Why I’ve been silent

I know my last post was March 2015. This is not an excuse; it’s an explanation, and a poignant lesson on speaking out, especially in these dark times we find ourselves in. Now, I may have gotten busy after my trip to the Freedom Writer’s symposium in Washington D.C., which was nothing short of amazing, by the way; I was finishing up my master’s work, a principal internship, and moving halfway across the country to join the love of my life who relocated for work while I chose to stay in the Northeast completing my degree. These are all excuses to stop writing, for a short period at least, but it’s not why I stayed silent until now, and I’ve never stopped thinking about starting this blog up again. Now here’s the explanation I promised and you deserve. You see, I felt somewhat like a hypocrite. I had accepted a position as an 8th grade humanities teacher at a no excuses charter school, and I spent the past year working there, much to my own disappointment. The truth of the matter is, I needed a job, and I believe in giving kids opportunities to go to college, which they promised we would do. They were the first offer, and I was excited to get back into the classroom. I mean, how bad could it be?

Mostly, I felt like a hypocrite because I never believed in charter schools and I certainly don’t believe that they are any way to close the achievement gap, although many of them certainly claim they are doing just that. They don’t close the achievement gap because they don’t serve all kids. No, I’m not referring to the popular argument that they hand-pick their students and kick out kids that don’t “fit” their no excuses policies and procedures, I mean they don’t serve all American children. Education is supposed to be free and public. When we build charter schools, we take students and funds away from the traditional public schools, we give parents options, but parents often believe that sending their kids to a charter is the only way to give them an opportunity to go to college, and they’re devastated when they don’t win the lottery. Charter schools don’t fix the traditional public schools that are failing to give kids opportunities; they don’t serve the population, therefore contributing to even more inequality within the American educational system. I felt horrible for the students who weren’t being promised an opportunity to go to college in the schools I passed on my way into the charter school every morning (it ironically, probably purposefully, had been built across the street of a public school district’s central offices). So given this, I didn’t feel like I should be writing about closing the achievement gap while I was contributing to widening the gap. Additionally, I was scared to discuss anything in the school openly, as writing negatively about charter schools while paying my bills with money I earned from one, in a state where collective bargaining is illegal, probably wasn’t a good idea. Here’s how the story ends; I could never have prepared for how oppressive the regime in that organization was, and I quickly found myself depressed, disillusioned, and fighting for a way out.

I am happy to report that I have since been liberated from the shackles placed on me. While working there, I completed my first year in a doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies. This year, I was awarded a fellowship and am continuing my research and coursework as a full-time student. I couldn’t be happier. I don’t plan to get into the cornucopia (hey, it’s November) of anecdotes I have about my sobering experiences working for a charter school and being a doc student in this particular post, but say stunned for lots to come. I’m sorry I stayed silent for this long, but I’m also grateful for the experience I got at the charter school, which I believe will allow me to further expose some of the inequities in our system and advocate for revolutionary change. I look forward to sharing with you again, and thank you in advance for your support of this little project.

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Help me take my blog to Washington!

Back in November, I received a comment from JC Moore that said,

Your voice will be heard as you continue to scream about our failing public education. What you are doing is important in every aspect, so don’t give it up. When the right time comes, we should all scream together to wake up and shake up this nation once again. We, educators and teachers need to march to Washington DC

“E Pluribus Unum”

I am thrilled to report that I plan to attend the 2015 Freedom Writer Teacher’s Empowerment Symposium this May in Washington D.C!!  Over 400 teachers, myself included, have attended the Freedom Writer’s Institute in Long Beach, CA with Erin Gruwell and this year we will be having our annual Symposium in Washington.  Please help me take my blog with me and raise awareness about the issues facing teachers and students in low-income communities.

Click Here to Donate

It’s NOT an economics issue, it’s a human rights issue!

Last week, I published a piece on Brown v. Board of Education’s implications for administrators.  When discussing this in my graduate class, I explained how Brown v. Board of Education’s stance that, “Such an opportunity [education], where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” means that we as educators have the obligation to provide quality education to all students who attend our public schools.  Although most schools have been desegregated, poorly performing public schools are still failing to provide quality education to all students.  I must say, I was not prepared for such an unethical rebuttal from one of my classmates.

