originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17
by Krista Taylor
Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.
I wasn’t supposed to have to figure out how to honor her empty chair.
I wasn’t supposed to lose her.
But I did – exactly one year ago.
And my experience is not unique.
Every year, there are teachers who have students die. There are students who lose a classmate, and classrooms that become one less.
At Gamble, we experienced this twice last year — once in September and once in May – tragic bookends on a year in the life of a school. At the beginning of the year, we lost Michael due to complications from undiagnosed diabetes, and during the last week of school, we lost Bridgette.
There are no words to describe this situation. It is something I never expected to experience, and something I was entirely unprepared to deal with. I had no idea what to do.
The greatest burden I carried was how to appropriately usher my students through grief and loss. How to honor each of their responses. How to gather them together and help them lean on each other, while simultaneously protecting them from the potential insensitivity of one other. How to explain the depths of our loss without heightening, or conversely, minimizing, their grief. How to plan our days to honor Bridgette’s memory while providing the structure and routine that adolescents crave. How to be a source of strength and compassion. How to be exactly what each one needed me to be.
That is, of course, not possible. We can only be the best we can be, with the resources and knowledge we possess at the time, but losing a student is perhaps something that we never quite overcome.
I am haunted by these comments made by my colleagues. Each reveals lingering guilt:
“I bet she was wearing those stupid boots that she always wore and could barely walk in. Why didn’t we tell her that she wasn’t allowed to wear them?”
“I don’t think I’ve really gotten over Michael’s death. I keep thinking about the day I sent him home sick with an upset stomach. I should have told his mom to take him straight to the hospital.”
And my own thought, “I couldn’t keep her safe.”
The trauma runs deep.
The night Bridgette died, one of my students called me on my cell phone. I remember the conversation almost verbatim.
“Ms. Taylor, it’s Shauna. Is it true? Is Bridgette really dead?”
“Yes, Shauna, it’s true. I am so sorry.”
“What are we going to do tomorrow, Ms. Taylor?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.”
“Can we make posters and stuff like they did for Michael?”
“Yes, of course, Shauna, we can do whatever you need to do.”
“Can we make great, big posters?”
“Yes, you can make posters as big as you want.”
“Ms. Taylor? . . . Are you okay?”
“Yes, Shauna, I’m okay. I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I love you, too, Ms. Taylor.”
Several days later, at Bridgette’s funeral service, I was asked to assist with eulogizing her. Just before I was to speak, one of my students slid up to my pew and said, “Ms. Taylor, we need you out there,” and gestured to the anteroom. I reassured the student that I would go there as soon as I could. After speaking, I slipped out of the chapel. In the foyer, a cluster of students was gathered around Iona who was lying on the floor sobbing. As I calmed her down, I was finally able to make out her words, “Why won’t she open her eyes. She needs to wake up. She just needs to wake up and open her eyes.”
As a teacher, how do you shepherd your students through tragedy?
Certainly, there is more than one way, and assuredly, I didn’t make all the right decisions, but with an absence of resources or experiences, this is what I did. While I wish this situation on no one, if the unthinkable should happen in your classroom, I hope you find this to be a guide:
Ensure that you have mental health personnel available to work with students
Be together – in our case, we offered the option to have students remain with their community teachers all day long
Tell students as much as you know as soon as possible – facts, however painful, are far easier to deal with than imaginings
Provide opportunities to honor, reflect, and grieve together
We held a community meeting at the start of the school day, which allowed us to share the information we had, and invited students to ask questions, and to share thoughts, concerns, and memories
Suspend normal activities and routines
Invite students to create a memorial
This was particularly powerful for my students as they chose to replicate one of Bridgette’s drawings as a mural above her locker (see above photo)
They also made posters, wrote letters, and helped to plan the school-based ceremony
Remember that not all students will grieve in a traditional fashion
Some students may need to escape from the intensity of the situation
Some students may laugh or make insensitive comments as a coping mechanism – pre-empt this by instructing students about empathy, and reminding them that not everyone deals with upsetting situations the same way
Some students may not have known the deceased student very well, and may not feel the need to grieve
After an initial meeting spent together, some students chose the option to watch a reflective movie, rather than participate in memorial activities all day long
Other students chose physical work – digging the hole for our memorial tree
Find a support system – remember that you are grieving, too, and that you can’t do it alone. Lean on your colleagues, and seek out others who can guide you through the process and through your own sorrow
You will, of course, have to resume a normal routine within a day or so, but be prepared to have the loss continue to need to be addressed periodically for a year or more.
This year at fall camp, as we walked up the trail, underneath a starlit sky, to prepare for the initiation ceremony conducted by the 8th graders, Iona slipped her hand into mine, and wistfully proclaimed, “Oh, Ms. Taylor, Bridgette would have just loved this.”
On September 15, 2008, the giant financial company Lehman Brothers, unable to meet its obligations to borrowers, completely collapsed, closing its doors and halting all transactions as it fell swiftly into unthinkably large debt. 25,000 Lehman employees lost their jobs. The company would never re-open. In the same week, the largest banks in the United States all shared warnings of nearing a similar fate. This event was the primary public face of the start of the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn in modern history. The US government stepped in to bail out the largest banks before they followed suit with Lehman Brothers, eventually spending trillions of taxpayer dollars to shore up our economy. The Lehman crash, and the bank crash in general, was connected with the bursting of the US housing bubble, where suddenly home prices crashed back from extravagant highs, costing homeowners billions in actual and unrealized gains in their personal net worth. In the end, billions of dollars of value of stocks, companies, and people’s homes and jobs were essentially vaporized. Even after 5 years of sustained job and economic growth following the official end of the recession in 2012, by some measures the United States has not yet unburied itself from this financial disaster.
There were many contributing factors to this economic crash, and many books and even movies helped to tell parts of the story. One best-selling book-turned-movie exploring the causes of this crash was The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.
“Wait,” you say. “This is an education blog. Why are you discussing the economy?”
Current conditions in the educational system in the United States, and particularly in specific states, resemble the situation that preceded the crash and Great Recession. A generation of reforms, from the Reagan-era Nation at Risk report to the transformative and bipartisan Bush II No Child Left Behind law to the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act, have eroded safeguards that tied tax dollars and community oversight to the education of our children. This has left our nation open to an educational crash, the sort of which has never happened, for which there is no roadmap or precedent, just as there was no precedent for the real estate and banking collapse in 2008. For many of us, just as for many experts in the banking industry, this collapse was a complete shock. Nothing could have prepared us for the long-lasting effects of the crash, and only in hindsight could we see all the signs of the impending crisis. Only a few people, generally well-read experts in the field who had proven willing to buck prevailing wisdom, were able to see the coming default. No one listened to them.
The Great Recession was caused by a number of related factors in the economy. One cause of the crash was deregulation. In a major windfall to banks and other lending institutions, Congress loosened restrictions on lending practices, allowing for larger and riskier loans, with fewer safeguards for borrowers. New companies, envisioning windfall profits, sprang up seemingly overnight and began competing for customers. First time and repeat borrowers, excited for an opportunity to buy their first or their biggest house, flooded into the market, and found they had a wide array of companies competing to sell them a loan as cheaply as possible.
This deregulation combined with an extreme profit motive allowed for a second cause to emerge: predatory lending. With deregulation there came an expansion of banks, some of which became “too big to fail.” This phrase did not mean that they could not fail. It just meant that their failure would cause widespread economic disaster. The US government would, in this case, be forced to prop them up and to guarantee that their loans were covered. These institutions were assumed to be essentially unbreakable. Deregulation also meant such growth in the banking industry that new, non-bank companies got into the business of offering home loans and dealing mortgages. These new lending institutions looked and acted less and less like traditional banks, and they began enticing and even recruiting home buyers in the full knowledge that they would be unable to pay off the loans. This happened even while these institutions paid exorbitant salaries to CEOs, often with sales bonuses for the middle managers, creating incentives to make riskier and riskier loans.
Additionally, the oversight for these new kinds of banks, making these new kinds of loans, was essentially nonexistent. Traditional systems of measuring the effectiveness and liquidity of banks were overmatched by these new rules. The use of innovative and complex accounting, perhaps intentionally, made oversight of any sort more difficult. Specifically, the creation of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations made it nearly impossible to assess the riskiness of investments. It is hard to judge the risk inherent in buying something most people cannot understand or explain.
Finally, signs of an impending crash were ignored by almost everyone. Time and time again lenders and monitors alike allowed themselves to participate in what now is understood to have been “magical thinking”, the belief that these risky pools of unexplainable investments would somehow continue to increase in value forever. In fact, at times the warnings were so loud that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was notoriously reluctant to speak directly to future trends or concerns, made multiple public statements to dismiss these warnings. Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist, catalogued many of those warnings in his first article as a regular columnist at Forbes Magazine.
These factors have parallels in the current movement in education, as described below.
Deregulation – creating the bubble
In order to encourage the growth of the “ownership society” as espoused by President George W. Bush during his successful Presidential campaign, his administration and a Republican congress undertook several initiatives aimed at increasing home ownership. These were well-intentioned and broadly popular bipartisan acts aimed at placing more people in their own homes, and prompting them to be better citizens in general, because they would now have a stake in the success of the community. However, these enticements created unforeseen consequences. Homeowner down payment assistance and efforts to simplify home-buying drew in record amounts of new home owners. Some of these home buyers were not, according to traditional measures, a good bet to stay in the house and pay off their loan. Unscrupulous lenders capitalized on these eager new buyers, offering them larger and riskier loans than ever before. Folks with bad credit got loans, folks with good credit got larger loans than they could handle, all with the promise of future gains in the value of these houses.
The expansion of the charter school movement in the US parallels this change in the banking system, and seems poised to create a similar bubble. While a long-established system of education exists, with a history dating back to the first colonies on Plymouth Rock, and overseen by elected school boards in nearly every city and county in our country, recent deregulation in education law has created an expansion of school-like entities called charter schools. These schools often get permission to operate with a different set of rules than public schools, typically privileges to experiment with curriculum, seat time, salary scales, and more, often under the guise of being “laboratory schools”, free to experiment with ideas that might work better for education. These types of schools flourished under the Obama administration, and seem set to practically explode during the current administration. Just last week Florida approved $200M for a major expansion of charter schools in the Sunshine State. In addition to brick and mortar schools, largely to save on costs associated with maintenance and transportation, charter schools have innovated and quickly expanded online learning. Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania, lead states in enrolling students in online schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). And the expansion has been accelerated through the use of novel, some might say experimental or even suspect, techniques for delivering education. In the 2014-15 school year, 38,500 students in Ohio alone took all of their classes on computers from home through an online school. For the 2015-16 school year, Ohio paid online schools $267 million to educate those students — more than a quarter of what it paid all charter schools in the state. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the Ohio Virtual Academy (OVA), with 15,000 and 11,000 students respectively, are the largest online schools in Ohio. More on ECOT later.
In May of 2014, the New York City legislature created laws that they touted made New York “friendlier [to charters] than almost any other city in the nation.” By increasing the per pupil allocation allotted to charters, eliminating salary minimums for teachers and other staff, and by requiring public schools to offer up unused space at a significant discount, many charter schools are given advantages that would seem to tip the scale in their favor. It would be hard to argue that these private or public charters are indeed true laboratories for innovation of best practices, given the tremendous advantages they have over public or even private schools.
The US Senate’s Levin–Coburn Report concluded that the financial crisis was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” Might a charter school bubble and resulting education crisis happen the same way? Might the leverage of a few powerful textbook and test printing companies create a system that is “too big to fail”? Might a pending educational crash similarly be the result of state and national legislatures failing to rein in the excesses of “Big Ed”, a conglomerate of test makers, book printers, and educational consultants profiting handsomely from the creation and amalgamation of more and more charter schools?
