Dear Ethan,

May 15, 2014 | by Janice Smith

I am inspired by your articulate speech, your bravery in addressing a large issue like the Common Core head on and in a very public setting, and your desire to back up your beliefs with actions. I admire the parents, family, teachers and schools that taught you these skills (both academic and character) and who encouraged you to fight for what you believe in.

In the closing of your speech at the Knox County School Board meeting in November of last year, you challenged those listening with this;

The problems I cite are very real. I only ask that you hear them out, investigate them, and do not dismiss them as another fool’s criticisms.

Please know that we are certainly not dismissing them, and are appreciative for the opportunity to both listen, investigate and now respond. However, after much thought and conversation (six months to be exact) with fellow educators, teachers and school leaders, we’d like to share some of our responses. Allow me to start with the piece that stood out to me the most.

We teach to free minds. We teach to inspire. We teach to equip. The careers will come naturally.

This is beautiful, and I believe it. At its very core, education is about freeing minds and equipping students with what they need to open up a life full of choices. Choices of what you want to study in college, choices of how you want to spend your working life of forty to fifty years, the choice to change course along the way, and choices about where you live. These are all choices we are only privileged with if we start with a solid education; when that is missing, these choices are often removed. We are left taking whatever job we can get to pay the bills, and living in the only places we can afford (and there are certainly a lot less of both of these options when you do not have a high school or college degree).

I think there’s something missing here, however. There is a foundation on which the luxuries of ‘inspiration’ and ‘free minds’ are built. That is the foundation of being able to read and write (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10), being able to think critically (covered by practically every standard in the CCSS), solving multi-step problems (math or otherwise), approaching what you read and hear from a variety of perspectives (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8), and articulating these thoughts in both speech (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4) and writing (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1). This foundation is crucial to being able to free minds, inspire, and creatively produce. And while what you articulated are certainly beautiful ends-in-mind, and should absolutely be what we require from our schools, we cannot forget the piece that underlies our ability to do this. Something more basic (and perhaps not quite as sexy to talk about) must come first.  The Common Core is creating the standards that ensure every one gets that basic foundation first.

I, along with many others, would also argue that the two are not mutually exclusive.  Watch Ms. Hall and her first graders reading books on their own for the first time and try and convince me their mind hasn’t just been freed.  Observe Ms. Levin teaching Nightjohn to her 6th graders, and tell me they aren’t inspired by what an education did for that child slave.  Watch the 11th graders in Mr. Noble’s English class and tell me they aren’t becoming more equipped each day to tackle college and the world ahead of them.  Each of these teachers is guided by the Common Core State Standards, while also freeing minds, inspiring and equipping.

Many of us take these foundational skills for granted, as they are a given. Their parents began reading to them as soon as they were born, and they were reading ‘Hop on Pop’ or ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ out loud before ever entering their first classroom (maybe those were just my favorites?). Their vocabulary has been shaped by the conversations they were surrounded by growing up, and they were forced to think critically at the dinner table every night. I was one of these kids. Ethan, if I had to guess (and I could very well be wrong), you also fit into this camp. I will never apologize for my upbringing, but will instead regularly count my blessings. For there are many who enter school not yet having written their name, and those who have never heard of Dr. Seuss. It is these students I think of when I think of the importance of standards-based testing (not to be confused with standardized testing) and the Common Core.  Because if they haven’t entered school with these foundational skills, it is our job, and obligation, to provide them.  We must, as a public school system, be held accountable with guaranteeing these basic skills to ALL of their students.

So now I’d love to move on to the part of your speech discussing teachers.

These subjective, anxiety producers do more to damage a teacher’s self-esteem than you realize. A teacher cannot be evaluated without his students. How can you expect to gauge a teacher’s success with no control for student participation or interest?

First and foremost, I want to make it clear that my priority is always the students. Teachers are people who have chosen a career that is directly related to student success, and this success should drive every decision we make in our classrooms. While I can sympathize with the seriousness of high-stakes testing (I, myself, taught every year in a tested classroom), I also know that this is secondary to the importance of sending my students to the next grade ready to be successful.  Therefore I will start by acknowledging my bias towards students’ futures rather than teachers’ self-esteem.

