MAP Testing is Disruptive – Part 2

Ryan Davis

Standardized testing proponents often minimize its impact by saying that it is just one data point. Such reasoning downplays the disruptiveness and influence that standardized data points have.  Not all points are weighted equally. And, in our current culture and system, standardized data points carry more weight than others. As such, data from MAP will ultimately receive disproportional attention and find elevated value in our system. 

Imagine a bedsheet stretched flat in the air with a person holding it taught at each corner.  If each person sets a foam ball near their corner of the sheet, we could see and examine all four foam balls independently.  We might even be able to tilt the sheet and roll them around, controlling their position and our view. Now, imagine someone sets a bowling ball in the middle of the sheet.  We will pull harder on the corners, but the weight of the bowling ball will inevitably cause a deepening sag that funnels everything toward it. This is MAP. One point, just like all the others.  But, its weight in our system collapses all other points toward it.  

On a more practical level, we know what this looks like and what it means for students.  The weight one standardized data point can lead lost time in electives or other content to remediate or “double up” in a tested area.  Even though data points like a student’s passion for music or need for art or science may out number, they cannot outweigh the influence of a standardized data point.  This also means time and pressure to analyze the standardized data point instead of discuss ways to inspire joy, authenticity, and relevance in our schools.  

This happens not just because people with power will have an interest in perpetuating MAP, but also because the nature of MAP is self-perpetuating.  First, the convenience and belied simplicity of numerical data elevates the attention it receives.  It is simply easier and quicker to ask what percentile a student is in than to engage in a deep conversation about whether a student is having meaningful and authentic experiences.  It is easier and quicker ask whether MAP scores are increasing than to determine whether students are growing in abilities like critical thinking or community building. 

Numbers are easy to put on a form.  Numbers are easy to compare – student to student, teacher to teacher, school to school (even when such comparisons aren’t statistically appropriate, helpful, or even aligned to our values).  A number gives the illusion that it has condensed complexity to simplicity. These conveniences will always have greater appeal to administrators and decision makers, themselves, crunched by time, over booked, and perhaps unprepared to converse in depth about certain contents or pedagogies.  In other words, MAP may only be one data point, but because of its accessibility those in power will tend to rely on it more frequently and heavily and (perhaps even unintentionally) elevate its importance.  

Moreover, the culture and climate of JCPS will give further weight to MAP.  Every object has a resonant frequency – its own internal vibrations and hums, the rhythms of its working.  If that resonate frequency is matched by an outside force, those subtle waves become amplified and can shake the whole system with increasing intensity.  Any larger district will tend toward box checking and bureaucracy as a way to manage it size. Additionally, JCPS is already, and albeit slowly, digging out of a culture of fear and compliance that began with previous administrations.  These current and historical realities mean that resonant frequency of compliance and power still hums deep and consistently in our system.  

The nature of MAP matches these frequencies perfectly, and so we will see the worst sides of it, and ourselves, amplified.  This likely means more loss of time chasing test scores. More arbitrary praise and attention focused on areas with high scores, thus more pressure to emulate instead of meet the needs of students.  More attention to test-prep instead of creating meaningful and vibrant experiences for students. We already see this happening. MAP is becoming a bigger focus of faculty meetings, PLCs meetings, walk-throughs, district level conversations, etc…  More plans to address perceived MAP deficiencies are being required. Use of MAP and MAP data is already identified as “non-negotiable” and identified in nine different “success criteria” indictors that are assessed during a district Collaborative Calibration Visit (CCV). 

Mostly importantly, MAP is not a data point derived from unobtrusive observation.  As other articles have detailed, MAP has harmful and disruptive effects on teaching and learning.  In other words, MAP is questionable in its value to begin with and as a top down requirement it will never be just one benign and passing data point on an equal playing field with all others.  We are just beginning to see MAP’s influence and importance increase. The foam balls slowly orbit the rim of funnel once the bowling ball is added. But, then their pace quickens as they near the center. 

 As long as, MAP testing is a top-down requirement it will have disproportionate power, influence, and importance. For assessments to be useful (and also not misused), they must be initiated at the classroom level.  This of course does not mean a group of teachers initiating a policy and practice that becomes a top down requirement. It mean that decisions about assessment of students are made by people who know them: their classroom teachers.  When assessments are initiated in classrooms, without pressure or policy, they have a greater chance of being meaningful to students.  

Educators are Back on Offense Again-Here’s What We Need To Consider When Calling the Plays

Maddie Shepard

Our world moves and changes faster than it ever has.  That change requires educators to think deeply about our responsibility to prepare our learners for that future.   Here are a few facts to consider when making fundamental decisions about education.

  • Sixty-five percent of children now entering primary school will hold jobs that currently don’t exist. (Source: World Economic Forum)
  • In an analysis of 25 common skill sets today, researchers found that between 2016 and 2030, demand for social and emotional skills will grow across all industries by 26% in the United States. (Source: McKinsey)
  • Demand for higher [order] skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, decision making, and complex information processing, will also grow through 2030—by 19% in the United States. The same research predicts the fastest rise in the need for advanced IT and programming skills, which could grow as much as 90% between 2016 and 2030. (Source: McKinsey)
  • Seventy-nine percent of executives agreed that the future of work will be based more on specific projects than roles. (Source: Accenture)

We know the future will look wildly different than our past.  If we look closely at our classrooms, we’re still preparing kids for the now long gone industrial age.  Many schools still operate on a rigid bell schedule, much like they did in the early 1900’s.  Many schools offer a singular track to success, even though we know our learners are vastly different and diverse.  Many learners lack any real decision making power over their learning.

