a living document, not the gospel, and it’s not all-encompassing.”

But Missy Burnside, research and data coordinator at Pike Township, having a political debate at the statehouse over what is usually a local process created a lot of confusion.

“I think in the minds of people, it’s local decision-making and local, but now all of a sudden now we’re talking about everybody across the U.S. doing the same thing,” Burnside said. “I think that’s probably what’s gotten the attention going. I think standards have always been talked about in education circles, and now it’s going beyond education circles.”

Parallels to Common Core

For many teachers, changing standards just as they were getting comfortable with the Common Core was frustrating. But as they got a look at Indiana’s new standards, some are feeling reassured.

“The new Indiana academic standards, honestly, they don’t look much different compared to Common Core,” said Linka Pace, a literacy coach at Eastwood Middle School in Washington Township. “They’re organized a little differently, but as a classroom teacher, I am very OK with that because we were already preparing that.”

It also made her wonder about all the time and effort spent to produce standards that Indiana could call its own.

“As a taxpayer, I’m a little like ‘It’s just a repackaged and renamed bill of goods,’” Pace said.

So all the Common Core preparation schools have been doing since 2010 aren’t going to waste. Instead of having to overhaul curriculum completely, most schools have just had to make smaller updates to guides teachers use to plan lessons to account for the new standards. Districts also used summer training sessions to help teachers and administrators prepare.

Ryan Russell, a Warren Township assistant superintendent, said his district had about 150 teachers who spent from 40 to 100 hours over the summer altering curriculum and preparing for the new standards. Cindy Huffman, curriculum director at Pike Township, said her district also used the summer to prepare teachers for new standards.

In fact, the conversion was fairly routine across the county.

“Updating is something we do every summer,” Judy Stegemann, chief academic officer for Wayne Township, said. “We see curriculum as ever-changing. It’s a process, you never arrive, it’s always a journey.”

Changes in the classroom

Teachers are adjusting their strategies to fit the standards, however. Consider Weber’s new approach to teaching fourth grade vocabulary.

Whereas students might have had to memorize lists of words in the past, now they work on figuring out where the words come from and how to apply that knowledge to learning other words.

For example, in trying to help a student learn the meaning of the word “autograph,” Weber covers the second half of the word, showing only “auto.”

“Don’t we know this word?” she asks.

Because her class studies Greek and Latin word origins, they know “auto” is derived from the Greek word for “self.” “Graph” is a Greek word they learned means “a representation of something.” Putting them together, students roughly get “self-representation,” or a basic understanding of a word we use today to describe writing your name.

The new standards make bigger changes in math, especially for high chool, where some skills will now be taught a year later, said Sandy Baker, the district math specialist in Pike Township. For example, Baker said, the old Indiana standards taught the pythagorean theorem in seventh grade, whereas Common Core and the new Indiana standards will teach it in eighth grade. Moving that concept later means students have more time to learn where the formula comes from and what it means.

High school math students will spend more time learning statistics and probability, not prioritized in the old standards, because analysis and reasoning are more central to what students will learn going forward, said Audrey Bush, a math teacher at Warren Central High School in Warren Township.

“Even though we’re not Common Core anymore, the Indiana academic standards as well want us to work more with students being active with their learning rather than the teacher just up there presenting,” Bush said. “That’s not all new, but the way we’re doing it is new. We’re trying to help them experience the math more and draw conclusions.”

That emphasis extends to the lower grades, and Weber said she has seen a difference in how quickly her students make big picture connections by learning tools like word roots and algebra concepts even in fourth grade.

“I get giddy excited about it,” she said.

Missing tests raise concerns

Learning to become better at problem-solving and analysis doesn’t just take new ways of teaching, but also new ways of testing.

Next spring, Indiana students will take a modified version of the ISTEP test that includes new computer-based test questions that are designed to try to better determine what kids are learning from the new standards.

But when there are changes in the state test, it’s not uncommon for student scores to drop at first. In Indiana, where test scores drive A to F grades for schools and evaluations scores that determine whether teachers get raises, the tight deadline the state has set for such a complex process has raised concerns.

Usually, when standards are adjusted and schools are expected to use them, new tests already exist. Indiana teachers have the standards, but so far, no new state accountability tests based on them.

