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.

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

 

Why standardized test scores are virtually useless to teachers

I spent the better part of the morning on Friday reviewing my student’s standardized test scores and here is what I learned:

  • My 2013/14 8th graders scored generally better than my 2012/13 8th graders in English Language Arts
  • My deep analysis of interim assessment data and focus on reader response writing seemed to pay off in 2013/14
  • Some students made great gains
  • Some students scores dropped from 7th grade to 8th grade
  • 69% of my students were proficient while only 44% of the 8th graders at the school were proficient
  • 79% of 8th graders in the state were proficient; while I’m narrowing the gap in my school, my students are still falling behind when compared to the state

Now, none of this really matters at this point.  These students are off in high school with some other teacher looking at their scores who knows very little about them at this stage in the school year.  To compare the 2012/13 students with the 2013/14 students seems odd to me since one of the classes I taught last year had higher scores overall than my classes the previous year.  I had more special needs students in 2012/13 and in 2013/14 I had zero special needs students and a handful of English Language Learners.  Also, the students I had in 2012/13 had different teachers in 7th grade than the students in 2013/14 did.  How can I truly tell that what I did differently from one year to the next made a difference?  There are some other clues, like interim assessment data that I received throughout the school year that do point to successes in my practice, but overall, to look at my data from one year to the next is comparing apples to oranges.

And this is why standardized test scores are meaningless to teachers.  Administrators, politicians, and parents want to hold us accountable, but how can you hold us accountable when we test students in the Spring and don’t receive the results until the Fall while we have a whole new group of students in front of us?  My point is that while the scores may tell us a little bit about our teaching practice, they tell us a lot more about our students; and by that time it’s too late.  I’m so proud of the students who made gains last year in my class, I’m also proud that I had a higher percentage of students proficient than my school did, but I won’t ever get the chance to see what went wrong with the kids who’s scores dropped or did not score proficient.  To reasonably hold teachers accountable for this data, we either need to receive the data while the students are in front of us or teach the same cohort for more than one year; otherwise, its a total waste of time and money.

The Power of Positive

“The Skillful Teacher” by Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Halye-Speca, and Robert Gower is one of the cornerstones of education preparation programs.  The discoveries I’m making while reading it after a few years of classroom experience are enlightening.

 “‘The indispensable characteristic of successful teachers in low-income-area schools is a positive attitude.  It is not enough for a teacher to use the right words.  The critical question is, what implicit and explicit messages are students getting from the teacher about their ability to learn?’ (Frick, 1987)” (Saphier, 305)

Any teacher who has worked or does work in a low-income-area school could tell you that having a positive attitude in such a setting is no easy feat.  We are constantly overwhelmed with the knowledge that our students are not performing to state standards and feeling the burden of not having enough time or resources to meet their needs.  The pressure of this environment is nothing sort of stressful, but here’s an uplifting message by Rita Pierson who became an instant hero of mine after I discovered it.

Here is the jingle she taught her students:

I am somebody.

I was somebody when I came,

I’ll be a better somebody when I leave,

I am powerful, and I am strong.

I deserve the education that I get here.

I have things to do, people to impress,

and places to go!

You see, as Saphier states, “In many poor communities, a major obstacle to motivation for students, especially high school students, is the absence of hope, the absence of faith that doing well in school would give them a chance at a better life.  These students believe there is no payoff in store for investing in effective effort.  The competencies they would gain from better school achievement are viewed as irrelevant to having a better life (305).”  Additionally, students in these communities lack role models and mentors who look like them, we have to build community connections and bring them into our classrooms.  Peer culture is also a challenge; its not always “cool” to do well in school.  “Whereas individual teachers can work on such cultures within the four walls of their classrooms, the job, especially in American inner cities and among the rural poor, is to build such cultures school-wide (306).”  Last year, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Geoffrey Canada, founder of The Harlem Children’s Zone.  One of the points that stayed with me was that he changed the culture not only in his schools, but in the community of Harlem.  He reached out to families to ensure that they understand why it is important for students to do well in school.  If the culture of the community does not support the educational mission, he said, we simply have to change it.

I cannot help but believe that we are going about this all wrong.  We relentlessly emphasize the importance of raising the scores as our primary goal and focus and I feel like we are overlooking a fundamental issue: the culture.  Schools, districts, and communities need to identify what their culture is around academic success and if it does not match the educational mission, it needs to be changed.  The Harlem Children’s Zone has a team of people who work solely with families on supporting their children to succeed in school and getting them to understand the importance of this for improving their child’s life.  After all, who doesn’t want better for their children?