First Person

The Moving Goalpost of The Quality Review

My fourth and final year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy saw a flurry of structural revisions and new initiatives. The fire under the feet of the school’s administration was the need to show improvement on the upcoming School Quality Review (SQR). The review would take place in early December, so we needed to hit the ground running.

In addition to the transition to an outcomes-based assessment system, teachers were asked to serve as an advisor to a group of students, with the purpose of helping each one track his or her academic progress. Upon my suggestion, we set up an “office hours” system in which teachers met with students one-on-one during lunch or after school. The short conferences drew on the newly established outcomes-tracking system and were meant to motivate students to achieve proficiency on their outcomes. Not every teacher followed through with these conferences, but I made a concerted effort to touch base with each of my 20 or so advisees once every couple of weeks.

In addition to using my lunch hour for this purpose, I also participated in morning meetings four times a week. We were scheduled to meet twice with our department, and twice with our grade-level teams. Department meetings focused on refining our learning outcomes and developing a four-year scope and sequence.

The process of creating the scope and sequence was a confusing one. We were first asked to choose 10 “power standards” related to history that we hoped every student could meet upon graduation from the school. For example, one standard that we agreed to use was that all graduating seniors should be able to “fully defend [his or her] arguments with evidence and if prompted rebut contradictory arguments, identifying weaknesses in [his or her] own or other’s arguments.”

Once we choose our power standards, we were asked to plan backwards from the 12th grade to ninth grade. We started this process in good faith, but found that we were just changing the wording slightly each year (eg. in the above standard we took out the word “fully” but otherwise kept the standard the same for 11th-graders) and that the scope and sequence was becoming so specific that it wasn’t useful. After a while, we discovered the administration wasn’t checking up on us and we stopped trying very hard. We had no model to base our scope and sequence on, and therefore were unsure of how to move forward.

Meanwhile, our grade-level meetings tended to be more focused because we could talk about the students that we all taught each day. We used this time to discuss ways to make our classes more consistent (even to the point of setting up our white boards in the same way), as well as talking out concerns and possible interventions for particular students who were struggling.

We could refer these students to the Pupil Personnel Team (PPT). The PPT was another new structure for the year, which was created to replace the dean. The PPT consisted of a guidance counselor and social worker as well as one of the assistant principals. The PPT occasionally dropped in on grade-level team meetings.

The administration asked staff to document every academic and behavioral intervention that we made.  At first, we were told to this using the online outcomes-tracking system, but the ninth-grade team leader instead created a spreadsheet using google-documents that made the process much easier.  Impressed with the spreadsheet, the administration asked all teachers to follow suit and create one.  The spreadsheets were later used to check up on whether or not teachers were doing things like calling parent homes or holding office hours.

In the weeks leading up to the SQR, the administration also held weekly Monday morning meetings to prepare the teachers to talk about each of these new initiatives in a language consistent with the rubric being used to assess the school during the review.  We were given copies of this rubric and asked to fill it out in our grade-level teams to reflect all the work we were doing and how it related to things like data-driven and differentiated instruction.

Additionally, the administration developed a 19-point checklist for what our classrooms should look like when an observer walked through. We were asked to do things like post student work along with the rubric that was used to assess it and our comments. The AP walked through each of our classrooms and gave us feedback about what we needed to do to improve.

With so much extra work being poured on teachers, I was anxious for the SQR to be over and done with so I could get back to focusing exclusively on my teaching. So I was surprised and dismayed when I found out that our SQR was being postponed from early December to late April.

The pressure eased for a while after this announcement, but after winter break it ramped up again. The next push was the creation of “inquiry teams” on each grade level. Teachers were asked to target a group of students who were struggling with a particular skill. We were then asked to conduct a pre-assessment of the students’ performance on this skill, introduce a new strategy for the students to use, and then conduct a post-assessment to see if the strategy worked. My team focused on literacy skills and taught the specific strategy of underlining key passages in a text. We used document-based questions from the global regents exam as our pre- and post-assessment. The results showed a small improvement, but my team never felt invested in the inquiry team process.

Armed with this data, though, our administration was feeling confident going into the SQR. We had a trial run with the leaders of our school’s network, and the principal told us that, if everything went well, he believed our school could earn a rating of “well-developed.”

In April, we found out the SQR was being postponed yet again, but this time only until mid-May. The AP for instruction went into hyper-drive in May, asking departments and grade level teams to submit any and all forms of documentation and meeting minutes from the year. She asked us to provide lesson plans for the Monday and Tuesday of the SQR, and told us, “It is crucial you address learning outcomes explicitly in your classes — in your lesson and on your walls.”

In the end, the school was rated as “proficient.” The principal was magnanimous when informing us of the result, and said, though he believed our school met the criteria for well developed, he understood the rater’s feedback. He commended the teachers on our contributions and said that at some point we would go out together to celebrate.

After the SQR, our structures kind of fell apart. A lot of meetings got cancelled or devolved into chat sessions. I personally stopped feeling pressure to document every interaction I had with students or their families. Staff seemed to me to be drained, and the administration was likewise less present. The SQR clearly had provided the external pressure for change. I was left wondering, though, if the process was ultimately helpful or harmful to our school. We did a lot more work, but it felt too often to me like we were more concerned about appearances than reality.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.