We Don’t Need Tests; We Need Help

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

In 2019, we are still overtesting children. 

Tests are discouraging, stressful, and problematic in so many ways. Kids and teachers hate them. Tests don’t show how well a school functions. Tests don’t show what students have learned. Achievement tests are designed too broadly and administered in such a way as to render them virtually useless to schools. 

The idea of a standardized test is appealing for non-educators. We are told by our regulators and overseers that tests show how well we teach. We are told that we can use them to adjust our instructional practices. The real role of standardized tests is to rank schools under some misdirected guise of allowing taxpayers to see how public education is functioning. We receive the results too late to affect actual change in our instructional practices for the students tested. 

We’ve known the reason for the achievement gap for fifty-three years. On July 2, 1966, James Coleman and a group of sociologists published the Equality of Educational Opportunity report. The report, later dubbed the “Coleman Report,” included data covering hundreds of thousands of students, more than half of a million. Coleman and his peers analyzed survey results and other data to show Congress what any educator could have told it; the number one indicator of educational success is familial wealth. 

Schools are integral parts of any child’s life. Important work happens in schools every day. Schools cannot make up for gaps that were created before children even walked through the doors. We can narrow gaps. Sometimes, we can close gaps for some students. Nevertheless, achievement gaps will persist until we address the economic variables that hinder our most disenfranchised children.

Teachers are not trying to shirk accountability. The problem is that the lack of differentiation to account for these inequalities means that schools full of amazing pedagogical practices are labelled “failing” or “one-star” as Kentucky’s new rating system dictates.

We don’t need more tests.  We need more supports to help our children. From universal pre-kindergarten to more in-depth interventions for our older students, education needs an overhaul. Standardized testing is never going to help with that.

An oft-cited reason for how socio-economic status affects education is “how can you learn when you don’t know when you’ll eat again?” Food insecurity is just one of the ways that poverty affects learning. Due to the lack of access to health care, children who grow up in generational poverty can have significant issues with hearing from ear infections as an infant. If your hearing is affected, learning can be more difficult. Children who grow up in generational poverty are more likely to have asthma. Children who spend part of the night suffering the effects of asthma will have difficulty focusing in class after losing sleep.

Dental health can affect learning outcomes as well. While their affluent peers get cleanings and check-ups, students who deal with poverty can suffer the effects of toothaches that distract them during class and inhibit their ability to sleep at night. Vision is also affected by poverty. A 2002 study by Paul Harris gave randomly selected fourth graders access to optometrical services. The result of that study? Students who received the services grew in reading achievement more than the normal rate. Children living in poverty are less likely to get the in depth visual screening they need and can require assistance to correct tracking and focusing beyond the normal read-letters-from-a-chart-at-a-distance visual screening.

These physical effects are separate from advantages affluent peers receive. Children who have access to educational opportunities before enrolling in school and during school breaks will widen the gap. Parents who have to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet will not be able to enroll their children in these enrichment activities. 

Schools absolutely can make a difference in the lives of children. Schools and teachers work to close the achievement gap every day. We know, definitively, that standardized assessments will never close this gap. Instead, what do we get? Food for our children? Better dental access? More optometric coverage? No, we get more tests. The tests don’t tell us how to get the things our children actually need.

We know we need intervention and more help. It has been more than half a century since the Coleman Report was published. If we want to affect change and close the gap, we have to address our students’ needs beyond the classroom. 

Coleman’s final conclusion remains true; students benefit from having classmates from a variety of backgrounds, including socio-economic. Diversity remains a gateway to equity within education. Testing does not provide diversity. The only thing that will is effective public policy and the understanding that education is but one piece of an all-encompassing puzzle.

So you registered to vote… Now what?!

Tammy Berlin

Last week we celebrated an important event that is integral to the democratic process in America and in the Commonwealth:  National Voter Registration Day. You took the first step to electing a slate of candidates who will be champions for public education.  You rock! But Election Day is still a little more than a month away, so what should we do until then? Here are some things you can do between now and then to make sure Friends of Public Education are elected.  