“Bundling”: Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and joining forces
One of the effects of deregulation was the creation of new ways to buy and sell groups of mortgages. One of the ways that the lenders protected themselves from economic trouble was by creating complex financial vehicles called credit default swaps (CDS). These CDSs could be created without collateral – that is, without proving that there was anything of value to be sold in case the investment went wrong – and thus they were at higher risk for a default. These junk bonds, accurately named because they were groups of mortgages that were without value (hence “junk”), were often quickly bundled with other similar loans and sold in large amounts to larger companies who were investing on the continued growth of the value of real estate in the United States.
Just like the creation of new banks and lenders looks like the expansion of charter schools, so too does the creation of CDS look like the persistent closing and combining happening among charter schools. Time and again failing charter schools are merged into larger existing entities, in much the way Lehman Brothers sopped up smaller banks in order to bundle their mortgage assets.
The national White Hat Management group’s Cleveland experiment is an example of how deregulation and recombination make it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of individual schools. White Hat management ran into legal difficulties, accused of being beholden to particular publishers and vendors, rather than operating independently. Instead of amending their practices, they chose to sell major operations to a Pansophic education (founded by the same people who helped found the charter school system K12) which overnight became one of the largest charter school sponsors in the state of Ohio.
Other national vendors of charter schools, such as K12 and KIPP, have expanded through a combination of opening new branches and purchasing or absorbing existing charter schools. This makes it impossible to truly gage the effectiveness of the schools. In 2014, the law in Ohio called for charter schools to release their state report cards in their third year of existence. The average length of operation of a charter school in Ohio was 2.5 years. On average, schools chose to fold or divest rather than reveal their results. This has the effect of skewing charter school data to look better than it actually is. How? If, in any data set, you allow the option for the low-performers to opt out before being counted, the resulting data is inaccurate. This makes the data, which shows that charter schools tend to slightly underperform public schools on average, even more frightening.
Also in Ohio, the I Can charter school chain – started by former leaders of the well-regarded Breakthrough charter schools – has faced poor results and negative feedback from the public in Cleveland. The chain has additional schools in Akron and Canton and one in Indiana. In response to the poor results, the chain was turned over to Accel Charter School network. In their public statement on the transition, school officials explained that “running quality schools at the state’s $6,000 funding per student is too great a challenge and that they want to be with a larger network to save money.”
“The teachers, the students and the parents will not notice a difference,” said I Can lawyer Jamie Callender, a former state representative for western Lake County.
It is hard to find these words reassuring, given that the transfer happened because of poor results.
Profit motive and predatory lending
Another contributing factor to the market crash and resulting recession was the large profit motive leading to predatory lending. Here is how it worked in the banking and mortgage business: mortgage lenders could bundle these mortgages (and the associated risks) and pass them on to banks and bank-replacements. They could – and did – adopt loose underwriting criteria (encouraged by regulators), and some developed aggressive lending practices.
What might this look like in the education world? Much the same as it did in the mortgage world, it might look like charter schools targeting residents of urban areas and promising a new world of opportunities. It might look like glossy postcards and slick advertising campaigns, and promises of access to the internet at home for people who cannot afford it for themselves. It might look like promises of safety and order. It might look like colleges enticing students to borrow beyond their means in the hope of enhanced future earnings.
It might look like dozens, maybe more than a hundred, for-profit colleges identified as having an unacceptable debt to earnings ratio. This ratio is “how much money typical program graduates are required to spend on student loan payments every year, and how much they earn in the job market two years after graduation.” The administration of President Barack Obama labeled schools with unacceptably high ratios of debt as “profit mills” – schools designed to create profit for themselves with little concern for their actual benefit to the students. A list of such programs was available at this Department of Education site at the time of publication of this article.
And there is big money to be made. One example of a well-paid executive in the charter school business is Ronald J. Packard, the CEO of K12 Inc. According to SourceWatch, a publication of the Center for Media and Democracy, Packard received compensation of over $19.48 million from 2009 to 20013, almost $4M a year. In 2013, he owned over 2 percent of K12, which had a market cap of around $1.25 billion in September 2013.
Education publication companies are already massive. Pearson, a textbook and testing company, has a market value over $4.5B. McGraw-Hill, according to Reuters, anticipated a valuation of nearly $5B when they offered an initial offering of stock in 2014. A third major educational publishing company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, currently is worth about $1.5B. The Chief Executive Officers of these companies are making major deals that will determine how our students and our schools are taught and tested, and their ability to work a deal that is good for the company will be a primary determinant of their value to the company, and the source of their compensation. They are even working in many states, as well as at the federal level, to create mandatory testing. Thus the law will guarantee that their product is purchased. They could be moving from free market salespeople to the sole deliverers of a multi-billion-dollar government mandate.
There is significant economic pressure to deliver a contract, especially a federal contract with billions of dollars.
Well-compensated CEOs, and multi-billion dollar publishing companies are sources of concern. But the mere ability to earn a major profit is not evidence of wrongdoing.
Profit-mill colleges are a bigger concern, but these do not, necessarily, rise to the level of wrongdoing or fraud. They are merely concerns.
However, actual wrongdoing was recently uncovered at Ohio’s ECOT school. This for-profit online k-12 school was cited this September by the Ohio Department of Education for charging the state for higher attendance than the school actually could verify. Online schools are very different from traditional schools, as students do not have to physically show up at school in order to be counted as present. They merely have to log in from home. The problem at ECOT was that they claimed compensation for 9,000 more students than they could prove they had. With about 6,500 students verifiably enrolled, ECOT received an estimated $60M in funding that they did not merit for the school year. This fraudulent claim on taxpayer dollars should be a major concern for taxpayers.
Fortunately, this fraud was caught through oversight, and public records claims would help reveal the same information. Efforts to undermine the transparency of the system could create a system where such schools could hide their efforts to defraud states and taxpayers. In fact, reducing oversight seems to invite poor behavior.
Lack of Oversight
A final important cause of the 2008 economic collapse was that deregulation had led to a serious lack of oversight, which meant that important signs of impending collapse were ignored, or were never seen at all. “In 2007-2010 the lack of transparency in the large market became a concern to regulators as it could pose a systemic risk.” The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that the financial crisis was avoidable and was caused by “widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision.”
In a revealing scene in the movie version of The Big Short, an investor approaches a woman he knows well and who works at the Securities Exchange Commission, which is tasked with overseeing the banking market. He learns she is still providing oversight to these companies, even while she is actually seeking a higher-paying job from them – whichever one will hire her. He asks if there are laws preventing her from moving from a regulatory agency directly into a position with a large bank she was supposed to be investigating. She shrugs. “Since we got our budget cut, we don’t investigate much.”
For now, it is unclear whether the level of oversight is up to the task of managing the level of attempted fraud and poor performance. In addition to the ECOT investigation in Ohio, the Charter School Commission also proved willing to take charters away from low-performing schools. These are positive signs.
Despite these isolated reports of identified fraud, the national move has been to reduce the amount of oversight, rather than increase it. In fact, one legislator, Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, introduced a bill to end the Department of Education on December 31, 2018. And while this is likely just a symbolic gesture, the symbolism is not empty in a government with Congress and the White House under the control of one party. The House of Representatives recently scaled back implementation of oversight proposed under the new ESSA law. The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, made millions of dollars buying and selling charter school companies, and seems predisposed to favor charter schools over public schools. Just last week Bloomberg reported efforts by Betsy DeVos’ education department to take away protections for students taking out large loans to attend college, including the profit mills described above.
So these 5 risk factors, which set the stage for the economic meltdown of 2008, seem to exist in education today: deregulation, “bundling”, profit motive and predatory lending, and the potential for a lack of oversight. But what does that presage?
Just what does a crash in the educational system look like, exactly? It has never happened, as far as we know. And an education, unlike a dollar, is incredibly complex to track and measure. But we can speculate.
It could look like individual communities bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with state and federal dollars siphoned into the hands of a few corporations, who expand charter schools into additional markets, perhaps with the help of new federal laws. These communities whose public schools will be pitted against charter schools, already perpetually struggling to make ends meet, could find themselves over the next three years hit by a double-whammy of the loss of federal government support for individual programs and a federal hiring freeze, and the specter of funding a charter school system to run in direct competition with their own public system. Bankruptcy and receivership can mean the permanent fiscal end to a community, as inhabitants pack up and move away, or it can mean incorporation into a neighboring municipality.
The losses here, however, are perhaps as significant as they hard to measure.
On an individual scale the losses might be even worse than mere dollars and cents. Losing two or three years of a child’s education, as well-intentioned parents direct their children into profit-mill schools, can actually have a measurably devastating effect on a student. These schools often hire untrained and uncertificated teachers, or teachers who have been unable to find or keep work in other schools. We know that being assigned to an ineffective teacher for three consecutive years results in a 50% lower performance at the end of the three years than similar peers taught by the best teachers. We know that the lack of ties to a community that comes from answering to a private board rather than a public one can create a loss of identity for students and the community. What is the effect of schools that continually close, reorganize, and open again? How can they build continuity of relationships, standards and expectations, professional growth among teachers and administrators? What happens to students treated like widgets, or worse? What happens to the communities as these students grow up feeling a little less connected, a little less educated, a little less prepared for the future?
The housing bubble, and the resulting market crash, had devastating effects on people’s homes and lives. Billions of dollars were lost. The economy lost millions of jobs. People had to move from their homes. It was devastating. Money, however, can be earned back over time. The cost of thousands of lost educations, as corporations populate laboratory charter schools with our next generation, and those schools churn and change hands every couple of years, is incalculable.
 Sorkin, Andrew Ross. “Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill Is Sold.” Editorial. NY Times 25 Sept. 2008: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
Every spring, conversations erupt in PTO meetings and team conferences about summer homework, and conflict blooms like forsythia bushes. It is a predictable pattern. Overworked parents, stressed students, concerned teachers join educational activists like Alfie Kohn to make a strong and rational case: let children be children, especially in the summer.
The Heart Says …
How true this feels! There is no debate that summer holds a romantic place in the memories of our childhood, spending leisurely days catching crayfish in the creek, playing whiffle ball outside until the streetlights came on, and the evening giving way to long nights spent chasing fireflies. 90 days free from concerns about school, free from responsibilities, unencumbered by deadlines and chores. The description is so fanciful that it seems almost mythical, and our love for our children is so great that we can’t imagine a childhood bereft of these idyllic landscapes.
Children use summer, and any length of available time, to create and to explore. With vast amounts of time and resources, they can build and learn in new ways. They can explore their bookshelves to find lost treasures of favorite books from the past, or stay up late in the evening building a new model or sorting cards acquired during the day.
The Data Says …
This is a lovely argument. One would surely be evil to suggest tampering with this particular Degas painting of summer! And for some students, perhaps as many as 30% of them residing in the top brackets of socio-economic status (SES) in the US, this might be their reality.
However, when it comes to the skill that is the building block of all learning – reading – summer homework is a necessary way to help our students achieve their greatest potential. It turns out that during that long summer away from the structure and routine of school instruction and work, students lose some of the skills they gained during the year. There is no dispute about summer slide – the fact that summer away from school results in a loss in reading skill, on average a month’s loss. In fact, through the average summer, this can create a “3-month gap in reading scores between middle- and low-income children.” And the gap between low-income and high-income students is even more pronounced. This happens as middle-income children maintain the reading level they had in May, while low-income students slide and high-income students continue to grow.
Worse yet, at the high school level, we are often trying to offset differences and deficits that were years in the making. An oft-cited Johns Hopkins meta study on summer slide reveals that “prior to high school, the achievement gap by family SES traces substantially to unequal learning opportunities in children’s home and community environments,” and shows that this gap can become the equivalent of several years’ gains in reading.
