missed opportunities

A new report argues that students are suffering through bad teaching and simplistic classwork. Is that true?

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

America’s public school classrooms are full of students who aren’t being challenged.

That’s the claim of a new report by TNTP, the nonprofit advocacy and consulting group, looking at student work and real-life teaching. Students are “planning their futures on the belief that doing well in school creates opportunities — that showing up, doing the work, and meeting their teachers’ expectations will prepare them for what’s next,” it says. “Unfortunately, it’s a myth.”

The study, called The Opportunity Myth, relies on TNTP’s exhaustive effort to get at what students are really doing in class by surveying them in real time, reviewing their work, and observing class instruction — a combination rarely seen in education research. Based on this data, the report argues that low-income students of color in particular are suffering through mediocre instruction and simplistic classwork while their teachers expect little of them.

“Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them,” the report says.

It’s not clear that the study’s methods can support such strong conclusions, though. TNTP’s claims turn on its own subjective way of rating instruction and assignments, and it’s unclear if different approaches would yield different results. And the paper examined just four districts and one charter school network, all anonymous.

That means the study is at once extensive and limited: extensive because it amounts to a massive undertaking to better understand students’ experience, but limited because it only examines a fraction of students in a fraction of classrooms in a handful of districts, none of which were chosen randomly.

Regardless of debates about the methods, the report may draw significant attention. The research of TNTP, previously known as the The New Teacher Project, has a track record of shaping policy, particularly with an influential 2009 report known as The Widget Effect, which focused on perceived flaws of teacher evaluation systems.

The latest study was funded by the Joyce Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and the Barr Foundation. (Chan Zuckerberg, Joyce, Overdeck, and Walton are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

In contrast with some of the group’s past work, the latest report concludes with few controversial policy recommendations, instead calling for higher expectations and a careful examination of disparities in school resources.

“We believe it’s time to move beyond important but narrow debates — from how to measure teacher performance to charter versus district to the role of standardized testing — and return to the basic guiding principle that brings us to this work: the right of every student to learn what they need to reach their goals,” the report says.

TNTP focuses on three large urban districts, one small rural district, and one charter network with three schools in separate cities. In all but the rural district, a majority of students are black or Latino, as well as low-income.

From there, TNTP got a handful of teachers from certain schools in each district to document their students’ work, collecting and photographing the assignments done by six students during three separate weeks. (Students had to receive parental consent and their names were removed from the work.) TNTP then assigned a rating to each significant piece of work, looking at whether it was on grade level, among other traits.

TNTP also had observers watch and then rate two lessons by each teacher using the group’s rubrics and surveyed teachers to determine their views on whether students could meet their state’s academic standards.

Finally, they surveyed students on their classroom experiences. TNTP used a novel approach for tracking student feelings, asking students whether they were bored or felt excited about learning at various points in a lesson.

In all, TNTP says, it reviewed nearly 1,000 lessons, 20,000 examples of student work, and 30,000 real-time student surveys. And the results, the report said, are grim: only 16 percent of lessons observed had “strong instruction,” and about a quarter of assignments were deemed “grade appropriate.”

This varied from district to district and classroom to classroom. In the most specific example provided in the report, one eighth-grade assignment asked a student to fill in the missing vowels from the word “habitat” after reading a short passage; in contrast, another required students to write a lengthy essay based on a memoir of one of the students to desegregate the all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Student surveys were somewhat more positive: a narrow majority of students, about 55 percent, were generally engaged and interested during class, based on TNTP’s survey.

Students of color and low-income students tended to be in classes with worse instruction, fewer grade-level assignments, and lower expectations for meeting standards. That was correlated with slightly lower rates of test score growth.

All of that, TNTP concludes, amounts to a damning case against most of the classrooms in question and American schools in general. “Students spend most of their time in school without access to four key resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers who hold high expectations,” the report says.

“The ‘achievement gap,’ then, isn’t inevitable. It’s baked into the system, resulting from the decisions adults make.”

But TNTP faces steep challenges in using its data to make such strong claims.

In addition to the districts, schools, teachers, and students not being chosen randomly, the report is not able to pin down whether those resources lead to higher achievement or definitively show why some students seem to have less access to the key resources it cites.