  • Help someone else register — Voter registration doesn’t close until October 7.  There’s still plenty of time to help others register. Any US Citizen who will be 18 on or before November 5, 2019 is eligible to vote in this election.  People who have moved, changed their name, or who didn’t vote in the last election should update and verify their registration. Just go to www.edvotejcta.com/jcpsgotv to find out more and complete your registration.  
  • Generate some hype for the election by posting on social media — How can you inspire and inform others?  Leverage your digital connections to spread the word:  Take a selfie and share a post explaining why this election is important to you.  
  • Understand the issues and know who you are going to vote for — Registering to vote is only half the battle.  You’re going to need to cast your vote on Election Day for candidates who will make and enact public policy that will protect and improve public education.  Not sure where to start? Watch the JCTA website for the BSK Report to see a list of Better Schools Kentucky’s endorsed candidates. Coming soon!
  • Talk to friends, neighbors, and family — Now’s the time to talk to everyone you know about why public education is the most important issue in this election.  If we don’t elect candidates who will support educators and protect our schools, our students and our communities will pay the price for years to come.   Arm your friends, neighbors, and family with the information they need to make informed decisions about candidates. You can read more about the issues that will help us get the Schools Our Students Deserve at www.tinyurl.com/JCPSBetterWayForward.  
  • Volunteer for a candidate — Our candidates need your help!  Canvassing happens every Saturday. Any of our candidates would LOVE for you to help knock on doors to spread the word about why they’re the best choice for public education.  Not sure where to go? Check out these dates and locations: https://edvotejcta.com/help-us-elect-public-education-candidates/.
  • Make sure your vote counts — You registered to vote because you care about the results of this election and you want to make a difference.  Make sure that you know what to do and where to go when the big day gets here. Now’s the time to plan ahead:
    • Find your polling place — If you’re a first-time voter or if you haven’t voted in a long time, you may not have given any thought to where your polling place is.  You can find out by going to the Voter Information Center page on the Kentucky State Board of Elections Website. Just go to https://vrsws.sos.ky.gov/vic/ and type in your information to find your polling location.  
    • When should you go — When will be the best time for you to go and how will you get there?  The polls will be open from 6:00 AM till 6:00 PM, but be prepared for the possibility that you may have to wait in line if you go at peak times (before 9:00, between 12:00 and 1:00, and after 4:30).  Be sure you leave early enough to get there, or at least get in line before the polls close at 6:00.  
    • How to get there — Voting’s always better when you do it with a friend or neighbor, so don’t forget to carpool.  Don’t have anyone to go with but still need a ride? Many rideshare services offer free or discounted rides on Election Day, so be sure to ask when you book your ride on your favorite rideshare app.  
    • Absentee ballots — Are you going to be out of town or otherwise unable to vote on Election Day?  No worries! You can request and absentee ballot in the mail or cast an absentee ballot in person at the County Clerk’s office.  Be careful, though: There are restrictions! Go to https://elect.ky.gov/Voters/Pages/Absentee-Voting.aspx to see the list of absentee voting requirements on the Kentucky State Board of Elections website.  
  • Follow up with your network on election day — Let’s make sure no Education Voter is left behind!  Check in with your friend, neighbors, and family to make sure everyone follows through on their committment to vote for Public Education candidates!
  • Election day is November 5:  See you at the polls!

Where to Start With the Problem of Standardization and Testing – Part 2

Ryan Davis

The article is the second half of a two part series.  Part I details the theory behind how and why we, as educators, are complicit in supporting the forces for standardization and testing, and how we must take action to counter this.  Such action does not begin with protest and demonstration, but must start with ordinary acts of revolution. If we don’t, we ultimately create an appearance of support for the systems of standardization and testing, perpetuating a culture that in turn sees standardization and testing as aligned and reasonable companions to our work, thus making it more difficult, if not impossible, to dismantle the system. 

So, I began to brainstorm a list of ways that we may more actively lean into revolutionist transgression against the system.  Many of the ideas were inspired from the wisdom and actions fellow educators. For me, much of this list is an aspirational challenge as I try to step further into this work.   This list is meant to be neither exhaustive nor prescriptive. Unity does not require uniformity, so every point may not resonate. But, I hope our shared commitment to making even small deviations from the norm will build momentum and challenge each other in ways that will roll into a larger movement.  So, some actions to consider:

  • Don’t celebrate “victories” in standardized test scores.  Soon results from the state accountability system will be released.  Celebrating “progress” based on those or any other standardized measures lends them validity.  It can be exciting to see “growth”. But, if we truly believe the system is fundamentally flawed, then that growth is equally flawed.  Such celebrations are then not only built on a faulty premises, but also likely expense of someone else.  
  • Challenge those who do celebrate such “victories”.  Silence is complicity. Be the voice that questions whether such “growth” is meaningful. Or, even suggest it may be harmful.  
  • Admonish any rankings, rewards, stars, medal, ribbons, etc… given to schools.  Most are based on a system of standardization and testing, so celebrating them again reinforces for ourselves and for non-educators that such systems must have some validity.  They also create division where we should be unified and only incentivize the enactment of more assimilationist approaches. It’s difficult not to share a recognition your school has earned because we want our schools to be seen and noticed for the good they do.  But, such recognitions are more badges for adherence to an oppressive system than they are signifiers of what is actually good at your school. Point instead to stories and experiences that showcase unique and empowered students. 
  • Don’t ask students to reflect on standardized test scores and make a plan to improve.  First, the norm referencing in most standardized tests would mean asking for a mathematical impossibility.  Secondly, asking this of students obscures for them the truth that racism, classism, power dynamics, homogenization, etc… are the inherit basis of standardization and testing.  At worst, it instills a belief that such tests are accurate measures of their worth and capacity, and that a lack of success it is due to a lack of effort and not institutional bias, present and historical oppression, and a systemic filtering out of difference.  As with any of these points, there is nuance. The assimilationist and revolutionist approaches are not dichotomous; they are dialectical. So, this is not to say we abstain from helping individual students who have a goal to improve a test score. We must assuredly do so, but also help them develop lens for interrogating what they are doing.  There is a vast difference between imposing this type of reflection and planning on all students and empowering students as individuals to think and act in an unfair system. 
  • Speak the full truth to students.  Students know or at least intuit the unfairness, injustice, and painful absurdity of standardization and testing.  We know they are stressed and anxious because of it. Help them name the systemic bias of these forces and take a critical view of the power dynamics at play.  Continue to help them understand their worth and value is not dependent on their ability to justify themselves to an external system. Empower them to move from being objects of the system to agents who decide and act in their own assimilationist-revolutionist dialectic.   
  • If ACT or other test prep must be done, also make sure to engage students in dialog about the power dynamics and exclusionary forces at play.  Help them understand that test achievement is not solely a function of effort in test prep, but more a result of systematic inequities. Be clear that test prep is not a neutral form of learning, but the practice of imitating the values and expressions of a culture that may not be their own. 
  • Speak the full truth to parents.  Help them be agents within an assimilationist-revolutionist dialectic as well.     
  • Stop using standardized measures in the classroom.  Too often we accept a standardized measure as just another data point, but all others seem to collapse around it.  We need to start reclaiming our space as professionals. We have the capacity to help our students show what they know and what they can do.  We can do so better and more fully than a standardized data point. Right now, the forces of standardization and testing are so powerful that the gravity of one point can out weight all the others.  We have to reject what holds us back if we are to move forward. Black holes do not illuminate; they hold in light.   
  • Question articles and “experts”.  The swirling blur of “research” and advice is a form of power through authority and confusion that often distorts the value, validity, and assumptions behind the work.  The quick-fix instructional practice is often not actually research based, but is at best based on an interpretation of research and at worst only anecdotal. Moreover, when there is actual research it often uses outcome measures based on standardized assessment and not holistic, edifying, and humanizing views of students. If we accept these articles and practices, even the ones that seem harmless, we empower their underlying values.  Enacting these beliefs and practices in our classrooms makes it more difficult to argue against their companions of standardization and testing. Specifically, we must ask more, what is the actual research? What are the assumptions of that work?
  • Don’t proctor the ACT on a Saturday.  If we are agents of the system on the weekend, it is more difficult to advocate for its destruction during the week.  
  • Remind each other, explicitly, that we do not teach subjects or standards – we teach students.  The more we center our work and conversations on them, as people, and stirring the brilliance and brokenness in every soul, the more we move away from the mechanistic systems that sort and fit and filter.  

There are, without a doubt, countless other ways to push back.  There are just as many reasons not to do so. We are all restrained by the heavy and comforting inertia of the status quo, by the discomfort of causing awkwardness, and by the rationalization that it’s not that bad.  These are often the more difficult acts to take than joining in a major collective action. But, they are the necessary things to do before such an action can be successful. 

Where to Start With the Problem of Standardization and Testing – Part 1

This article is the first in a two part series. 