So “summers off” is a plan, but only if we are content to accept that a child’s parent’s income should determine that, at the end of the educational process, some children should be several grade levels ahead of others in reading skill. We believe that a strong education serves to limit our differences, and to provide each graduate with an equal opportunity for success. From there, a person’s effort, grit, and creativity should be the primary determinants of their success. Education, especially public education, should not content itself with perpetuating advantages provided by socio-economic status. Nor should we be in the business of reinforcing disadvantages among these groups.
Putting the Studies in Perspective
We understand that these studies are discussing averages, and trends over time, not describing individual families. The habits in a particular household are not determined by the parent’s income level. A studious low-income parent can help their child resist this trend, while a wealthy parent who provides no summer enrichment for their child can set them up for the type of slide that the studies suggest they will not experience. These are not absolute truths, but rather large-scale trends that we would ignore at our own peril.
The Johns Hopkins study cited earlier suggests that school might well be the answer to address this inequality. “[W]ith learning gains across social lines more nearly equal during the school year, the experience of schooling tends to offset the unequalizing press of children’s out-of-school learning environments.” So socio-economic differences at home can create large gaps in student achievement, and school can offset that gap by improving growth and academic performance for all students.
This position creates challenging conversations, especially in a diverse school like Gamble Montessori. Some of our students, 15% or so, have parents who are college educated professionals. More of our students’ parents are working-class, who despite their hard work and full employment qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch – our best measure of students living at or near the poverty line. Finally, a large percentage of our students live in poverty. Each spring, one or more of our college-educated, active, and involved parents who have time and inclination to join our PTO or Instructional Leadership Team, make the case against summer homework. They make it passionately, in much the same terms as it is made in the opening paragraphs of this essay. It is a compelling argument for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is likely be true for their child. They are right to make this argument and to raise these important questions, and I welcome their involvement in the discussion.
It was in one of these meetings two years ago where I realized the nature of the argument against summer homework, but I could not find a gentle way to word it. Finally, I decided on asking simply this: “Are we suggesting that we should only give summer homework to the poor kids?” The answer is, of course, no.
So if we know that summer homework helps our poorest readers, and we know that it does no harm to our best readers, except for infringing upon the idyllic summer that we recall, how can we do summer homework well, so it meets the needs of all of our children and families? Here is our best answer.
Doing Summer Homework Right – For Everyone
With the help of the parents, our Instructional Leadership Team set out to right-size summer homework so that it would encourage and foster the growth of skills among all of our students, without eliminating the magic of summer for any of them. In doing so, we set some parameters, asking ourselves, how do we measure the work to determine whether it was just the right amount? The parameters we discuss divide the rest of the conversation below: the amount of time it took to complete, the number of subjects we covered, its value in the class for which it was assigned, whether it was new or review work, and its role in helping a child develop skills that relate to success beyond school such as managing their time and meeting deadlines.
To make the rest of the conversation possible, we had to first set limits on the amount of time a child should have to spend completing homework. More than one conscientious parent had shared with us the story of their child, who struggled with homework in general, spending many summer nights figuratively chained to their kitchen tables, crying at the weight of the work. This was no one’s idea of a summer well spent.
After some debate, we concluded, without basis in any scientific research, that 40 or so hours was right for an entire summer’s worth of school work. With June, July, and about half of August comprising summer, this meant about 50 minutes a day. This seemed a reasonable amount of time over the summer. Not intrusive, just a regular checking in to keep the skills sharp. Once this number was proposed, there was little further official discussion, though away from the table the question is still alive. We generally agreed that this felt right.
The summer slide research cited above focuses on reading skills. A RAND corporation study cites the research of Cooper and Nye (1996) that determined “summer learning loss was greater, on average, in math than in reading,” and that this was more consistent across socio-economic lines than was the reading slide. It was reasonable to expect that reading was the skill that students were MOST likely to use in the summer. Therefore, a thoughtful summer homework program would involve all core subjects.
Again, we applied the cap of 40 hours total, which left 10 or 8 hours, depending on the grade of the student and whether foreign language work was included.
Connection to class / function
A common complaint among students, and a very valid one, was that their summer homework assignments languished on the teacher’s desk and had no connection to what they were covering in class. I knew, from discussions with teachers, that this was indeed the case. Papers would sit on their desks, or in briefcases or files, for weeks and weeks, checked in but not graded.
Apparently, both students and teachers saw summer homework as meaningless busywork!
Some teachers were magnifying the impression by not grading and returning the work promptly, other than to indicate whether it was complete. Worse yet, no connections were being made between the work they did over the summer and the work that was to be completed in class the first few weeks. Small wonder that year after year we struggled to get students to complete this work!
So at Gamble we added a stipulation that summer homework had to relate directly to instruction the first two weeks of the school year. This served the purpose of emphasizing its importance, while helping to explain why there was a deadline at all.
New vs Review Content
The term “summer slide” indicates the loss of existing knowledge. If this is what we were attempting to avoid through the administration of summer homework, then we had to assign work that was not new. The first year we reviewed our summer homework through this lens, the work seemed nearly impossible, especially in math. In addition to a short review of the previous year’s skills, much of the work in our existing summer homework covered topics (albeit in introductory form) that our students had not been exposed to in the classroom. Especially in math, this seemed counter-intuitive, and the math teachers at the table immediately agreed to change it. How can we justify grading students for doing quality work on problem types that they have never seen before?
We set the expectation moving forward that work was meant to be a review, and not for new content. Of course, students could read new books, and apply their grade-level reading skills to new texts, but in science and math, summer was not the time to try to add new skills without the aid of a teacher or guide.
Timing / Executive Function
Of course, we found that two types of students completely undermined our plans: the procrastinators, and the planners. One year, my last in the classroom, we handed the summer homework out a week prior to dismissal. One the last day, Lisa approached me, “Here, Mr. Jose.” She handed me a folder, inside were several stapled packets. “What’s this, Lisa?” I asked.
“My summer homework,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Math and science on the left, English and social studies on the right.”
“Umm,” I tried to buy time. “I, uh, don’t really have a place to put this right now, it’s due in, what, August? So,” I handed the folder back. “I’m going to have to ask you to hold on to this.” Lisa was a planner, and she was not about to let the few last days of packing up rooms and free time in some classes go by unused. She had completed her summer homework, she told me, mostly in the classrooms of other teachers, some of whom were showing movies or not providing work at the conclusion of final exams.
Our procrastinators are a different kind of problem. These are the students who plan on having the opportunity in the first weeks of school to complete all of their summer homework. I’ve worked in schools where those students were held in the auditorium or some classroom until they completed the work, or even suspended, not allowed to join their classmates for the opening days of instruction. While this may have provided a strong message that summer homework was required, it really undermined our message that what happens in the classrooms in the opening days is essential to a successful year, and sets those students up for failure. These same procrastinators could rightly argue in some cases, as explained above, that since the work was not graded anyway, they should not rightfully receive a deduction for completing it near the end of the first quarter. (This was part of the reason we instituted the expectation that teachers would utilize the work in a meaningful way in the first weeks of class. In this way, students were rewarded for doing the work, the significance of the class time was upheld, and students’ grades would be appropriately harmed not by an arbitrary grade given by a teacher, but by their own lack of having completed the requisite work.)
These students, both the planners and the procrastinators, lost the primary executive function practice that can be gained from summer homework. Done consistently, these periods of student work can not only erase summer slide, but can reinforce schedule-making and time-management skills among students. This is the hidden goal of summer homework, and the advantage to all students: practicing your ability to manage your time helps promote self-efficacy and leads to greater success far beyond the classroom.
One thing that every student gains from summer homework, if done well, are the skills that collectively are called executive functioning, some of which are: planning and organizing, managing time, strategizing, remembering details, making corrections, and knowing when – and who – to ask for help. The best summer homework structure that I have seen for this is one that we have not implemented at Gamble, but was required of students at Clark Montessori. The work was to be mailed in at certain intervals in the summer. The beauty of their plan was that it helped structure the summer, and developed executive function. It worked to the strengths of the planner, and to eliminate the weaknesses of the procrastinator.
While this obviously served to help the teacher manage the grading load, the effect on the students was even more pronounced. To make this work, students had to plan their summer a little more meticulously, figuring out when and how they were going to complete this work. Instead of cramming it in to one or two weeks just before school started, this plan required students to do the very thing that prevented summer slide: to do their work periodically and summon those same skills repeatedly over time. Students were required to not only complete the homework, but to manage a range of skills that would serve them in many other places in life.
In Conclusion / In Perspective
Summer homework is not a villain, stealing away summer from our children. Nor is it a panacea, for while it does save our students from regression and the achievement gap, it comes at a cost. Done correctly, summer homework is a meaningful review of work that bridges the gap between last year and next, while helping a student develop the management skills needed to not just pass a class, but to structure the more complex projects that lie ahead of them.
In his instructive work The Conditions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that periods of intense engagement heighten the sense of value of the time around the event itself. Put another way, moments of structured time in the summer could, in fact, help make the rest of the time seem more precious in context. The flipside of the perfect summer, with the whole time idled away, is the moment of terror the day before school begins again, and the inability to remember what happened as the days melted into a blur of hours lost doing whatever came to mind. The summer best spent is with a mix of structured and unstructured time; time to do the things that need to be done, and time to discover what wants to be done. In fact, the summer well spent might look like a good spring break.
Imagine a standardized test being used to measure the healing of a patient, and the effectiveness of the doctor.
It would look something like this.
A doctor sees a patient through treatment of a condition, and at the end of a prescribed length of time the patient completes a bubble test to determine progress. It is irrelevant what the patient’s condition was at the start of treatment, what other issues the patient is experiencing, how long the patient received treatment, or how well the patient followed medical advice.
The physician’s perception of the patient’s progress, or any additional insights he or she might have, is also irrelevant. It is the bubble test result that will determine whether the physician is an effective practitioner.
This scenario is readily recognized as absurd, and even potentially dangerous, when applied to medicine. Why do we accept it as appropriate for education?
Yet, high-stakes standardized testing is viewed as not just appropriate for education, it is viewed as essential. So essential, that even in the face of dissent from the majority of parents and educators, our politicians continue to reinforce the myth that standardized tests are a fundamental method for assessing student learning, and therefore, by extrapolation, a credible way to determine the effectiveness of teachers and schools.
This false narrative was initiated with the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 and reinforced and perpetuated through Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, and most recently, The Every Student Succeeds Act.
Ohio’s implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act is how I found myself standing at a podium providing testimony before the Joint Education Oversight Committee at the Ohio Statehouse.
“Ms. Taylor, do you believe that the state legislature can honestly check the required box indicating that stakeholder feedback was included in the Ohio plan?”
This was the final question I was asked during my testimony. I had been invited to the statehouse by the Ohio Federation of Teachers to serve as a voice for educators across the state, and to provide insight to the committee on whether the Ohio draft plan for implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accurately reflects the views of stakeholders and serves as a visionary document.
Being called for this task felt like a huge responsibility.
I walked into the room expecting something fairly familiar and comfortable. In my mind, I was anticipating a group of people sitting around a conference table. Instead there was a podium in front of a raised bench of legislators. This suddenly felt like an overwhelming responsibility. I was near certain that the entire room could hear my heart racing and my knees knocking.
I knew that my physiologic reaction was ridiculous. I have engaged in significant research and reflection on this topic. I know the salient points, and I know how to articulate them in a cohesive and powerful manner. And I am not afraid.
Except I was afraid.
This was more important than fear. To quote Dr. Seuss, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”
I speak for students, and for educators, and for our future society because high-stakes standardized testing is not innocuous. It is not just something we debate about at the dining room table. It is truly damaging.