For elementary and middle school students, that’s ISTEP, which is will be updated for spring 2015 and completely scrapped for a brand-new test in 2016. For high school students, it means adding an updated section to the existing Algebra I and 10th-grade English end-of-course exams.

The state has released blueprints about the tests — a guide of how much of each standard will be covered on the test — but not specific test question examples. It’s a problem because students have never seen the new question formats before.

New “technology-enhanced” test questions will ask students to manipulate graphics on a screen, enter formulas to solve math word problems or supplement multiple choice answers by highlighting text they used to answer the question.

It’s not easy for teachers to prepare students to answer questions they’ve never seen when the test begins in just six months. Practice ISTEP exams haven’t been updated either.

Joel Thomas, assistant principal at the Indianapolis Lighthouse charter school, said preparing students for ISTEP under these conditions is so much of a burden that it requires one more unexpected task for teachers: “get them OK with the idea of failure.”

Some students, he said, will do worse on the new test the first time through simply because the tests are new.

But most teachers said they can’t make the tests come faster or predict how they’ll look, so they just have to do the best they can. They’ll make sure their lessons reflect the new standards and cover as much as they can in the time that they have.

And for some, the change has been pretty painless, said Sue Keene, a third-grade teacher at West Newton Elementary School in Decatur Township. She’s seen her students growing and learning, and transitioning to standards she believes have higher expectations has made her more thoughtful about her teaching. Sometimes, the change is even the part of her job she loves most.

“Every year is different and the kids are different,” Keene said. “This might be my 39th year in third grade, but it’s the first year for them.”

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”

How I Teach

When a parent pushed for a lesson on Mayan history, this Colorado teacher invited her in to help

PHOTO: Megan Witucki
Megan Witucki, a teacher at Compass Montessori School in Wheat Ridge, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Megan Witucki, an elementary teacher at Compass Montessori School, a charter school in Wheat Ridge, believes in the power of community experts.

That’s why when a parent pushed for a lesson on Mayan history, Witucki invited her in to speak about native cultures. Likewise, for a major end-of-year art project, Witucki brought in a local artist who shared her secrets with students.

Witucki talked to Chalkbeat about why she started tapping into community expertise and how the Montessori approach helps her get to know students and foster a culture of work.

Witucki is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I wanted to give back to my community in a meaningful and lasting way. I love working with children and I admire their sense of wonder and their infectious passion to learn. Each day provides me with the chance to empower a child as well as the opportunity to grow and learn myself.

What does your classroom look like?
I am one of two fully-trained certified Montessori teachers who guide the instruction of 33 first through third grade children in our multi-age, lower elementary classroom.

Our classroom is designed to foster choice. It is inviting, cozy, inspiring and engaging. Our classroom is not very big and we have to accommodate 33 little bodies. We also have a plethora of Montessori materials that need to be available to the students at all times. Rather than traditional desks we use individual lap tables, small group tables and work rugs that define the children’s work spaces.

We have space for the students to display their work on the walls and framed prints of art masterworks to inspire creativity. We have classroom plants to add natural beauty to the environment and provide students with hands-on experience during botany lessons.

Throughout our morning work period, one of us offers individual or small group lessons while the other monitors the children’s independent work and re-directs or guides when necessary.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without the support of my school community. Montessori education is a team effort that requires the assistance of and support from the child, their parents, their peers, the co-teaching pair, staff, administration and the larger Compass Montessori community.

Co-teaching is an integral part of a larger network that cares for the children. This network functions like concentric circles that surround and support the child-learner. In the innermost circle is the child, driven by their inherent passions and intrinsic interests. Next, the parents and family, who support the child with their work and education. In the succeeding circle, the learner is given academic, social and emotional support by my co-teacher and me.

The following circle of support is offered by the child’s classmates who vary in age and provide the child with peer guidance as well as opportunities to mentor others and take on multiple leadership roles. This circle is surrounded by an involved administration and the larger staff support circle. Finally, comes the support circle of the greater Compass Montessori community of parents and extended families.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is assemblage art. In Montessori, we naturally integrate art and music into our regular classroom curriculum. The idea for assemblage art came to me when my co-teacher and I were inventorying our leftover art supplies and craft items from previous years’ projects. We had identified odds and ends that we wanted to find a use for when I stumbled upon another teacher’s Pinterest pin.