General education hasn’t changed meaningfully since the Industrial Age.  But it must! We need to teach and assess what we value, and what the future demands.  We need to leave behind traditions and that do not serve this end. And finally, we need to stop playing defense on education policy, and start calling our own plays.

Educators are held hostage by an archaic “Accountability system” that is based on standardized test taking and the recall of arbitrary data that is readily available on any smartphone.  Consequently, many educators do not have the freedom to teach and provide feedback on what actually matters, or what our learners value. It may be easier to assess whether students can add and subtract two-digit numbers than whether they are effective collaborators, but our learners deserve a system based on what is important to asses, not just what is cheap and easy.  To be clear, I’m not saying the former skill is not important.  I am saying both are important, yet we only assess the former, to the disadvantage of our learners.

We need to uproot traditions that don’t serve our learners or our future.  We need to put learners at the center, and leverage our relationships and training to codesign a learning path alongside learners, affording them the agency and ownership they need to be engaged, and drive their own futures.  Letter grades that tell us almost nothing about a learner should be replaced with a competency based grading system, so learners can get feedback on where they are in their skill and concept development, and so educators know clearly the next steps each learner needs. 

Finally, we need to stop telling teachers to “do as I say and not as I do”.  We must afford pre-service and current teachers the ownership and agency in their own learning and professional growth we expect them to design for our learners.  Teachers need to experience decision making authority over their learning in order to craft experiences where young learners have agency.

With educators winning big in our governor’s race, we face an opportunity.  We have an open invitation to the education policy making table now that Governor-Elect Andy Beshear and educator and Lieutenant Governor-Elect Jacqueline Coleman are leading our state.  We can play offense now. We can craft the policies that open doors and remove limits. It will take innovation and courage to leave the “it’s the way we’ve always done it” narrative behind.  If Education doesn’t change with the times, our kids will be the ones left behind.

Understanding and Improving Difficult Student Behavior in JCPS

Tammy Berlin

Last spring JCTA’s elected leaders and staff met with Professional Representatives from different JCPS schools to talk about issues surrounding how student misbehavior is handled in our schools.  These Professional Representatives identified a number of issues that they thought were concerns that should be addressed with the District. They asked us to develop a survey to collect data from members about these issues in their schools, so that we would be able to share the information with the District and use it to inform our discussions about how to improve teaching and learning conditions in JCPS.  The data from that survey, which was collected during the months of May and June of 2019, is summarized here.  Read on for an overview of the data listed by topic.  

Most Teachers Feel Safe but Are Unsure What to Do When Assaulted

Although the vast majority of teachers (85%)  report feeling safe when they arrive at school in the mornings, assaults on teachers continue to be a problem.  Approximately one in three JCPS teachers report having been assaulted on the job at some time during their career.  Of those who have been assaulted, only 17% reported the assault. Of those who didn’t report their assault, nearly half indicated that they were unaware of the procedure for reporting the incident.  

Student Mental Health Is a Contributing Factor

Three-quarters of teachers who responded to the survey believe that there is a high degree of correlation between students’ mental health and their behavior at school.  80% of those who responded believe that JCPS does not provide sufficient mental health resources to address their students’ mental health needs.  

Teachers Would Like to See Administrators Take a Greater Role in Managing Student Behavior 

There appears to be a great deal of inconsistency across the district in how documented behavior referrals are handled from school to school and from administrator to administrator.  When asked to what degree they feel supported by their school administration when it comes to managing student misbehavior, teachers were pretty evenly split between those who felt supported and those who did not.   40% of those who responded to the survey report that they rarely or never receive documentation from their administrators in response to their referrals, while 43% report that they usually or always receive a documented response.  30% of respondents indicated that their administrators had suggested to them that they should write fewer behavior referrals and/or use less-severe wording on behavior referrals when their students misbehave; an additional 10% indicated that their administrators directed them to write fewer behavior referrals or use less-severe wording.  23% of respondents reported that they or another teacher in their building has been directed by administrators not to call the Student Response Team when students misbehave, and teachers cited a number of requirements that must be met before they are allowed to request the Student Response Team to intervene in a student misbehavior incident.  While these directives and changes to policy seem to have impacted the number of student suspensions reported by the District, 73% of the teachers who responded to our survey report that they have not experienced a reduction in the number of student misbehavior occurrences in their school that could or should lead to suspension.  

The teachers who responded to the survey seem to believe that school administrators and counselors can make a significant difference in student behavior.  70% report that principals being visible in the hallways has a positive impact on student behavior, and more than half believe that the amount of time that principals spend on meetings and paperwork responsibilities has a negative impact on overall student behavior in their building.  More than two-thirds believe that freeing up guidance counselors to spend more time counseling students would contribute to a significant improvement in student behavior.  

Staffing Issues Contribute to Student Misbehavior

The District is currently facing a substitute teacher shortage, causing there to be unfilled vacancies at schools, with some schools being difficult to staff on a regular or consistent basis.  62% of respondents to the survey believe that the substitute shortage correlates to increased student misbehavior.  

In instances involving an allegation of student abuse by a staff member, the District has a practice of removing and reassigning staff who has been implicated from their current assignment while the incident is being investigated.  These investigations sometimes take weeks or months to be completed, potentially leaving classes staffed by substitutes for an extended period of time. 42% of the people who responded to the survey reported that these reassignments have adversely affected employee morale and workload in their building.  

Restorative Practices

More than two-thirds of respondents who work at Restorative Practices schools believe that the program is not being implemented correctly and with fidelity by the District.  69% of those report receiving inadequate training in Restorative Practices.  

