On How We Should Close the Achievement Gap.

This is a tall order: closing the achievement gap.

You hear about it all the time, and it’s actually something I’m really interested in discussing with others. One of my education professors from UNC posted a Washington Post article about the topic (which I encourage you to read) and it got me thinking (and a little riled up).

Yes, it is vital to know how to read and do math to be successful in society, but what happens when there are other, more pertinent things, keeping a child from mastering content? Hunger? Exhaustion? Abusive family members? Students cannot be expected to learn and be deemed “proficient” on standardized assessments when we haven’t addressed these very serious, very real issues that students face every single day.

I teach eight-year-olds. Some of the eight-year-olds I’ve taught in the last two and a half years were homeless, came from single-parent homes (where that parent worked multiple jobs), took care of their younger siblings (yes, eight-year-olds caring for toddlers), watched their fathers get deported, lived in fear of immigration services taking them, lost parents to prison and death, and I even had a child this year get kidnapped by his own father and taken to Mexico.

That child didn’t even get to start the school year with us; his mom is still in court trying to find him and get him and his brother back to the States.

Do you think those kids have the capacity to learn how to multiply right now?

These kids don’t need more homework or another negative presence in their lives. These kids just need to be loved. We must meet students where they are and show compassion; teaching is a profession that must be rooted in love and trust. We must be champions for our students, advocating for them and showing them how to stand up for themselves. Their lives are important, and they’re the ones who will shape the future.

I promise that I understand the need to perform well on tests; I see that side of the argument. Students need to know how to decode words and add numbers, but don’t they need to know so much more?

To close the achievement gap, I think we need to take a step back and refocus our curriculum. Common Core has a lot of pros in my opinion, coming from an elementary perspective at least — the spiraling standards lend itself to strong vertical alignment, and I appreciate the depth of the standards. It’s a nice concept that there are College and Career Readiness standards, but I still think we need something more.

We need to teach kids how to be good, kind people, and there’s a lot of value in that! There needs to be a stronger character education piece in our curriculum, especially in elementary grades to lay a firm foundation of socialization and emotional understanding. We need to teach kids how to interact with others and how to be more than just book smart. I would much rather have a student be a caring member of our classroom community than be a master all of the Common Core reading standards by the end of third grade.

So I suppose the question remains: how do we close the achievement gap? Well, we should probably start focusing on the whole child and not just a smudged bubble sheet.

The Teacher Advocate.

I’ve always been a big fan of advocating for public schools. I teach in a public school and am a product of North Carolina public schools, all the way up to the university level. I am registered to vote, and I do my research prior to election day on who’s a champion for public education in my district (and yes, I check voting records – if you’re gonna talk big education game, you better back it up). I am highly interested in educational policy and how politics and education coincide, making this final Kenan Fellows professional institute a dream come true for me.

Thursday and Friday were two days spent with my fellow Fellows engaging in conversation topics revolving around educational policy at both the state and federal level. We had many fantastic speakers grace us with their presence, including a mock show of NC Spin (NERD ALERT: I am obsessed) and many NC House Representatives. We heard from a political analyst and former Fellows who are now using their powers to make an impact with legislators.

After these two days of professional development and intense learning (we’re talking like this was the definition of rigor), my mind hasn’t been able to shut off. I just want to learn more, read more, write more, email more, communicate more. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. So, here’s my attempt to write all this out of my brain in a stream-of-consciousness fashion so I can process other things in my life, like when I’m going to pick up my new gas cap for my Jeep and what fabulous outfits I’m going to pack for my Asheville trip next weekend.

Your responses/answers/comments to any questions are very much welcome, because I most definitely don’t have the answers to these questions…yet.