However, we are up against a mighty foe – the testing industry and a social construct that school accountability measures are effective, necessary, and appropriate – and we must be willing to fight furiously against this.
Which is how I found myself testifying at the Ohio statehouse about ESSA.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed by the federal government in December of 2015. It replaces No Child Left Behind, and it allows states greater flexibility in teacher and school accountability measures.
One of the requirements of ESSA is the engagement of stakeholders in the process of developing state plans. It is this mandate that prompted the question asked by Representative Fedor. She is a state representative from Toledo who serves on this committee, and she is a friend to education.
The Ohio ESSA draft plan notes, “As part of the legislation, each state is required to conduct significant outreach to stakeholders to collect input for their state plan. Ohio takes this mandate very seriously and has already engaged 15,000 Ohioans in the development of this draft.”
In every section of the draft there is evidence of stakeholder feedback. However, startlingly, in several critical areas, this feedback has not been incorporated into the current plan.
Relative to required testing, the plan states, in the section titled Aligned Academic Assessments, that stakeholders emphasized the need to “strategically reduce tests where it makes sense to do so.” It goes on to claim that “while the state has reduced the amount of time students spend taking tests – down by approximately 50% from 2014 to 2016 – stakeholders expressed an interest in continuing to explore a further reduction in testing.”
And here is the statement regarding the testing requirements under the “new” plan. “As part of ESSA, Ohio will reexamine its testing requirements. The department is poised to work closely with the Governor, legislature, and education leaders to examine the pros and cons of adjusting the testing schedule.”
In other words: no change.
Additionally, while it is true that testing has been significantly reduced since the 2014-2015 test administration, this data is a red herring. It seems to imply that, over time, testing requirements have been reduced, and that is simply inaccurate. The 2014-2015 school year included the ill-fated implementation of the PARCC testing. Each of the PARCC tests included two administrations – one in February and one in April, thus doubling testing requirements. Thankfully, this double battery of tests was eliminated with the transition to the AIR tests the following school year. This change did reduce testing by nearly half; however if the 2014-2015 school year is removed from the data set as an outlier, then it becomes clear that over time, the number of mandatory state tests in Ohio has actually increased, not decreased.
The second area in the Ohio ESSA draft plan that I found concerning was the provisions regarding teacher evaluation. Currently, Ohio public educators are evaluated based on a combination of factors, and this varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.
Here is what Ohio’s ESSA draft plan says,
“Strong support for local educators – they understand the critical roles teachers and leaders play in helping students learn and grow”
“Educators do not believe that the current evaluation system is working as it should”
“Concern on the part of educators related to the calculation of student growth and its inclusion in the evaluation system”
“Ohio’s state plan requires a description of our methods for ensuring that students have access to quality teachers and leaders. Our plan will be based on those elements currently in state law and our existing equity plan.”
In other words: no change.
Currently, the Ohio teacher evaluation system is designed on a combination of factors. This is a complex calculation where 50% of a teacher’s evaluation comes from observational data assessed using the rubric of the etpes system, which includes 10 areas of assessment, each of which can be scored as: Accomplished, Skilled, Developing, or Ineffective. The remaining 50% varies based on the grade and subject area being taught, and that grade and/or subject area’s testing requirements.
For some Cincinnati Public School teachers, this remaining 50% comes exclusively from the value-added measure of standardized test results. For other teachers, 26% comes from the teacher’s value-added standardized test results, 10% comes from shared attribution – or the standardized test data for growth across the building as a whole, and 14% comes from “Student Learning Objectives” (SLOs). For teachers in non-tested areas, 40% comes from SLOs and 10% comes from shared attribution.
Clear as mud, right?
To add to the complexity, no one knows how these growth measures – called “value-added scores” are calculated.
Ohio contracts with Battelle, a private company, to generate value-added data from standardized test results. They consider their formula “proprietary information,” and despite evidence that these scores are invalid, they remain in place. The only mathematical approximation I have seen as to what this formula might look like is this.
(Fortunately, because of the transition to new assessment tools, test data from the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years have been under what is known as “safe harbor,” meaning that for the given years, standardized test data has not been included in teacher evaluations.)
An additional piece to consider is that when the state counts the required number of tests, they fail to mention the requirements of Student Learning Objective assessments (SLOs). SLOs are another type of growth-measure assessment. Depending on the district, these may be vendor-purchased or teacher-created tests. The majority of teachers must give two SLOs as a required component of their annual evaluation. Each SLO requires a pre-test and a post-test. So for every teacher, this is a minimum of 4 more mandated assessments. To be fair, these tests are far less burdensome than the state tests, but think about a high school student who may take seven classes. This student could take up to 28 SLO tests – two pre tests and two post tests for each of seven teachers. Add the state tests, and final exams, and, at some grade levels, the ACT, PSAT, or SAT as well.
Are you getting the picture yet?
Nevertheless, there remains more to the story. Currently, each of the state tests has 2 sections. Students with identified disabilities often receive an extended time testing accommodation; this allows them to have up to an entire school day to complete each portion of the test. I want to be very clear that I think this is an important provision.
As a special educator, I teach my students best-practice testing strategies. I teach them to read the questions before reading the passage. I teach them to read and annotate the text of the passage before beginning to answer the questions. I teach them to look back at the text. I teach them to use elimination. I teach them not to rush. I teach them to go back and check over all their answers – more than once. All of these things take time, and I have had several students who literally take the entire day to complete a section of the test. I do not want to restrict them in this.
However, many schools have high percentages of special education students. At Gamble, 36% of our students have identified disabilities. When this many students have the right to use the entire day for a section of the test, this provision drives the testing schedule. It is not fair, nor feasible, to give two sections of a test in a day to the general education population, while only scheduling one a day (as legally required) for the special education population. Doing so would mean that special education students would test for twice as many days as general education students, and would therefore miss the instruction being provided on the extra days of testing. This slower-paced scheduling increases the number of days relegated to testing.
At the high school level, there is yet another issue to consider. Passage of the high school state tests is required for graduation (unless a student is on the newly created vocational “pathway,” which has a whole different set of testing requirements.) Therefore, students who have not passed sections of the test are expected to retake these tests three times a year (one is a summer testing) until they achieve proficiency.
Let me provide you with a real-world, worst-case scenario. I taught Bryce in junior high. He is a student with an identified learning disability. He struggles academically, but performs especially poorly in a testing situation.
Bryce is now a junior in high school, and he has not yet passed any of the required tests – ELA I, ELA II, Algebra I, Geometry (or Integrated Math I), Biology, or American History, and he is currently enrolled in American Government, which also has a required test. Each test has two sections. Extended time testing is written into Bryce’s IEP, so he must be provided with the option of using the entire day to complete each section of each test. He is a student who needs this extra time.
Were you counting? That’s 14 school days (or nearly three weeks) of testing.
These tests are scheduled by the state and district at the end of April and the beginning of May, as they should be since they are intended to assess the entire curriculum, and an earlier testing session would further truncate instructional time. However, in high school, students must also take final exams. In every class. Because of the timing of the school year, these final exams are administered immediately following the conclusion of the state testing. That is now 17 nearly-consecutive days of testing.
I have not yet mentioned that Bryce also had to take 6 of these state tests during the first round of retakes in December (Don’t forget – 2 sections for each test, so 12 days) and the ACT in April. Before SLOs are factored into the equation, Bryce will have spent 30 days – or nearly 6 weeks of the school year – taking tests.
This is not just a nightmare; this is Bryce’s current reality.
And it is madness. Ultimately, it’s not even about student learning. It’s about assessment of public teachers and of public schools.
The test results that we put so much stake in and spend so much time thinking about and preparing for, are of little use in instructing students.
Does this come as a surprise? Let me explain.
The preliminary test results are generally released over the summer, and final data is usually provided at some point in the fall. At this point, the students who took these tests have moved on – to a new grade, a new teacher, and a new curriculum. The tests they will take next will be focused on the expectations of the new curriculum, not the old one, so knowing a student’s scores from the prior year is only marginally beneficial for a teacher.
In addition, what does this data show? It may seem as if this question should have an obvious answer. They show what a student knows, and therefore, by extrapolation, they show how well a student has been taught. Right?
I question this assumption.
Any teacher will tell you that his or her test scores vary from year to year – often wildly. Are we really that erratic in our teaching practices?
The value-added measures can indicate huge gains – more than two years of academic growth in a year’s time. That sounds great, but, as an educator who has received scores like this, I am not convinced that this is realistic. In the same vein, value-added measures can indicate huge losses – more than 2 years of academic decline in a year’s time. How is this even remotely possible? How is it possible for a teacher to be so bad that she or he causes a student to LOSE two years of academic instruction, while simultaneously providing instruction for the entirety of a year?
This makes no sense.
Early this year, I learned that my teaching partner and I had the highest test scores in the building related to student comprehension of informational text. I was asked what we did to have such success – how could this be replicated throughout the building?
I had to laugh. What did we do? We heavily taught literary text. We focused less on informational text last year than we ever had before.
It wasn’t really intentional. We just didn’t have time for everything, and we had generally chosen literary text standards over informational ones that year. And yet our test scores for informational text standards were much higher than they were for literary text standards. Go figure.
So, I don’t have the greatest confidence in the reliability of testing data as an indicator of much of anything at all. Besides, if standardized tests tell us such important information, why aren’t private and parochial schools demanding these tests? Why aren’t our politicians demanding that the schools that many of their children attend be implementing these tools that measure student learning and teacher effectiveness? Don’t they want the best for their children? Don’t they want to be reassured that their child is learning? Don’t they want to know the quality of their children’s teachers?
No, they don’t. They don’t because standardized tests are not an effective tool for assessing these important things.
We put students in public schools through this wringer of testing for what? If it doesn’t tell us about kids, and it doesn’t tell us about instruction, and it doesn’t tell us about teachers, then why are we doing it? That remains unclear.
It seems as if nearly everyone has one or more teachers who had a profound influence on their growth and development. Who was yours? Think about this person – or these people. Try to identify what it was that made them so influential, so impactful on your life. What were the qualities they possessed that inspired or guided you?
So to answer Representative Fedor’s question: Has the state effectively included stakeholder feedback in the development of Ohio’s ESSA draft plan?
In a word, No.
Stakeholders clearly said, “Fewer tests.” The draft plan indicates no change in the number of tests.
Stakeholders clearly said, “Amend the teacher evaluation system.” The draft plan indicates no change to the teacher evaluation system.
Despite more than a year to develop it, the draft plan doesn’t look much different from what Ohio’s educational legislation looked like under No Child Left Behind. To be fair, in both of the sections of the draft plan that I have critiqued, there is indication that changes could come in the future. However, Ohio has had more than a year to develop this plan, why isn’t change evidenced there already?
As I stated to Representative Fedor, and to the Committee as a whole, I was shocked to see the stakeholder feedback so blatantly ignored in the draft document. As an educator I feel devalued, disheartened, and unsupported by the state of Ohio.
The system is backwards. We have politicians telling educators what to do to prove themselves, rather than educators informing politicians about what it is we need in order to teach children.
What we don’t need are standardized tests. Politicians believe that these tests tell us important things about education. Teachers know that they do not.
Education is a service industry. Unlike manufacturing, service industries work with human capital. Our students are our raw material, and they are each unique individuals. They each come to us at a different place, they each have different external factors at play, and they each approach instruction in a different way.
Their growth and development is as complex as they each are as individuals. To try and measure this in a standardized manner is folly.
The Ohio state legislature wanted to know if the Draft Plan was visionary. Oxford defines the word visionary as, “Thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.”
Is the Ohio draft plan visionary? No. But then neither is ESSA. To be visionary, we must walk away from the folly of this testing madness.
There is precedent for this.
Just twenty years ago, we had a different system. There was no such thing as high-stakes testing.
