June 15, 2017

Three Takeaways from the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium

Last week, I spent a day with hundreds of teachers who work in Arizona’s prisons, jails, and juvenile justice facilities talking about the ways they can best support their students and continue to improve the ways that their systems operate. After presenting at the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium, an annual convening and professional development event for teachers in secure schools from across the state, I found myself thinking about three key takeaways:

As in all education systems, needlessly complex bureaucracy interferes with effective teaching

Like conventional public education, most correctional education is managed by state agencies and sometimes delegated or contracted to other providers. Correctional education, however, has no consistent governance framework. Where most states have a state office of education that oversees local education agencies (LEAs), education in secure facilities is managed in nearly every conceivable way. For example, a state justice agency might have its own education division that is a complete system unto itself. Or the justice agency might have a state statutory obligation to delegate the education programming to an LEA. Or the state may determine that the geographic school district is obligated to provide education services to all secure facilities within its boundaries.

The most complicated systems to navigate are the ones in which kids cross agency lines as they move through the adjudication process. Arizona is one of those states. As kids move from arrest to confinement to reentry, they’ll likely attend several different schools managed by different agencies or offices. This means that education programming is often imperfectly aligned over the long term and that kids risk missing essential skills instruction or losing out on accrued credit hours. For teachers, they’re doing their best to meet the needs of the kids who show up each day in their classrooms, but they often don’t know who that will be (or how long they’ll stay).

The people who work in these schools are hungry for relevant professional development

I lost track of how many times a teacher told me how grateful they were to have the opportunity to get professional development from people who understand the constraints that they work within. These aren’t the kinds of restrictions that you might assume: teachers are far more frustrated by the loss of instructional time from frequent interruptions than they are about student misbehavior.

Today, most education training is focused on conventional community-based schools, and it doesn’t feel relevant for teachers in secure facilities. And most of the training that’s designed with them in mind is safety and compliance-focused; there’s very little offered to help them improve their practice as educators.

Teachers everywhere do the best they can in the circumstances that they’re in

I am always so incredibly impressed with the commitment and resilience of teachers who work in justice facilities. I spoke with a group over lunch who laughed that the response “But that doesn’t make sense!” should be the unofficial guiding theme of the policies that regulate their work. For example, Dante’s The Inferno is banned in school libraries, but the collective work of The Divine Comedy isn’t; Teachers hold statutory special education responsibilities under federal law for students disabilities but often only find out about a change in a student’s education program after a student has been moved out of their classroom; and teachers run their classrooms at the mercy of the secure care staff who have full discretion to pull students out of class or even to close school for the entire day.

But you know what I never heard at the symposium? I never heard a group of teachers complain about their students. Teachers that I talked to hold so much hope and optimism for the potential of their students, and despite many institutional incentives to become complacent, they still bring their best effort to their classrooms every day.


June 6, 2017

Relationships Matter: How States Can Include Teacher-Student Interaction in ECE and ESSA Plans

This blog post originally appeared at New America as part of the Early Learning and ESSA Blog Series

Pre-k class at the Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, photo by Jocelyn Biggs

Relationships and interactions between teachers and students make a big difference in the classroom. Teacher-child interactions form the cornerstone of children’s academic and social emotional development, especially in early learning classrooms. As states look for ways to measure and improve educational quality beyond test scores, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act provides an opportunity to consider data on teacher-child interactions. Washington, DC, and Louisiana provide two examples of states exploring this promising avenue, with some valuable lessons for their peers who might be considering teacher-child interaction measures, or other non-traditional quality measures that include or emphasize the early years.

So, what should other states take away from DC and Louisiana?

Pick a reliable tool and get to know it well

States, localities, and Head Start grantees are currently using tools designed to reliably measure teacher-child interactions in ECE settings. Both DC and Louisiana use the Classroom Observation Scoring System (CLASS), a well-researched observational tool widely used in early childhood and Pre-K settings, with versions available through high school. Both states took several years to pilot the implementation of this tool to learn more about teacher-child interactions before using it as a quality measure. DC has used CLASS for several years as a citywide Pre-K performance measure in a sample of 3- and 4-year-old classrooms. The DC Public Charter School Board also uses CLASS for Pre-K in its formal Performance Management Framework, the accountability tool for charter schools. Similarly, after the Louisiana Department of Education chose CLASS as a common statewide measure of early learning quality, the state piloted CLASS for several years, working with local early childhood networks to improve local implementation and understanding along the way. Continue reading


May 31, 2017

Choosing to Teach, Choosing to Move Out of the Classroom

As another school year comes to a close, education critics will lament teacher turnover while school leaders scramble to fill vacancies. Teachers who have been in the classroom for less than five years will be accused of abandoning their students and letting their schools down. Yet in many other careers, short-term, sequential roles are seen as building blocks to a lifelong, varied career. Why should the classroom teacher be expected to teach for a lifetime, especially when their impact may wane?

Photo via Gabriella Nelson

According to TNTP, teacher improvement is greatest early in their careers, with the most gain in teacher effectiveness occurring in year one. Between years three and five, teachers effectively peak, with little improvement in effectiveness over a career that might span 5 years or 35 years. In fact, some teachers actually decline in effectiveness. Meanwhile, they work within a system of pension structuring designed to only reward the longest tenured career, with more than half never seeing any pension benefits and only one in five staying long enough to receive full benefits.

