NC Superintendent’s testing changes miss the point. The problem is in the stakes.

*note: This article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer

This week I administered a long, multiple choice standardized reading test in my 7th grade Language Arts classes.  It was the second of three such assessments throughout the year which are intended to measure student growth before the End Of Grade test in May.  As usual, student reactions ranged from debilitating levels of anxiety to a profound lack of engagement–I had to wake up one student three times during the test.  In general, it was the exact opposite of how I want evidence of learning in my classroom to look.

In the middle of the test, an email from NC Superintendent Mark Johnson announcing changes in high-stakes standardized testing practices hit my inbox.  In the message, Johnson spoke of the harmful stress caused by our current assessment approach and the counterproductive testing culture that has developed over the last decade.  He went on to list a number of changes which will be rolled out this school year:

  • Reducing the number of questions on tests
  • Reducing the time students must sit for tests
  • Changing testing policies to reduce stress at schools around testing time
    • eliminating the restriction that prevented teachers from reviewing test-taking strategies with students before tests
    • eliminating the requirement to have proctors, and more. (My time as a volunteer proctor last school year was a critical firsthand experience.)
  • Working with local leaders to reduce the number of tests
  • Pushing to eliminate tests not required by Washington, D.C.
  • Giving students other ways to show progress if they have a bad test day
  • Using the appropriate amount of technology as a tool for students and teachers to personalize learning and eliminate tests

Oddly, the NC Department of Public Instruction’s official testing program update page contains no mention of the changes whatsoever (although Johnson’s campaign website posted a video of him talking about the topic on Spectrum News).  In a Raleigh News and Observer piece entitled “Testing in NC schools could get less stressful,” DPI spokesman Drew Elliot offered a little more detail, explaining that EOG tests would get shorter, lasting two hours instead of three, and that students may be permitted to leave the room once they’ve completed their test.  

It’s important for us to have conversations about the negative impact our testing culture has on children, and I appreciate the fact that those conversations have begun.  However, the changes proposed by Superintendent Johnson largely ignore the real problem. The problem is in the stakes.

North Carolina’s standardized testing culture is driven by state policies enacted under the Republican supermajority which award letter grades to schools based on scores, determine principal salaries and sizeable teacher bonuses through test results, and retain third graders who can’t pass the test (nearly 20,000 last year).  It’s rooted in federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a multiple choice test score.  

These policies result in tremendous pressure on school leaders and classroom teachers.  That pressure is passed on to students in the form of developmentally inappropriate, dull and repetitive learning activities in which the real goal is not authentic learning but getting the desired score.  

This year I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact of our testing culture on my third grade daughter.  Too much of her class time is taken up by long multiple choice assessments. Her anxiety is more than any eight year old should be asked to shoulder, and opportunities for exploring her own interests and using her imagination–the very things that can help schools to create lifelong learners–are few and far between.  I know she is in for a long spring of test prep with her first End Of Grade tests on the horizon. How much of a difference does it really make if that test lasts two hours instead of three?

If our state superintendent is serious about changing our harmful testing culture, he must press state legislators for changes in the policies that are actually causing that culture.  He needs to advocate for policies which will afford teachers the time and trust to implement frequent, low-stakes activities for measuring student learning in ways that are healthy and motivational.  Until Mark Johnson becomes willing to lower the stakes, what he calls “revolutionary” reforms will, in reality, change very little for our teachers and students.

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

*note: this piece appeared in the Washington Post

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.

Five things NC lawmakers can do for public education in 2019

*Note: this article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer

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.  

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.

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.

A defense of creative writing in the age of standardized testing

*This piece first appeared in Teachers & Writers Magazine

Ask any English teacher what he or she could use more of, and chances are you’ll get the same answer.  Classroom resources are great, more money would be nice, but what we really need is more time.  Just like in any other discipline, English teachers have way more curriculum than we can cover in a year.  Time constraints force educators to prioritize by order of what feels most important, and all too often that importance is determined by what’s going to be on the test.    Our students pay the price as activities that cultivate essential real-world skills such as collaboration and creativity and provide them with a much more engaging and well-rounded education are eliminated from their classes.