One of the report’s central claims, that increasing access to those resources will boost students’ academic performance, rests on relatively small correlations. In fact, the study showed little if any overall relationship between teachers’ observation scores and their effects on test scores.

“We need to be a little careful about asserting that by increasing one or more of the four resources we will necessarily improve outcomes for kids,” said Jim Wyckoff, a professor at the University of Virginia who sat on an advisory panel for the report, while also noting that he thought the basic theory of the report made sense.

The report’s appendix notes that “classrooms with initially higher performing students tended to get better assignments, better instruction, were more engaged, and had teachers with significantly higher expectations.” But other research has shown that observers tend to give unfairly high ratings to classrooms with more high-achieving students, meaning cause and effect could run the other way here.

TNTP’s measure of teacher expectations relies on teachers’ responses to statements like “My students need something different than what is outlined in the standards,” something that may be conflating high expectations with teachers’ views about the quality of their state standards.

Still, one of the main takeaways from the report — that low-income students of color have less access to good teaching — is generally backed by past research.

High-poverty schools have higher rates of teacher turnover and more inexperienced teachers, on average. Other research in a number of states and cities, including Washington state, North Carolina, New York City, and Los Angeles, has shown that teachers of low-income students are less effective at raising test scores.

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”

School discipline

Even as suspensions fall, Memphis students are being kicked out of school longer, data shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis alternative school students work with local activist Keedran Franklin, in yellow, to brainstorm policy proposals to prevent other youth from being incarcerated. At the top of the list was mentoring and jobs. Just under that was a call to eliminate suspensions and expulsions and replace with fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

Hidden behind what Memphis education officials have said is good news when it comes to student discipline is a disturbing trend: As short-term suspensions have decreased, expulsions have increased.

Graphic by Samuel Park

Last year, Shelby County Schools handed down nearly 2,500 expulsions, according to district data. That’s about 300 more than in the 2015-16 school year — when the district already had one of the highest expulsion rates in the nation, according to federal data.

In one extreme example, a single high school issued one expulsion for every six students.

On average, expelled students were barred from school for 106 days, or more than half of the school year.

And while Tennessee law and district policies mandate expulsions for some offenses, 83 percent of the expulsions came at school leaders’ discretion. A third were for violations of relatively minor rules.

The expulsion data reveals mixed results for the district’s push to reduce discipline methods that keep students out of school. Shelby County Schools handed out 4,700 fewer suspensions last year than in the 2015-16 school year. Yet the rise in expulsions means that the total number of school days that students missed for discipline reasons actually increased.

Students spent about 14,200 more days in class because of the reduction in suspensions, based on the average three-day punishment. But the increase in expulsions resulted in close to 33,700 more missed school days.

The district’s black boys bore the brunt of the trend. They make up 38 percent of the district’s more than 100,000 students, but accounted for 67 percent of expulsions last year.

The data is raising questions among supporters of Shelby County’s discipline push, which launched as the federal education department pressed districts to limit suspensions and expulsions and reduce racial disparities among students who are punished.

“What we don’t want is for practices that we’re trying to replace to be replaced with practices that don’t support students,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the district’s discipline efforts. “If we hide at all what are the real struggles, then we don’t identify the resources that are needed.”

(Tennessee defines suspensions as exclusions from school lasting less than 10 days; suspensions longer than 10 days are called expulsions. The district provided the length of expulsions only for students without disabilities, about 92 percent of expelled students.)

Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

District officials emphasized the reduction in suspensions and blamed the high expulsion numbers on charter schools and the state’s “zero-tolerance” law that requires expulsions for certain offenses. “Charters most often do not use in-school suspensions and progressive discipline, so their expulsions increase our numbers,” said a spokesperson, Natalia Powers.

But the district’s own data showed that charter schools, which have also worked to reduce suspensions, collectively reported 64 expulsions last year, 3 percent of the district’s total. And data the district provided showed that at most, only a quarter of expulsions were mandated by law.