In other career fields, we recognize the need for changing roles. Consultants in a fast-paced, travel-intensive role with never-ending hours receive understanding nods when they move into a more stable, less life-disruptive role for both personal and professional reasons. Tireless entrepreneurs who start a business and build success by working around the clock are applauded when they sell to a corporation or hand the business off to a junior partner. Teachers should be afforded similar opportunities to transition into more sustainable roles, particularly roles within schools where they can continue to impact student achievement by supporting classroom teachers.

I have seen this choice at play in the career trajectory of my daughter, a college-trained, secondary English educator who chose to teach in an urban high school through Teach For America (TFA). Even with college training, student teaching, and additional summer training prior to entering the classroom, the role demanded endless hours with total physical and emotional commitment before she could see student gains in achievement. After completing her second year, she knew this role was unsustainable in the long term and grabbed an opportunity to take a hybrid role split between teaching and curriculum oversight at the same school. This allowed her to continue to teach AP classes, coach sports teams, oversee student government, and teach ACT preparatory classes — in short, to still impact students with less impact on her. Continue reading


May 23, 2017

On Being in the Closet at St. Ignatius

Originally posted on Where the Boom Bands Play.

St. Ignatius CollegeI distinctly remember one gay teacher while I was a student at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in Chicago. Or, at least we all thought he was gay. He taught Spanish and was unapologetically flamboyant. I never had the pleasure of having him as a teacher, nor did I ever have a teacher who was openly gay until graduate school — I cried when she said it in passing on the first day of class. I don’t know if the Spanish teacher ever came out to students or ever said that he was gay. Frankly, it was none of our business. Even without the “official” confirmation, the students loved him. It was said that he was one of the best Spanish teachers in the department. In particular, the students loved that he was gay. However, students weren’t seemingly obsessed with the fact that he was gay because it was some kind of celebration of identity. They loved that he was gay because of the novelty of it.

I have vivid memories of male students making a sort-of-game out of approaching this teacher. He gave any student a hug when the student asked, and I remember watching male students dare each other to go up to him to get a hug. The male students would always approach timidly and reluctantly while a pack of friends stood back and giggled behind their hands. I wonder now as I wondered then if that teacher knew the spectacle those students were making out of his identity. I saw this exchange happen frequently during passing periods in the hallway. I have one particularly clear memory of a male student getting a hug and then promptly brushing off his clothes and skin as if he were wiping off the contact he had just had. He was a popular student, making his actions all the more “important” and the embrace all the more “egregious.” Everyone thought it was hilarious. The message that action sent has stuck with me over 10 years later. I can see that student’s face as he grimaced, wiping away this teacher’s homosexuality like it was contagious. I still know that student now. At one point that student was a teacher himself. I hope he gave hugs to kids that wanted them when he was a teacher. I hope no student ever wiped off his identity, his love.

I never got one of those hugs. I both thought it would be weird since I was never a student of this teacher (though he would hug anyone who asked, pupil of his or not). Moreover, I tried to avoid anything that might lead to the assumption that I myself was gay, since I was terrified of the truth that lie latent within me. I now wish I had gotten one. That hug could have been affirming for him and for me in a time when I felt like something was wrong with me; a time when I felt suppressed, confused, and invisible.

Continue reading


May 22, 2017

School Voucher Programs for Students with Disabilities Are Deeply Misguided

The Trump administration’s newly proposed education budget directs $400 million dollars to expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has repeatedly touted state voucher policies, including Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities, as a way to increase parental choice and improve the U.S. education system. DeVos cited high parent satisfaction with the McKay program during her Senate confirmation hearing, leading to national press coverage of parents who were in fact unsatisfied with the program.

But the reality is parent satisfaction is an inappropriate metric for examining the effectiveness of programs like the McKay Scholarship. A voucher program for students with disabilities presumes that providing choice will ultimately result in helping students with disabilities receive an education that will best meet their needs. But this is unlikely because private schools do not have to abide by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law, and few private schools are well equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

In a recent op-ed, Former Governor Jeb Bush writes: “Too many parents hit frustrating dead ends in trying to get the right services for their children in their assigned public schools.” While it is certainly true that parents struggle to make changes when they are unhappy with their child’s placement or his/her individualized education plan (IEP), there is little reason to believe school choice is the answer. Currently, many parents do not understand their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents also may feel uncomfortable bringing due process claims and/or lack access to legal assistance. Moreover, even for those with legal assistance, due process claims can be time consuming and costly. As a result, researchers have found that IDEA’s reliance on private enforcement leads to disparities in enforcement which ultimately favor the affluent.

Voucher programs do little to change this reality.

Currently, under the Florida program, parents receive an average of $8,000 for their child with a disability. This is not enough funding for students to attend private schools specifically designed to serve special needs students without extra outlays from parents. Instead, many students enroll in parochial schools, which make up the majority of private schools in Florida. There is little reason to believe these schools are a better placement for students with disabilities. Most do not employ school psychologists, related service providers, or teachers experienced with meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Since these schools are not required to comply with IDEA, they do not provide occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, or counseling. Moreover, these schools are not required to use any specialized curriculum to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. So using a voucher means a student with a disability will still not receive the services they need to be successful in school. Continue reading