That said, I would also like to strongly dispute your claim that teachers have no control for student participation or interest. In fact, I will admit I find it a bit insulting that others would think my students’ level of critical thinking, participation, engagement and ultimately mastery had nothing to do with the choices I made as a teacher. That constant self-reflection, rehearsing of lessons the night before, 3 parent phone calls every night and 3 notes to students each day have no impact on what our students accomplish. That carefully planned questions, rigorous assessments or the hours spent hand writing feedback on student writing does not result in increased student learning. That 95% student passage at the end of the year has nothing to do with the lessons delivered each day, or the countless hours spent tutoring after school, but instead just ‘the students I was given’. I’m pretty sure the team of teachers who taught my students from 5th through 12th grade would be hurt if you tried to make the claim that they had no impact on 100% of those students getting accepted to a four-year college (a drastically different number than that of the high school one mile away).

As an Instructional Coach, and someone who has built a career based on studying best practices in order to demystify and replicate excellent instruction, I would hate for my teachers to believe that they actually have no control over student outcomes. Why bother coaching them, planning professional development, or recommending good teacher reads if ultimately none of it matters in terms of student success? I encourage you to explore some additional research in the world of education, teacher effectiveness, and teacher coaching to better understand that teachers do in fact play a large role in things like student participation and investment, and that participation and investment do in fact lead to better student outcomes.

Standards based education is ruining the way we teach and learn. Yes I’ve already been told ‘this is just the way things work.’ But why? I’m gonna tell you why. Because this is a matter of bureaucratic convenience. I mean how convenient? Calculating exactly who knows what and who needs what? I mean why don’t we just manufacture robots instead of students.

As a teacher, I discovered data-driven instruction early on in my first year. I was preparing lessons every day in hopes that my students were ‘getting it’, with no real way of knowing. At the end of the year, my mentor and coach encouraged me to create a diagnostic, aligned with standards, that allowed me to see on Day 1 what my students knew and didn’t know. I assessed all major standards from the year, and input the data into a spreadsheet. I had a clear picture of where each student stood in September. As I taught objectives I then re-assessed them, providing more up-to-date data on my students. You could say I was calculating exactly ‘who knows what and who needs what’. This, however, was not for convenience sake (as you claimed was the reason for standards based education). In fact, it was often incredibly inconvenient. I had spent countless hours designing a lesson to teach an objective, and this data was now telling me 65% of my students hadn’t mastered it. I promise you this was not convenient. But, it was the right thing to do. Because now I was equipped with the information I needed to adjust my instruction, reflect on what I wasn’t doing well, and help support individual students who needed extra or different instruction. And when this data reveals students have mastered the foundational skills, we owe it to them as well to go above and beyond, and find the ways to keep them challenged and growing far beyond what any set of standards can require. THIS is the heart of teaching.

Yes, ‘data-driven’ sounds ugly, impersonal, and like nothing you will find in ‘Dead Poets Society’ or ‘Freedom Writers’. It sounds less fun than ‘freeing minds and inspiring instruction’. But THIS is what builds that foundation that leads to free minds and inspiration. This allows Ms. Levine to properly support Devonte in both reading and understanding Nightjohn so that he too can be inspired.  This is the relentless, less than pretty, frustrating, time consuming, and incredible work that leads to impressive academic growth and gap closing schools. This is what Teacher Appreciation Week should really be all about.

So in closing, Ethan, please don’t lose site of the fact that what you did on November 13, and then shared internet-wide afterwards, was such an incredible example of an authentic assessment, or the ‘end in mind’ we seek for all our students who are getting ready to graduate high school. This was an incredible measure of success for your parents, family and teachers in producing a truly valuable citizen who is now faced with unlimited opportunities thanks to the education he received.

I ask, similar to the ask you posed at the end of your speech, that you hear our perspective out, investigate, and do not dismiss it as another ‘Ed Reformers push for data-driven instruction’. Read the Common Core State Standards. Think about what they are asking of our students, and the skills they are equipping them with. Speak to teachers and students in schools outside of your community. Perhaps in some of the highest-poverty and lowest performing districts in the country. I promise they are not low performing because they are not capable, not hungry for inspiration or the desire to ‘free their minds’. You will be amazed by what they have to teach you about potential, realized expectation, and the support and push they need from their teachers in order to find the same life full of choices.

With appreciation, and an eagerness to see what you are able to accomplish in the future.

Janice Smith

(These ideas are mine, and while politically I should probably separate them from Mission 100% as an entity, I cannot deny that these beliefs, experiences and perspectives greatly shaped its creation, its work, and hopefully its future.)

This entry was posted in Education Ramblings. Bookmark the permalink.

blog comments powered by Disqus