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

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.

First Person

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, 8 essays from educators who raised their voices this year

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

Teachers are often on the front lines of national conversations, kickstarting discussions that their students or communities need to have.

They also add their own voices to debates that would be less meaningful without them.

This year, as we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing some of the educator perspectives that we’ve published in our First Person section over the last year. Many thanks to the teachers who raised their voices in these essays. Want to help us elevate the voices of even more educators? Make a donation in support of our nonprofit journalism and you’ll have the option to honor an important educator in your life.

If you’d like to contribute your own personal essay to Chalkbeat, please email us at [email protected]

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

After racial violence erupted in Virginia last year, New York City teacher Vivett Dukes called on teachers to engage students in honest conversations about racism.

“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away.”

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

Too often teachers are blamed for bad curriculum, writes Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. And that needs to stop.

“It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human, and teaching is both creative and artistic, would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power.”

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

Two of Ilona Nanay’s best students started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. But their educational careers came to an end after graduation because both were undocumented and couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.

“By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. In this essay she shares what it’s like knowing that you could be the only thing between a mass shooter and a group of students.

“The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills.”

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

Alex McNaughton teaches a human geography course in Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, he decided to move up a lesson about how urbanization can exacerbate flooding.

“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.”

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers. In this story, he shares how he got one of his favorite pranksters, Chris, to go through a day without interrupting class.

“Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, ‘I see you,’ ‘I care about you,’ ‘I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.’”

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

Being a black educator can be isolating, writes William Anderson, a Denver teacher. He argues that a more supportive environment for black educators could help cities like Denver improve the lives of black students.

“Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.”

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

For years, Memphis teacher Carl Schneider walked his students home to a nearby apartment complex. Then a photograph of him performing this daily ritual caught the attention of the national media. In this essay, Schneider reminds readers that he shouldn’t be the focus — the challenges his students face should. His call to action:

“Educate yourself about the ways systemic racism creates vastly different Americas.”


Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.