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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.