Chicago’s Ninth-Grade Focus Triggers Climb in High School Graduation Rates

From The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research
April 24, 2014unnamed
Efforts to improve the academic performance of ninth-graders drove large improvements in graduation rates three years later in a diverse set of 20 Chicago public high schools, according to a report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago CCSR). This suggests that the recent dramatic improvement in the percentage of Chicago ninth-graders who are “on track” to graduate should continue to propel system-wide graduation rates in Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
A second report released today by UChicago CCSR helps explain why ninth grade is such a key leverage point for reducing dropouts.
In 2007, CPS launched a major effort, centered on keeping more ninth-graders on track to graduation. Freshmen are considered on track if they have enough credits to be promoted to tenth grade and have earned no more than one semester F in a core course. The effort was a response to research from UChicago CCSR showing that students who end their ninth-grade year on track are almost four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who are off track.
The district initiative promoted the use of data to monitor students’ level of dropout risk throughout the ninth-grade year, allowing teachers to intervene before students fell too far behind. The diversity of strategies was notable—from calls home when students missed a class to algebra tutoring to homework help. The goal was to match the intervention to the specific needs of the student and prevent the dramatic decline in grades and attendance that most CPS students experience when they transition to high school.  Since that time, the CPS on-track rate has risen 25 percentage points, from 57 to 82 percent.
The first report, Preventable Failure: Improvements in Long-Term Outcomes when High Schools Focused on the Ninth Grade Year, shows that improvements in ninth grade on-track rates were sustained in tenth and eleventh grade and followed by a large increase in graduation rates. This analysis was done on 20 “early mover schools” that showed large gains in on-track rates as early as the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years, allowing for enough time to have elapsed to analyze how the increase in on-track rates affected graduation rates.
“On its face this did not seem like an initiative that would produce a system shift in performance, redefine approaches to school dropout, and call into question the conventional wisdom that urban neighborhood high schools could not make radical improvements.  And yet, CPS’s focus on on-track achieved all of this,” said report author Melissa Roderick, Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and a senior director at UChicago CCSR.
Other Key findings from Preventable Failure
Between 2007-08 and 2012-13, system-wide improvements in ninth-grade on-track rates were dramatic, sustained, and observed across a wide range of high schools and among critical subgroups—by race, by gender, and across achievement levels.  Although all students appeared to gain, the benefits of getting on track were greatest for students with the lowest incoming skills. Students with eighth-grade Explore scores less than 12—the bottom quartile of CPS students—had a 24.5 percentage point increase in their on-track rates.  On-track rates improved more among African American males than among any other racial/ethnic gender subgroup, rising from 43 percent in 2005 to 71 percent in 2013.
Improvements in on-track were accompanied by across-the-board improvements in grades. Grades improved at all ends of the achievement spectrum, with large increases both in the percentage of students getting Bs and the percentage of students receiving no Fs. Thus, evidence suggests that on-track improvement was driven by real improvement in achievement, not just a result of teachers giving students grades of “D” instead of “F.”
Increasing ninth-grade on-track rates did not negatively affect high schools’ average ACT scores—despite the fact that many more students with weaker incoming skills made it to junior year to take the test. ACT scores remained very close to what they were before on-track rates improved, which means that the average growth from Explore to ACT remained the same or increased, even though more students—including many students with weaker incoming skills—were taking the ACT.
Key Findings on how to support students during the ninth-grade year from Free to Fail or On-Track to College
Free to Fail or On-Track to College, the second report released by UChicago CCSR, details the dramatic drop in grades, attendance, and academic behavior that occurs between eighth and ninth grade and demonstrates how intense monitoring and support can help schools keep more ninth-graders on track to graduation.
Both high- and low-achieving students struggle when they enter high school.
Between eighth and ninth grade, average grades drop by more than half a letter grade (0.6 points on a 4-point scale). This decline happens across all performance levels. Even among students with very high GPAs in eighth grade, only about one-third maintain a high GPA in ninth grade.
Grades decline because students’ attendance and study habits plummet across the transition to high school—not because the work is harder.
Students miss almost three times as many days of school in ninth grade as in eighth grade, and this increase is primarily driven by a significant increase in unexcused absences. Freshmen also report putting in less effort than they had in seventh and eighth grade. Furthermore, students do not perceive ninth-grade classes as more difficult than their eighth-grade classes.
Adult monitoring and support can prevent the declines that typically happen across the transition from high school.
Interviews with students revealed a significant shift in adult supervision between eighth and ninth grade, which makes it easier for students to skip class and stop doing work. But school and teacher practices can make a difference in the course grades ninth-graders receive, even among students with similar prior performance.
“Taken together, these two studies show that ninth grade is a pivotal year that provides a unique intervention point for reducing high school dropout,” said Elaine Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring Director of UChicago CCSR. “Schools truly can prevent course failure and high school dropout, particularly if they provide students with the rights supports at the right time.”
Both the Preventable Failure and the Free to Fail reports can be found on the UChicago CCSR website.