Many schools gave standardized tests as a means to compare their students to students around the country. But not in every grade and not every year. It was one piece of the educational puzzle. It provided teachers and schools with some small amount of insight into student learning. But that is all. There was no school report card. There were no punitive measures for teachers.
We must walk back from the precipice on which we are standing. In just two decades, politicians and the testing industry have whipped us into a testing frenzy driven by the notion that these tests provide an accurate measure of school success, and that this is an appropriate way to hold schools and teachers accountable.
It is not.
To be truly visionary, it is not enough to simply demand fewer tests. We must change the paradigm. We must create a new narrative.
How to do this is, of course, the ultimate question. Teachers and parents must band together. We must arm ourselves with data and evidence. We must keep speaking truth to power. We must speak up again and again and again. We must have courage.
Friends, Angels, and Superheroes, we are very thankful for your readership. For more than a year, and over 60 posts, we have provided research, personal stories, insights, and perspective on a broad range of educational topics. Some of you have patiently tolerated our musings, while others have eagerly read articles and passed them on to your friends. In one case, you have passed an article on to some 360,000+ other readers!
We are inspired by each of you. Krista once said that it was ridiculous for one of us to be named “Educator of the Year” because none of us are angels or superheroes. Instead, we are all hard-working, passionate individuals. Many of us spend our extra time and spare cash improving our school and the lives of those who enter it. It takes all of us.
So we want to hear from you. Please take 5 minutes (or less, depending on the length of comments you choose to make) to answer the questions at the link below. This will help us make Angels and Superheroes even better. Next week we return with a look at how to make conversations more productive in every setting, discussing the work of our friend Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202
Governor John Kasich
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6117
Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria Ohio Department of Education
25 South Front Street
Columbus, OH 43215-4183
Dear Secretary DeVos, Governor Kasich, and Superintendent DeMaria:
I write to each of you, in my position as a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools, to ask for your assistance. I include both federal and state politicians here, as in the past when I had the opportunity to address concerns to a member of the Federal Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under state control, but when, while working as part of a committee examining the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I addressed the same concerns to members of the State Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under federal control.
As a result, I invite all of you to engage in the conversation together in hope that rather than finger pointing, we can begin to seek solutions.
As we implement new education legislation, I ask that teachers be treated as the experts we are. That we are not just included in the conversation, but that we are leading it. The data demands it, and our children deserve it.
An Artificial Crisis
Politicians and the media have had a field day “exposing,” and attempting to address, what has been described as an educational crisis in America. I, too, believe that we are facing a crisis; however, unlike many in the school reform movement, I do not think that teachers and schools are at the root of this crisis. Rather I think it is the very reform efforts themselves – known generally as the “school accountability movement” — that has caused this concern.
I do not blame the Common Core State Standards. Many people conflate the Common Core State Standards with school accountability measures, but, to be clear, while there are some overlaps between these issues, the CCSS are not to blame in isolation for the challenges we are facing in education today. As a teacher, my personal opinion is that the jury is still out on CCSD, and will remain so until we have experienced several cohorts of students whose education has occurred entirely under CCSD. There are some who believe that this set of standards is not developmentally appropriate for students. This may be, but to be clear, the Standards themselves are merely goals to aim for. I am happy to have a high bar set for both my students and myself, as long as I am given time, support, and resources to attempt to meet that bar, and with the understanding that since students all start at different places, success lies in moving them toward the goal.
The standards are not the problem. The problem is the methodology being used to monitor them.
A Look at the Data
There is a body of information indicating that the supposed “crisis” in American Education has been misreported, and that this myth has been supported and sustained by a repeated skewing of the reported data.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national database that has tracked student progress in reading and math since the early 1970s. It is given to students at ages 9, 13, and 17, and the tests have been carefully monitored for consistency over the course of nearly 40 years. The results of this data indicate that reading and math scores have remained fairly static from year to year, with both increasing somewhat over time. For example, the 2012 data indicated that for thirteen year olds, the average reading scores increased by 8 raw points and average math scores increased by 21 raw points, since the first data reported in 1978.
This does not look like a crisis at all. The “educational crisis” hysteria has seemed to predominantly come from information comparing United States’ educational data with that from other countries.
Whenever we compare educational outcomes, we must be careful to monitor for external factors – for example, when comparing data internationally, we must take into account that the United States educates and assesses all students until the age of 18; whereas some other countries place students in various forms of tracked models and do not include all of these groups in their testing.
Additionally, the United States has a very high child poverty rate. The 2012 UNICEF report listed The United States’ child poverty rate as 34th out of 35 “economically advanced” countries, with only Romania scoring lower.
We know that poverty impacts academic achievement, and this must be taken into account when comparing U.S. scores internationally. For example, when the oft-cited data from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) is disaggregated based on economic status, we can see a trend that clearly indicates that the problem is poverty, rather than instruction.
United States’ schools with fewer than 10% of students living in poverty score higher than any country in the world. Schools with student poverty rates that are less than 24.9% rank 3rd in the world, and schools with poverty rates ranging from 25% to 49.9% rank 10th in the world. However, schools with 50% to 74.9% poverty rates rank much lower – fifth from the bottom. Tragically, schools with 75% or higher poverty rates rank lower in reading scores than any country except Mexico.
Couple this with the 2013 data that indicates that a majority (51%) of public school students live in poverty in this country, and we see the true depth of the actual crisis of poverty, and its impact on education.
A Crisis of Poverty
Schools with the lowest rates of student achievement are typically those with the highest number of disadvantaged students and the fewest available resources. The problem runs deeper than just funding, however. Children living in poverty often have a specialized set of social-emotional and academic needs. Schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students cannot be treated in the same manner as more affluent schools.
Education is neither a business nor is it a factory. We do not start with identical raw materials, and act upon them in a systematic way to produce an identical product. In the same vein, we cannot judge instructional efficacy in a single manner, with a single measure, and expect to get a consistent result. Teaching is a service industry, and we work with human capital. There are myriad factors at play that influence what appropriate expectations are for any given student, but poverty is likely the most impactful of these factors.
Children living in poverty are more likely to be coping with what has been labeled “toxic stress”– caused by a high number of identified adverse childhood events. Factors such as death or incarceration of a parent, addiction, mental illness, and abuse, among other things, have been labeled as adverse childhood events. Poverty, itself, is considered to be a type of sustained adverse childhood experience, and it also is a correlate factor, since living in poverty increases the likelihood of experiencing other adverse childhood events.
We know that these types of severe and chronic stress lead to long-term changes in children’s mental and physical development, and that this directly impacts their performance in school. “On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers. On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions …, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.”
We know that children living in poverty face greater academic challenges than their middle and upper class counterparts, and yet, instead of helping this situation, the school accountability movement has chosen to vilify the wrong thing (teachers and schools), and has used standardized test scores as the weapon of choice to add insult to injury.
A Moving Target
In Ohio, there have been so many moving pieces at play that it is impossible to get a statistically valid measure. Over the course of the past three years, schools, teachers, and students have had their performance assessed using a different measurement tool each year. The 2013-2014 school year was the final year for assessment using the old Ohio State Standards and the Ohio Achievement Assessments. In the 2014-2015 school year, we switched to a combination of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and American Institute of Research (AIR) assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. Due to the legislation passed which illegalized PARCC administration in the state of Ohio, in the 2015-2016 school year, we administered AIR tests for the full battery of testing. During those same years, Ohio increased the number of grades and subjects areas tested.
In addition to these changes, the identified percentage of correct responses for proficiency on each test has changed each year, and the percentage of students scoring proficient in order to schools to be considered successful in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has also increased each year.
So, the standards have changed, the tests have changed, the acceptable percent of correct responses has changed, the required percentage of students achieving proficiency has changed.
It is, therefore, not surprising that scores have remained anything but static. For the 2012-2013 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools was rated as being in “Continuous Improvement,” while the school where I teach was deemed “Excellent.” For the 2015-2016 school year, the Cincinnati Public Schools received four ratings of “F” and 2 ratings of “D,” while the school where I teach received 3 “F” ratings and 2 D ratings. (As a high school program, we are not rated in the area of K-3 Literacy.)
There are only two ways to interpret this. Either, over the course of three years, the quality of instruction has declined precipitously (across a district of nearly 3,000 teachers), or the data is invalid. The former assumption is nonsensical; the latter is terrifying based on the weight this data carries when making educational decisions.
Teacher performance evaluations are linked to test scores, School and district report cards are based almost exclusively on test scores, and, student graduation is based on test scores. But if the tools keep changing and the target keeps moving, how is it even remotely possible to measure improvement?
This concern is compounded by the subjectivity of the scores determined for proficiency – the cut scores are neither norm-referenced nor consistent from year to year.
For the 2015-2016 testing, in reading and math, across all grade levels, the percentage of students projected to score proficient or above ranged from 52-66%. This means that even on tests where students were “most likely to pass,” it was anticipated that only 66% of students would do so, and for other tests this was as low as 52%. For many tests, the reality was significantly worse. Only 21% of students taking Integrated Mathematics (Math 2) across the state were deemed proficient or above, and only 24% of students taking the Geometry test scored proficient or above. This is an awfully broad-scale problem to make the assumption that the issue of concern lies with students and teachers, rather than with the testing itself and with the structure of the system of accountability.
And once again, we see that poverty plays a role in these outcomes. For the 2015-2016 school year, 94% of urban schools in Ohio received ratings of D or F. Because of school accountability, and the high-stakes nature of the tests, scores like these cause the testing pressure to ratchet up. Low scores necessarily result in greater time and resources being spent solely to improve these scores. Some call this “test preparation;” others call it “teaching to the test.” Testing and school accountability result in too much time spent on testing, and on teaching curriculum that loses much of the flexible, creative, engaging, and in-depth instruction that keeps students engaged in learning and educators engaged in teaching. As one former urban school principal, concerned about the state report card, said during a faculty meeting when a teacher dared question how testing was detracting from her carefully crafted curriculum, “The test IS the curriculum! What are you, STUPID?!?!”
An Unavoidable Outcome
In 2013, the American Federation of Teachers reported that in heavily tested grades, up to fifty hours a year was spent on testing and up to 110 hours a year devoted to test preparation. Schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students bear the greatest weight for this, as they tend to have the greatest required gains in testing outcomes. The Center for American Progress notes that students in urban high schools spend up to 266% more time taking standardized tests than students in suburban schools.
And this is the fundamental problem with school accountability measures. They have caused the American public school system to become overly focused on a single measurement of success, and that measure is most punitive to populations that are already struggling.
Standardized test data is one measure of academic achievement, and as such it is valuable, but it is nothing more than a single data point. However, this data point has become so important that it is driving every other aspect of the educational train.
I want that data point – I want it for each of my students individually, and I want it for my class collectively – because it tells me something. But it doesn’t tell me everything, and we are treating it as if it does. How can the snapshot of a test score – given on a certain day, in a certain amount of time, with a specific type of questioning – tell me more than what I know as a result of working with my students hour after hour, day after day, for 40 weeks? It can’t, of course.
A Teacher’s Plea
Teachers are professionals, and we should be treated as such.
We are required to hold, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree in teaching one or more subject areas; we also must complete significant amounts of additional training every year, and, at least in Ohio, to submit this to the state for re-licensure every five years. Most importantly, teachers are highly practiced in assessment and interpretation of results through our daily work with students and our careful observation of, and reflection on, student learning .
Education is complicated. Student growth is broad and deep, and sometimes happens in fits and starts and other times grows slowly and consistently. This complex process could never be adequately measured by a series of tests.