A Deeper Look at School Climate in Schools with Volatile  Student Behavior — Conversations with Teachers

Since we asked members to respond to JCTA’s Student Behavior Survey last spring, JCTA leadership has had a number of deep-dive conversations with members at several schools where student behavior has reached excessive levels of violence.  Our discussions with teachers at these schools have revealed a number of underlying problems that are allowing volatile student misbehavior to perpetuate throughout certain schools and creating a toxic learning and working environment. JCPS  will need to address these issues in order to improve teaching and learning climates in our schools and improve working conditions and morale.  

Schools lacking a functional behavior management plan

The teachers we’ve talked to at these buildings with a high incidence of student misbehavior overwhelmingly have a sense that there is not a functional behavior management plan at their school. Teachers often report that their staff has had cursory training on Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions (PBIS) and /or Restorative Practices, but that the depth of training they have received has been insufficient for them to fully understand and implement these behavior management systems on a consistent basis in their school.

Training for these systems often consists of one or two days in August with no follow-up training as the year goes on. In addition, teachers at these schools indicate that as the year goes on, the level of student misbehavior becomes unmanageable, and it becomes untenable to actively try to implement the system. When this happens, teachers say that behavior management in their schools reverts to a system of teachers writing referrals and administrators trying to impose consequences in accordance with the infamous dot matrix from the Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook. It doesn’t take long for the number and frequency of behavior referrals to reach a critical mass where administrators and teachers can no longer keep up, and at that point, teachers say they feel like their building is out of control.

Students don’t receive sufficient support to change their behaviors, they don’t receive consequences for their misbehavior, teachers feel like they aren’t being supported as they try to maintain some semblance of order in their classrooms and their hallways, and I can only imagine that administrators must surely feel frustrated at conditions and climate in their buildings. To complicate matters, state and federal statute has imposed new requirements for ensuring that ECE students receive all of their instructional minutes and that managing their behavior does not interfere with their learning.  It’s a perfect storm that ruins the school’s learning climate, destroys morale, and pits students, teachers, administrators, and even parents against each other.

Not enough mental health workers in schools

Teachers we’ve talked to indicate that while their schools do have some designated mental health professionals assigned to their building, the amount of support that is available to their schools isn’t enough to manage student needs on a day to day basis, let alone when student behavior becomes volatile. Across the board, teachers at these schools have told us that they need more mental health professionals in their buildings.

Data collection is getting in the way of managing student behavior

Every teacher knows that it’s not possible to teach until student behavior is under control and the classroom environment is calm and conducive to learning.  At our building visits this fall, many members have told us that data collection for the purpose of preparing students for high stakes standardized testing takes precedence over everything else in their school.  Administrators, counselors, and even department leads are urged to spend time doing walkthroughs on classrooms, filling out checklists to determine which teachers are posting their learning objectives daily, whether the classes are on track for their common assessments, and even where the teacher is standing in the room.  Teachers report that the agendas for their Professional Learning Community (PLC) time have been monopolized by their principals for the purpose of data collection and preparing common assessments. Some middle school teachers tell us that they no longer have common planning time with their teams, which prevents them from having opportunities to discuss students that they have in common.   

Student misbehavior correlates to a high student to teacher ratio and understaffing

Across the board, our teachers at schools with a high incidence of volatile student behavior cite class size as the most significant contributing factor to student misbehavior.  While most JCPS high schools have relatively small classes in their honors and advance program classes, general level classes tend to be larger, with many of these classes approaching the class cap of 31.  Unfilled vacancies, whether teacher openings or substitute openings, are another factor that causes increases to class size. Teachers report that when there are unfilled substitute vacancies, it is often necessary for them to accept extra students into their classes or for them to cover another teacher’s class.  Both of these scenarios cause teachers to be put in charge of students they don’t know and with whom they haven’t had an opportunity to build trust.  

Managing Volatile Student Behavior:  What Should We Do Now?  

Here are some thoughts on what I think JCPS should do to improve teaching and learning conditions at schools with the most challenging student behaviors.  

Get back to basics with Maslow’s hierarchy

Teachers can’t teach and students can’t learn until our classrooms and our common spaces are safe environments.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that more rigorous instruction or more frequent interventions will solve the problem of student misbehavior.  Until our schools are safe places for staff to work and for students to learn, concerns about school accountability and student test scores need to be secondary.  Administration from the top down needs to make student behavior and school safety it’s number one priority until every school and every classroom have a climate that is conducive to student success and learning.  This is a problem that will only be solved by intensive and strategic use of resources, and the District needs to act quickly and decisively to make these changes.   

We NEED smaller class sizes

Thirty-one students in any class are too many for a teacher to build a trusting relationship with each student and give them the one-on-one attention they need and deserve.  High schools with particularly challenging student behavior should have no more than 20 to 22 students in a class; elementary schools with widespread difficult behaviors should have no more than 18 to 20.  Smaller class sizes decrease the student to adult ratio in the school and deter volatile behavior between students. JCPS should leverage the next student assignment plan to decrease enrollment in schools with excessive student violence in order to create smaller class sizes where students can learn and thrive.  

In addition, the District must find ways to make sure that there are no unstaffed sub positions in these schools which regularly have unstaffed vacancies.  This may require offering a pay differential to qualified and experienced subs who are willing to accept jobs at these schools, hiring additional permanent subs in hard to staff buildings, or hiring floating teachers to fill in as needed in unstaffed positions.   

All hands on deck

Along with hiring the staff necessary to create smaller class sizes, JCPS needs to be more strategic about how they use their existing human resources.  The District should relieve school administrators of some of their data collection responsibilities and walk through quotas in order to free up principals and counselors to spend more time working directly with students.  