Ryan Davis

In my previous piece I wrote that the forces of standardization and testing, and the belief systems behind them, are the root of many of the problems we face today.  Taken as a stand-alone issue, I don’t know many educators who would disagree with the claim that, on the whole, standardized testing has had more negative than positive impact on our students.  So then, the question must be asked, if their failings are almost universally acknowledged, why do standardization and testing still persist? I think the answer is what may be a slightly awkward family conversation: it’s us.

It is perhaps easy to rationalize away our culpability.  Certainly, there is the tangle of moneyed privateers and politicos, the circling coven of corporate profiteers, and the self-advancing, education bureaucrats that enact real and formidable power.  But, there are more of us than there are of them. And while such concentrated and aligned power will ultimately only be brought down through major collective action, we have much groundwork to do before we can be ready for this final step.   

The fact is that many in the public, and probably a fair number of our colleagues, tacitly support the beliefs and theories that make standardization and testing a logical inevitability.  Through our often well-intentioned actions we perpetuate a culture in which standardization and testing seem like a natural and necessary, or at least acceptable, part of schooling. Thus, concerns we voice, no matter how loudly, about the injustices of such systems will always be drowned out by our own decisions to use the tools, methods, and metaphors of those systems to shape the experiences and directions of our classrooms.    

In one way, our complicity stems from the fact that educators, like anyone, attempt to counter systems of injustice through two approaches: the assimilationist approach which seeks to overcome oppression by adopting the values and ontologies of the dominate system with the hope of then succeeding within it; and, the revolutionist approach which intentionally and actively transgresses against the system, naming its inequities, and empowering all to see and create a different world.  

The assimilationist approach asks us to train students to fit the mold of standardization and testing so that they may garner some opportunity from it (I emphasize ‘may’ because oppressive systems always only provide the illusion of merit as a basis for entry and acceptance, and will establish or rearrange barriers to maintain their exclusionary ends).   The revolutionist approach would ask us to help students name the unfairness they see and experience and then empower them to take action to reshape the world.  

In practice, the assimilationist and revolutionist approaches are not dichotomous.  The lived realities of a student who must both confront the system while also being subjected to it require that we hold both approaches in tension.  The unfortunate truth, however, is that every enactment of an assimilationist approach only valorizes and strengthens the system of oppression. Thus in addition to a sympathetic pull to help students succeed as much as possible within a system that, for now, still exists, the system itself also exerts a self-preserving pressure to enact assimilationist approaches.  Moreover, this unintentional complicity only supplements the innumerable ways that forces of power compel schools to explicitly support and implement standardization and testing.  

And so, if we are honest, a great deal of what happens in schools today is either shaped by the forces of standardization and testing or falls along an assimilationist response to those systems.  But, if we are serious about dismantling the systemic forces of standardization and testing, we must find more ways to act in a revolutionary manner. Otherwise, the balance of our actions ultimately serves and supports this unjust and inequitable system, especially to non-educators looking in.   

Such revolutionary politics doesn’t begin with protesting or even voting.  There is an everyday politics of nudging wider the narrowing way of the world through small, but courageous, acts of divergence.  Such acts slowly pull on the window of what is considered within the realm of accepted discourse in our schools and communities. Such acts prepare the ground in which a larger revolution can flourish.  Part 2 will brainstorm some ways we can live further into the ordinary work of revolution.  

Beshear Understands Quality Public Ed Creates Jobs, Bevin doesn’t get it

Jason Starr Nelson

Okay. I did a lot of research. I found a lot of statistics and read many anecdotes from business executives stating why they located their offices or facilities where they did, but, unlike our governor, I am not going to insult your intelligence. It’s common sense that quality public education attracts employers and creates jobs. Matt Bevin doesn’t get it.

Matt Bevin touts “right to work” as a job creator. Prior to “right to work” passing, Kentucky’s net job growth was about 2,100 jobs per month, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. The 21 months after “right to work”, the net growth has slowed to 700 jobs per month, despite grandiose announcements of billions of dollars in investments from the Bevin administration. Yet, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, 34 percent of these investments produce no new jobs, and if Braidy Industries doesn’t doesn’t pan out, another 48 percent will include no new jobs. Majority of the jobs that have been created have been created by businesses already located in Kentucky. 