I know my students. I know when I am moving too quickly or too slowly, and I know when they are succeeding and when they are struggling. To assume that the state can determine this, and can make judgments on the effectiveness of my instruction based solely on a single measure is folly – especially when we know that students in poverty, the teachers who educate them, and the schools that serve them, will be judged most harshly by these measures. In fact, standardized test scores may tell us very little about a teachers’ impact or a students’ future success.
As Paul Tough writes, “A few years ago, a young economist at Northwestern University named C. Kirabo Jackson began investigating how to measure educators’ effectiveness. In many school systems these days, teachers are assessed based primarily on one data point: the standardized-test scores of their students. Jackson suspected that the true impact teachers had on their students was more complicated than a single test score could reveal… He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability. Jackson’s new index measured how engaged students were in school – Whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this was, remarkably, a better predictor than student’s test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.”
School Accountability measures with their fundamental focus on testing reduces teachers’ ability to focus on nurturing students’ “noncognitive ability,” and this is damaging to students and teachers alike — perhaps irrevocably damaging.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is moving us in the right direction by removing the requirement that teacher evaluations be linked to standardized test outcomes, but it doesn’t go far enough, and it leaves the window open for states to continue this practice.
As a nation, we must move away from our obsession with testing outcomes. The only group that is profiting from this is the testing industry. And with 1.7 billion dollars being spent by states annually on testing, they are, quite literally, profiting, and at the tax payers’ expense.
The most critical solution to this is to untie student, teacher, and school accountability measures from testing outcomes, or to combine these scores with a variety of other measures of success. In addition, we need to dramatically reduce the time spent on testing by requiring tests in fewer grades, or not administering tests every year. No high-performing nation in the world tests all students annually.
An Expert Opinion
We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis.
Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it.
We must not go further down this rabbit hole. The future of our educational system, and the future of our children, is at stake. No one who has not worked in the sector of public education should be making decisions about our school system without careful consideration of the insights of those who will be directly impacted by those decisions.
As we move forward with a new federal administration, and as the state of Ohio makes decisions relative to implementation of ESSA, I beg you to not just include teachers and parents in the discussion, but to ensure that we are the loudest voices in the conversation.
I hope that you will consider the issues raised here, and most importantly, that you will listen to the voices of the teachers and parents who are trying so desperately to be heard.
Thank you for your time. I am happy to engage in the conversation further; feel free to contact me at email@example.com
Kristina L. Taylor
Intervention Specialist; Team Leader
James N. Gamble Montessori High School
2015 Educator of the Year
 “LTT – Select Criteria.” LTT – Select Criteria. National Center for Education Statistics, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Adamson, Peter. Measuring Child Poverty: New League Tables of Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2012. Web.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: Leading Determinants of Health.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2014): 1-5. American Academy of Pediactrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 3.
 Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell The Plain. “Scores on Ohio’s High School Math Tests Much Lower than Expected, Sparking Debate over Graduation Requirements.” Cleveland.com. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 03 June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 9.
 Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
 @dianeravitch. “No High-Performing Nation in the World Tests Every Student Every Year.”Diane Ravitch’s Blog. N.p., 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
(*While in general, this is not a political blog, the impact of this election runs deeper than mere politics. It has affected me as both a teacher and as an individual. I share my thoughts here with the understanding that they exclusively reflect my personal experience, and not necessarily that of teachers in general. If you are looking specifically for strategies to implement in your classroom related to the election, I recommend Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog post After the Election: A To Do List )
It was 8:35 am on November 9th, and the bell had just rung to release students to classrooms as I was frantically wiping the tears off my face.
“What are we going to say to them?” I desperately asked Beau, my teaching partner.
He just looked at me blankly and shook his head.
The shock hadn’t yet worn off. A mere 24 hours earlier, I was delightfully ensconced in a ballot box with my daughter, giggling joyfully while filling in the box next to the words “For President: Hillary Clinton.” I had tears on my face then, too, but those were tears of a different kind.
My entire family had stayed up late to watch the election returns come in. I wanted my children to be part of this incredible moment in history. Earlier that day, my in-laws, who live in Rochester, New York, had attempted to pay their respects at Susan B. Anthony’s grave, only to discover that the line to do so was more than an hour long. There were so many celebrants who wanted to honor the journey for equal political rights that began in 1921 with the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. In no small part as a direct result of the passion and courage of Ms. Anthony, tonight that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” would finally be shattered as America elected our first female president.
Our historic moment, however, was not to be. As the night wore on, and one state after another turned red, the celebration that had seemed so certain grew increasingly dim. By the time I went to bed after 1 am, the results were clear. My husband tried to talk to me, to offer consolation, but I was beyond words. I simply couldn’t understand how this was happening.
The next morning, I didn’t know what to say to my children. What could I possibly say to my 16 year old daughter, whose greatest dream is to become an international diplomat, who campaigned door to door for Hillary, and who had tears in her eyes as my husband told her that Donald Trump had won the presidency.
What could I possibly say to my 12 year old son, who struggles to handle disappointment of any kind, and who turned rageful eyes on his father upon hearing the news.
How could I explain that our country had just elected a man to the highest office in the land who ridiculed people with disabilities, spoke of women by noting that he could just “grab them by the pussy,” and discussed without compassion the deportation of Mexicans and the building of a physical wall between us and our nearest neighbor?
I didn’t know what to say to the children at my breakfast table, and I didn’t have any greater clarity about what to say to the children in my classroom.
Somehow I got myself to work. I was in complete shock. I still had no words. As I walked into the classroom Beau and I share, he took one look at my face, and gave me a big hug. That did it. I was immediately overcome with sobs.
And then the students arrived, and I had to wipe the tears from my face and pull myself together.
The mood in the classroom was subdued. We opened by showing the day’s clip from CNN Student News, an unbiased reporting of the results of the night before.
Upon its conclusion, Beau looked at me and said, “You say things now.” This is our cue that means, “I need you to handle this.”
My mind was spinning. I knew I needed to be as unbiased as possible, but I also knew that I needed to be honest. And I knew that my students would need my guidance. How could I manage to cover all those things? I fell back on what I know to be true in all challenging discussions with children – ask them what they need to know.
So I said, “What questions do you have?”
Their responses nearly broke my heart.
In each of my classes, I had an African-American male student raise a sheepish hand. When called upon, they each said very nearly the exact same thing. “This is probably a stupid question, but . . . is it true that he’s going to make all the Black people go back to Africa?”
The relief was palpable at my response, “No, that isn’t true.”
This question was born out of misinformation, but it comes from a fear of sending people back to where they came from, and that concern is real and valid. It wasn’t just the students in my room who were worried about this. Many other teachers reported the same question being raised by their own students.
And there were so many other fear-based questions:
“Can President Trump call for a ‘purge?’”
“Is he really going to build a wall?”
“Is it true that he made fun of people with disabilities?”
“Is he going to start World War III?”
“Do they really have to give him the nuclear codes?”
“Can he be impeached?”
“What about assassinated?”
I defended our political system as best as I was able. I reminded my students about the system of checks and balances, the three branches of government, and the limited powers of the commander-in-chief.
I asked them if they had ever said anything in anger, frustration, or without thinking. In response, I got a resounding, “yes.” I told them that while I was deeply bothered by some of President-Elect Trump’s statements, I wanted to believe that his words could have happened in this same way. I told them that doesn’t make it right, but it could help to make it understandable.
I told them that presidents don’t act alone and that we have many people in Washington who will be advising President-Elect Trump, and that as he learns more and is influenced by others, he may have different views. I told them that impeachment is a very serious thing and would require that he act in a way that violated the law while in office. I told them that assassination is a terrible tragedy for any country and something that would not even be entertained in our classrooms.
I reminded them that nothing would change in what we do in our classroom, or in our school, where we uphold the concept that “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
And I told them that I was having a really hard time understanding this outcome and what it means.
More than anything, I needed my daughter to hear Hillary’s incredibly gracious and inspiring words telling her that this election didn’t have bearing on the goals that she had for herself.
Even if I didn’t believe it myself.
In quelling the fears of my students — and in many ways I felt like a liar in doing so — I found anger. Anger at a society who would elect a man whose words made them feel so afraid. Anger at the, perhaps unintentional, legitimization of a movement that calls itself the alt-right – verbiage that we can’t allow to distract us from the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist message it purports– this shameful bastard child of White America.
How do we begin to confront and silence that hate? What do we do about that? How can anyone make an impact against that?
He writes, “We need to get over it so we can get on with it — the never-ending work of embodying and enacting love, truth, and justice. There is real suffering out there among people who can’t get over it, and we need to stand and act with them… These are big and daunting problems. But as I move toward them, I’m inspired by David Whyte’s poem, ‘Start Close In.’ It reminds me that when I try to start big, it’s probably because I’m seeking an excuse to get out of doing anything. The big stuff is beyond my reach, at least at the moment. But if I start close in, I’ll find things I can do right now,”
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
the step you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
the step you don’t want to take.
Start close in.
This was the same conclusion that I had reached through the course of my post-election day grief, and that evening I came home with new resolve.
I finally had the words to speak to my own children. I told them that our work would be in speaking up for those at risk. That as white people of privilege, we had a moral responsibility to speak up against injustice wherever we saw it . . . in words, in deeds, and in wallet. To stand in the way.
When my son asked me what I meant, I was able to powerfully clarify for him. Stephen was one of my students who asked about being sent back to Africa. Evan and Stephen had been in the same 6th grade class together last year. My voice broke when I said, “Stephen thought that because Trump was elected, he might have to go back to Africa. We must not allow anyone to ever feel like they are unwanted, or that they do not belong here. We must stand in the way any time, and every time, we see something that might make people feel that way.”
So that has been my way forward. To stand in the way.
In post-election America, we are being called upon by some to come together, to accept the results and move-on.
I don’t agree. I’m willing to accept the results, and while I respect the rights of those who are demonstrating against the election results or calling for “faithless electors,” this is not where I stand. Donald Trump won this election; we have no evidence that it was “rigged.” However, I also think it is a mistake to meekly accept this as our “new reality,” or as some kind of “fresh start.”
We must be vigilant. We must be prepared to stand in the way.
But what does that look like?
What does it sound like?
I was quickly provided an opportunity to practice.
Just a few days after the election, my husband was upset about a comment made on a friend’s Facebook post by someone we don’t know. This is what it said: “no more apologizing for being born white in America” Blake was bothered that our friend hadn’t directly responded to it. He told me he was considering “unfriending” this person, so he didn’t have to see any more comments like that. I said, “You can’t do that. Vulnerable people can unfriend others for hurtful and offensive comments, but those of us with privilege carry the responsibility of confrontation, of engaging in the conversation.”
He thought about this for a moment, and then said, “Okay, that’s great. So why don’t you? You’re friends with him, too.”
Yes. Right. That.
I took a deep breath, and wrote this in response to the comment:
“I don’t know you, but I do know that being born white in America automatically brings with it a certain level of privilege, and I find it hard to believe that anyone is in a real (not just perceived) situation where they feel the need to apologize for their whiteness. There are, of course, many forms of privilege. I don’t know how many of the categories of privilege apply to you, but I ask you to self-reflect on that. I, too, am over-all a person of privilege. However, I teach in an urban, public school and my students are predominantly African-American and often living below the poverty level. It’s not easy work, but I love what I do, and, more importantly, I love them. As a person of privilege, I stand with them, and I am committed to speaking up on their behalf wherever it seems necessary.”
I received a lengthy reply that, among other things, included many comments about perceived discrimination against white people, “WE ARE SHAMED by being born here and not black or wear a turban. that’s racism and “white shaming” It wont be tolerated anymore we now can stand up and demand equality.”
Instead of turning away, I continued to engage.
Our exchange was quite lengthy, and I do not think that I changed this man’s mind, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to challenge his thinking and his assumptions, and to push back publicly against the notion that these ideas are acceptable or common.