The District should create student behavior crisis teams to assist in buildings where student misbehavior has reached extreme or violent levels.  JCPS currently has established procedures for mobilizing crisis teams of mental health care staff to schools when school administrators request them in response to traumatic situations such as the death of a student or staff member. Students and staff who feel like they need to talk to a mental health professional can avail themselves of the crisis team on an as-needed and voluntary basis while the team is at their school.  JCPS should replicate and adapt its crisis team model to provide timely support to schools that are experiencing a high level of volatile student behavior incidents. These teams should include staff with expertise in student behavior management and de-escalation techniques, as well as mental healthcare providers. These behavior support teams should be available to be deployed to assist building administrators in managing volatile behavior in hallways and common areas, to assist with administrative and paperwork duties related to student behavior referrals, and to work with students one-on-one on an as-needed basis as directed by the principal.  

JCPS must increase mental health services at schools with high levels of student misbehavior incidents.  JCTA members at schools with some of the most difficult student behaviors have overwhelmingly told us that, while their schools do have some designated mental health professionals assigned to their building, the amount of support that is available to their schools isn’t enough to manage student needs on a day to day basis, let alone when student behavior becomes volatile.   The District needs to strategically target schools with high levels of student trauma for increased access to mental health services.  

Each building needs an individualized and collaboratively developed behavior management plan

Just like master teachers involve their students in establishing and teaching class rules at the beginning of the year, every JCPS school should be developing its own individualized student behavior management plan in collaboration with students, staff, and other stakeholders as part of its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan.  These plans may draw on but should not be limited to elements of the District-approved models, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices (RP). Whatever the school’s behavior management system may be, it is absolutely crucial that it be developed through a collaborative process between administration, staff, students, and families in order to ensure that it has the full support and buy-in of every member of the school community.  When everyone knows what the expectations are and how the plan is supposed to work, it is much easier to maintain order and a positive climate.

Collaboratively developing a school-wide plan is only half the battle, though.  Schools have to be prepared to implement the plan with fidelity. Each school’s behavior management plan should be adequately staffed with necessary security teams, behavior interventionists, home to school coordinators, and other resources as needed.  JCPS must assure that every school is able to access adequate, appropriate professional development for their staff to make sure that they have the skills they need to manage difficult student behaviors according to their plan, and there must be regular opportunities throughout the year for staff to collaborate specifically on student behavior.  

Closing thoughts

When extreme student behaviors like the ones we’ve seen recently make the news, it’s really easy to make broad generalizations or try to point fingers and place blame.  If you read the comment section on any article about students or teachers being assaulted at school or on the bus, you’ll see people blame parents, teachers, the school system, society in general, and they especially find fault with students.  I just want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that a career in public education is a calling. Those of us who work in public schools do it because we love students and are passionate about helping them grow and thrive. We’re trained to understand children, their developmental stages, their needs, and how they think.  We know what they need in order to learn, and we know what to do to manage their behavior when their behavior isn’t good. If we as a society are going to be serious about improving schools, we need to listen to the only people who know every student by name. As teachers, we know our children’s strengths, their weaknesses, their ambitions, and their passions.  We care for them. We know what to do, and we know how to make this better, but we need support. We need administrators to give us the time and the autonomy to do what we know how to do, to teach the way that we know is best for our students. We need the District to allow schools to develop behavior plans that work for their students and give them the resources they need to implement them.  We need policy makers to realize that students can’t learn if we don’t value them as people first, and stop looking at them as data points in the big scheme of the accountability system. Listen to us when we tell you what’s wrong, and do what we ask of you to fix it. We can’t continue approaching this as a problem of academic rigor. These are human beings we’re dealing with. We have to make this right for them. 

MAP is Disruptive – Part 1

Ryan Davis

My first article on MAP testing tried to focus the conversation at a policy level, asking where authority for teaching and learning decisions should ultimately lie.  While that lens might be the most appropriate for discussing a system level decision, it is certainly not the most significant reason to talk about MAP testing.  We have to talk about MAP testing because it affects our students. And, I am becoming increasingly worried that required MAP testing is disruptive and damaging to their experience of school and to their learning. 

For some students, MAP testing provides further verification that school concerns itself more with counting, sorting, and ranking them than actually knowing or valuing them – it’s just another in a long line of irrelevant experiences.  For others, the impact can be much worse. Standardized testing brings with it increased stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, the increased use of words like ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ tends to dilute their meaning rather than emphasize the ever-growing pressure and pain our students face.  As a standardized test, MAP will more likely to contribute to the strain our students feel than it will offer edifying and empowering experiences.     

Standardized tests like MAP also impact how students see themselves as learners.  Teachers and parents are all too familiar with the stigma and self-labeling that accompany a low score.  In this regard, MAP actively works against our goal of growing student independence and confidence. Students develop an identity that school is not for them and/or that they are not capable. The more low scores a student receives the more potential confirmation of a negative self-concept — students take a MAP test six times each year.  

As educators, we may not put too much stock in standardized scores as a full measure of our students’ capacities.  But, negative messages from an “official” assessment, as opposed to a teacher created assessment, often speak more loudly to students.  The resulting low self-concept that students develop around school and learning functions more as obstacle that must be overcome than it does as a motivator to inspire self-improvement. Or, as one student more directly characterized MAP testing, “this is just another way to make us look dumb.”  

Some might assert that our response should be to convenience students to value MAP testing by using MAP data to hone in on their weaknesses, then delivering targeted instruction…which then may result in growth…which then can be celebrated…which then may build student confidence.  The contingencies and assumptions in that chain of reasoning form a slippery slope argument that runs uphill. More significantly though, such an approach to teaching and learning becomes more about proving that MAP has value than about finding and elevating what actually is of value to our students. In short, if our focus is centered on MAP, it is not centered on the student.  