Educators are under enormous pressures stemming from a data-driven culture most recently rooted in No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a standardized test score.  As a result of this standardized testing culture, many of our English students spend way too much time reading random passages which are completely detached from their lives and answering multiple choice questions in an attempt to improve test results.  In many classrooms, writing has become little more than an afterthought.  Creative writing, in particular, is seen by some as a frivolous waste of time because its value is so difficult to justify with data.

Two decades before the advent of No Child Left Behind, the research of influential literacy professor Gail Tompkins identified seven compelling reasons why children should spend time writing creatively in class:

  • to entertain
  • to foster artistic expression
  • to explore the functions and values of writing
  • to stimulate imagination
  • to clarify thinking
  • to search for identity
  • to learn to read and write

The majority of Tompkins’s outcomes of creative writing could never be measured on today’s standardized tests.  Indeed, over the same period that standardized reading tests have pushed writing in English classes to the sidelines, efforts to evaluate student writing on a broad, systematic scale have dwindled.  Measuring student writing is expensive, and accurately assessing abstract thinking requires human resources most states aren’t willing to pony up.  It’s much cheaper to score a bubble sheet.

Measurement and assessment aside, the soft skills that we cultivate through regular creative writing with our students have tremendous real-world application as well as helping to promote the kind of atmosphere we want in our classrooms.  After many years as an English teacher, I’ve found that carving out regular time for creative writing in class provides benefits for me and my students that we simply don’t get from other activities.

One of the benefits of creative writing in the classroom is how engaging it is for our students.  In general, much of our curriculum follows a one-size-fits-all design and allows little room for freedom of exploration. For young people who are at a time in life when many of their decisions are made for them, this lack of power can be very demotivating and can negatively impact their interest and effort.  To do their best work, students need to feel that school is about them, and they need to feel connected to the content on a personal level.   When students are given opportunities to experiment with their voices and create through their own original work, they feel a sense of place and they are able to feel in charge.  That’s when they shine.

A former student and talented writer told me the following about her relationship with creative writing in the classroom:

Creative writing is important to me because it gives me a way to express myself. There are not a lot of ways, as a young teenager, to be able to freely express ideas and emotions. Many are personal feelings you wouldn’t really want to share with others. But in writing you can put all of those mixed emotions into words. Next thing you know, you’ve created an entirely different universe, with characters close to your heart. Everything is under your complete control. That is not something that you can experience in reality, even reading a book. The feeling that you have created something, something that you can call your own, is what makes it incredible.

When we empower our students to create something that is only theirs, to make big choices in their writing, it can transform attitudes toward learning and school in general.  Having students who are motivated to work to their full potential is a dream scenario for any teacher.  Regular creative writing can help us to move in that direction.

Another very real benefit of creative writing in the classroom is that it can help to develop a sense of community among our students.  In our bitterly polarized society, any activity that fosters empathy and collaboration is well worth our time.  Students can share writing with each other at the drafting phase, working together to hone their individual stories.  This teamwork allows our students to support each other and work to understand each other’s perspectives.  In addition to peer editing, having students co-author creative pieces, whether as an informal ‘chain story’ type activity or a longer, more polished product, can go a long way in nurturing the skills required for effective partnership.  Sharing responsibility in the creative process serves as a powerful motivator for our students, often leading to better quality writing.

It’s unlikely that our English teachers are going to get the additional time they so desperately need.  What we’re left with is the task of prioritizing class content in such a way that we’re truly meeting all the needs of our students.  Data is an important tool in helping us to measure how well we’re meeting those needs, but our definition of data must be broad enough to include outcomes that can’t be captured with a standardized test.  We must trust our English teachers to plan instruction that is in the best interests of their students and to know when they’ve succeeded.  As a regular part of that instruction, creative writing can empower our students and give them ownership so critical to their motivation.  It can provide them essential practice at partnering with their peers in a world where more effective collaboration is sorely needed.  At its most powerful, creative writing can help turn our English courses into the life-changing experience that all educators want their classes to be.

