Sunday, October 30, 2016

Fool's Gold

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The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) received some excellent news last week. Tennessee’s students are continuing to improve on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which releases the nation’s report card that compares the respective education systems of every state in the country. Previously, Tennessee was hailed as the fastest improving state in the country for our gains in math and English/Language Arts. This time, Tennessee is being called “the star of the states” for our improvement in 4th and 8th grade science scores.

As a public school teacher, I am proud of my colleagues’ achievement--one that is all the more remarkable when you consider that Tennessee is 41st in the country in per-pupil spending and 39th in the country in average teacher salary. (Both of these figures are as of 2014.) It’s quite ironic that Tennessee’s students are making groundbreaking gains in math, English/Language Arts, and science, but remains near the bottom in education spending. Taxpayers across the state are certainly getting a huge bang for their buck.

TDOE cites two reasons for these huge student gains: higher standards and incredibly dedicated teachers. I would argue that Tennessee’s public schools are doing more with less than any other state in the country. Teachers and schools have learned to become incredibly resourceful. Not to rain on TDOE’s parade, but I can’t help but wonder if student growth on NAEP on the backs of underpaid teachers in under-resourced schools at the beginning of a teacher shortage crisis is a sustainable model.

Governor Haslam has mentioned many times that he wants Tennessee to become the fastest-improving state in teacher pay in the country, and he has recently approved the largest teacher pay increase without raising taxes in the state’s history. This is great for headlines and equally poor in practice. While not the case in my district, many Tennessee districts have withheld money that is owed to teachers from the state and will only give it to them in the form of performance bonuses. While legal, this practice is definitely unethical.

If TDOE and Governor Haslam are truly serious about continuing this momentum of NAEP gains, a few things need to happen, and quickly. First, the state needs to update and fully fund its BEP formula while ensuring that future raises go directly to teachers with no strings attached. Second, the option for performance-based pay needs to be taken away from school districts. Paying teachers for good test scores is a horrendously ignorant practice. Not only does it fail to work as intended, but it also encourages teachers to treat students as a means to get those bonuses by focusing too much on the state test. That, in turn, contributes to the teacher shortage crisis by giving students one more reason why they don’t want to become teachers themselves. Third, use some of the state’s nearly $1 billion surplus and give teachers another raise. The state has a large amount of ground to make up if we want to keep pace with other states in attracting the best and brightest teachers in the country.

I would love for Tennessee to be recognized among the best states in the country in public education. Just think what that would mean to the higher education community and to attracting more companies to set up shop here. As Tennesseans, we inherently have an independent spirit that uniquely enables us to be trend setters. The recent NAEP scores indicate that we are on the right track. I just hope that this train of public education improvement can avoid be derailed.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Remaining Neutral in a Time of Polarization

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As a teacher, I have always tried to remain politically neutral in class. Part of the reason for this is because I am in a position of authority, and I don’t want to impose my beliefs on my students, whose views, though less informed because of their youth, are every bit as valid as my own. The other reason why I try to remain politically neutral is because I want my students to think for themselves. I provide them with articles about what’s going on in the world, and I allow them to write and discuss these articles with as little input from me as I can muster. As a high school English teacher, I also attempt to connect centuries-old literature to modern-day events while allowing my students to find their own evidence-based paths toward truth.
Remaining neutral is incredibly difficult for me--especially during what has been, arguably, the most polarizing presidential election cycle in our country’s history. It’s also difficult because I have been politically active since I can remember, and I love having reasoned political debates with others. Further, I know of teachers who are not neutral, and that increases my desire to discuss my own beliefs and provide my students with an opposing viewpoint.
At the same time, I wonder if my silence is misconstrued as complicity for the racist, misogynistic, and deplorably unintelligent child-like banter that’s unbecoming of a world leader. Elie Wiesel, who wrote a novella titled Night about his experiences surviving the Holocaust, once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Therein lies my dilemma. Supporters of Trump and Clinton each claim that they are the tormented and the other candidate is the tormentor. Who am I to say that either of them is wrong? At the same time, when I don’t publicly stand against hate-filled rhetoric, what example am I setting for my students, and for my two young daughters?
As written in a recent Washington Post article: “Words matter. So do actions. Even when children don’t listen to what we say, they pay very careful attention to what we do. Children are watching. They are listening. They are learning from the example we set as their parents and teachers—not only from what we say and do, but from what we accept when it comes to the words and actions of others. We have to show them that hatred, sexism, racism, disrespect, and threats of physical violence are not okay. They’re unacceptable at any age — for a kindergartener, a high school student, or a presidential candidate.”

Trump’s words and actions go against everything I teach my students and my children. At the same time, the political polarity that straightjackets our democracy will eventually ruin it if people don’t start thinking for themselves again. I want my students to take a stand against social injustices because their minds and their hearts move them to speak up. I want my students to discern false from factual political arguments so that they can make informed decisions, thereby forcing political candidates to stop appealing to the lowest common denominator by using words that say a lot but mean nothing. In the end, it is the children who are going to continue making this country great. Perhaps there is room for me to assert my own views and be a little less neutral, but, in doing so, I must be careful to keep from hindering my students’ thinking. After all, that’s what they enter my classroom for in the first place.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Going Gradelless: My Q1 Reflection

At the beginning of the school year, I wrote about the necessity of throwing out grades and how that will improve my students’ ability to learn the objectives of the course. Now that the first quarter is over, it’s time for some self-reflection on how well this process actually unfolded.