Moreover, not all growth is growth that matters.  As with any standardized assessment, MAP encourages a more skills based view of learning as opposed to view that valorizes critical thought, collaboration, cultural awareness, etc…  If we isolate the skills desired by MAP then rehearse and rehearse expressing those skills in a standardized format, have we done something that ultimately serves students? Some of those developed skills may transfer to other areas, but such work more easily becomes a cyclical game that distracts from the more important work that should be happening with students.  In other words, we often reject the ways other standardized assessments force a narrowing of our curriculum and a reduction of our students. As a standardized test, MAP ultimately exerts that same influence over the experiences and expectations of students.   

Lastly, I should address the fact that questioning the value a system centered on improving standardized test scores often provokes a specious criticism: you must not believe that all children can learn.  Such a response oversimplifies and overgeneralizes – it acts as a bully strawman that invokes power dynamics, deflects from engagement, and truncates the meaning of learning. Believing that all students can learn and grow and flourish is not the same as believing they all can do so in the same timeframe, in the same ways, in light of their current contexts and realities… and, especially when it comes to standardized testing, that their learning will be expressed in the same way.  Asserting that MAP growth is a meaningful or appropriate aim for all students requires more faith in MAP itself than it does actual commitment to children.

Of course, there may teachers who desire to use MAP and feel they have mitigated the negative side-effects mentioned above.  Decisions in one classroom do not necessarily apply to other classrooms that have their own contexts and cultures. In fact, mandated standardized testing increases the likelihood that it will harm students in the ways described above because it is inherently something done to them.   

MAP testing is not a measurement like drawing blood that may pinch for a quick second, leaving only a small mark, and yielding valuable information.   Measurement by standardized testing may inflict real damage to the student and then encourage a treatment that harms them even more (a future article will talk more about how MAP affects our view of teaching).  For the good of students, we must remove any top-down requirements and pressure for MAP testing and let assessment and instruction decisions be initiated and driven within their classrooms.  

We Need to Talk About MAP Testing

Ryan Davis

I’ll be frank.  I’m not sure where to start.  My first draft of this was five pages full of rage and anger that was probably more cathartic than productive.  In the interest of transparency and acknowledging my bias upfront, I’ll just say that I think MAP testing is doing more harm than good in our district.  I do not know how widely held that belief is. So I thought about how to start building my case, which arguments to make first, which negatives to highlight… which mostly led me to wonder if the question of whether MAP is good or bad is really just a distraction, a false frame for the conversation.  It’s definitely not the place to start. To me, the driving question for this conversation really is this: who gets to make instruction and assessment decisions in the classroom?

Every student is different.  Every classroom is different.  As educators, we know these simple truths so thoroughly that we often leave them assumed instead of stated.  This tacit bond and common understanding has been the undercurrent of nearly every productive conversation I’ve had with a colleague.  These truths also fundamentally frame how we approach each class with a goal of reaching every student. The ability to exercise our professional judgement and autonomy strengthens our ability to address the astounding level difference we see every day.  

These truths extend beyond classroom practice and spell a clear direction for policy: any universally mandated assessment or pacing or curriculum runs counter to our efforts to reach a diverse group of learners.  At best, such requirements merely waste time we know time could be used to better support students. At worst, we are forced to comply with practices we see actively hurting our students and schools. The question as to if, or where, MAP testing falls on that spectrum is secondary.  The primary question is who decides what assessments and instruction happen in a classroom.  The longer I teach, the more I have learned and am reminded that I should never make that decision for a colleague.  I’ve also been fortunate enough to have never had a colleague make that decision for me.  

It could be tempting to say that the solution to this dilemma is easy: make MAP testing optional.  That might be a small move in the right direction, but it doesn’t reorient the system toward our values — like taking a step back instead of turning to face the other way.  MAP testing began as a top-down initiative and making it optional would not rectify that. Any system has power dynamics. The pressure exerted by something that is already paid for by people in power who really want it is very real and very difficult to counter act.  The cliché “corporate-optional” exists for a reason.  

Top-down decision-making is not fixed by more decisions made at the top.  The process must be undone and rebuilt from the bottom. Returning assessment and instructional decisions to the classroom teacher is the only way to honor and empower the teacher autonomy that is necessary for supporting students.  In other words, the decision about whether to use MAP, or any assessment, must be initiated by the classroom teacher.1 Any compliance, accountability, and pressure from above regarding MAP must be removed first.   How a decision about assessment is made and who makes it are equally if not more important than what decision is made.  

So, maybe I don’t know where to start the conversation because it’s really many conversations that easily blur and overlap and bump clumsily into each other.  The subject is the same, but the context is different. The conversation about whether any given teacher finds MAP testing valuable to their students differs greatly from the conversation about required MAP testing for all students.  

Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to detail more specific concerns about why I think required MAP testing is doing more harm than good in our district.  Some might register with you and some might not. Those differences of opinion are great conversations for educators to have. Iron sharpens iron. If those differences exist, I hope we can keep separate whether they are over practice or policy.  We know teacher autonomy isn’t really about us; it’s about our students and the space we are able to make for them. Students are best served when decisions about their instruction and assessment are made by those who know them. As professionals we know our students and as professionals we must also trust each other.  I hope we can remember the dedication we’ve always had to teacher autonomy and that making it the foundation of our policies is what allows each of us to be the teachers our students need us to be.    

1 It probably needs to be noted here that teacher-initiated decision making differs greatly from school-based or principal based decision-making, both of which still induce the same lack of autonomy and invoke the same power dynamic as district-level decision-making.  