An open letter to Secretary DeVos about arming teachers

This letter was also published by The Washington Post

Dear Secretary DeVos,

Last month my 7th grade students and I huddled on the floor of my classroom during yet another lockdown.  As the minutes ticked slowly past, I made eye contact with each student, one by one. I could see on their faces the absolute trust that I would guide them through whatever challenges we faced.

In the wake of the horrific gun deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last Valentine’s Day, the White House convened a school safety commission with you at the helm.  The Federal Commission on School Safety’s task was a really important one:  to find ways to keep us safer in our schools.

While your commission deliberated, the public did too.  Here’s what we came up with:

  • Teachers said they don’t want to carry guns.
  • Parents said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.
  • Teens said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.

Notice a trend?  

We did have some alternative suggestions, which we offered at every possible opportunity.  We asked for stricter firearms laws, including raising the age limit for gun purchases.  We wanted access to the assault weapons so frequently used in our nation’s mass shootings to be restricted.  We wanted increased resources for the chronically underfunded mental health supports that our students need to be socially and emotionally healthy.  

This week your commission released its final report.  

Among other things, your recommendation is that school systems consider training and arming personnel, including teachers, as ‘an effective tool in stopping acts of school violence.’  You considered raising the age limit for gun purchases but determined it ‘unlikely to be an effective method for preventing or reducing school shootings.’ The report did not discuss additional federal funding for mental health.

When our students are having trouble mastering a concept, we find an alternative way to teach it.  Since clear public polling didn’t seem to impact your commission’s decision-making process, let me explain my thoughts on the issue another way.

Like so many others, I have dedicated my life to public education and believe deeply in its potential for changing futures.  Our schools must be safe and nurturing spaces for those paths to develop, and occasionally they are not. I often play through the mental scenario of an armed intruder bursting through the classroom door, and I have no doubt that, if it came to that, my colleagues and I would lay down our lives for these students that we care so much about.

But I would quit teaching before I’d carry a gun in school–or even work in a place where my colleagues were armed.

What makes the magic in our public schools possible is the positive culture that professional educators work so hard to establish.  The relationships we build with our students help them see our classrooms as a safe harbor, a place where they will be respected and given the support they need to succeed.  That’s why, during a lockdown, I can look at each individual in my care and see the trust written on every single face–despite the fact that I’m unarmed.

We can’t keep that all-important culture intact while militarizing our classrooms.  It’s as simple as that.

I understand that your lack of experience in education makes it much more difficult for you to understand the nuances of national gun violence and school culture.  That’s why it’s so critical for you to listen to educators and to parents who, unlike you, have chosen to entrust their children to public schools. Hear us when we say that adding more guns to our buildings is not going to solve school shootings–it will only make things worse.  Statistically speaking, our schools are still very safe places to be.  The notion of a pistol-packing badass teacher taking out a villain in a blaze of gunfire sounds like the action movie fantasy of an out-of-touch, NRA-purchased politician.  

Let’s leave the firearms to law enforcement professionals.  

Sincerely,

Justin Parmenter

7th grade public school teacher

Charlotte, NC

North Carolina’s teacher bonus scheme isn’t working. Let’s put that money into something we know does.


Next month a select group of North Carolina teachers will earn sizable bonuses–potentially more than $9000–for student performance on standardized tests.  The bonus scheme was conceived by Senator Phil Berger and implemented by state lawmakers in the 2016 budget.  Teachers first received the payments in January of 2017.  

That first year, only third grade reading teachers and some high school teachers were eligible to receive the additional money.  Legislators have since expanded the program to include reading for grades 3-5 and math in grades 4-8 in addition to high school AP, IB, and CTE courses.  This year a total of almost $39 million will be spent on the annually recurring teacher bonuses.  

Since we now have three years of data to compare, let’s look at the impact the bonuses are having on student learning in the subject that was first targeted:

After a very slight uptick the first year bonuses were paid out, third grade reading proficiency dropped almost two full percentage points in 2017-18.  Those results are consistent with research on the impact of financial incentives in education which finds that, not only do bonuses fail to increase student achievement, in some cases they even decrease it.  Introducing a spirit of competition among educators that you are already underpaying isolates teachers and damages the relationships that are critical to maintaining a positive school culture where collaboration and learning can flourish.  When the thousands of dollars in extra pay means those teachers may be able to pay off medical bills or quit their second job and have more time with their family it’s difficult to blame them.

