Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016: A Year in Review

2016 has been an amazing year, and it has served as another reminder to take the bad with the good. I would like to reflect on the top five educational stories, both personally and as a public school teacher in Tennessee.
At the top of my list is having the privilege of attending the national teacher of the year ceremony at The White House. I traveled to The White House because I was recognized as one of America’s most distinguished educators, and I participated in honoring Ms. Jahana Hayes as the national teacher of the year. The ceremony itself only lasted 30 minutes, beginning with a short speech from Ms. Hayes, who is a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her passion-filled opening remarks set a powerful tone and her enthusiasm for the teaching profession was palpable.

On the way back to Nashville, I had time to reflect on attending this absolutely sublime White House event. Continuing the spirit of this ceremony the best way I know how, I am committed to help my fellow educators elevate and express their voices and tell their stories. Teachers matter. No one knows how to improve the educational landscape better than us. We are the experts, and when we speak in unison, educators have a remarkably strong voice. It begins with educators telling their own stories and having honest conversations with stakeholders about what’s working in our profession and what’s not.

Next on my list is the complete meltdown of TNReady. Though not completely their fault, the Tennessee Department of Education took a black eye on this one. The failure of TNReady sent shock waves throughout the state’s public education system. Elementary and middle school students didn’t even get to take the exam, while high school students across the state went through the motions of taking the test and didn’t take it seriously. A state law was passed holding teachers harmless on their evaluations from these test scores, but this law doesn’t apply to schools and school districts. Meanwhile, TDOE changed testing vendors from Measurement Inc. to Questar and has some significant rebuilding to do in terms of its efficacy.

Number three on my list is something that happened within the last few days, when TDOE released its plan for public review of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In case you haven’t been following, ESSA is the federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind, and it requires each state to develop its own plan on how it will meet the needs of its own students. Along with three other teachers from the high school, I recently attended a town hall meeting in Nashville where Commissioner McQueen and some of her TDOE cohorts explained the overview of their plan. I believe that TDOE’s ESSA plan needs some revision, but, overall, it sends a clear message that “all means all”--that TDOE is committed to educating all of Tennessee’s students, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, receiving special education services, or English Language Learners who just moved here from another country.

Number four on my list is the revelation from TDOE that the state’s science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are “above the national average for the first time ever, doubled the national average for student growth, eliminated the performance gap between male and female students, narrowed the performance gap between white and black students in both grades, and narrowed the performance gap between white and Latino students in fourth grade.” Tennessee had previously scored above the national average in English Language Arts and math. This announcement is further proof that the public education system in Tennessee is on the right track. Historically, Tennessee has ranked at or near the bottom in public education.

Rounding out my top five education stories of 2016 is Mr. Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as the future U.S. Secretary of Education. Putting a pro-charter and pro-voucher champion at the head of the nation’s public schools will certainly have “yuge” ramifications. One only needs to look at the education systems in Michigan and Louisiana (both are below the national average and dropping) to understand the devastating effects of diverting money from public schools in the name of school choice.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Going Gradeless: My Q2 Reflection

As I mentioned previously, this is my first year of going completely gradeless after trying it with only my honors classes last school year. 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 ask for my students’ input for their report card grades. At the end of the first quarter, I had my students write reflections over their assignments and what they had and had not mastered. This time, I had my students reflect on specific questions that I asked them in an online Google Form, and then I sat down and conferenced with specific students who I felt had inflated their averages. In all but one of those ten cases, students cited external factors (i.e. getting in trouble at home or maintaining a specific GPA) for why they admittedly inflated their grades. In the other case, the student had turned in some work online in Google Classroom that I did not realize was there.

The most common concern most people have when they hear that I operate a gradeless classroom is the fear that students will inflate their averages. The data that I have collected throughout the first semester clearly indicates that nothing could be further from the truth. I have four regular English classes and one honors class. For the second quarter, among all class periods, 28% of students have an A, 17% have a B, 24% have a C, 13% have a D, and 19% have an F. Here is a grade breakdown by class period. The above percentages are remarkably similar to the first quarter, except that the failure rate dropped by 13%. Instead of one-third of my students failing, one in five students are failing. I’m still not happy about the failure rate being so high, but it is a clear sign that my students made progress over their prior performance. They experienced growth.

I need to keep this momentum going. If I’m being completely honest with myself, then I would have to admit that most of my students are not prepared to take TNReady, Tennessee’s end of the year summative assessment. My shift from a completely paperless classroom to a hybrid one has definitely helped. I still need to work on increasing student engagement, even though I saw an increase in that from the first nine weeks. I also need to continue working on providing more timely feedback. Personally, it was a rough nine weeks for me, and my personal life interfered somewhat with my concentration level.

Looking forward, I continue to be energized by the difference that this gradeless classroom is making for my students. I plan on spending a significant amount of time during Christmas Break thinking about how I can make the classroom experience better for my students. With only three-and-a-half months until my students take their TNReady exam, this is not the time to be complacent. What my students do in the classroom, and how they do it, need to push them forward in a monumental way. I am confident in my abilities as a teacher and in my students’ ability to learn material that is presented to them in an interesting way.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

CCEA and TEA Stand Up for Teachers

Official CCEA Logo

In my role as the acting Vice President of the Coffee County Education Association, I spoke at the Coffee County School Board work session on Monday of last week. I brought with me a concern that was expressed to the Association by some teachers, and I left that meeting quite impressed by the Board’s and Dr. McFall’s dedication and desire to stand with CCEA in supporting Coffee County’s teachers. During our discussion, we eventually got on the topic of the importance of continuing to raise teachers’ salaries so that Coffee County Schools can be more competitive in attracting qualified teachers. The school board reassured me that they are dedicated to continue to raise teachers’ salaries.

