First Person

An apology to the class of 2013

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

In a few weeks the class of 2013 will begin its junior year of high school.  We know enough about the skills and knowledge of our 11th graders to see we must do something different for almost half of them during their last two years of high school—their last chance for a “free, public education”—if they are to graduate with the academic skills we expect of seniors.  If we do not, many will walk off that stage with a high school diploma in late May 2013, but without the skills needed for success in college.  Perhaps we will owe them a heartfelt apology.

“Overall, 28.6 percent of recent high school graduates in Colorado need remediation upon entering a higher education institution.” (In 2009, that was 8,606 students out of 30,042 first-time high school graduates assigned to remediation in at least one subject.) “The cost of remedial education increased from $13 million last year to $19 million this year…. As higher education funding continues to be cut, these numbers appear even more ominous.”
2010 Legislative Report on Remedial Education, Colorado Department of Higher Education, 2/4/11.

I have kept in touch with several former middle school students, now entering 11th grade.  Most will have many good choices available to them as they reach graduation.  In a few cases it won’t happen without extra effort.  Several years ago, when one junior—a former student—scored low on the 10th grade CSAP and the PLAN (a pre-ACT) assessment, her parents brought her in for a few tutoring sessions.  Scores improved.  After graduating she went on to a state university.  Motivated students, from supportive families.  They’ll be OK.

But when we see at least half of Colorado’s 10th graders are not proficient in writing, math, or science (in 2010, 50 percent in writing, 67 percent in math, and 50 percent in science scored Unsatisfactory or Partially Proficient), and 30 percent are not proficient in reading, isn’t it clear we need to rethink how we serve these teenagers during their final two years of high school?  Especially when we know they may not have parents advocating for them, or they may doubt the necessity of going the extra mile before they graduate? (Hey, can’t I just zip through a few credit-recovery courses?)

I wish I heard more on how schools are making such adjustments.  I wish we were doing more to focus on the obvious academic needs of such a huge percentage of our soon-to-be graduates, while in high school.  Especially given a recent report, Shining a Light on College Remediation in Colorado,  that draws a strong correlation between CSAP scores and graduates who need remediation classes (co-authored by Diane Lefly and Jo O’Brien at the Colorado Department of Education and Cheryl D. Lovell, chief academic officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education. The full report is available here. )

I believe K-12 education must own this problem.  In this week’s ‘Inside Higher Ed,’ “5 Myths of Remedial Ed” (by Bruce Vandal of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States and Jane Wellman), Myth # 1, we are told, is that “remedial education is K-12’s problem” (July 21, 2011).  It is not?  Really?  They write: “Because colleges have not clearly articulated the skills that students must possess to be college-ready, students are blindsided when they are placed into remedial courses.  And high schools don’t have a clear benchmark for preparing students for success.”  Sure, we can do better to bridge the gap, and common expectations will help.

The class of 2013 took its last CSAP in March. We will soon see their scores.  High schools will have a good idea of who needs extra help now—not in two years. If the CSAP results for 10th graders over the recent past hold true, they will show that more than 20,000 students need courses that address essential skills during their final two years.   Instead, most juniors will be allowed to take their chosen classes—let’s see, Popular Literature, American Lit., or World Lit.?—and will earn the necessary credits to graduate.  Soon after, however, as they try to take their first college class, many will discover what that degree doesn’t mean.

Early college, dual enrollment, more AP classes 

In light of this evidence, with remediation rates around 29 percent every year, much of the focus these days strikes me as misplaced: grow so-called “early college” programs, increase “concurrent enrollment” so 11th and 12th graders can receive college credit, expand AP offerings, etc.  A former student, just graduating, tells me of five “college course/credits” she took in high school, starting in 10th grade.  Taught by high school teachers.  What about half the class of 2013 who just showed us on the spring CSAP that they did not meet our expectations of a 10th grader? They don’t need college classes.  First let’s help them meet 9th and 10th grade standards.

You say I’m missing the point?  Please know, I agree it’s great to enable more students to take challenging classes.  Yes, give them a push.  Good high schools have done this, and will keep doing so—without being compelled to market their classes, “hey, get college credit too!”  But we must do better by many students who are on track to “graduate” with a diploma that means too little.

I am not saying 10th grade CSAP scores determine college readiness. But I would say—as does the report Shining a Light on College Remediation—that together with ACT results and remediation rates—they tell us something.  Holly Yettick’s blog on Education News Colorado in April raised valid points on the potential misuse of any one of these for accountability purposes.  But if students are “blindsided” when they enter college, take a quick test, and find they must take a remedial class, who is to blame?  Not higher ed.  This is why high schools need to grasp that the 10th grade CSAP does have value, and might well predict many of the students who in two years will need to submit to a remedial class.  Maybe it is not that we misuse the data. Perhaps we don’t use it at all!

Let me ask: If Colorado were a teacher and looked at the 2011 CSAP results of its rising juniors, some 20,000 or so not proficient, wouldn’t it be malpractice if we did not make major changes in our program in order to best meet their needs?  What good teacher gives a formative evaluation–and ignores the results?

We read of big plans under way to create something different—something new. Last November the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the Colorado State Board of Education agreed to a vision for “Colorado’s Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Assessment System.”  It states:

“Colorado’s new assessment system will signal mastery of PWR Colorado Academic Standards at grade level ….  the new assessment system will also measure progress toward PWR. It will be designed to produce meaningful results which will be both easy to understand and applicable to students, parents and educators…. Ongoing feedback, student relevance and interim results each represent a new approach…  The assessment system will inform instruction and provide early feedback, which will also help to reduce remediation.” 

Nice in theory.  Here’s another view: We talk a good game, and yet fail to make the changes in our middle and high schools, in the classes and structures we create for our students, that the facts tell us—fairly scream at us—are so necessary.  Results from the old assessment have been painfully clear for over a decade. Have we made important changes?  Will new assessments do the job?  Not if we find a way— as we often do—to turn a blind eye and just go on about our business.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.