“Well, it’s an economics issue, schools are funded based on property taxes, and so naturally, poorly performing schools are underfunded as a result of the environment they are in.  If students don’t want to go to those schools they have the right to choice out.”

I really had to bite my tongue at this point, as many people in the class were agreeing about the issue being due to economics.  First of all, we cannot sit back and blame the issue on poverty.  Yes, the way that schools are funded is inequitable, but that doesn’t mean that they should be poorly performing.

As for school choice, let’s just imagine this very common  scenario: A fifth grader is doing well at his elementary school, the middle school he will be assigned to as a result of the neighborhood he lives in is under-performing.  He is an only child in a single-parent household where his mother is working long, 12-hour days split between two part-time jobs just to pay the rent.  She barely speaks English, hasn’t heard about school choice, nor is she able to understand the school’s performance report-card that was sent home at the beginning of the year.

Not every child can or will choice out of poorly performing schools.  It would be impossible to choice-place thousands of children, most are ill-informed even about the possibility of school choice, and by giving kids the option to choice out, we are not addressing the fundamental educational inequity that Brown v. Board sought to address.

The implications I mentioned above for administrators are timely.  Congress has just passed the Student Success Act, which places emphasis on state and local districts to turnaround poorly performing schools.

The Student Success Act dramatically reduces the federal role in education by returning authority for measuring student performance and turning around low-performing schools to states and local officials.

Similar to the sentiments of my classmate above, the Bill provides a substantial investment into the growth of national charter school networks and emphasizes parent’s rights to school choice.  Basically, the Federal Government is throwing their arms up when it comes to their involvement in turning around poorly performing schools and hoping that more charter schools and increase school choice will put pressure on state and local officials to improve the schools.

Therefore, it is crucial now, more than ever, that we educators are prepared to fight this good fight.  We have the responsibility to improve our schools.  It is up to teachers and school and district leadership to do what we can to make educational opportunity available to all on equal terms. Finally, I can’t help but think, that if you feel educational inequity is an economics issue, you’re in the wrong business.

“Mr. Duarte, shouldn’t you be teaching at one of those white schools?”

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954)

It’s been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark civil right’s case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that separate but equal schools have no place because separate schools are inherently unequal.  When asked to write about the implications of this decision for school administrators today, I found myself lamenting about the responsibility we have to close the achievement gap.  Since, this gap, proves that many of our schools serving low-income and students of color are in fact, inherently unequal.  Here are the demographics and state accountability rating of the school I taught at:

  • 31% African American
  • 46% Hispanic
  • 88% Low Income
  • Among the lowest achieving and least improving schools in the state

In my second year at the school, I had a student ask me, “Why are you teaching here?  You expect us to do so much work, you should be working in one of those white schools somewhere near where you live or where you grew up.”  My heart was instantly shattered.  This was a student who had been completely critical of everything I had been trying to do, she would make an effort to derail my lesson on a daily basis.  She had been challenging me this whole time and up until this moment, I couldn’t figure out why.  You see, this student represents the typical feeling of a child growing up in a community with poorly performing schools.  As Brown v. Board stated, “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”  My heart broke in pieces when she said this because I instantly understood that up until her 8th grade English class, she had been lead to believe that she was inferior; that she didn’t deserve a good teacher, that she didn’t deserve a quality education or the chance to go to college.  She didn’t believe that the school I was teaching at was good enough to have me and that she was good enough to be in my class.  I finally understood why she was challenging me; she didn’t think she could perform in my class because she never had a teacher that made her feel that she could achieve.

Isn’t that an educator’s essential job?  Aren’t we supposed to be the cheerleaders for our students?  Aren’t we supposed to tell them that they can achieve their wildests dreams?  How can we look a child in the face and say, “No, you cannot be an astronaut beucase you attend one of the lowest achieveing schools in the state, which will put you behind everyone else that will be competing for that job.”?  Now, of course this sounds a little harsh, but isn’t it essentially what we are doing in our public schools?  If an eighth grader can look me in the face and tell me I’m too good a teacher to be working in her school because of where its located and who it serves, we are violating the very right cited in Brown v. Board;the opportunity of an education to be made available to all on equal terms.