Keeping ninth-graders ‘on track’ raises graduation rate: University of Chicago study

April 23, 2014 10:02PM

Less than half of students at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School graduated in 2008 when Juan Carlos Ocon took over as principal, but by 2013, he said, the rate rose to about 69 percent.

The secret of Juarez’s success — and the success of 19 other neighborhood high schools in Chicago in getting more students to graduation day — started with the school’s ninth-graders and keeping them “on track,” according to new research to be released Thursday by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School research.

Shepherding ninth-graders through their first year of high school — focusing on helping them to show up to class and complete their work so they pass their courses — leads to jumps in graduation rates, even at high schools once thought of as “dropout factories,” according to the study.

“Attention to those very small things has a big payoff,” said Elaine Allensworth, who directs the Consortium, adding that schools need to intervene as soon as freshmen show a dip in attendance or decline in effort.

The interventions that have worked so far are less expensive and dramatic than a schoolwide turnaround or conversion to a charter school, she said. The gains spanned gender and race but were highest for African-American males.

And outside factors beyond a school’s control — gangs, family, academic weakness of incoming freshmen — affect graduation in a common way by preventing students from showing up and doing their work, she said.

“Schools don’t have to change everything in kids lives — what they have to do is make sure all those other factors don’t interfere with kids coming to class and getting their work done,” Allensworth said.

The authors tracked efforts across 20 Chicago Public Schools that boosted “on-track” rates for ninth-graders over three years by poring over real-time data on a regular basis and then looked at who graduated. According to their findings, those “on track” increases — to 82 percent in 2013 from 57 percent in 2007 — translated into big jumps in graduation rates, up to 20 percentage points.

“On track” means a student has enough credits at the end of the year to go on to the next grade and has earned no more than one semester F in a core class.

The 20 schools adopted a variety of practices, including block scheduling to minimize the effects of tardiness; hiring an “on-track coordinator” to reach out with solutions when students started to fall off; and running a summer program for incoming freshmen.

How the schools specifically chose to keep tabs on their ninth-graders mattered less than how well they kept them on track, said Thomas Kelley-Kemple, a Consortium author.

Juarez, with 96 percent low-income students, leaned on its lead teachers and changed its curriculum to one that focuses on standards instead of specific content.

“It automatically made what was being taught in the classroom more relevant to the students,” Ocon said. That pushed attendance up, too, he said.

“What’s in the classroom now is much more relevant and that’s bringing them back every day,” he said. “Because the curriculum has shifted, it’s not what teachers are interested in, it’s what students need.”

Juarez also opened a “benchmark achievement center” in the library, where students can bolster skills after school, Ocon said.

Juarez still has work to do, with ACT scores barely above a 16 average — below the CPS average of 17.6 and far below 21, considered to be “college ready.” The school also is in its last year of a $6 million state improvement grant that Ocon said bolstered its efforts.

Mayor [Bloomberg] Takes On Teachers’ Union in School Plans

New York Times
January 12, 2012

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, directly confronting leaders of the teachers’ union, proposed on Thursday a merit-pay system that would award top performers with $20,000 raises and threatened to remove as many as half of those working in dozens of struggling schools.

Delivering his 11th and penultimate State of the City address, Mr. Bloomberg vowed to double down on his longstanding efforts to revive the city’s long-struggling schools, saying, “We have to be honest with ourselves: we have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough.”

“We cannot accept failing schools,” he added during an unusually forceful one-hour speech at the Morris Educational Campus in the Bronx. “And we cannot accept excuses for inaction or delay.”

Mr. Bloomberg said he would take several steps to circumvent obstacles to his proposals posed by city labor unions. He pointedly referred to the United Federation of Teachers numerous times and seemed to relish diving into some of the most controversial subjects in the education world, including merit pay, teacher evaluations and a large increase in charter schools.

But in an indication of how difficult the fight will be, the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, conspicuously declined to applaud during education-related moments of the speech and declared afterward that the mayor was living in a “fantasy education world,” proposing ideas that he did not have the power to put into effect.

The city’s public advocate, Bill de Blasio, called the education proposals “needlessly provocative,” and the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer, said the mayor was taking “a lone ranger approach to education.” The City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, was more cautious, calling the plan “very aggressive.” All three officials are planning to run for mayor in 2013.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was more supportive. In a statement, he praised Mr. Bloomberg’s “positive vision” and said he looked forward “to working together to create an accountability system that puts the interests of students ahead of the interests of the education bureaucracy.”

Mr. Bloomberg, a political independent who has been mayor since 2002, dedicated more than half of his address to education, leaving little doubt that he intends to devote much of the next two years to a subject that he wants to be a part of his legacy.

Mr. Bloomberg is a polarizing figure in the education world — praised as a passionate advocate for a reform movement that emphasizes competition and results, but also criticized for an overemphasis on data, like test scores and graduation rates.