A Teacher’s Wish List: Will Frankfort Listen? And Should We Be Careful What We Wish For?

William Tucker

On October 29th, members of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents (KASS) met in Shelbyville to hold a series of press conferences that outlined its legislative “wish list” for the 2020 session. 

Superintendents addressed issues of creating new funding for schools, how to handle the continued teacher shortage, and how to combat proposals for school choice and school vouchers that some legislators have championed for the past several sessions. 

KASS members are hopeful that lawmakers will pay attention to some of (if not all) their concerns, with hopes that their advocacy will be meaningful as new legislation is created.

So the question must be asked: why can’t teachers have a legislative wish list?

Of course, superintendents would want us to believe that they act in our best interest, that they have our students at the forefront of their lobbying and decision-making, but in our state that has been so chronically and critically divided over the past four years, how are we to fully trust our leaders?  

The answer? 

We cautiously trust those who lead us, while also preparing for whatever the legislature might throw at us in this next session. 

Teachers must be ready to advocate for themselves, their students, and their profession more than ever before. Even though many see Beshear’s gubernatorial win as a great step forward, the honest truth is that some of the toughest work that we have as teachers lies directly ahead as a Frankfort that has continually failed us comes back to work in January. 

Perhaps legislators need a “Teachers’ Wish List” that could go along with the list presented by KASS? But with so many needs, where do teachers even begin their list?

I believe the true answer lies in fully funding schools. According to The Courier Journal, education funds accounted for only 43% of Kentucky’s budget this year, as opposed to 52% in 1996-97.  KASS members suggest that this reduction in funding has led to a number of issues that directly impact teachers throughout the state’s 172 districts.  The leaders also contend that raising state contributions back to at least 52% would create around $1 billion for schools. 

Imagine schools that have fully funded libraries, where the books were not last purchased in 1990 or before. Think about 1-2-1 Chromebooks, iPads, and other forms of technology that would allow Kentucky students to actually be on equal ground with their peers in other states.  Think about the benefits of having school nurses, and mental health counselors on staff that would help our students holistically, fighting some of the chronic mental and physical health issues that further contribute to the achievement gap. 

The second most important thing that legislators and superintendents could give teachers doesn’t cost a thing: trust. Last school year was fueled by tensions that came from sick outs and the threat of recourse from Wayne Lewis and his state cronies, so once Governor-elect Beshear establishes his own state Board of Education, superintendents need to reach out to teachers to create a viable plan for legislative advocacy. Perhaps Kentucky schools could be forward thinking and follow Indiana school districts’ lead in allowing teachers to use their own voices in the state house, rather than relying only upon a few voices to speak for the many? Since there are only 12 unionized districts in our state, all Kentucky teachers must be given a fair chance to represent themselves and their needs to their elected leaders. What better way to build trust than to let teachers speak from their own experiences?

Trust must also be extended to the curriculum. At the October press conference, KASS Executive Director Jim Flynn suggested that there needs to be a “better balance” between superintendents and SBDM councils in the determination of a school’s curriculum. Here in JCPS, we have entire offices and experts devoted to curriculum, but most of our state is not so fortunate. Imagine what would happen if a superintendent suddenly decided that Creationism has to be taught, rather than evolutionary Biology. 

Or think about what would happen if an SBDM (under the guidance of a superintendent) found that a World Religions class was “too Muslim”, or “too Buddhist”. That kind of decision would undoubtedly alienate students and families in school communities, and only exacerbate the xenophobic climate that proliferates some Kentucky schools. 

Superintendents (and legislators, for that matter) need to stay away from intensely policing or supervising the curriculum. Classrooms work best when creativity and autonomy rule. I understand that there needs to be continuity and an assurance that standards are being upheld, but the best teaching often comes from letting people follow their passions, rather than having  a weekly flowchart of learning targets dictate what happens in and out of the classroom. 

Money and trust. Those seem like simple things to ask for, but this session is likely to be contentious and nerve-wracking for all of us in education. Even though the governor’s race was a real victory, the hard work of making Kentucky into an academically competitive state will require cooperation from all sides, and a place at the table for teachers. 

And superintendents, if you’re reading this, please be careful for what you wish for as we move into session, because if this past year serves as evidence for what happens when angry, passionate teachers unite to fight for their rights, then great change may finally be on the way for this Commonwealth. 

We All Need to Stand with Iroquois

William Tucker

I don’t teach at Iroquois. I will not pretend that I know everything that is going on in that school. But I cannot sit idly by and watch spectators on social media try and dismantle a school with their constant negativity, their hatred for the “system” as a whole, and their armchair willingness to fix things “if they let me run that school!”

I am a teacher. And if this recent election has proven anything, the world can be changed when teachers stand together. 

Now we all need to stand with Iroquois. 

After several high-profile incidents that have attracted a media frenzy, it is clear that things inside the school seem to be falling apart. The recent post that appeared on the Dear JCPS Facebook page indicates that teachers are not only disenfranchised by their students’ behavior, but are being torn apart by the very district leaders who are assigned to fix problems, not create more drama for those trying to teach there everyday.

This anonymous post has attracted well over 200 comments and as many shares since it was published on Monday. If the post is entirely true, then it should serve as a clear cry for help. But so much of social media is fueled by hyperbole and half-truths. And no post ever seems to focus on the good things going on in a school. The good news always seems to float by under the radar, with only the negative making waves.

This is where I must admit that I teach at a high-performing high school. I’ve spent my entire career there. Of course we have our problems. Drugs. Cell phones. Some misbehavior. That’s true in any high school. But our problems seem microscopic compared to what is going on daily at Iroquois.