 

Graduation rates rise, but are still too low…

First, let me begin by saying I am not here to discuss particular districts or to throw anyone under the bus, my purpose is to present issues and begin a dialogue about the state of urban education and the need for reform.  To preface, the school districts I am referencing represent typical, large, urban school districts that serve low-income communities.  I was surprised to come across a local news broadcast on how two notoriously under-performing, large urban districts in Massachusetts saw noteworthy increases in their graduation rates from 2013 to 2014.  That being said, I dug a little deeper into the numbers of these districts and some similar districts and here is what I found:

  • Overall student graduation rates are between 60 and 65 percent
  • Graduation rates among students with disabilities is nearly half that amount
  • Graduation rates among Hispanic/Latino and African American/Black subgroups are on average 5 percent below overall rates
  • Graduation rates for English Language Learners are significantly below the overall rates
  • 9/10 non urban, non low-income serving districts have graduation rates above 85%

It is absolutely wonderful that these districts have seen an increase in students graduating, that is not the issue here.  What is disturbing is that four in ten students living in these districts are not graduating from high school.  In case you don’t see the problem, please the the economic importance of this in my previous post, ‘College “prep” goes beyond the classroom’.  With this troubling data, why are we not discussing the inequity within our public schools?  Why are we not screaming from the top of our lungs for reforms that will address this issue?!  I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that more accountability and more standardized tests are not going to address this gap.  In fact, we may even see the gap widen….

The great digital divide…

Last semester I took a course on Curriculum Design and one of our texts emphasized the importance of integrating technology into the curriculum.  There is no doubt a digital divide between students in low-income communities and their suburban counterparts.  With such large class sizes in many low-performing schools, adaptive technology can help teachers differentiate their instruction which is essential to getting all kids to grade level, yet there are no reforms being made to integrate technology.  The following is an essay I wrote in my curriculum class that emphasizes the importance of technology in closing the achievement gap.

Closing the proficiency gap is a top priority for most principals serving students in low-income communities.  In addition to lower proficiency, access to instructional technology within these schools, as well as within student’s homes, limits teacher’s ability to engage students.  Despite these circumstances, some schools have been able to narrow the proficiency gap by building positive relationships with students while integrating technology.  In his article, “Teacher Excellence Narrows the Achievement Gap”, Mariko Nobori (2011) attributes the turnaround of Cochrane Collegiate Academy in Charlotte, N.C. to professional development that supports an approach the school calls Interactive Learning.  A TIME Magazine article, “A is for Adaptive”, by Kayla Webley (2013), describes a personalized learning technology called Knewton that is able to adapt to specific student’s needs and improve student achievement.  The common thread of these two articles is that technology can be used to engage students and narrow the proficiency gap by making it easier for teachers to differentiate.  Nobori (2011) attributes the success of one school to a strong emphasis on using technology to raise achievement while also building strong relationships with students.  It seems as though a hybrid of relationship building, student-centered instructional strategies, and technology integration may be the way to close the proficiency gap.

At Cochrane Collegiate Academy, teachers use an instructional model called Interactive Learning (IL) which specifically promotes collaboration, inquiry, and a high degree of interaction.  Teachers must implement ten IL non-negotiables in every class.  Some of these non-negotiables include activation strategies, clear outcomes that are communicated to students, limited lecture, and student movement.   In addition to adopting this model, Cochrane’s school district implemented a standards-based, targeted-assistance program called TI MathForward (Nobori, 2011).  “Each student receives a graphing calculator so they can do practice problems and get instant feedback on the classroom’s electronic whiteboard.  Teachers get a precise reading on how well the students understand key concepts, and the students stay engaged thanks to the cool gadgets (Nobori, 2011).”  To support the implementation of IL and TI Math Forward, Cochrane’s academic facilitator, Shana Oliver, has taken a modeling approach to professional development.  Oliver runs her sessions just like a class, using the same set of non-negotiables, and teachers confirm that seeing and experiencing themselves  how it can be done has helped them implement the strategies in their classrooms (Nobori, 2011).