  • How are we keeping private schools in our state accountable? Is anyone keeping them accountable? Our state constitution says that the state money allotted to public schools must go to public schools, so we shouldn’t be trying to use this money for vouchers to send kids to private schools (that kind of defeats the purpose). Though our state constitution also uses language like “children have a right to the opportunity of a good education,” what defines a “good education?”
  • In 2013, NC spending looked a little like this: $12.1 Billion in the entire budget, $8 Billion of the budget going to K-12 education; 63% of that coming from the state, 22% coming from local districts, and 14% coming from the federal level. Comparing this to other states, many only provide 42% state and 42% local investments. Personally, I think it’s great that NC provides so much to schools from the state level. This definitely levels the playing field for other counties where resources aren’t abundant, and where populations aren’t as high. I also find it ridiculous to fund public schools with property taxes and not something consumable; a better education leads to better jobs, which leads to the stimulation of the economy. Funding schools with property taxes is ultimately limiting.
  • We need to understand that the percent of the NC budget going to K-12 education was 52% and now it’s dropped down to 37%. This is due to other things, like Medicaid, needing to be funded first. Education is ending up with the short end of the stick, getting funded by whatever is left over. How can we combat this? Is there a better way to anticipate budget needs at the state level?
  • NC is 48th in the nation regarding teacher pay. We’re 38th in the nation regarding per pupil spending (we spend $8900/student a year in comparison to $11,300/student, which is the average in the nation). How do we begin to turn this around? On what things should we be spending for each child in the classroom?
  • How exactly are public schools working? How are we basing our answer to this? Are we using criterion- or norm-based data? I believe the answer has to be more than just numbers.
  • Some NC teachers received a pay raise this year, others didn’t. I was fortunate enough to receive one, and that’s only because I’m a third year teacher. I believe the legislative intent wasn’t front-loaded, and many seasoned educators got screwed over because of it. There’s been whispers of making teacher pay merit-based, looking at the NC EVAAS Standard VI piece of the evaluation to determine pay. My question to this is simple: How are you going to do that? This is my third year teaching in a Title I school, and I’ve had many students below proficiency in my classes. How are you going to mark me as a poor educator looking at my test scores? There are five other parts of the evaluation you must consider, legislature: don’t use just one to pay me.
  • NC is the most wired state in America. All of our schools have internet access, though not every classroom does. I had no idea of this fact and am now incredibly curious how we can make it so that all classrooms have access — technology is the future, and we need to get it in the hands of our kids so that they’re prepared for the real world.
  • In 1996, standardized testing really started getting big. It was purely diagnostic. Its initial intentions were to identify students at the beginning of the year who needed a little more help; then, those students were supposed to be given adequate assistance throughout the year and test again in the spring to show growth. The problem is that these students never received the additional instruction they needed, so the test results were showing that students weren’t making gains. Legislators, THIS is why it’s important we have support staff in our schools at every level — we need to meet these kids where they are so that we can help them get to where they need to be.
  • The Education Lottery is a JOKE. Makes me pretty sad that this is a way the state thought schools would actually get funding. Education should be funded in a way that is transparent.
  • Here’s my big kicker: 26% of students in NC are currently living in poverty. There are 1,443,998 students enrolled in public schools in NC, making 26% of those students a whopping 375,439 students living in poverty and going to public school in NC. Y’all, if that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what could. We need to deal with poverty head on before anything else. This isn’t just an education issue, this is a human rights issue. If we’re going to ensure that every child has the opportunity for a good education, we need to make sure these kids have food in their stomachs and resources at home. I feel like there are many people who believe that education should be the sole fixer of social issues like poverty, but how can we be? Educators can’t fix problems of that magnitude alone. This is an everybody, all-hands-on-deck issue with which people should be concerned. There are arguments saying that poor schools produce poor neighborhoods, and there’s a counter-argument that says poor neighborhoods produce poor schools. Ultimately, isn’t it both? Isn’t it just a cycle of poverty and negativity from which we aren’t saving students? Some believe that vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships” are the beginning of a solution to this. I’m wrestling with this more now than I ever have. Yes, I think students should have an equal chance to get a good public education. Yes, I think students of all races and backgrounds should interact together in school. Does this mean that the money for public schools should go to private investors (parents) to send their child to another school out of their neighborhood? How can we ensure that children of all backgrounds are interacting with one another in a school setting? I firmly believe that cultural competence is something that should be highlighted in schools, but how can you do that when all the white kids are sitting in the shiny new school with SmartBoards in every classroom and all the brown kids are sitting in the run-down school that hasn’t seen a renovation since the 1980s?

The people running our state aren’t necessarily anti-education, but the question remains: who’s standing up for it? This is where The Teacher Advocate comes in. Friends, I encourage YOU to stand up for education.

After talking with a friend the other day, she stated that it was like legislators don’t know the issues in our classrooms; this begged me to ask, “Well…do they?” I don’t think the people making decisions on behalf of education are fully aware of the implications of their actions. They don’t realize the problems that we as educators are facing, so it’s our job to change that.

If we want to make change and see good come for our students, it must start first with us. We need to take the first steps in guiding our state to see how imperative it is that we are doing what’s best for our kids.

So, if we’re taking the first steps here, let’s put on our big girl/boy pants and contact our representatives. Don’t know who your representatives are? That’s okay! If you’re in NC, I recommend you check this out; if you’re out of NC, look for a similar link about your state’s general assembly. Think about what you want to communicate to your representatives, and make sure it’s timely and something about which you’re passionate. Do your research before going in to chat (oh, did I forget to mention that a face-to-face conversation is the most influential way to speak to a representative?!) — you will want to know what the person you’re going to talk to looks like. It’s crucial to build a relationship with these people, y’all. Don’t go in swinging bats and throwing ninja stars; just go in with an open mind and a passionate heart. You’re there for those kids sitting in your classrooms without access to technology. You’re there for those kids walking in the door with no breakfast in their stomachs. You’re there for those kids who don’t have anyone else to stand up for them.

You are part of this profession, this calling, because it chose you. Yes, it chose you — you might think you chose to teach, but y’all know this calling ain’t for the faint of heart. You’re in this to win this — you’re a champion for those kids you impact every single day, and you’re a champion for all the other teachers out there (and never forget that you’re a champion for yourself — this nation needs to understand that what we do is invaluable and essential and that you are a professional whose job must be done daily). Right now is our policy window to extend a hand and raise our voices. There is no better time than right now, North Carolina, than to stand up and speak out in the sweet name of public education.

A Tragic Day for Public Education in North Carolina

This breaks my heard to read. As a public school teacher in the state of North Carolina, I’m so saddened to know that those creating educational policy haven’t any idea of the implications of their current actions.

If you want to see any kind of positive growth in the state, you need to hold education as a top priority.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Yvonne Brannan of Public Schools First NC sent the following comment:

“It is a tragic day in NC for our public schools, their teachers and students. The cuts to education reflect a very aggressive attack on public education. Eliminating $110 million for teacher assistants, eliminating teacher tenure, eliminating class size limits for K-3, no raise again this year, all of these unnecessary cuts wipe out three decades of steady progress. The most damaging is allowing for our hard earned tax dollars to be transferred to private schools. The privatization of public schools threatens the very cornerstone of our democracy and violates our state constitution. This is beyond comprehension and represents the worst public policy I have ever witnessed in NC History. These cuts to public education will have a direct impact at the classroom level, impacting every single one of our 1.5 million public school children. The General Assembly has…

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