Another fundamental flaw with the idea of offering teachers significant bonus money for standardized test scores is that this approach assumes that teachers aren’t already trying their best, that they are sitting on some excellent techniques which they will only pull out when they’re coaxed in the right way.  That’s not true of the teachers I know. We do our best to teach every single day despite low wages because we are committed to this job, and because we understand how crucial our efforts are to the futures of the students we serve.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that there are a whole host of other influences besides teaching quality that go into standardized test results.  But that is a topic for another blog post.

If state legislators are really interested in helping teachers to grow professionally, they need to restore funding for professional development which was cut from the budget during the height of the recession a decade ago and has never been restored.  Unlike monetary bonuses, effective professional development leads to higher student achievement.  When teachers are given the opportunity to collaborate, share best practices, implement new strategies, and receive ongoing support over time, they actually get better at teaching.  Unfortunately, those opportunities are few and far between.

North Carolina’s teacher bonuses are an unimaginative scheme hatched by state legislators who don’t have a clear understanding of what works in schools.  Rather than continuing to waste millions of taxpayer dollars and harm teacher morale, let’s focus on paying a decent base salary, go back to the drafting table, and find a path forward for teacher development that can really help students grow.  And this time invite some actual teachers to join that conversation.

New study finds that stress caused by high-stakes testing disproportionately impacts students of poverty

New research has established a physiological link between levels of stress prompted by high-stakes standardized testing and performance on those tests.  Researchers at Northwestern University, Texas A & M, and the Naval Postgraduate School found that the more economically disadvantaged students were, the more likely it was for their test results to be negatively impacted by test-induced stress.  The results call into serious question the wisdom of using standardized test scores as a primary measure for school achievement and as a critical driver of education policy.

Researchers measured levels of cortisol–a stress hormone found in saliva–to arrive at their findings.  They found that, during standardized testing, levels of cortisol increased an average of 15% over non-testing weeks.  Comparing results on the exam with other academic measures, they were able to document that those with the largest changes in cortisol levels scored much lower than expected on the exams.  Students living in the highest-poverty and highest-crime neighborhoods demonstrated the largest swings in cortisol. Researchers surmise that those changes in cortisol levels disrupt concentration and lead to disengagement with the testing environment.

This study has important implications for education policy everywhere, but particularly in North Carolina.  Our state relies heavily on standardized testing results to determine so many things: sizable teacher bonuses, placement in advanced courses (which can alter a student’s life trajectory), school report card grades and more.  Despite overwhelming community opposition, the NC State Board of Education is currently considering the addition of Wayne County’s 90% economically disadvantaged Carver Heights Elementary to the Innovative School District, a program which takes control of schools with chronically low standardized test scores away from the state and gives it to charters and other private organizations.  The school has earned an ‘F’ school report card grade for the last three years based on high-stakes testing results.

We’ve got to stop using one flawed measure that disadvantages students of poverty to drive so much of our policy.  Any good classroom teacher will tell you that broad and varied measures lead to the most accurate picture of student ability.  It’s high time we started using that approach at the state and federal levels as well.

 

 

Cultivating Kindness in an Unkind World

a version of this piece was published in Education Week

This fall, gun violence created waves of panic and helplessness in my school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, when a freshman at Butler High School shot and killed a classmate in the hallway over a personal conflict.  With more than 80 incidents of gunfire on American school grounds already this year, it had seemed like only a matter of time.  How did we get to the point where such tragic events are now accepted as inevitable? How can we shift the interpersonal dynamics in our schools and in our society to make incidents like this less common?  

Psychologists have been administering a test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory for more than 30 years.  Over that period, they’ve seen a consistent rise in levels of narcissism and a corresponding drop in feelings of empathy.  Individuals with higher narcissism scores are more likely to lash out in anger, while those with lower empathy scores are less likely to help others in need.

