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 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.