First Person

Teenagers And Teachers In The Front Office

One major problem behind the Teacher Data Reports and other forms of test-based teacher evaluations is that they put all of the onus of student performance on teachers.In reality, struggles in school are most often the result of domestic tumult or of any number of poverty-related woes — poor nutrition, unstable housing, or lack of family support. Trouble at home is trouble at home, and it will bring your grades down whether you’re living in the ghetto or the wealthy suburbs. But there’s another universal issue high schools must deal with that is mentioned even less often when education reformers talk about teacher evaluation: Adolescents.

Teenagers are freethinking citizens of the United States who are discovering their growing ability to argue, to think for themselves. If they are not given the opportunity to face the consequences of their own choices, these citizens will not grow up to be the responsible adults we need them to be. Unfortunately, sometimes the consequences include low scores.

I recently witnessed a scene in my school’s main office that reminded me how powerful and necessary it is for the adults in a young person’s life to put the burden of academic responsibility on his shoulders. This scene needs to be shared as badly as any TDR data, lest the notion of the teacher who doesn’t check in with parents — not to mention the stereotype of the parent who doesn’t check on his child — go unchallenged in our city.

As a public school, Kurt Hahn lacks the personnel and after-school hours (let alone the legal prerogative) to truly require anything from parents beyond an emergency contact card. Yet our parents know they are welcome in our doors at any time, and I’ve seen teachers repeatedly drop their prep materials to have the essential conversation with students and parents that puts everyone on the same page about academic progress. This is how I witnessed a student’s freshman year forever change — for better or for worse, of course, is still up to him.

The student — let’s call him Daquane Andrews — had come in with his mother to meet with his math teacher about his low grades in her class. Ms. Andrews repeatedly emphasized how difficult it was to take off work and get to East Flatbush. She was concerned that football practice was taking away from Dequane’s energy level and was becoming an excuse for him to not get his homework done. While she was waiting for his math teacher to arrive, the ninth-grade history teacher, Ms. Blain — who was typing a lesson at one of the office computers and didn’t notice Ms. Andrews — asked Daquane to explain his disruptive behavior in class the day before. The mother picked up on this and inquired for details. When Ms. Blain realized who Ms. Andrews was and that she and Daquane were in the office for an academic conference, she set her work aside and joined them in conversation. The arrival of the math teacher turned the conversation into a dialogue about the student’s general lack of focus and tendency to, as his mother put it, “play middle school games.”

Both teachers heartily refuted reports the boy had given his mother that he was never assigned homework. They supported her suspicion that the behaviors he was exhibiting now would lead not only to irritation from future teachers but failure to prepare adequately for his state exams and for college. The mother asked her son, in front of these teachers and the entire office, if they were going to need to reinstate the homework signature sheet she’d made for his teachers in middle school. She asked him how he could get up at 5 a.m. for football practice but not get his math homework done each night. She told him that if he doesn’t start bringing homework home from math and history every night, she’d make assignments for him herself. Her son listened silently, experiencing not just the gravity and humiliation of the situation but the concern of these three women all talking to him together in an open, familiar room. (Of course, if he’s a healthily egotistical teenager, he was probably too miserable at the idea of losing football to appreciate his luck.)

Which is why the final straw was the entrance of a burly man with a backpack swinging his way to the other side of the counter.  The boy’s eyes lit up momentarily, then went dark with mortified fear. “Oh,” the mother pounced immediately. “This must be your football coach.” She proceeded to repeat each of her threats so that the coach would hear them. Her son was officially caught in a stifling wraparound web that would make it quite difficult for him to double-cross these particular adults again. The attendance secretary, who acts as a surrogate grandmother for most students, sat in the corner cluck-clucking about how “these foolish kids don’t know how lucky they are.” She’s right.

I spoke to Ms. Blain later in the week about how striking that scene had been to me. She reported that, sadly, Dequane had still shown up without his homework the next day. Despite her fervor in the office, Ms. Andrews is not home in the afternoons and evenings to reinforce her orders. Daquane’s scores won’t improve just because his mother and teachers have breathed down his neck. They shouldn’t. He is becoming an adult, and perhaps he needs to experience the consequences of his own failure — the loss of opportunity, low scores on state exams, the surpassing performance of his classmates — in order to grow. It’s a teacher’s day (and night) job to teach, but it’s a student’s lifelong job to learn.

Don’t get me wrong—teachers should be evaluated on our progress and held to consistent and high standards. But when the core of our work is growing people who will also one day be held to professional standards, society can’t afford to rest a teacher’s career on student performance. We must find a way to convey the responsibility both teacher and student have in creating a successful education system. We need to harness parent energy in whatever form — at whatever time of day — we can get it. We need to fight the symptoms of poverty that distract so many of our bright young students from their schoolwork. And we need to address — head on and without fear of political finger-pointing — the healthy stubbornness of a confident young adolescent whose leadership and confidence we will need once his math, writing, and reasoning skills are strong enough to give voice to those qualities.

First Person

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

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

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 applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.