District officials have also said they are confident that the district’s nine alternative schools for expelled students are serving those students well. One of those schools, G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, recently received state recognition for its work with expelled students and students who are transitioning out of incarceration. Students there meet with behavior specialists, mental health clinicians, and social workers, while families get support as well. District officials said as many as 40 percent of students choose to stay at Carver after their expulsion is over.

“They’re children and they sometimes make poor choices,” said Valerie Matthews, the district’s alternative schools director, at a recent conference for young men who attend alternative schools. “We keep them on track academically, we teach them how to modify their behavior, we work with them, we’re patient with them, we love on them, and it works.”

But students who are expelled are not required to enroll in alternative schools — something that the district’s school board has asked state legislators to change.

Matthews acknowledged that not all students who are expelled wind up in alternative schools. She said students who are excluded from school for less than a month frequently do not make the switch, and other students don’t attend because they cannot get to the alternative schools. The district provides bus passes, but the city’s struggling bus system can make using them challenging.

That reality means there are students who aren’t being educated because of their misbehavior — and, students say, could make them more likely to run into trouble in the future.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
John Chatman is a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school in Memphis that recently received recognition from the state for its services for expelled students and those returning to school after incarceration.

“When they stay out of school, it’s not really a lesson learned, because the only thing they do is go home and chill, or go out and do the same stuff they been doing,” said John Chatman, a Carver Academy senior who was expelled from both East High School and Northeast Prep, another alternative school. “It takes away from education. It also puts them back into an environment that they were trying to escape from.”

Indeed, removing or excluding students from class does not address misbehavior, said Zoe Savitsky, an attorney who oversees education litigation and policy reform for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Would you ever say to a 6-year-old, ‘Get out of my classroom until you learn to read?’” she said. “You actually have to teach behavior skills you want them to have. And exclusionary discipline just ignores that reality.”

Principals in Memphis schools have a great deal of discretion in handing out discipline. Just 17 percent of expulsions in Shelby County Schools last year were required under Tennessee’s “zero tolerance” rules, which mandate expulsions for serious assaults on school employees; drug use or possession, and having a firearm at school.

Half of the expulsions were for what the district calls “other threats” and offenses that include fighting and assaults that do not result in serious injury.

And a full third of the expulsions were for what the district calls “rules violations” that could include skipping class or being out of uniform.

The district did not offer more detail about which rules being broken resulted in last year’s expulsions. But many of the behaviors that fall into that category are exactly the kinds of offenses that the district has targeted in its push to reduce suspensions.

2018 Youth Action Networking event

  • What: Students in BRIDGES’ advocacy program for formerly incarcerated youth will present their ideas on how to reduce both suspensions and expulsions to several district and county leaders. The event is sponsored by Bridge Builders USA, the University of Memphis Law Diversity & Inclusion Office, and Project MI.
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
  • Where: BRIDGES, 477 N. 5th Street, Memphis, TN 38105

As part of that push, the district has hired more staff to dig into why students misbehave, crafted individual plans to help students improve, and rolled out alternative consequences before barring students from school. Now, 20 “behavior specialists” each work with about 10 schools to reduce suspensions, meaning that schools that don’t hire their own get only a little bit of support in working with students who misbehave.

“It kind of escalates, and [teachers] have to end up making an office referral for something that probably could have been redirected if they had the right tools,” Hargrave said. “If every school had someone who was an expert in trauma-informed practices or dealing with difficult behaviors along with the general staff, that would be ideal.”

Students suspended or expelled from school are more likely to have lower test scores, drop out of school, or become involved in crime than other students, links that led to the national push to reduce exclusionary discipline.

Advocates say that shift is especially necessary in Memphis, which has the highest rate in the nation of young adults who are not in school or working. Earlier this year, Orrin’s organization invited national expert Cami Anderson to train Memphis school leaders to prevent expulsions and suspensions and use alternative ways to discipline students.

Anderson previously was the superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school district and led New York City’s system of alternative schools for students with behavior issues. She said she’s not surprised expulsions went up while Shelby County Schools focused on reducing suspensions.

“If you only look at one, without intending, you can incentivize schools to take actions that have worse outcomes for kids,” Anderson said. “That’s true across the country.”