On that topic Dr. LaDonna McFall, our Director of Schools, also made sure to point out that while other school systems eliminated their step raises for years of experience and advanced degrees, Coffee County has kept theirs in place. These step raises are, in fact, a type of raise that most of the Coffee County teachers receive every year. Dr. Shannon Duncan then reiterated her offer to meet with any member of the Coffee County Commission at any time to discuss the county school’s budget. I sincerely hope that she is taken up on that offer. I have personally talked to several County Commissioners about increasing funding for the county schools (an admittedly tricky thing to do with two city school systems) and, inevitably, they blame the School Board for not sending them a “clean budget” that they feel puts teachers first. As long as both sides are blaming the other for a lack of action related to funding public education, then the stalemate will continue indefinitely. Clearly, an increase in the quantity and quality of communication between these two governing bodies is needed desperately. Dr. Duncan has once again opened her door to that communication and, for the sake of our teachers and especially of our students, I dare say that it would be foolish for the Coffee County Commission to not take her up on her offer. They have nothing to lose, and risk gaining a greater understanding of how the county school’s budget operates.

Missing from this scenario are Coffee County’s teachers. Coffee County Commissioners are much more likely to work with the school board to increase funding for public education if the teachers in their respective districts made their voices heard. They’re more likely to listen when teachers of #TeamCoffee show up to County Commission meetings and make their presence felt. Every educator should ask him or herself who is in the driver’s seat when it comes to funding public education. The answer should be the teachers. We wield an astounding amount of influence when we stand together.

Later in the week, I attended a meeting for officers of local TEA affiliates, and I learned more information about several of the educational laws that passed during Tennessee's last legislative session. For the sake of brevity I will not go into great detail about these bills, but suffice it to say that special interests have a louder voice with our elected officials than teachers. Case in point: The State Board of Education now has the authority to grant charter schools--a right that used to belong exclusively to the local school system. In exchange for the State Board allowing charter schools into local districts that probably don't want them, they will receive a 4% annual kickback of the school's funding. Yes, local taxpayer money can now legally be funneled to the State Board of Education and thereby make it easier for them to allow more charter schools into the state. This, combined with President-Elect Trump’s pro-charter and pro-voucher education agenda can be a dangerous cocktail for a downward spiral of public education in Tennessee. Stay tuned. In the meantime, the Tennessee Education Association is the only organization with a proven track record of defeating special interests, and they will work hard to defeat all voucher schemes while fighting against radical charter school expansion. After all, it's in every student’s best interest to restore local control of school decisions.

Monday, December 5, 2016

It's About Them

I watched “A Very Merry Mix Up,” one of those Hallmark Christmas movies, last night. I can tolerate them, but my wife absolutely adores them. In this particular movie, Alice was engaged to Will because their partnership was convenient; they had a similar vision of where their lives were headed. Through a strange twist of fate, when this woman traveled to visit his family for the first time for the holidays, she ended up at the wrong house and met another man, Matt, with whom she truly fell in love. The moral of that movie is that love is all about timing. When Alice broke up with Will, he said he knew it was coming because something didn’t feel right; their timing was off.

Like Will at the end of this movie, something doesn’t feel right to me in the field of education. But it’s not just me. Other teachers feel it, too, and so do the students. We’re all in a partnership together because of convenience. Entire groups of students graduate together because they were conveniently born in the same year and go to the same school. I happen to work at a particular school, which means that I teach this group of students. I’m not chosen to be their English teacher because of my specific interests, skill set, nor my extraordinary teaching talent; I’m their English teacher because I am in the right place at the right time.

Will Richardson, a former English teacher turned speaker and school consultant, at the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference said that “We are at a point in schools when we have to change our internal reality.” The current reality is that teachers attempt to find new ways of doing the same thing that they have done for years, and a standardized test is given at the end of the school year because it’s an easy and convenient (and unreliable) way to measure students’ growth and, in Tennessee, teachers’ abilities to create that growth.

So what would this change in our internal reality look like? It has to begin and end with the students. At my high school, they go to seven classes a day and experience seven teachers with sometimes complete opposite teaching styles, teaching philosophies, and academic expectations. This student experience is common across the country, and it results in students nationwide being sent the message that the school experience isn’t created for them. They’re correct. It’s interesting, and somewhat amazing to me, that high school graduation rates in Tennessee and across the country continue to climb and are at an all-time high. I wonder if the high school diploma means that we have successfully met the needs of that student, or if the student has done a good job of complacently jumping through hoops. My hunch is that the honest answer is somewhere in the middle.

In any case, we are teaching a millennial, “it’s all about me,” generation and if public education is going to thrive in the future, then we have no other choice but to adapt and meet the needs of our students. Instead of teachers finding new ways of doing the same things they’ve done before, more of us really need to try new things. Some will work, and some won’t, but then the students will see that we’re learning with them. The answer to the question “How do kids learn best?” should drive everything we do in our classrooms. When students ask “Why do I need to learn this?” then the relevance of the lesson isn’t clear, and the teacher should be able to explain it. Since I’m asking questions, I’ll throw one more out there. It’s good practice, I think, for teachers to ask themselves, “Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?” I frequently think about my daughters, who are 11 and 6, when I ask myself this question. I give the great Dave Burgess credit for planting that last question in my brain.

Providing a quality education is not necessarily convenient. Returning to my original analogy: in the education field, it feels like our timing is off, like we’re merely going through the motions. At the risk of sounding cliche, life really is all about timing. It’s time to reduce or eliminate standardized testing, because there’s nothing standard about the students I teach every day. It’s time to reinvent our lessons and try something new. It’s time to put students at the center of our lessons and learn with them.