Look what has happened to school shooting numbers during those decades:

I’d already been thinking a lot about the decline in positive interactions in our society and how we might more effectively teach character in our schools. But this local act of gun violence added a new sense of urgency to my goal of building community and cultivating kindness between students.  Twenty plus years of experience teaching prescribed character education lessons have shown me that an adult simply talking about character or modelling positive behavior does not often lead to the changes we want to see in our children. There had to be a more impactful approach.

A few years ago, researchers at the University of Wisconsin set out to answer the question ‘Can compassion be learned?’  They wanted to see whether practicing the mindset of caring would lead to more caring behavior, and the results of their study were very promising.  After practicing compassion towards friends, strangers, and even people they’d had conflict with, participants showed increased activity in the region of the brain associated with empathy and understanding.  Just like learning to write the letters of the alphabet or using the quadratic formula, it was regular opportunities to practice the skill that made it more likely they would successfully use the skill on their own.

With that in mind, I created an assignment to give my 7th grade Language Arts students the opportunity to practice compassion towards each other.  I called it Undercover Agents of Kindness.

To increase interaction between students who did not normally talk to each other, I had students draw a random classmate’s name from a bowl.  After they drew names, I was shocked to hear some of them had no idea who the other person was–even after being in class together for two months and in many cases attending the same school for years.  Students had two weeks to perform an unexpected act of kindness for the other person and complete a written ‘mission report’ detailing what they did and how it went.  

Soon I began to see encouraging sticky notes on lockers in the hallway.  Batches of homemade cupcakes and bags of leftover Halloween candy made their way onto desks in my classroom, as did origami, inspirational quotes, and hand-drawn portraits.  I heard compliments exchanged about all kinds of things. Students I’d never seen together started offering to carry each other’s books and musical instruments to the next class.  As the mission reports started trickling in, I read accounts of children studying together, inviting others to sit together at lunch, helping others put football equipment on at practice.

However, it was my students’ reflections on the kindness activity that revealed its impact most.  Again and again they acknowledged that it was difficult and felt awkward to approach someone they didn’t know well and do something for them.  But almost every time they added that they were proud of themselves for doing it anyway and felt the power in brightening someone else’s day.

As part of our reflection on the assignment, I solicited student advice on what I could do to improve ‘Agents of Kindness.’  My students offered many helpful suggestions, including drawing names from the whole grade level instead of just individual classes, offering example acts of kindness for those who get stuck, and allowing a little more time so they don’t feel rushed.  The majority of them said they’d like to repeat the activity, although some admitted that it shouldn’t require a school assignment for them to be kind to each other.

I plan to make Undercover Agents of Kindness a monthly occurrence, and I would love to see other teachers borrow the idea, improve it, and share their results with the educator community as well.  

Sometimes our world seems dark and scary and we feel powerless to change it.  Together my students and I are learning that there are steps we can take to make things better. We can find ways to break down barriers, build stronger communities, and normalize compassionate behavior.  We can be intentional about creating opportunities to practice kindness and make it more likely people will treat each other with compassion on their own.  We can be the change we want to see in the world.

Take heart, NC teachers. You are more than your EVAAS score!

Last night an email from the SAS corporation hit the inboxes of teachers all across North Carolina.  I found it suspicious and forwarded it to spam.

EVAAS is a tool that SAS claims shows how effective educators are by measuring precisely what value each teacher adds to their students’ learning.  Each year teachers board an emotional roller coaster as they prepare to find out whether they are great teachers, average teachers, or terrible teachers–provided they can figure out their logins.  

NC taxpayers spend millions of dollars for this tool, and SAS founder and CEO James Goodnight is the richest person in North Carolina, worth nearly $10 billion.  However, over the past few years, more and more research has shown that value added ratings like EVAAS are highly unstable and are unable to account for the many factors that influence our students and their progress. Lawsuits have sprung up from Texas to Tennessee, charging, among other things, that use of this data to evaluate teachers and make staffing decisions violates teachers’ due process rights, since SAS refuses to reveal the algorithms it uses to calculate scores.

By coincidence, the same day I got the email from SAS, I also got this email from the mother of one of my 7th grade students:

Photos attached provided evidence that the student was indeed reading at the dinner table.