Bottom line. Business executives will tell you, they need locations with a highly-skilled and educated workforce. They need modern infrastructure and a high-quality of life for those relocating to a region. 

Amongst our region, Kentucky’s job growth rate recently is only 0.8 percent, compared to 2.8 percent in the rest of the South. An economic report from the University of Kentucky painted a bleak picture of Kentucky – low education attainment, low median-income, and an overall lack of skilled labor. Instead of investing in education, infrastructure, and other factors that will attract quality jobs, Bevin has decided to give the top earners a tax break and weaken our public education by attacking our teachers, under-funding our schools, cutting spending on higher education, and promoting further tax breaks for those who can afford private-school tuition. 

Andy Beshear understands to attract quality jobs to Kentucky, we must invest in our public schools and we need to brightest and most qualified teaching our children. In contrast, Bevin is lowering the bar to teach in Kentucky and underfunding our schools.

Beshear wants to bring agritech and advanced manufacturing jobs to Kentucky. These jobs require an educated workforce and local districts to create programs in agritech and advanced manufacturing, which exist in parts of the state, such as Jefferson County.

Instead of cutting funding to Universities, Beshear will partner with Universities and agricultural leaders to develop “agritech accelerators” that encourage startups and new small businesses. He also wants to reserve incentives for those companies that create jobs that support families, such as advanced manufacturing. He has plans to expand micro-loan programs to help small businesses, provide grants for lower-income adults, invest in community and technical colleges to provide skills that align with local employers.

What is Bevin doing? Well, Braidy Industries is still searching for $500 million in investments, because even those Russian oligarchs can’t seem to provide enough money for it to open and create the 550 new jobs that were promised, and he has announced plans to create 55,000 new jobs. How? No one seems to know. 
While Bevin walks around in a funny coat with no sense of direction, Beshear is laying the groundwork for a better Kentucky. His plan on jobs can be viewed here: https://andybeshear.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Agritech-Manufacturing-Plan-.pdf

We Are Empowered Educators

Cassie Lyles

Educator involvement leading up to the election on November 5th will be essential in helping us reach the outcome we know is necessary for the good of public schools, students, and teachers.  We have to make sure we each do our fair share in the push to the finish line. We all know we need to help, but many people may not know how.  Some of us are new to this level of involvement as we didn’t become teachers to be activists, so here are the upcoming opportunities to advocate as an Empowered Educator.  At each of these events we need a large number of teachers in red shirts representing all of us.

Next weekend on  Saturday, September 28 from 2-6, State Senator Dan Seum will be hosting a picnic at his home at 1107 Holly Ave., Fairdale, KY for all those who have been bullied by Bevin.  Teachers are definitely on this list. This is a non-partisan event as our governor has also been known to bully those in his own party. Now, I was initially put off by the notion of complaining about a bully, but as teachers, we know that the only way to stop a bully is to actually recognize the situation.  It is important that we speak out against the treatment we have faced at his hands. I don’t need to remind you of the words he has said, but just in case, here’s a couple videos:

There are opportunities to canvass pretty much every Saturday from now until election day, but our big kick of specifically for educators is on October 19th at the Highland office 1436 Bardstown Rd from 3-5.  We will be canvassing for our endorsed candidates. If you’ve never been canvassing before, it is super fun.  Bring a friend, you will knock on doors and talk to them about the issues that are important to us. We all have our own story to tell about how all the shenanigans of the past 4 years have affected us, and this is a way to organically and meaningfully get them heard.  Again, wear red so people know you are an educator.  

Additionally, on October 12th there is another canvassing event that is going to culminate in a Unity Picnic at 4 pm at 1328 Hickory St. Tickets to the picnic are $20 unless you participate in canvassing earlier that day starting at the Highlands Headquarters at 11:00 am at 1436 Bardstown Rd.

There are 5 gubernatorial debates throughout the state, but we need to focus on the debate coming up on October 26th in Wyatt Hall in Cralle Theater at Bellarmine University.   The actual debate is from 8 to 9, but we want to be there earlier creating a sea of red that both candidates will have to walk through.  That will encourage Andy and let Bevin know that we haven’t forgotten his words and actions toward us.  The other debates are October 3rd in Paducah, October 15th and 28th in Lexington, and October 29th in Highland Heights.  Many of us here have connections in other places.  Encourage your friends in those areas to also show up wearing red.  You could even go those debates as well and maybe friend some friends with you.

