First Person

Opinion: Board members, middle schools and truth

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

Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida, two sitting members of Denver’s board of education, published this Op-Ed last Friday.  Its genesis, they tell us, is in their conversations with Denver parents.  “We are listening,” they write, “and are calling for the truth about how neighborhood schools perform.” 

The specific call follows a few paragraphs later:

But the data are clear that neighborhood middle schools are exceeding the growth expectations of the Denver Plan. These schools are actually performing better than the district average, including all the newer schools.”

Skinner Middle School

Well, no.  Pretty to think so. But not true. Traditional middle schools in Denver are lagging the district average for academic growth, not leading it.  And more often than not, their students graduate 8th grade lacking the basic skills necessary to be successful in high school and beyond.

We are now over five years into the Denver Plan and a serious civic conversation about public education. So perhaps we might raise the bar just a little: It should not be okay for elected school board members to selectively choose and distort performance data, and then use it as a basis to recommend where parents should send their children to school. And that is exactly what these board members are doing.

A deceptive bouquet

Let’s look, for a moment, at the edifice of reason on which the authors build the claim that traditional middle schools “are actually performing better than the district average.” The evidence, we are told, rests on some impressive data on the academic growth of students in traditional middle schools:

  •  Hill Middle School in central Denver posted a whopping 38-point gain in eighth-grade reading.
  •  Grant Middle School in southeast Denver experienced a 10-point jump in sixth-grade reading.
  •  Henry World School in southwest Denver posted a 9-point gain in seventh-grade reading.
  •  Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver posted a staggering 23- point increase in sixth-grade writing.

These are terrific results.  But there are several problems, of which we need chose only the most obvious: They cite exactly four examples. Four data points — each from a single grade, in a single subject, in a single unspecified year and from a different school.  Four data points, each plucked delicately as a flower, bundled exquisitely together, and presented as a shimmering bouquet of truth.

But the Denver Plan was adopted back in 2005.  In the past three years alone, these four schools each have three subject scores per year in each of three grades.  That makes a total of 108 individual scores  — 108 flowers growing in a field, from which the authors selected a total of, um, four (or 3.7  percent).

Now, choosing four out of over 100 of anything means one is either highly sophisticated, or really selective.  So when the authors say that traditional middle schools “are actually performing better than the district average,” might it be that their delicate arrangement of four data points is not a representative sample of the truth for which they are calling?

Shocking suggestion — but there is a simple way to check academic growth through CDE’s Colorado Growth Model, available at Schoolview.  And at the end of this piece is a chart with the median growth percentile score, for each grade, for the past three years, at the four middle schools the authors cite. This chart comprises all 108 data points from the past three years, which are then each compared to their respective district average.  108 flowers in a field – but instead of choosing which selective few to carefully pluck from obscurity and arrange into a centerpiece under the spotlight, let’s go ahead and cultivate the entire bunch.

Cultivating the entire field

How did these schools compare when one looks at their whole crop of 108 growth scores (which include the four chosen so carefully)?

-> Over the past three years, these four schools performed better than the district average for growth just 42% of the time (45 scores out of the 108);

-> These four schools failed to surpass the DPS average for growth in any single year (47% of the time in 2011, 36% in 2010, and 42% in 2009);

-> These four schools failed to surpass the DPS average for growth in eight of the nine measured subject areas over three years.

These are growth scores: the proficiency scores are even worse.  Across Denver’s traditional middle schools in 2011, only one in every three children left 8th grade with basic proficiency in at least a single subject.

Now, don’t misunderstand, there are some good things happening at several of these schools: Skinner is coming off a terrific year where they had growth percentiles above 50 in all subjects – an achievement for which they have not received nearly the credit they deserve.  Hill is remarkably solid and, by itself, outperformed the District. There are groups of students with whom these schools are doing fairly well, and some remarkably well.

But these are exceptions, not rules.  The authors also chose one of the only two possible (out of 27) data points where Henry outperformed the district in growth. Selective florists, these board members.

Data, upside down

There is a small but consistent rising tide of academic improvement in Denver, and traditional middle schools are getting better.  But the schools these authors selected are lagging this tide, not leading it.  And true to form, the choice of these specific four schools was selective as well — for there is a separate unmentioned group of four other traditional middle schools. When all eight are ranked by their 2011 average growth score, the authors selected schools finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 7th (out of 8) .  The schools they ignored ranked 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 8th (out of 8).*  Very selective florists.

