Strings Attached Part I
Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Part I Norms for Reading Our Blog
The goal of the Nepantla Teachers Community blog is to provide an honest and encouraging space to navigate sociopolitical situations that occur in mathematics education for the purpose of working towards justice in traditionally marginalized communities. By using the word political, we mean any situation that involves power dynamics.
Each post will be published in two parts (Part I: The first Saturday of each month at 5 PM and Part II: the following Wednesday at 9 AM). Part I will give a math teacher author’s real dilemma that they have recently experienced and to share some information about themselves. Part II will provide an analysis of the powers at play and the author’s response (or lack of response) to the situation. Before Part II is published, readers are encouraged to interact with the author and each other by asking questions, comments, and/or providing ideas on how they would respond if they were in their shoes.
We as readers and/or participants agree to keep the following in mind as we engage with other educators’ sharing their stories:
1. Each author is choosing to be transparent/vulnerable at the risk of disapproval or disagreement. These are not meant to be places of attack but a place to empathize and grow together.
2. We use the word nepantla to connote the space of tension and grey area that people experience as they navigate multiple (and often opposing) philosophies, truths, or identities. We offer this blog as a space to remain in nepantla to guide creative and nuanced responses to the contexts we encounter.
3. Note that all students’ names are pseudonyms. Some details may need to be obscured to protect the privacy of individuals.
Part I: (Written by Anonymous Teacher)
*Editor's Note: Given this particular scenario, the leadership team decided it would be best to keep this post anonymous. We hope that we've garnered enough trust with our readers and community as we share on the important subject of standardized testing. This anonymous teacher will still respond to questions in the comments section between postings.
I landed myself what most would call a “dream school” my 4th year of teaching. I received my second grade departimalized math position at a well-reputed school focused on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I never thought I would get a job teaching at a high-performing school, even though I had a feeling that I was hired as a math teacher because I am Asian. Nevertheless, I felt proud to teach at this school. I thought to myself, “Wow!, you got the job. Congratulations. Now, don’t let anyone down.”
Little did I know that a high-achieving school comes with strings attached, especially when it came to maintaining a high profile and a central focus on one thing: test scores. In Chicago Public Schools (CPS), schools are rated on a metric system. The highest “grade” a school can receive is a Level 1+. When families ask their friends, “What’s a good school in the area?” Many would respond with answers measured by this metric system. “This school is a great school. It’s a Level 1+ and it’s high-performing.” The “grade” is made up of many categories. Some of the largest weights are placed on standardized test scores, attendance, and parental feedback. My school was often mentioned as one of the top choice schools in CPS.
As I started my first year at this school, I could feel the pressure. “You’re in a Level 1+ school! You better be teaching Level 1+ material!”
And I promise you, I tried real hard: I got in right as the custodian was opening, I stayed at school until closing. I planned fun, engaging lessons, low floor-high ceiling, rich, and rigorous tasks from math ambassadors such as Jo Boaler. I used engaging lessons that allowed access for all students reaching the same standard for a variety of reasons. Not only did I believe it would increase testing growth, I also wanted lessons that would challenge students to think outside of the box instead of applying an algorithm and lend itself toward gaining more student buy-in rather than simply using a workbook. Most of all, I enjoyed using these tasks for myself as well. Other teachers chose to divide their class into three or four groups and tracked students by high, medium, and low ability using workbooks, IXL, or Khan Academy. I was really proud of the lessons I created because they challenged students to think critically about the mathematics in an engaging and fun way which would in turn support significant test growth. I thought I couldn’t have done a better job, and I was confident about my students taking their standardized tests at the end of the school year.
But as the scores rolled in, I felt my heart drop like a rock in my stomach. Only 20% of my students met their growth targets...in a school that prided in an average of 90% of students meeting their growth targets. Unfortunately, I had little support with regards to how to improve my growth scores. I asked if I could get in touch with a mentor teacher, and the response I received was, “Reach out to the 5th grade teacher. Her scores are good.” I certainly did reach out to our 5th grade teacher, but she did not have margin to coach me throughout the year. I also inquired about starting a math teachers team to vertically align content and to plan collaboratively as a group. I received a response that if I’d like to meet with a group of math teachers, I’d need to schedule that during my own time. Unfortunately, only one other teacher consistently came to the meetings I set up.
I remember that following year’s Open House like it was yesterday: We [teachers] were all asked to stand along the wall. Our principal introduced our names and our positions, while a slide would show on the screen with our metrics. Our principal went down the row. Kinder teachers, first grade teacher… then me. I could feel the heat of shame as it became my turn. “This is our 2nd grade Math teacher. Her achievement from this past year’s standardized testing in the 20th percentile. The school’s average is in the 90th percentile. Let’s…. move on.” I wanted to melt. I wanted to disappear. I could feel the weight of their eyes linger on me, while others looked away not wanting to embarrass me.
What would you do if you were humiliated by an administrator in front of the community? How would you consider your planning for the school year given these test scores displayed publicly?
How would this impact how you see the purpose of teaching?
How would it influence the way you approach your curriculum planning?
Part II of this story comes out next Wednesday at 9 AM. Subscribe to our blog and check it out. Comment below!