Knewton is a math program that uses algorithms to build a personal profile for each student.  The program takes into account how long it takes for a students to answer a question, their answers to hundreds of other questions, and the answers of hundreds of thousands of other people to similar questions before determining the next question on the screen (Webley, 2013).  This technology, also known as adaptive learning, is able to predict student outcomes and could be the future for differentiated instruction.  “It is impossible to provide one-to-one teaching on a mass scale, but technology enables us to get closer than ever before (Webley, 2013).”  The feedback that this technology gives teachers allows them to help struggling students before they fail and it is too late.  Additionally, the technology has the ability to remediate students on prerequisite skills.  “Students in the same math course go through different sets of lessons as Knewton adapts the material to fit their individual learning needs (8).”  For example, Cienna Bungard, a middle school student states, “Knewton is based on what you can do, not what the class can do (Webley, 2013).”   In addition to the technology keeping students engaged, they are able to get more out of their math courses because of it and it has transformed the classroom from one-size-fits-all instruction to tailored intervention.

The turnaround at Cochrane was not only possible due to the integration of technology and interactive learning practices, but also through a strong emphasis on building positive relationships with students.  These relationships are built on a level of trust that allows teachers to challenge their students.  Teachers greet students individually and pay attention if something seems off, they show up to sporting events, ask students questions about how they are doing and listen to the answers, and model politeness and respect.  Since implementing these changes in 2007, Cochrane has more than doubled the percentage of students performing at grade level and reduced the achievement gap by thirty five percent (Nobori, 2011).  “There are so many stigmas that seem to suggest that students from this demographic cannot learn; that they are destined to fail.  But now we have data that proves that our students can go so far.  That’s a testament to what education can do (Nobori, 2011).”  Teachers and staff acknowledge that there is still work to do and have recently launched a one-to-one laptop program while working to build better relationships with parents and continuing to hone their instructional model to reach more students (Nobori, 2011).

Both articles mentioned the ability for technology to engage students while providing teachers with quick feedback about student performance that allows for the differentiation and adaptation of instruction.  Coupled with a focus on student-centered instruction and relationships, technology has allowed Cochrane to be able to significantly reduce the achievement gap at their school.  What both articles miss is the ability to use technology in the classroom in creative ways that may further engage students.  Tim Tyson (2010) states, learning will be made irresistible when students’ positive emotional connection to curriculum is authentically engaged in a learning process that focuses on producing high-quality, digital-knowledge products for everyone – the students, their peers, their parents, the community at large (Jacobs, p. 123).  Schools should also use technology to engage students in authentic, creative assessments that will make learning irresistible in all content areas.

The proficiency gap is a hurdle that many school leaders are faced with.  Unfortunately, there is often a lack of funding that allows for schools with low proficiency to integrate technology.  If this is the case, as Cochrane has shown, gains can still be made by targeting professional development for teachers in a structured way that will model student-centered instructional approaches as well as foster positive relationships with students.  The gap could be further reduced, or in many cases, virtually eliminated, by implementing technology that provides teachers with instant feedback to differentiate instruction while engaging students through interactive technology.  Furthermore, students can be engaged through technology not just through the use of “cool gadgets” but by using it in ways that will allow them to develop 21st century skills through the creation of high-quality products for authentic audiences.  Focused professional development that models student-centered instruction, building supportive relationships, and integrating technology could enhance the curriculum across disciplines, thus making learning irresistible and ultimately reducing the proficiency gap.


Further reading:

http://nation.time.com/2013/06/06/the-adaptive-learning-revolution/

http://www.edutopia.org/stw-school-turnaround-overview

Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World by H. H. Jacobs

http://www.theedadvocate.org/technology-and-mentorship-addressing-the-problem-of-urban-students/

http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=4216