First Person

Pre-results post-mortem

Alexander Ooms is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children

Alan has asked bloggers for their thoughts on the election as part of a post-mortem.  I find this rearview mirror perspective usually boringly obvious, as it’s far easier to ascribe cause once one knows the effect.  So I’m sending in my quick thoughts in advance of the election results (although probably published afterwards). If I am wrong it will be painfully obvious and if right you’ll have to trust me that this was in early.

First is Prop 103.  I thought the best summary was provided by Eric Sondermann.  I just don’t see how this passes, and I doubt it is at all close.  This initiative never had enough high-powered backers or an effective coalition, and faced a strong economic headwind. All true criticisms, but I also think a proposal as unspecific about how the money will be used would have trouble even in a different economic climate.

Most taxpayers, with justification, see education as a black hole where money enters and little changes.  This proposition exacerbated that claim, and has all the mechanics of a a feel-good proposition that many people could support in its doom without having to engage in the far harder work of crafting something specific which could have drawn broader support.  “We tried” will be the mantra — but a try that was designed to never be a serious threat. More is the pity.

Most interesting will be the district-specific vote tallies as a precursor to future bonds.  Denver voters approved a $454M bond back in 2008 by a 2:1 margin, while nearby Jeffco voters voted down a similar proposal.  The appetite of voters for Prop 103 will be an imprecise but early indication of bond issue potential in 2012, so watch for the district-by-district tally — particularly since suspense on the initiative itself is unlikely.

Denver school board.  This is the only board race I’ve followed closely, but I confess I find the attention it has garnered compared to next door’s Douglas Country surprising — the latter’s shameless cliff-dive into voucher territory is far more controversial.

What happens?  I think that both the at-large and District 1 elections won’t be very close.  For the at-large seat, no coalition came together to challenge the name recognition and track record of Happy Haynes. Four years ago Theresa Pena won a three-way race with 34,103 votes and 47%; I think it is possible Haynes breaks 60%, and if not, she’ll be closer than a Tebow throw.

District 1 initially looked like it would be a reasonable contest, with Anne Rowe challenged by relative newcomer Emily Sirota. However despite Sirota’s youthful energy and ability to network through her own legislative experience and her husband’s substantial political connections, she never articulated a vision, and even her husband’s columns began to sound more like an apology than a call to action.  I think both Haynes and Rowe win easily (although Haynes by more than Rowe). In 2007, Hoyt won with 11,912 votes (65%).  This one will be closer, but I’d guess 8-10 percentage points.

The last seat, in District 5, has turned out to be more interesting, and I think it will come down to a few hundred votes.  I have a personal preference here, and I’d like to believe this turns out the way I would design, but truthfully I think it could go either way. Four years ago, Jimenez prevailed in a four-way race by 368 votes (with 3,782 total, or 36%; others had 32%, 22%, 10%).  The winner here will probably need 6,500 – 6,800 votes, so even given the power of incumbency, this should be a squeaker.

I do think that what is being somewhat overshadowed in all three races is that the general public has shifted considerably in the past few years, and the question is no longer whether or not to proceed with reforms, but instead how broadly and at what pace. That the single incumbent running for reelection with considerable union support was placed on the defensive even while publicly (if selectively) supporting both charters and innovation schools is a remarkable shift.  Reform and the accompanying policies are going to be part of the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Two other general comments: The pendulum of local elections tends to equilibrium, and my experience is that the people who align with the “winners” find that things are never as rosy as they think they will be, and the people who align with the “shoulda-been-winners” find that things are rarely as bad as they feared. Particularly in divided boards (and this will either be 4-3 or 5-2), mandates become elusive and chance has a way of finding strange bedfellows on some issues.  Denver’s school board is most likely to continue to muddle along, and I think with much the same animosity as before.

Elections tend to focus on the new people coming in, when the changes have as much to do with the people going out. The two DPS board members stepping down due to term limits are Bruce Hoyt and Theresa Peña.  Hoyt has a financial acumen and experience that is critically important in this time of fiscal uncertainty.  His particular set of skills rests with no other member or candidate, and his presence will be sorely missed.  Peña has been, in my opinion, remarkably effective in keeping the majority coalition intact and establishing a number of important policies (agree with them or not, but the votes passed), and with a board this sharply divided, that was no small feat.

So I think the new Denver board — regardless of its final composition — is likely to be less strong on reform issues than the current board due to the absence of both Hoyt and Peña, even if the reform majority is larger.  The pendulum swings.

May you live in interesting times, the Chinese cursed.  As far as education policy in Denver goes, the interesting times will continue.  I think I can speak for a lot of people who will be glad when the election itself is over, and that the efforts can once more be focused better outcomes for kids, and not prying votes from adults.


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.