I cut standardized test prep out of my lessons and focused on relationships. Student growth was the highest of my career.

If you’re a teacher, you might know the feeling.  You maintain a frantic pace all year long, trying to shoehorn an impossible amount of the prescribed curriculum into a limited amount of time because ‘it might be on the test.’  You sprinkle multiple choice test taking tips into your lessons to help kids squeeze out a few extra correct answers. Your students practice using released test items from previous years–whole class periods sent sitting in front of a computer screen in silence to build stamina in preparation for the year-end standardized test that will measure your success and theirs.

Yet when the scores come out in June, you’re dismayed with the results.  Why on earth did Maria score so poorly? How is it possible that Johnny shined in class but dropped two achievement levels on the test?

We really can’t blame teachers for taking this approach.  They know their students’ test scores will be displayed on the big screen during a faculty meeting for their colleagues to see.  Incoming tech-savvy parents will research whether their child is getting a ‘good teacher.’ A school report card grade will be determined in part by their students’ scores.  There may even be some money riding on the outcomes.  The pressure can lead to an inordinate amount of time spent preparing for the test.

But at some point we have to ask ourselves if what we’re doing is right for our kids.  At some point we have to wonder if our MO might be part of the problem.

After seeing the above cycle play out in my own classes too many times, last year I resolved to try an experiment.  I eliminated test prep from my curriculum, instead focusing on building strong relationships and devoting ample time to deep and engaging lessons with students at the center.

Here are a few of the goals I set for the year:

  • Getting to know my students as individuals:  I made it an intentional practice to talk more regularly with students about their personal lives, about their families and their interests outside of school.
  • Focusing extra attention on my quiet, withdrawn students:  I was especially deliberate about letting those under-the-radar students know that I saw them and that I appreciated their contributions to our class, even while respecting their boundaries.  
  • Sharing personal stories:  I was much more open to telling students about my own life–stories from my childhood to illustrate points in class, things about my family and personal experiences that were relevant to our discussions.  
  • Taking time for positive home-school communications:  On a regular basis, I contacted parents with good news regarding students’ progress or positive interactions that I saw.  I used this approach especially with students I suspected did not get enough of that type of reinforcement.
  • Pushing back against that panicky feeling that ‘we don’t have time for this’:  I made more time for engaging class discussions about everything from literature to current events instead of cutting meaningful learning experiences off early or eliminating them entirely just to keep on schedule.
  • Maintaining an upbeat, enthusiastic attitude:  I embraced my role as the model for what I wanted to see in my students and did my best to stay positive at all times–especially on days when I wasn’t feeling it.

As test season approached, I didn’t deviate from our routine except to let students know that the test was one important measure of their learning this year and that I wanted them to take it seriously and do their best.  Beyond that I told them I was already really proud of their progress this year and that this score was not the only way we had of determining their success. We kept on with business as usual right up until testing began.

When the individual score reports came back, I experienced the usual roller coaster of emotions–elation over students who showed tremendous progress, disappointment with results that were lower than I knew my students had wanted.  It wasn’t until I looked at overall numbers that I could see the real impact of the changes I had made. Students passing the state’s End of Grade reading test had increased by nearly 12%, and my value-added growth measure was the highest I’d ever received.  From a testing standpoint, it was the best result my students have achieved in the 23 years I’ve been in the classroom.

My experience from this past year confirms what research has been documenting for decades:  relationships matter.  Students who know that their teacher cares deeply about them and has their best interests at heart are more likely to be engaged and learning at a high level.  This is especially true if the learning opportunities they find when they walk into the classroom are deep and engaging. Furthermore, those students we’ve taken the time to build meaningful relationships with are more motivated to demonstrate their learning on a standardized test.  

We have to stop letting fear of results warp our classroom practice and do what is right for our students.  The results will take care of themselves.

In the aftermath of the GOP supermajority, NC teachers are ready for change

Last month the Wall Street Journal released a bombshell report:  teachers are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate ever recorded.  Across the country, the growing number of unfilled teaching positions means schools must increasingly hire people with no education training or rely on substitute teachers.  The exodus comes as unprecedented teacher protests in several states have forced school closures and focused national attention on the desperate condition of our public education system.

One of those states is North Carolina.  In May, 20,000 teachers filled the streets in Raleigh to express their dissatisfaction with the unravelling of public education under the GOP supermajority.  We vowed to topple that supermajority at the polls and put our state back on the right track when it comes to support for our schools.  In November we did just that, ending Republican supermajority control of both chambers of the legislature, electing many new, pro-education candidates and giving Governor Cooper the ability to sustain his veto.  

Education advocates hope we’ll now see more of the transparency and dialogue that have been conspicuously absent from governance in North Carolina since 2011.  GOP leadership regularly buried major education initiatives deep in budget bills, preventing the thoughtful debate and stakeholder input that are so essential to good policy.  The current decline of our education system is a direct result of that misguided approach.

Rebuilding education in our state will be a massive undertaking.  Under the supermajority, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations have deprived the state of billions of dollars in revenue, per-student funding lags 25% below the national average, and teacher pay is mired in 37th place.  It may be difficult for our new-look General Assembly to know where to start, but here are five things state legislators need to do this year:

Restore teaching assistants:  We’ve lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants due to budget cuts, crippling teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction and manage behavior.  Adding those positions back would improve student learning outcomes in a big way.

Provide trauma-informed training: Our students’ adverse life experiences take a tremendous toll on them both mentally and physically.  In Buncombe County, trauma-informed approaches have provided much-needed social and emotional support and resulted in improvement in test scores and attendance as well as reductions in discipline referrals and suspensions.  It’s time to take that movement statewide.

Overhaul school report cards:  Currently, NC school report card grades are based on an 80/20 achievement/growth formula which measures socioeconomic status more accurately than student learning.  If we insist on assigning a single letter to measure school quality, we should feature growth more prominently than achievement and stop unfairly stigmatizing high-poverty schools as failures.

Reinstate the charter cap: Since the legislature lifted the 100 school cap in 2011, the number of charters operating in NC has nearly doubled.  These schools are deepening economic and racial segregation and often failing to provide better alternatives to students who need them most.  Their unchecked growth is unhealthy for our education system.

Pay teachers well:  After teacher compensation dropped to national embarrassment level, legislators have provided moderate pay increases over the past few years.  North Carolina educators still earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average and plateau after only 15 years of service.  Paying teachers fairly must be a major priority in 2019.

Under the leadership of ‘Education Governor’ Jim Hunt, North Carolina was a national beacon in education.  When the General Assembly reconvenes on January 9, one of its newest members will be Hunt’s daughter, District 103 Representative Rachel Hunt.  Along with her new colleagues, Representative Hunt is eager to begin restoring the state to its position as a leader in education so that beacon can shine again.  North Carolina’s public school teachers are ready.