Also don’t forget the importance of simply getting people registered to vote!  The deadline to register is October 7th and anyone who will be 18 by the November 5th election is eligible to register.   Many schools are having their own events surrounding voter registration as it can be non-partisan and is appropriate for schools to do.  You could offer to help your fellow teachers look up their poll locations as a way to help them make sure their registration is current.

There are so many opportunities between now and November 5th, and I know that we are tired, but four more years of our current situation is only going to make us even more tired.  We have to advocate now and get our fellow citizens to understand why this race is about what is right for Kentucky and not about the traditional right and left.  We cannot just hope that everything works out. It will not without our help. If you’re concerned about child care, take your kids with you! What better way for them to learn about how to be a good citizen than to watch you be one!  Now is the time for us to be Empowered Educators.

Do It Alongside of Them: Co-Creating in the Classroom and Beyond

Matthew Kaufmann

As teachers, we see how the larger world impacts our kids.  The decisions made in Washington and Frankfort trickle down from legislators to our classrooms.  The conflicts of our culture find their way into our kids’ lives and into our schools’ doors. Every kid in a desk is living within a system and a larger history that they didn’t create.  And some of these kids are marching for their lives. They’re planning a global climate strike on Friday: September 20th.  They’re chanting Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.  They’re trying to succeed in school, find a path, and often in the context of working to support their families, dealing with trauma, and some of them- walking around afraid to speak Spanish or wear their hijab in public.

In education, context matters.  

And I believe we need to help our students challenge and transform contexts that are hurtful to them.  The skills we help them develop, the knowledge we help them apply, and the communities we co-create with them have the power to change their lives and the world.

We’re called to be realistic optimists.  There’s no room for cynicism in education.  We are in the work of speaking hope in everything we do.  Every subject area allows us to empower our students’ lives in unique ways.  As an English teacher, with over a dozen ethnicities in my classroom, I ask questions, and then I have them write, write, and write.  And then we share our writing and grow our conversation, our understanding of contexts, and our empathy.

The realist in me asks the question: Where is a space you’ve been negatively labeled?

And we write and share.  

The optimist in me asks:  How can we challenge and transform those spaces?

And sometimes my students come to the conclusion they’ve inherited systems from a different time and place that are no longer appropriate.

I’ve been working with a group of students who feel they’ve inherited such a system.

One of my students wrote a letter to every state legislator in the House and Senate last year.  She shared her conflict on how she and her peers did not have a sense of their history before slavery.  She expressed the need for experts on African American history in our schools to help fill the knowledge gap that she was experiencing and healing the mental health crisis this lack of knowledge created.  She linked many “behavioral infractions” and the school to prison pipeline as direct result of being systemically denied her history. She argued, “This is a mental health issue.  This is a civil rights issue. This is a doing right by kids of color issue.”  And local legislators Attica Scott, Charles Booker, Reginald Meeks, Lisa Willner, and Morgan McGarvey listened to and responded to her. Her bill has been pre-filed, and my students are preparing to advocate for their cause in January to legislators in a committee meeting in Frankfort.  Moreover, this work has inspired a partner in Washington D.C. to fly these kids out and provide hotel rooms to allow these students to visit The National Museum of African American History and Culture and meet national leaders on human rights issues.

I’ve often reflected on what my most important job as an educator is. I know there is a difference between compulsory schooling and real education.  As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been using writing as a vehicle for personal and social transformation, striving to make everything I do meaningful and relevant to my kids’ lives. Too many of our kids feel disconnected from the allies they have in our local government.  They think their vote doesn’t matter before they even get the chance to vote. But the optimist in me teaches them they may not be able to vote, but they have a voice, and that voice matters. And we do not need to be held hostage by the status quo, the enemy of equity. The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works for whom and under what set of conditions.  The challenge is to see the system that creates the current outcomes. And if the contexts of our kids’ lives and times are damaged by these systems, then my most important job is to empower them to change those systems.

Educators, I encourage you to ask your students what issues impact them the most.  Help them see; provide them resources; build platforms for them; recruit allies for them; and help them challenge and transform the inequities and injustices that hurt them and all of us.

And maybe the most important thing, do it alongside of them.  Show them courage. 

Because There’s No One Else: Steps Toward Equality in an Era of Division

Will Tucker

Sometimes the most unexpected opportunities turn out to be the best.

