By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its difficulties. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, I think the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. An old coach of mine used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise, injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support, and keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people that didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spent outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology. 

join us

Chalkbeat’s 2018 summer interns were awesome. Get to know them, then apply to join us in 2019.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Chalkbeat's 2018 summer interns, L-R: Rebecca Griesbach, Shelby Mullis, Elaine Chen, Savannah Robinson, Amanda Zhou

As colder temperatures set in, summer has started to feel like a distant memory. Fortunately for us at Chalkbeat, we have warm memories of last summer’s awesome interns — and are already starting to get excited for the new colleagues that next summer will bring.

Could you be one of them? We’ve just opened applications for our 2019 internship program. We’re looking for student journalists who are talented, enterprising, and curious about education equity issues to join our local teams for 10 weeks of paid reporting experience.

Find more details and apply here.

There’s no better way to explain what our internships are about than to showcase our most recent crop of interns, their work, and the lessons they learned. Without further ado:

Elaine Chen, Chicago

Elaine, a junior studying political science at the University of Chicago, was inspired to apply for Chalkbeat’s first Chicago internship by a classmate who worked for Chalkbeat in Indiana in 2017. She has covered public policy issues for South Side Weekly, mentored Chicago public school student journalists, and worked for a university education research organization translating research findings for a broader audience.

Read these stories: Elaine drew attention to two big challenges: free, high-quality summer programs failing to fill their rosters with students, and getting parents who want to join their schools’ powerful school leadership councils trained to participate. She also helped explain the education implications of one of the summer’s biggest surprises: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to run for reelection.

Why Chalkbeat: “The education editor at a magazine that I wrote for interned at Chalkbeat last summer and she recommended that I apply. I was writing longer enterprise articles at the time and wanted to get more daily news experience, and the Chalkbeat internship seemed like a great opportunity to do both.”

A favorite memory: “Some of the best moments of the internship were the listening tours that the bureau held all over the city. The bureau was just starting to publish, and it was so exciting to see Cassie and Adeshina establish relationships with community members and build up the bureau to be responsive to its local audiences.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Be proactive — keep pitching stories or different ways to report on stories, and also ask to work with other reporters on stories. The Chalkbeat internship does give the intern a lot of autonomy to do so.”

Rebecca Griesbach, Tennessee

A junior at the University of Alabama, Rebecca has been passionate about covering education equity issues ever since taking photographs depicting race relations at her Tuscaloosa, Alabama, high school to assist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 2014 “Segregation Now” report. Now studying journalism and African American studies, Rebecca has researched schools in Sweden, written for her college newspaper, and contributed to the OpenElections data journalism project.

Read these stories: Rebecca added Memphis teachers to the national conversation about low pay by looking at the classroom projects they’re asking donors to fund. She brought new guidelines for science instruction to life by visiting science classrooms. And after helping to organize Chalkbeat’s school board candidate forum, she compiled takeaways for Memphis education voters.

A lesson learned: “News doesn’t mean much when it’s not accessible to everyone. Building context, knowing how to do explanatory journalism well, and really listening to and engaging with the community are among the skills I learned at Chalkbeat and will spend a lifetime trying to improve.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Really get to know the city you’re in for as long as you’re there. Chalkbeat is all about community, and being centered in the place you’re writing about will help you report with more authority and ease.”

A tweet from her last day: “As a product of a segregated public school system, I’m constantly thinking of ways that we can do better. For me, that’s always included dogged (local) reporting that calls out inequity and highlights those most affected. So grateful @Chalkbeat took a chance on me this summer.”

Shelby Mullis, Indiana

A senior at Franklin College, Shelby came to Chalkbeat having already covered Indiana public affairs for The Statehouse File, WFYI, and The Republic (Columbus, Indiana). Her internship was a partnership between Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation.

Read these stories: Shelby profiled a slew of local educators, including the music teacher at a school for recent immigrants. She was on hand for the final graduation of a once-venerable high school closing because of low enrollment. And she revealed that Indianapolis teachers were rejecting an offer of low-cost housing because of delays and red tape.

Why Chalkbeat: “I found out about Chalkbeat through my professor my freshman year of college. I’ve always been interested in education, and Chalkbeat offered the best of both worlds: the opportunity to combine education matters with journalism.”

A top memory: “The 10 weeks I spent at Chalkbeat were wonderful, but the most memorable day would have to be my last, simply because I realized just how special the Chalkbeat team is. It’s safe to say I cried on my way home that afternoon.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “If I could offer one piece of advice to future Chalkbeat interns, it’d be this: Remember that you’re here to grow and to learn. Give every assignment your best effort, and remember to have fun in the process!”

Savannah Robinson, New York

Savannah came to Chalkbeat from the University of Southern California, where she’s a senior studying journalism and human rights. She had previously worked with the Student Press Law Center and on university initiatives aimed at supporting first-generation college students. During her summer at Chalkbeat, Savannah also participated in the Emma L. Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media fellowship program for students of color.

Read these stories: Savannah gathered reactions from students at one of New York’s most selective high schools about a proposed change to how students are admitted, then visited a middle school in a low-income neighborhood to understand how the change might affect its students. She also shared a firsthand look at what city teachers are doing to create culturally relevant lessons — an effort that could be a model for what more educators will be asked to do.

A favorite memory: “Seeing the impact that the stories Chalkbeat produced had nationally! The story about Hunter College that Monica Disare reported was incredible, not just because of the amount of in-depth reporting that she did for it or the sources she managed to get, but because of how many people after her story was published began sharing their own similar experiences with Hunter on social media and calling for a change.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Ask as many questions as possible! There’s so much policy and so many players to wrap your head around in a short amount of time, and you’ll be working alongside reporters and producers who are education experts. Use them as resources and ask them questions to learn the landscape! Also, contact sources once in a while just to talk to them. They may just have a story for you that wasn’t on your radar.”

Amanda Zhou, National

Amanda is a senior at Dartmouth College, where she supervises 30 student reporters as managing editor of The Dartmouth daily newspaper. A social sciences and public policy major, Amanda had previously worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and as an on-campus EMT.

Read these stories: Amanda profiled 2016-teacher-of-the-year-turned-candidate Jahana Hayes, and got inside the classroom of the latest winner, too. Amanda rounded up new research about teacher evaluations, longer school days, advanced coursework, and more. She also contributed to a team project illuminating more than $300 million in opaque education giving by Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy.

A favorite memory: “Listening to the New York and National reporters discuss their reporting and complain about sources who won’t respond to them.”

Top lessons learned: “Education reporting is a very local topic and reporting on research takes a lot of skill.”

Advice to future Chalkbeat interns: “Don’t be afraid to meet and talk to your editor (and other bureau editors) frequently! They want you to succeed.”