I think there is a great temptation during times of distress to circle the wagons – to insulate ourselves within our classrooms and communities and focus on that which is directly in front of us. This is understandable, self-protective behavior, but history has shown us the incredible risk in isolating ourselves from “the other,” and the dangerous de-humanizing that often comes with other-ness. If nothing else, this election has shown us how fragmented we are as a society, and it has left me contemplating the role of teachers. Teaching is an art, and we have been gifted with it. We know how to convey information. And, perhaps, more importantly, many of us walk pretty fluidly between two worlds – the world of privilege and the world without it. This provides us with a unique opportunity to tell our stories, and in so doing to shine a light that banishes the distance from “the other.”
Perhaps the best outcome of my conversation with a complete stranger on Facebook was the heart-felt discussion it prompted with a dear friend. He and his wife were uncomfortable about critical comments they had received from others. They had seen parts of my above exchange on social media and, as a result, involved me in dialogue about the election.
This was hard. David is my husband’s oldest childhood friend. His wife and I have spent many hours exploring best parenting practices. I witnessed the births of all three of his children. He voted for Donald Trump.
Mostly I just wanted to yell at him, “How could you?!” But what good would that do? He knows how I feel about politics. I know how he feels.
But my students are afraid.
Of course David didn’t intend for my students to be frightened by the election of Donald Trump, but it is the reality of the situation. How could I continue to look my students in the eye if I didn’t engage in this conversation? Better yet, how could I work together with those who cast a ballot for Trump to address what makes my students feel afraid – no matter how uncomfortable it makes me?
This is what it means to “start close in.”
David, Let’s start with what’s most important. I love you and your family. Now moving on, I disagree entirely with your political beliefs and values. We don’t have to talk about that right now. But here’s what we do have to talk about right now. The only way that I can live with these election results and still face my children, and more importantly, my students – for it is they who are most at risk — is to commit myself wholeheartedly to speaking out against prejudice and injustice. But here’s the thing. To conservatives, I can be readily discounted as just another hippie liberal. Guilty as charged. You cannot. All I ask is for you to stand with me on this. Your voice matters more than mine because as a supporter, you have far more sway than I do. I invite you to publicly speak against those that are engaging in hateful actions. everywhere it pops up — which is a thing that is happening. I invite you to pledge to do whatever you can to ensure that women are treated with respect and as equally capable as men, to take care of immigrants to this country who are law-abiding, to refuse to accept the ridicule of people with disabilities, to protect people of color from being stereotyped and judged, to support those who have less than you do. I know you’re hurting from the criticism of those who don’t understand your choice — believe me, I am hurting, too. But there are places where we can come together.
And his response:
Hey K. I love you and your family too. As to your invitation, I of course hold it important to defend against those things. For now, I just want people to understand that whether they agree with my choice, it doesn’t mean I was careless or heartless or in any way less conscientious as they were with my decision. If I could put Jed Bartlett into Trump, I would. I wasn’t given that choice. And as scared as you are of someday watching tanks rolling down Fifth Avenue and gathering up minorities (imagery), I have my own concerns that are built on more than just a little thought, research, and soul searching. I want you to know that I hear you. I don’t think you’re calling me names. I don’t think you’ve found a way to reconcile my choice with being a good person either, but I don’t think you’re calling me names. I respect you, in some ways uniquely so. Believe that. But I don’t interpret all these events the way you do. Love, Me.
David’s words were what I needed to hear to know that while we see things very differently, we still share much of the same heart, and that while he made an election day choice that I will likely never fully understand, he, personally, hadn’t, and wouldn’t, betray the values that were critical to both of our families.
This is “starting close in” . . . and standing in the way.
It is uncomfortable, but as Bryan Stevenson says in his powerful video, “Confronting Injustice,” we must be willing to “get uncomfortable.” Remembering the fear on my students’ faces gives me courage. Their questions were, in many ways, naïve, but they were not baseless. My students are afraid because scary things have been said. We do not yet know exactly where this election will lead, but we do know that it has given a newfound boldness to hate. Since Donald Trump won the Presidential election, there has been a dramatic rise in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that there were more than 700 incidents of intimidation between the election, on November 8th, and November 16th, targeting blacks and other people of color, Muslims, immigrants, the L.G.B.T. community, and women.
So, as each of us figures out what this election ultimately means for us, for those close to us, for those different from us, for our country, let’s remember to “start close in” by engaging with each other and having those difficult conversations in all areas of our lives. We must also be prepared to stand in the way whenever necessary. My students, their families, and so many others like them, deserve this from us.
 Yan, Holly, Kristina Sgueglia, and Kylie Walker. “‘Make America White Again’: Hate Speech and Crimes Post-election.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.
It was a cold fall afternoon on the loading dock at Hughes Center High School in Cincinnati. We stood on a platform of concrete several feet above oil-stained pavement, bracketed by two scraped and dented yellow metal poles. I was a beginning teacher in an urban high school, skinny and white, dressed just a bit more formally than everyone around me to avoid accusations of being a student. I was looking everywhere for someone to mentor me. My current target, we will call her Roberta, was contemplatively smoking a cigarette, her black fingers flicking ash absently toward me, her other hand pinching shut the top of her jacket, which was cinched tightly around her waist. I stood shivering next to her.
We were discussing a text we had read by a black author and with a black protagonist. More accurately, I was asking questions about aspects of black culture that had arisen, and she was providing monosyllabic answers. I don’t remember the details of my questions. I am sure that they were misdirected, however well-intentioned they may have been. Perhaps they were insulting. I do not remember many of her responses, save one. The one with which she dismissed me, forever: “You can never understand,” she asserted. “You will never understand.”
I was stung. I believed then – as I believe now – in the power of the written word to convey the human experience. That is the magic and the lure of reading and writing. The Holy Grail I sought in every book I opened was that I would, upon conclusion, be able to honestly say about the author, “I know how she feels.” I was incensed that she believed I was incapable of understanding, or that even well-chosen words were incapable of conveying these truths. I invoked Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston and Alice Walker, and I held them up to Roberta. “Are you really arguing that these authors are incapable of expressing their perspective? These women, among the greatest authors of our time, are unable to explain the black experience?” I argued incredulously. Roberta looked at her watch, dropped her cigarette butt on the dock and ground out its flame with a twist of her foot. A cloud of cigarette smoke and the fleeting wave of her fingers underlined her dismissal as she briskly walked to the door.
I had started my intentional search to learn about others who were different from me years earlier while still in college. That is where I learned the transformative power of reading and writing. Under the tutelage of John Edgar Tidwell at Miami University, I was exposed to experiences of African American people who intrigued and fascinated me. I saw heroes and saints and villains and sinners. I experienced a range of lyricism and storytelling that matched what I had read from a canon of mostly white authors in the Anglo-Saxon tradition at Ashland High School. Ashland, Ohio is a rural town in north central Ohio, predominantly white, and at the time the largest minority population were a handful of first and second-generation families from India. Almost exclusively, my reading featured white male authors writing in the English language, with an occasional nod to other cultures. (Although it was there that I composed my first stanzas to my first song, an imagined additional two stanzas to Langston Hughes’ poem “Hold Fast to Dreams.”)
Somehow in that limited range, I nonetheless had come to believe in the power of literature to reveal a new world and convey it entirely. At Miami University I awkwardly bumped into the edges of that world, calling home almost breathlessly one morning to tell my mom I had seen seven black students sitting at a table together. I had never seen such a gathering. I believed I was in the heart of diversity. I still clung to my mother’s teachings about race, which was the simple mantra that we are all the same.
I had much to learn.
Some of what I learned over time was that my reading had taught me seemingly nothing. For just as Dylan Thomas’ poem cannot prepare you for the death of a parent, The Color Purple does not prepare you to teach in a predominately African-American school. So I asked questions. I paid attention. I was exceedingly polite. I learned about code-switching and ciphering and I learned to admit my earnest desire to do right by others.
Nearing the end of my college experience, still four years away from being dismissed on the Hughes Center loading dock, I was assigned to observe a teacher and then do my student teaching at Western Hills High School in Cincinnati.
It was here, at West High, that I had a chance to experience life in a predominantly black school. The things I had read about were all there: the passion for learning, the aching poverty, the respect for educators, the ciphers, the storytellers, the Anansis. A depth, a resonance was added to my reading and, more importantly, to my understanding. But I had so many questions, and much more to learn.
It was also here that I learned about another minority group – white Appalachians. A decade later I would encounter Other People’s Words and The Education of Little Tree , meeting a group of people very conscious of how they were viewed by others, and quick to engage formally educated folks such as myself in conversation so they could “take me down a peg.” I proved adept at beating them to it, by insulting myself while proving my success, and quickly fit in.
Twenty years later I would be a veteran principal at a predominantly black urban Montessori high school just over a mile away from my home. In between I learned that one must read about every issue from multiple perspectives. I read Gandhi and Orwell to learn about Indian culture and to question a Eurocentric view of conquest and authority. I read Philip Roth and Elie Wiesel and learned about a Jewish culture not created by the Holocaust but forever haunted by it. I read the words of Chief Joseph which permanently dispelled any notion I may have held that Native Americans had been somehow less noble or brave than those who drove them from the lands that contained their entire history. Alone, reading is not enough, of course. One must take this information and apply it in interactions with others.
Cincinnati Public Schools house students from countless countries who speak over 60 different languages. In Gamble Montessori alone there are first and second generation Americans from over a dozen different countries on multiple continents.
The opportunities for mistakes are many.
How does one create a classroom and a school community that is racially and culturally responsive where there are so many cultures? How does one find the space and time to teach about all of this? How does any person ever come to understand a culture that is different from their own?
I can start by revealing there are two wrong answers. The first wrong answer is to impose one culture on everyone, using the term ‘melting pot’ to suggest that ultimately all that will separate us is a middle name revealing a secret ancestry. The second, equally misdirected wrong answer, is to try to eliminate any vestige of culture at all. Both are equally impossible, and both rob us of the great gift of experiencing new cultures. My mom was partially right: in some ways we are all very much the same. However, it is our differences as much as our similarities that make us more than merely the object of curiosity, but which extend us to a greater sense of what it means to be human, and to challenge our concept of equality. Culture infuses every action, rule, and conversation in the classroom. Your culture, and your students’ cultures, will seep through no matter what you do. So instead of pretending they don’t exist, they should be learned about and celebrated.
Here are some ways we have found to create a place where students are welcome and appreciated for who they are:
Get to know your students.
Go to your students’ sporting events or concerts at school.
Personally call to invite their parents to Open House and Student-Led Conference nights (you do student-led conferences, right?)
Allow students to choose what they research for assignments.
Ask questions about their interests, perhaps using a start-of-the-year survey, and then follow up.
Go to other sporting events or religious events where they will be performing or working, or visit them at work.
Learn about other cultures, individually and as a class.
Read books or articles by or about people from other countries and groups, especially those represented in your classroom.
Intentionally diversify readings and experiences, perhaps by asking “What cultures and countries are you interested in learning about?”
Work cultural and ethnic studies into your thematic lessons.
Standardize and teach the rules of grace and courtesy in your classroom – this softens the edges and creates space for being gentle when we make mistakes
Expect polite language for even common interactions.
Practice what to do in common classroom situations: someone gets angry and storms out, someone drops something fragile or loud, two students bump into each other, two students disagree on an important issue, a class divides over a thorny topic, etc.
Provide a place or a time for students to talk to you individually to address concerns about something that happened.
Teach students how to mediate their own differences, and include the practice of stating the other person’s position.
Keep reading books and articles about culturally responsive practices and apply what you learn.
I don’t claim to have gotten it all right. I have certainly made mistakes. I have, unfortunately, said things that were offensive in the moment or in hindsight. When these setbacks happen, the best thing, generally, is to acknowledge them and own them, and offer to try and make it right. Ultimately the best approach is to get to know each person individually, and try to meet them where they are.