When I was asked to sponsor our school’s first Black Student Union  in November 2017, my initial response was simple: “ I’m flattered, but I’m white.” 

Our student founder, Talitha, was in my Philosophy class, and had wanted to start a BSU for two years, but was hesitant to organize a formal group. Even though our school has a reputation for embracing everyone, regardless of culture, gender, sexuality, etc. there was an apparent undercurrent of racial tension that I did not readily pick up on. She said that black students at our school “were very separated, and there was no group for them to get together and talk about their experience, current events, and history.” She wanted our group to be open to students of all races, so that everyone “could gain an understanding of the black experience.” She went on to say, “With everything going on in our country, now is the time to do this. And you have to sponsor it, because you understand.” 

I had a long talk with Talitha about what it was that I understood. She told me that I listened, that I clearly cared for people who looked like her, and that I was passionate about her mission. I hummed and hawed, offering excuses,  not because I didn’t want to sponsor the group, but because I was afraid of what people would think: Here’s another white dude trying to be woke to make himself (and other white people) feel better. My fears were dispelled when Talitha looked at me and said “ Tucker, you have to do it. There’s no one else.”   

This was a year before the district adapted its Racial Equity Policy and created a Division of Diversity, Equity, and Poverty that focuses on providing all students with spaces and places to express themselves freely, while shoring up the many cultural inequities that have plagued our district for years.  This office, and its accompanying policy also came in response to the threatened state takeover of JCPS by Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who has repeatedly lambasted how the district treats and, in his opinion, fails to educate students of color. 

I do not think that our school was necessarily failing to educate students of color, but it was definitely lacking a space for them to think freely and expressively about their life experiences, one that was safe from criticism and critique. 

I knew we had to take action. Once I got the green light from the principal, I asked two other teachers to co-sponsor the group with me. Having support when you are trying something new is essential, and my colleagues offered moral support and an immediate sense of urgency for what we were about to undertake.  

The initial response at our first meeting was overwhelming. We had 75 kids of all different races show up. We had to pull extra chairs from three different classrooms. Standing at the front of my room, looking at those students laughing and talking together remains one of the most inspiring moments of my career. 

We faced our fair share of controversy in the first few months, with meeting posters being defaced, and one rumored  outlier student who asked to start a white student union in response to our BSU. While I was shocked by these events, my students were not. As people of color, they were used to this kind of attitude, and were grateful that they had the group to serve as a united front against ignorance.

Two years in, our group continues to thrive. We’ve taken field trips to the Ali Center, completed a book drive for underserved elementary school libraries, and continue to give students of all races a space to express themselves. And that has been the most inspiring part. The students select all the topics of discussion at our meetings. We’ve talked about everything from hair, to implicit bias, to racial and police profiling, and even about the upcoming elections and their impact on people of color. These conversations are unfettered and uncensored, some leading to tears, but all leading to a common ground that previously did not exist in our school. 

And isn’t that what the best teaching is all about? Building community and building relationships from the first day of school, to the last bus ride home.

And yet, there is still so much work to be done.  Even as we take small steps towards equity, so many aspects of our culture remain unequal. It is up to us to find common ground in these divisive days. In our hallways, and in our hearts.

Because there is no one else that will care for and understand our students like we do.

When did you have your first black male educator?

Don Bacon

“When did you have your first black teacher?”

For me, it was my 6th grade reading teacher.  Part of her independent reading library was her son’s old X-Men comics, a perfect hook for a budding nerd like myself. After thinking of her, I thought of all of the black teachers I had throughout my time in public school.  Each of them provided a sense of familiarity I could never quite comprehend as a kid. I counted through 9 black public school teachers before I saw a different question.

“When did you have your first black male teacher?”

My only black male teacher in public school was my 10th grade social studies teacher.  I’m not sure if he realized it, but he made me critically think in ways I had never considered.  He asked our class why a course called World Civilizations had a textbook focused so heavily on Western European history.  I’ll never forget the feeling of stunned silence in his classroom on September 11th, 2001. He told us that America would never be the same after that day. 

Have I ever said anything to my students that will stick with them for 15 years?  Moreover, did that stick with me for 15 years because the only teacher I ever had who looked like me said it?  Did those deep questions influence me to become a social studies teacher?  