We’ve heard rumors that the superintendent himself has been there as a sub, due to the fact that there are never enough substitutes for the many teachers that are absent. But rumors are a far cry from the truth. 

The Dear JCPS article mentioned earlier also names two assistant superintendents who reportedly “stood around” and acted like they were helping with their mere presence in the building. If this is true, then district leadership needs to question their knowledge and abilities, as well as their willingness to enact change, rather than commanding it from Van Hoose. 

The blame turns on the teachers next. The article (and a lot of the comments) say that they are terrible and don’t care. Most of them don’t show up. That kind of thing. 

I’m not sure that I believe all of it. 

The teachers that I know at Iroquois are some of the most caring, creative, engaging, and motivated professionals in this district. And many of them have been there for several years, even their whole career.

It takes a special person to teach in a chronically low-achieving school. Add in lots of additional social and cultural problems, and I can only begin to imagine the heartache that those teachers must have daily. To know that an entire city, even people out in the state, think that you are a failure, and still go to work everyday, that takes real strength. Strength and commitment to students that deserve to learn and be loved just as much as every other student in this district. 

Which brings me back to my thesis: we all need to stand with Iroquois right now. 

We need to speak against the haters, the naysayers, those who only seek their own agendas, and actually ask those who teach there what they need.

We need to speak to Dr. Polio and his entire team, and demand that they go and see things for themselves, and that they use their expertise to address the issues that are present.

We need Louisville media to stop criticizing schools without knowing the full story of what is going on inside a building.

Just last week, this blog posted a heartfelt letter from an Iroquois teacher, whose letter to members of the Board of Education was obtained through an open records request from a local reporter. This letter speaks honestly about what is going on, without any of the sensationalism that proliferates on social media. I highly recommend you read it and see things for yourself.

And after you do, could you do all of us teachers a favor: save your criticism for something else. Unless you’ve been a teacher yourself, you have no idea what goes on in public schools. The highs and lows. The myriad of emotions that pass through our buildings on a daily basis. 

Rather than being a critic and pretending that you have the answers to all the problems, do us all a favor and put your money where your mouth is.

Come teach.

Teacher shortage causes violence, other issues

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

The teacher shortage is rapidly approaching a crisis level. It will take years or decades to undo the damage caused to public education and our profession. While teachers have known about the impending crisis for years, others outside the profession are starting to notice. When we look at the teacher attrition crisis, there is more to it that non-educators won’t realize.

We know the immediate symptoms of the crisis. Empty classrooms that need to be filled with substitutes. There’s also a substitute shortage, so sometimes the classes are watched by other teachers in the building. In some schools this looks like “collapsed” classes where students from one class are spread out to surrounding classrooms. Some classes are over the legal cap size. Some elementary students will spend the majority of their day with a substitute while the vacancies persist. The lasting educational damage of this will be catastrophic for some children.

What else does the teacher shortage look like?

It looks like a lack of supervision that precipitates disruptive, sometimes violent behavior. While some members of the media are quick to lambaste public school classrooms as “war zones,” no one is pointing out how the teacher shortage is causing this. In a building with multiple vacancies and a shortage of substitutes, students lack the stability and supervision necessary to support good educational outcomes. In the Iroquois Incident, everyone was quick to point at the parents, the child in question, and a number of other factors. Educators know that schools with a high teacher turnover rate struggle with school climate and culture. The teacher shortage causes these issues, and consequently these issues contribute to teachers leaving the profession.

It looks like a lack of extracurricular activities. Coaching is hard and time consuming. In schools with a higher amount of early career educators, it can be difficult to find anyone to coach various teams. Being a beginning teacher is already difficult and time-exhaustive. Adding into the mix an extracurricular can be impossible, or worse, lead to a faster burnout and another young teacher leaving the profession.

It looks like a lack of traditions. When your school is constantly losing its staff, the staff memory for traditions leaves with them. Can you imagine Manual and Male without their prolific spirit weeks as they prepare for their football showdowns? Of course not. They don’t have the high staff turnover that other schools in JCPS have. There is at least one high school that didn’t have a pep rally purely because there wasn’t a teacher there to lead it. Can you imagine being a senior at that school?

It looks like a lack of mentors. Teaching is a sharing profession. It does not occur to us to be competitive against each other. It does not occur to us to be cutthroat and vicious. Teachers are, by nature, altruistic. We thrive on helping others. When I first began teaching, other teachers helped with classroom furniture and supplies. They helped me build lesson plans and resource banks. They helped me know when to leave the building and when it was okay to not take that stack of essays with me. In schools with high turnover, these mentors don’t exist. Or they do, but instead of a team helping a singular new teacher, it’s a singular veteran helping a mass of young teachers. 

It looks like a lack of advocates. Teaching is hard. Being a political advocate for teaching makes it immensely harder. As we continue to hemorrhage teachers from our profession, we will continue to lose the best advocates our children have. Being active in our union can be time-consuming, but it is necessary for our survival. In buildings with a high turnover, it can be difficult to find someone to take up the task of representing members in the building.

The causes of the teacher shortage are many and varied. It wasn’t one policy or person who did this. The effects are vast and difficult to counteract. It will take a concerted effort on the part of policymakers to listen to educators and work with us for the future of public education. Our children need public education. Kentucky needs public education. 

A Teacher’s Voice on the Iroquois Incident

The below was originally an email sent to board members. After the email was Open Records Requested by a local reporter, the decision was made for Austin to have their voice heard first.

Austin Norrid

I am certain that you are all aware of the fights that have occurred at Iroquois High School in the past several weeks. 

Last Monday, at our principal’s request, several resource teachers and administrators from the district came to visit our school. If you blinked, you might have missed them. They were barely in our building long enough to check the boxes on their forms before they left, back to Van Hoose to let us in the classroom know what it is we are doing wrong from their cubicles on high. 