Last year, one of our seniors had organized a walk through the neighborhood to raise awareness about abusive relationships. The group of twenty or so walkers who had gathered was comprised almost entirely of African Americans, students, and family members. We were milling around in the lobby, talking to each other as we waited for the signal to begin. I recognized a former student in the group and, as I spoke to him, my stomach growled. I had postponed lunch because I knew my senior had planned a lunch with green beans, mashed potatoes, wings, and my personal favorite: fried chicken.
I was about to make a big mistake as a white guy standing in a crowd of blacks. I asked my former student, “Tell the truth: you’re here for the fried chicken, aren’t you?”
As if hitting a switch, the group got noticeably quieter. I realized what I had done. I had just blurted out a stereotype of black Americans. I owned it. “Oh my God. That sounded really racist, didn’t it?” As he started to nod, and say, “Yes it really did,” I added, “I just said that because I, myself, am here mostly for the fried chicken, I hear her mom can really cook.”
From behind me a voice said, “She can cook, but it was MY recipe. And you can have two pieces.” There was laughter. A reprieve. Another lesson learned.
Events of the past two weeks have shocked the nation. Videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been widely spread, and even more widely discussed and debated. The shooting of 11 Dallas police officers, leaving 5 dead, while they escorted a Black Lives Matter march, created a national crisis. Then a truck ran into a large crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. And Sunday morning’s news brought the deaths of 3 more police officers in Baton Rouge. … Or perhaps you are reading this article after these events have faded; in that case you can likely fill in your own tragic “news of the week” that has created a comparable feeling of anxiety and dread.
Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear.
Our children arrive at school with questions and concerns. They have seen horrific images. They have heard of deaths and worse. Perhaps their parents have shielded them from it, and they’ve learned about it in the halls, or perhaps their parents have involved them in the discussion, have added on their own fears and conjecture. We know that when the world of safety and well-being is at risk, our bodies produce adrenaline, and we are unable to master even short-term memory tasks, let alone take on the deep learning demanded today. Our students, less familiar with the news and thus less able to deal with the experience of the stress reaction, are even less capable of dealing with it. They cannot just “forget about it” or even push it to the side for too long.
What do you do when you can’t ignore it, and an outside tragedy simply has to be addressed in your classroom? There are a series of questions to guide you through the process of addressing fears, whether it is the questioning of a single child or a group of wary adults. Through the lens of these four questions, we can start to address the difficult work of talking about tragedy. For the purpose of unification of the article, the Philando Castile shooting will remain the primary (though not the only) example throughout.
What do you know?
With younger children, “What do you know?” is an obvious first question. (It is especially handy when you suspect there is a “birds and bees” question coming. Often, “what do you know” lets you start a couple levels easier than you thought!) This gives you a chance to assess what the student(s) know, and to determine what, if any, misconceptions they may have about the situation. The same is true for our adolescents and even adults engaging in a conversation. Asking “what do you know” is a great start to any discussion, because it grounds it in facts.
The teacher is a helpful guide in this conversation, and she must be diligent in her attention to details. It is important that there is precision in language, and that the individuals involved are spoken about respectfully. For example, if discussing the shooting of Philando Castile, our conventions of discussion would dictate that we refer to him as Mr. Castile, and to the officer involved as Officer Yanez. Later we might need to look up the names of Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, and the other officer involved to facilitate the conversation. We might point out that news agencies would be unlikely to publish the young girl’s name, because she is a minor and responsible media generally respect the right of privacy for minors. These conventions of manners and civility retain the dignity of those who are being discussed, and thus uphold our own classroom values. We can establish the city in which the event occurred, the date and time, and other factual information.
Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring. The knowledge that an effort is being made to be objective and to get things right helps calm our students. Refusing to use loaded language such as “resisting” or “assassination”, with the explanation that these words are characterization rather than facts, will keep the conversation in a more rational spot. It can also create order and reason among students who, especially in a case such as this, may have very different and strongly emotional interpretations of the significance of the event.
What do you fear?
This is an important second question, and the one that most clearly allows you to address the fears of the individual students. By asking this question, you will get to peek inside their minds, in a sense, and find out what drives their strong reaction. Using the example above, a student might express a fear that their own father or uncle might be at risk, and you might learn that their concern stems from that individual being a black man, or an officer, or both … or neither.
The fears of children can be outsized and, in our minds, irrational. However, dismissing their concerns out-of-hand is not reassuring. In their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish remind us that in order to stay in good communication with our children, at any age, we must first accept their viewpoint as valid. If a child expresses a fear that police will go around shooting more and more people, the teacher must resist the urge to laugh or mock this viewpoint. “That’s ridiculous, you don’t have to worry about that,” might seal the deal for an adult, but it is not reassuring to a child. In fact, it will likely damage their trust in you, and make it less likely that they will open up to you in the future, since they will then know their viewpoint will not be seen as valid.
Instead, if a fear seems outsized or irrational, it should be treated with respect, and revisited with examples and gentle questions. “Why do you worry about that?” is a good follow-up question. This might elicit a specific incident in the child’s past that opens up a related set of fears. Or, it might prompt the child to self-examine. In this questioning, the student himself might note that although he saw this one video, that in fact he knows several adults who have stories about being pulled over and this has not happened to them. The teacher might provide other related facts, perhaps about the number of traffic stops daily that pass without incident, or an investigation of what draws people to become a police officer. The desire to help others, which is a common answer to that question, does not correlate well with an eagerness to shoot others.
The teacher must guard herself against personalizing the issue. It is a powerful human tendency to treat our personal experience as if it is proof of something true when, at best, it is merely a pixel of evidence in a much larger picture. That does not mean that her perspective and experience are not true or a valuable part of the conversation; it does, however, mean that it should not be treated as the end of the discussion on that matter.
Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear
I was teaching at Hughes High School in Cincinnati in April, 2001 when 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Officer Steven Roach, kicking off weeks of civil unrest in our city. I was a white teacher in a classroom of predominantly black students, and we found ourselves involved in a challenging conversation about the incident. My most vocal students were advocating for running from the police, perhaps just to show me their attitude toward authority, or perhaps for other reasons. By using the Socratic method of questioning, I helped the students have a fact-based and growth-focused conversation about the incident. As we covered the details we knew, a student pointed out that Mr. Thomas ran because he was scared. I asked, “And how did Officer Roach probably feel?” Students offered, “angry,” “salty” (slang for “embarrassed”) and then one student said, “Awwww!” and the room went quieter. “No,” this student exclaimed, aware that he’d had an important insight. “He was feeling scared too, running down a dark alley after some guy.” This changed the conversation for us, as some of the students had not considered the perspective of each person involved, just the person who was most like them.
Sometimes the fear a child expresses is completely rational. The child whose mother is a police officer is understandably afraid for her safety when she is at work. A child might fear what could happen if his father got pulled over by police. When these fears are expressed, there is not a statement to be used as a talisman to push them away. There should not even be a desire to push them away. Fear is real. Fear is personal. It is not, in itself, irrational. Attempting to simply soothe someone’s fear or to make them feel better is not the answer. Understanding and sympathy – literally “feeling with” – are the best tools at our disposal. “I am certain that you worry about that. I am sorry that it causes you anxiety.” Feeling heard and understood is good medicine for fear.
What do you hope?
Taking the discussion from the realm of fear to the realm of hope can be a pivotal moment in a conversation, and a transformative moment in the classroom. Asking this question next allows the group to move on from the discussion of our fears – where, sadly, we may compound each others’ fears, as students now hear new things which make them scared – to a more positive focus.
One important change the question “What do you hope?” brings about is greater involvement in the conversation. Some students may have sat out the first part of the conversation because they did not know as much as their peers, or because their thoughts were being well-represented by other students, or because they were simply uncomfortable sharing their fears with others. Some may not have gotten involved because they feel no direct connection to the incident. However, we are all creative, and those students whose voices were not heard during the discussion of our fears are often interested in describing their vision of the world as it could be.
Frankly, children are really good at “hope.” Their optimistic eyes can see opportunities for peace and cooperation that we adults have long since stopped being able to see. And like in the “fears” discussion, the teacher will receive some ideas that she, with her age and wisdom, might feel tempted to dispel. Fortunately, I probably do not have to tell anyone that you should not say to a child, “Well, we can’t ALL love EVERYBODY.” So they will propose a more perfect vision of the future that may exclude violence, or eliminates the need for police, or may likely come up with something we cannot even image. The correct answer for this is “Wouldn’t that be great!” Meanwhile, the teacher can still root the optimism to reality. The child who suggests “We can make it so the police don’t shoot,” might get a response that “Yes, perhaps with different training this could happen.” The switch in the conversation is not merely semantic, however. The human brain needs to experience optimism, and can be trained to do it. A student proposing a majestic, sweeping solution can be helped to make it more specific, which makes it less ethereal and more likely to occur – a solution rather than a dream. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, acknowledges that creating realistic steps within an optimistic view helps redirect the anxiety into a constructive state of mind. This makes the situation survivable, and thus more mundane.
Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring
This question also engages us – students and teachers – intellectually, and gets us out of our amygdala and into the rest of our brain. We are also heartbroken by these events, and the sense of powerlessness we feel to affect change. This question is more than an exercise, it is a form of therapy. We cannot resist problem solving under most conditions. It is a strong evolutionary trait (coupled with the also-indispensable ability to worry about the future) that has treated us well over time.
How can you act?
Fred Rogers, longtime host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, would get scared seeing tragic events on TV as a child. His mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” He says that this thought brings him comfort to this day. All around us, in every situation, there are people who are helping rather than hurting. It brings him comfort because it draws us out of helplessness into our sphere of influence and allows us a chance to take action.
What do we know? What do we fear? What do we hope? How can we help?
When we learned that Philando Castile had been a cafeteria supervisor in a Montessori school, members of the Montessori community in Cincinnati wanted to do something specific and positive to honor his life. We reached out to one another on Facebook. A small group met at Gamble on the Wednesday after the event to brainstorm a response. What we came up with was a three-part response. First, we agreed to act in our own backyard. In response to a suggestion that we should put a picture of Philando Castile on our cafeteria, which we rejected, it was proposed that instead we honor our own cafeteria workers with a picture in a prominent place. We also sent a peace lily to Mr. Castile’s funeral, with the message “To the Family & Friends of Philando Castile – Our hearts are full of love and sorrow as your family and our country mourn the loss and celebrate the life of your son, brother, and friend. In sympathy, Cincinnati Public Schools, Montessori Coalition.”
Then we turned to the issue of talking with our students, staff and parents. We acknowledged that this conversation would vary based on the age of our students. Elementary schools were likely going to plan for a different type of conversation than our high schools. Within our own conversation we were able to anticipate challenges of underlying biases and beliefs. We acknowledged the importance of setting up an opportunity for our parents and staff to talk in a safe place. We were learning to dance together, we realized. We had to make it okay to step on each others’ toes without quitting. This was true for the teachers and administrators, and would be true in our classrooms, and in our PTO meetings as well, where a great diversity of opinions would be aired. Creating this atmosphere starts with an overt statement at the beginning of the conversation: at least one of us is likely to say something unintentionally hurtful or offensive, but we all have made ourselves vulnerable by attending this conversation. We have to respect and value that risk.
With our staff, we agreed to participate in an awareness-raising activity, to help our teachers be aware that each of us are struggling with hidden issues and concerns.
In the proper structure, and given a safe place to express fears and ideas, students can come up with some impressive solutions. This conversation will always be emotional, challenging, and exhausting, but difficult conversations frequently are. Following these steps will help create a better sense of understanding and efficacy among all involved.