I’m not sure when you had your first black teacher or if it meant anything to you when or if you did.  However, through my own personal experience and through recent research, it’s evident there is a dearth of African-American teachers and their presence in schools makes a difference.

During my first year teaching, I was outside of a colleague’s classroom talking with some other teachers.  A student passed by us and asked if we had decided to have a meeting. We realized that the six of us standing there was the whole group of black male educators in our school at that point.  We were roughly 6% of the staff at the time. In the United States, black males only make up 2% of the teaching workforce.  

In Jefferson County Public Schools, 16% of the teachers are minorities and 36% of the students are black.  Black students accounted for more than 65% of suspensions in JCPS during the 2017-2018 school year. JCPS’s Racial Equity Policy was created, in part, to address these issues.  

Research in recent years has shown:

As research continues to develop our understanding of the positive effect teachers of color bring to our schools, we have to work harder to recruit and retain teachers of color.  The local HBCU, Simmons College and JCPS have created a partnership to introduce Simmons current students and recent graduates into teaching careers.  I hope these initiatives can create a pipeline for long term black teachers within JCPS.  

As we move towards more equitable staffing of our schools, we have to ensure we retain teachers of color.  My black male teacher left our school the year after he was my teacher. I don’t know his reasons for leaving, but I do understand the continuous pressure that comes from being a black male teacher through the “invisible tax.”  As JCPS embraces racial equity, we also have to change our mindsets on what to expect from black teachers.  We cannot expect black teachers to have some inherent abilities to communicate with black students with behavior issues. 

Metro to Middlesboro: Teachers are Teachers

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

There is an innate human need to feel a sense of belonging. We want to belong to communities and groups. We crave social interaction and love to feel like a part of a team. Sometimes this can be a great thing, but it can also lead to us feeling divided. Are you Cards fan or a Cats fan? Pro-Oxford Comma or Anti-Oxford Comma? Do you cheer for the Steelers? Bengals? We make these arbitrary distinctions and cling to them for a sense of belonging when we are really more similar than we think.

There has felt like a disconnect between urban and rural teachers since teaching began. Urban districts are sprawling and vast with intricate assignment plans and transportation issues. Our rural siblings don’t have dozens of schools to keep track of or deal with the transient nature of urban populations. Our rural friends deal with issues not faced by urban educators, such as a lack of collective bargaining. These distinctions are not things that need to drive us apart. When it comes to education, we all suffer from the same crises.

Students suffer due to generational poverty and the trauma associated with it in every school district in Kentucky. In every system throughout our Commonwealth there are children suffering the effects of systemic poverty. The causes of the poverty and trauma may have different methods, but the result is always the same. The work done to defend public education in any area focuses on every child across Kentucky. At times, legislators seek to further the divide between teachers and communities by pointing to our differences. While others seek to divide us, we continue to come together to keep education equitable for every single child living in our state.

Working together, we are building a better future for our state. We know what works in education because we are the educators. We know that smaller class sizes work from Jefferson to Monroe to Calloway and Pike. We know that certified, highly qualified educators work from Fayette to Clinton to Union and Harlan. We know that educating early and often through universal Pre-K works from Franklin to Ballard to Letcher and Gallatin. We know what works and it works inside the Golden Triangle and in every other corner of the state. As educators, we know what is right for our kids and we know that we need these things to ensure hope for every Kentucky child. 

We have made so many connections from our fights in Frankfort. I’ve met so many amazing people from outside of Jefferson County. When I talk to them, they talk about the same problems my students face. One of the best experiences I’ve had is becoming more active in our union, both through JCTA and KEA. Through our union, I’ve created ties with incredible educators in every region. Meeting teachers from across the state has been invaluable as we work together to strengthen our profession for our kids. While anti-labor politicians seek to weaken us, now is the time to join together to fight. 

As educators, we already know the idea of PLC – professional learning community. These are the teachers we work and share with in our building. We know about PLN – professional learning networks. These are the teachers we reach out to and work with when we need to work outside our building. We need to take this concept and apply it to our political needs for education. We can reach out across the state to reach educators who are working for our kids every day.

Teachers are teachers no matter where we work. We all want our students to succeed and thrive. We don’t want our students to survive; we want them to live and be the amazing humans they were born to be. Educators know that our students are capable of amazing things and working together is how we can achieve that goal. Teachers are teachers, but students are our future and teachers know that more than anyone.