The observers came after students had arrived for the day, and left before the second lunch block even began. Not deigning to stay long enough to observe upper classmen leave lunch. They did not observe behaviors during the last two periods of the day, when all veteran educators know behaviors are worst, nor did they stay to observe dismissal. 
If the district observers had stayed, perhaps they would have observed the miserable failure that is the district’s cell phone policy. 

Teachers have been told that we are not allowed to take students phones away, and students know this and act accordingly. Without very strict classroom management skills, many teachers are struggling to keep their students engaged in their lessons and off of their phones. 

Last year, a few classrooms at Iroquois piloted the use of Yondr pouches. These cut-proof pouches use magnetic locks, like those used in clothing stores, to secure student phones. Students get to keep their phones on their person, but since they are in the pouches they cannot use them. Although data shows that schools that use these pouches have increases in learning and decreases in suspensions, for some reason these were not implemented school wide this year. 

Without the ability to ban cell phones, we are losing control of our students. Young teachers are especially struggling to cope with this epidemic. 

When I ask my students what is causing fights, nine times out of ten, they are beginning online. Students are using social media to cyber bully each other and instigate fights. 
Moreover, the ability to record and share these fights online only increases their popularity. The unbelievable amount of views, shares, and likes that fights garner online is encouraging students to instigate and engage in fights. The fight that occurred yesterday has already gained over 100,000 views on Facebook. Students are emboldened by this, hoping to gain as many likes, shares, and views as possible, knowing that it will increase their reputation.  

Students have always engaged in fighting, but the frequency with which it is occurring this year is something that I have not yet witnessed in my four years of teaching and my three years at Iroquois. I truly believe that absent a true phone policy with real consequences, students will continue to plan, record, and share fights online, all the while missing out on valuable instruction time and endangering themselves and others. 

Thank you

Moving on Post-Election: Now What?

By Tammy Berlin and Emilie McKiernan Blanton

Those of us who are passionate about public education have been heavily invested in this election for many months now.  We’ve spent countless hours knocking on doors and volunteering for our endorsed candidates, and we’ve had innumerable conversations with everyone we come in contact with about why public education should be their number one voting issue on election day.  I know it can be exhilarating when the candidate that we have worked so hard to support wins, but this is specifically not the time for us to gloat or rest on our laurels. While we now have a pro-public education governor, we lost every other statewide race. We are in a precarious position and must move forward together. Read on to find out what we can do that will help us continue to win the battles in the War on Public Education.  

We must continue to fight on the issues.  

Teachers remain one of the most trusted professional groups.  The annual Gallup poll on the nation’s most honest and ethical professions (, 2017) shows that two-thirds of Americans have a high degree of trust and confidence in public school teachers.  We are the people who know every child by name, and who love them and care for them as our own. When we speak with passion and conviction about our students, the public takes notice and stands behind us.  We can make a difference by continuing to fight on the issues. We can fight and win on school funding, we can fight and win on class size, we can fight and win on equity, we can fight and win universal pre-K, we can fight and win the wrap around and support services that our students need, and we can fight and win on the working conditions, including salaries, benefits, and high-quality professional training, that help us attract and retain excellent educators to the profession.  The key to all of this is to make sure that we are always advocating first and foremost for our students. Our work environment is our students’ learning environment, and our students deserve no less than the best.  

We must continue building relationships with legislators.

Regardless of which side of the aisle they are on, most legislators care about education and are interested in your opinions as a constituent and especially as an educator.  If you have never had a personal one on one conversation with your legislators, now is the perfect time to start. Once the legislative session begins on January 7, your legislators will be occupied with their responsibilities in Frankfort, but between now and then you’ll be able to find them at home in their communities.  There’s no time like the present to make an appointment with them to talk about what they can do to support students and public school employees. Bipartisan support is crucial to moving our issues. Even if your legislator is not someone who has been a reliable vote for public education in the past, it’s important to reach out to them for a conversation.  Make a list of the issues that you want to talk about, and remember to frame the conversation in terms of how we can work together to support students.  

Before you meet with your legislator, you should take the time to look over the pre-filed bill summaries on the Legislative Research Commission website.  Searching the bills by heading allows you to see which bills are related to education and public schools.  If you take the time to read over bill summaries before you talk to your legislator, you can arm yourself with information and help shape their opinion on the issues before the session begins.  Be aware that not every bill that is pre-filed will move during the session. If you have a proactive conversation with your legislator before the session begins, your conversation could make a difference in whether or not good bills progress and bad bills die.  

We must frame our discourse to bridge the urban-rural divide in Kentucky.

Whether to cheer for red or blue isn’t the only issue that divides us as Kentuckians.  Many of us have found ourselves at odds with friends or family over this election. It’s time to engage in civil discourse with our neighbors across the state about the things that we all agree on:  We need to shift our focus to investing in our infrastructure, career and technical training, real solutions to the opioid epidemic, and expanding our citizens’ access to healthcare and mental health resources. Let’s put our differences aside and work with our neighbors across the state to make a better future. Today’s a new beginning with new opportunities. Let’s work together and make the most of it.  

We must hold the line

We must keep the seats currently occupied by pro-public education legislators and work to add more elected officials who value public education. If legislators won’t value public education, we need to find a way to find others who will. Endorsed candidates who value public education need the full support of public educators and our advocates.

While Andy’s win was sweet, we cannot let this become a time when we lose focus. We have shown that we will Remember in November. We have to keep remembering every November. We have to keep showing up for our students. We have to keep voting like our kids’ lives depend on it. Because they do.