The student in question had never thought of himself as a reader.  That has changed this year–not because of any masterful teaching on my part, but just because he had the right book in front of him at the right time.

Here’s my point:  We need to remember that EVAAS can’t measure the most important ways teachers are adding value to our students’ lives.  Every day we are turning students into lifelong independent readers. We are counseling them through everything from skinned knees to school shootings.  We are mediating their conflicts. We are coaching them in sports. We are finding creative ways to inspire and motivate them. We are teaching them kindness and empathy.  We are doing so much more than helping them pass a standardized test at the end of the year.

So if you figure out your EVAAS login today, NC teachers, take heart.  You are so much more than your EVAAS score!

 

Help make the North Carolina General Assembly great again–VOTE!!

The general election is tomorrow, and both voters and nonvoters will decide whether the Republican party’s supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly continues for another two years.

Thanks to extreme gerrymandering in our traditionally purple state, North Carolina Republicans currently hold 74 seats to 46 Democrat seats in the House and 35 seats to 15 Democrat seats in the Senate.  As a result, they can pass any bill they want and override Governor Cooper’s veto. This lack of balance has led to a far-right agenda since 2010 which includes the de-prioritizing of public education, unprecedented and illegal racial gerrymandering, a consistent lack of transparency and healthy debate, and so many power grabs they barely constitute news any more.  It’s been ugly, but that could be about to change.

In order to break the supermajority, restore the Governor’s veto, and bring back some semblance of balance and normalcy to our democracy, Democrats need to add either four seats the House or six seats in the Senate.  That’s completely within their means, but it depends 100% on who votes.

Preliminary indications from early voting are largely positive for Democrats.  Ironically, that could be a problem.

Travel back in time two years to the run-up to the presidential election of 2016.  Prognosticators were declaring Hillary Clinton the first female president of the United States and chiding Donald Trump for the inflammatory campaign rhetoric that had supposedly cost him any real chance at winning the presidency.  

Now remember sitting in front of your television on election night, watching states turn red one by one on the map.  Ohio. Florida. Pennsylvania.  Wisconsin. Michigan. Recall the nauseating sense of horror you felt as the reality of a Trump presidency settled in.  Reflect on the last two years of that presidency and what it has meant for our country and the world. The horrible cabinet appointments.  The Muslim ban. Charlottesville. The transgender military ban. Constant demonization of the press and resulting violence by his supporters.  Migrant family separation. Weekly embarrassment on the international stage. The list goes on and on.

I have bad news for anyone who sat out the 2016 election:  You are just as responsible for the Donald Trump presidency as those who voted for him.

This summer, Pew Research released a very thorough survey of the 2016 electorate.   The survey looked closely at demographics of registered voters who did not participate in the presidential election.  Results show clearly that nonvoters were made up more heavily of folks who, had they voted, would have been likely to lean away from Donald Trump (young people and nonwhite voters, for example).

There may have been a lot of different reasons why people didn’t vote in 2016, but one of them was no doubt a sense of media-fueled overconfidence leading to the belief that Clinton already had the presidency in the bag and there was no need to get out and vote.

Fast forward to 2018 in North Carolina.  For months, Democrats and their supporters have been talking about an impending blue wave sweeping our state.  Turnout in early voting is up substantially over the 2014 midterm election, including among voters ages 18-29.  But at the same time, there’s still a danger that the overconfidence that kept voters away from the polls two years ago could strike again on election day and preserve the GOP supermajority that has turned North Carolina into a national caricature.

Please do not take the results of this year’s election for granted.  If you did not vote early, look up your polling place’s address by visiting this convenient link.  Make your plan for when you’re going to vote tomorrow between 6:30 AM and 7:30 PM.  Vote before work. Pack a sandwich and go on your lunch break. Stop by on your way home in the evening (anyone who is in line at 7:30 will be permitted to vote).  But, whatever you do, please, please, please, do not sit this one out.

Help us make the General Assembly great–or at least not a total disaster–again.

 

(Hat tip to my friend John deVille for the custom hat!)