Our version of this project would be the culminating celebration of all of the year’s original artwork. We began by studying the work of the Russian-American artist Louise Nevelson, who is best known for her groundbreaking work with found art, later known as assemblage art. We discussed how this visionary saw the potential beauty in items discarded by others. The students had rich discussions about what art is and where it can be found. They concluded that sometimes art is where we least expect it.

I then invited our school chef Michelle Lundquist, whom everyone refers to as the “grandma” of our school. Michelle is also a talented local artist who specializes in assemblage art. She shared her inspirations with us and spoke about her artwork.

The children then spent a week collecting old or forgotten knickknacks, pieces from recycling bins, artifacts from the natural world and even items destined for the garbage. In addition, my co-teacher and I organized our miscellaneous craft items; we cut cardboard boxes into 8 x 8 canvases, and set out all of the materials for children to use in their art works.

We invited several parents into the classroom to help with the hot-gluing process and then dedicated a full three-hour morning work period to constructing the assemblages. After the pieces were glued, I spray-painted them monochromatic black, bronze, or gold according to each child’s choice. I was astonished at the strikingly beautiful creations! Though I had hoped to display the composite in the hallway, the children, duly proud of their pieces, insisted on taking them home.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a child does not understand the material I have presented, I will first attempt to evaluate why. Finding out why is key to understanding the solution.

The reason may be non-classroom related, like the child has not eaten breakfast or they are distressed by home issues. I will then attempt to remedy the situation as best I can. I may feed the child or offer the lesson at another time when they can better focus.

At times, lack of understanding is due to the level of the material being inappropriate. If so, I might go back to a previous lesson with the child to scaffold their knowledge base and better equip them for the more advanced concept. If the material is too easy and the child is bored, I might progress the child ahead to offer more challenge.

A child might need to see the concept presented in a way that better suits their individual learning style. Some children need to manipulate the material themselves; some need to draw the concept; some need to write it out; others need to move and fidget while they listen. We have access to the multitude of Montessori materials and accompanying curricula that allow us to teach all concepts kinesthetically when necessary.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Our classroom often looks like organized chaos. At any given time, there may be 33 children working on 33 different projects all in our small space. When I am tempted to stop the class because they look off task, I find it is best practice to wait a minute and observe. I often discover that my first impression of off-task behavior — loud, excited talking, movement — is actually educational in nature and can lead to great work. If allowed, the discussions the students have with one another are often the foundation of invaluable learning pathways and great peer-driven projects.

On the other hand, when the behavior is indeed off task, I will have one of the children ring our chime and then politely ask the class to adjust their behavior to better allow for focused, respectful work. We work hard with the children to create and foster a culture of work by providing varied opportunities for them to take ownership over their learning process.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Allowing children to take ownership of their learning through choice offers students the ability to show me what drives and motivates them. I then take that information to design an evolving individualized curriculum.

I also have the benefit of teaching all my students for three years. As a result I can carefully observe their educational, social, and emotional behaviors and choices. In three years I also regularly interact with the child’s family and often gain more valuable insights. With careful observation and purposeful interaction I am able to foster authentic relationships with my students and their families.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first year of teaching, I had my first lesson in the power of inviting parents and the community into my classroom. I was approached by a mother in my classroom who was passionate about Mayan history and wanted her child to have more exposure to the history of native cultures. I asked if she would be willing to volunteer a few times a month to share her knowledge with the whole class. She graciously agreed and provided a richly detailed program that I still use today.

Her contributions also inspired me to establish additional classroom-community partnerships with educators from the Jefferson County Indian Education Program and the Mayan dancers from the Denver Chicano Humanities and Arts Council. The experiences shared by community members enriched our classroom in a way that would never have been possible otherwise. This mom’s passion for Mayan culture taught me to seek input from all the resources available to me so I can teach most effectively.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I found it to be inspiring, thought provoking and a great read for a teacher’s summer list!

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One of my many mentors once told me that a child comes to us with many hidden gifts and treasures, and it is our job as educators to guide and encourage that child to bring those gifts forth and share them with the world. As Maria Montessori once wrote, “Free the child’s potential and you will transform him into the world.”