This is my first year of going completely gradeless, after trying it with only my honors classes last school year. People told me that this would never work with “regular” students, but I also kept in mind that these same people are deeply ingrained in the antiquated cogs of an education system that is desperate need of grassroots reform. The process is amazingly simple: Instead of grades, I provide feedback on assignments, telling students how well they have mastered the purpose of that assignment. Because I am operating a gradeless classroom within the confines of quarterly report cards, I had students write a reflection of what they have mastered this nine weeks and then I sat down and conferenced with them at the end of the grading period.

The conferences were enlightening. Students told me what grade they should have on their report card, and they defended that grade with evidence from the assignments they completed over the course of the grading period. In talking with students, I learned about their successes and failures, what’s working for them in my class and what’s not. I learned more about their home lives. In several cases, changes in their home lives impacted their academic performance. I learned that students were occasionally clueless about what grade they should have on their report card, but they were almost always brutally honest.

For those who think that students choosing their report card grades would inflate them, nothing could be further from the truth. I have four regular English classes and one honors class. Across all class periods, including honors, 24% of students have an A, 17% have a B, 26% have a C, 1% have a D, and 32% have an F. Here is a a grade breakdown, by class period. Yes, nearly one-third of my students not only failed themselves for the nine weeks, they admitted to me during the conference that they haven’t mastered very many objectives because they have been lazy and need to try harder. It is refreshing to know that the students know exactly what they need to do to improve.

From my perspective, I have learned a great deal from operating a gradeless classroom. What I am currently doing in my classes is working in various degrees for two-thirds of my students, but the one-third that are failing are unmotivated. Some of the reason for this is out of my control, like hectic home lives and chronic absenteeism, but I also need to do a better job of building enthusiasm and increasing engagement. Additionally, I need to do a better job of providing timely feedback. As an English teacher, this is a monumental challenge, and it is something with which I have always struggled. Still, this is an essential component of a gradeless classroom, and my students need more feedback from me. I have also learned that this year’s students are struggling more than last year’s students with the paperless classroom concept. This has lead me to collect more work on paper than I would like, but my goal is to get the most out of my students, and the online coursework is a literal impossibility for some of my students to complete.

Going forward, I am energized by the difference that this paperless classroom is making for my students. Time will tell how much growth students will demonstrate during the second quarter, but, so far, it looks very promising.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why We Should Win with Winton

During my first six months of writing this column, I have made a concerted effort to focus on education topics that move me and, hopefully, are interesting to you, the reader. At some point, I always try to focus on the most important part of the education system--the students--and how they are affected by these different topics. Occasionally, it is necessary to delve into the political realm because politics and education are unfortunately inseparable.
There is currently a tightly contested state senate race in district 16 between the incumbent, Janice Bowling, and her challenger, Mike Winton. As a public school teacher and as a father of two girls who attend public schools here in Coffee County, education is my life. If you care about public education, as I do, then I implore you to cast your vote on November 8th for Mike Winton, who took time out of his day last Monday to talk to educators from across the district about how he could help us if he is elected.
In case you haven’t heard much about him yet, Winton comes from humble beginnings, being raised by a single mother who instilled a relentless work ethic that he carries with him every day as the owner of Sears in Tullahoma. During his meeting with teachers last week, I was impressed when he explained how he will use his work ethic to benefit teachers. When he’s not busy in the legislature, he plans on attending every school board and county commission meeting across district 16 that his schedule will allow. He wants to be visible and and available to his constituents. When asked what he would do if an education bill came along and he wasn’t sure how to vote on it, his answer was remarkably simple. He’d ask teachers. If time is pressing, then he would ask the state’s largest teacher’s association and greatest collector of teacher voice, the Tennessee Education Association, for their input.
Perhaps the thing that impressed me the most about Winton in meeting with him on Monday of last week is his understanding of how crucial it is for teachers to get their voices back by reinstating their collective bargaining power. Quick history lesson time: In 2011, the Republican supermajority damaged teacher voice by passing the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA). This law severely limits what teachers can “bargain” about, thereby making it infinitely more difficult for teachers to improve their own working conditions. As a result, experienced teachers have been leaving the profession in droves, enrollment in teacher preparation programs in college has significantly decreased while our population is increasing with new schools being built every year, and Tennessee is in the beginning stages of what will become a severe teacher shortage in the near future. Naturally, all of this affects students who eventually will not have qualified teachers to instruct them.
Democrat Eric Stewart was the state senate representative for our district in 2011 and he voted against PECCA. Around the same time, this district was being redrawn, and the following year in 2012, Republican Janice Bowling was elected. She has, unfortunately, continued the legislature’s attack on teachers, as evidenced by her voting in favor of Senate Bill 151 last year, which makes the process more difficult for teachers to pay their teacher’s association dues. Also last year, she supported Senate Bill 027, which diverts public money into private schools for students who have individualized education plans and have one of seven specific disabilities. Senate Bill 027 opens the door for an expanded school voucher bill (like Senate Bill 999, which she supported) to pass the legislature in 2017--something that the Republican legislature has unsuccessfully tried to pass the previous five years under the guise of “school choice.
I truly hope that Mike Winton is elected our next state senator but, if that is not the case, our teachers and students need a representative who will not merely vote along party lines and will work with her colleagues to reverse the legislature’s assault on the education system. We need a representative who will listen to teachers and stand by our side when potentially hazardous education bills are introduced by lawmakers who are working on behalf of special interest groups who want to privatize education. We need a representative who recognizes that a state with a strong PreK-12 education system keeps people out of jail and is good for business.