Selectivity such as this is okay when arranging bouquets – but it is specifically not okay when making decisions on educational options for children.  These two members of the board of education are telling parents that if they choose any of Denver’s traditional middle schools, their kids will get a quality education.  But that is just not true – there is tremendous variation in traditional middle schools (as in all schools), and more often than not, these schools are doing less well than their peers. But no matter:

“Tell us to start making well-supported neighborhood schools the key to real school reform.”

If traditional neighborhood schools are key to our future, surely the students graduating from them are equipped to face the demands of a college preparatory high school, and eventually the modern workforce?

Again, no.  Let’s examine 8th grade average proficiency for 2011 at the four schools the authors selected.  At Hill, it is 52% – there is only a one in two chance that a student leaves the school with basic skills in just one of reading, writing, or math. And that is the high water mark.  At Grant, it’s 44%.  At Skinner, 36%. At Henry, 35%.

And guess what?  Those are the four traditional middle schools doing the best.

At the other four traditional middle schools, average proficiency in 8th grade is 33%, 25%, 25%, and 23%.  In 2011, 8th grade average proficiency across all eight traditional middle schools is just 34% — or about one in every three students. Does that sort of academic record really make traditional schools “the key to real school reform“?

The bar for responsible behavior from the governors of our school system needs to be higher, for this is not okay.  It is not okay for board members to tell parents that their traditional neighborhood middle schools are the “key to reform” when their students have less academic growth than the DPS average and only one of every three graduating 8th graders has basic skills. It is not okay to selectively choose four statistics and claim some providence of truth.

And it is expressly not okay to tell parents that these schools are the best we can do for their kids. Read the claim again:

“But the data are clear that neighborhood middle schools are exceeding the growth expectations of the Denver Plan. These schools are actually performing better than the district average, including all the newer schools.” [my emphasis]

The first part of this claim deserved analysis to see if it was true or not (it wasn’t).  The second part, that traditional neighborhood schools are “performing better than […] all the newer schools” is so preposterously wrong that no amount of selective manure can make it flower.

In 2011, two new middle schools that began in the past three years ranked first and ninth respectively for academic growth — not just in DPS, not solely among middle schools, but out of the sum total of the roughly 1,780 K-12 public schools in Colorado. Somehow in their call for truth, the two best middle schools for academic growth in Denver slipped past their listening ears (as did others).  There is no hearing aid that can cure that sort of intentional deafness.  And there is also no reason parents in traditional middle schools should not be told of these options and the differences in academic growth so they can decide for themselves which schools their kids should attend.

Why make such demonstrably false claims?

What should puzzle everyone reading this is: Why? Why make such absurd claims for traditional neighborhood schools — claims that can be debunked in less time than it took the Rockies to lose another game? Why segregate one group — traditional neighborhood middle schools — and make patently false claims of superiority?

Well, it’s election season, and the Op-Ed provided both mimicry and political cover for any candidates with whom these existing Board members share ideology. Election season means everyone digs in and guards their ideological turf.  Election season is ultimately about the votes of adults, not the academic success of kids.

And that’s the unfortunate point – this sort of perverse logic is what one gets when ideology eclipses truth: selective bouquets of carefully arranged data points, talking points, and pointless rhetoric. Four data points picked from a field of 108 and presented as definitive evidence.  Board members who wrongly accuse the administration of lying; who leak information to the press to damage their colleagues; who resort to legal shenanigans; who fail to understand, disclose, or manage finances.  All of this may be part and parcel of the viciousness of local educational politics, but at the point where board members are telling parents that schools are doing better than average when data shows the exact opposite, and are simultaneously silent about new options that are among the best in the state, well, it’s time to stop.

For this slavish devotion to ideology – the insistence that school type is what matters — goes against an argument that has been made over and over again on these and other pages, and which is critical to making any lasting improvements to public education: no one type of school guarantees success.  Most parents understand this intuitively — there are some excellent traditional schools, charter schools, and innovation schools.  There are some pretty lousy traditional schools, charter schools, and innovation schools.  Parents are different, and kids are different, and no single type of school has a priority claim over all others.

Denver’s board members should focus first on school quality, regardless of type, and they should not be selectively distorting data to make any group of schools look better than they really are.  For the truth the data tells us is that, particularly in middle school, we need the best of all types of schools so that we may no longer have the worst of any.


*Note: The eight traditional middle schools that compose this data are Grant, Henry, Hill, Kepner, Merrill, Noel, Skinner and Smiley.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.

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.