The campus where he delivered his speech was a reminder of the complexity of his record. The 115-year-old institution has seen a significant increase in high school graduation rates, and was among the first converted into a campus of small schools. But it was also one of the schools that Cathleen P. Black, whose brief and unhappy tenure as chancellor was one of Mr. Bloomberg’s most visible education missteps, visited during her first day on the job.

In a proposal that echoes one of the most ambitious merit-pay systems for teachers in the nation, which has been in effect for two years in Washington, Mr. Bloomberg proposed enticing top teachers to remain in the profession with a $20,000 bonus if they are rated “highly effective” for two consecutive years.

He said the city should offer to pay off up to $25,000 in student loans — $5,000 a year, for five years — for top college graduates who teach in the city’s schools.

And, seeking to break through a stalemate between the city and the union over a teacher evaluation system, he said the city would form committees to evaluate teachers at 33 struggling schools based on classroom performance. He said this would allow the city to “replace up to 50 percent of the faculty” at these schools, and to reclaim nearly $60 million in federal grants that have been withheld because of the lack of an evaluation system.

But union officials said Mr. Bloomberg’s approach would not make the city eligible for the federal money, because it did not constitute an evaluation system.

He drew the loudest applause when he promised to “help lead the charge” for New York State to pass its version of the Dream Act, to help children of illegal immigrants apply for state-sponsored college assistance.

In addition to education, Mr. Bloomberg said he would focus on job creation during a down economy, revisiting the major theme of his State of the City address last year.

He highlighted, to great applause, the city’s attempt, for the second time in recent years, to redevelop the vacant Kingsbridge Armory, in the northwest corner of the Bronx. The city also plans to try to promote investment and development in the area around Grand Central Terminal, a vibrant but aging commercial district in Manhattan.

He vowed to push for an increase in the state’s minimum wage, joining the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, in the effort.

Mr. Bloomberg also offered several ideas for making the city a safer and easier place to navigate for bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers. He said he would double the number of 20-mile-per-hour zones for schools and add miles of bike lanes, while deploying traffic enforcement agents to “safety hot spots at key intersections.” He said he would push to enforce a measure requiring bicycle delivery riders to have the right safety equipment and uniforms identifying the name of their business.

He set a goal for New York, long viewed as a laggard on the recycling front, of doubling the amount of garbage the city diverts from landfills over the next five years. The mayor will commit the city to expand recycling to include all rigid plastics, like yogurt cups and medicine bottles, by summer 2013, when a new recycling plant under construction in Brooklyn is expected to come online. The effort calls for increasing the number of recycling receptacles in public spaces to 1,000 by 2014 from about 600 now.

The efforts still fall far short of what many other American cities are doing, but environmentalists who have followed New York’s waste management over the years said they were cautiously optimistic.

Outside the school, the speech was greeted by dozens of protesters, most objecting to the city’s plan to stop allowing churches to hold worship services in school buildings next month. A police spokesman said there were 43 arrests for disorderly conduct.

Reporting was contributed by Joseph Goldstein, Michael M. Grynbaum, Mireya Navarro and Kate Taylor.

Seattle Times: Court ruling won’t protect schools from new cuts

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made clear that when the Legislature convenes Monday to address a $1.5 billion budget shortfall, education cuts will still be on the table, despite a ruling Thursday by the state Supreme Court that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide a basic public education to all children in Washington.

By Brian M. Rosenthal and Lark TurnerSeattle Times staff reporters

A state Supreme Court decision issued Thursday sent a signal to lawmakers about the importance of funding public education but is unlikely to protect that area from further cuts — at least not in the short term.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made clear that when the Legislature convenes Monday to address a $1.5 billion budget shortfall, education cuts will still be on the table, despite a highly anticipated ruling that the government is failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide a basic education to all the state’s children.

The 7-2 decision told lawmakers the court would track progress on the issue but left it to them to figure out where to get the money. The ruling, on a lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups, backed legislation already on the books that gives the state until 2018 to fund education fully.

“The judiciary will retain jurisdiction over the case to help ensure progress in the State’s plan to fully implement education reforms by 2018,” Justice Debra Stephens wrote in the majority opinion. “This court intends to remain vigilant in fulfilling the State’s constitutional responsibility.”

Two justices dissented, arguing the courts should end the case and trust the Legislature to do its job.

Officials dissecting the 85-page opinion said it would influence government policy, but they weren’t quite sure how. While some lawmakers hoped the ruling would lead to a reluctance to cut education funding, others said it’s unlikely to provide an instant shield.

Lawmakers will gather in Olympia on Monday for a 60-day session to address the shortfall, caused in part by a recession that has depleted tax revenues.

Lawmakers are considering deep cuts to state programs, including hundreds of millions of dollars in potential education cuts such as shortening the school year by a week.

However, Gov. Chris Gregoire and other Democrats support asking voters for a tax increase this year to reduce further cuts to education and certain other programs.

A voter-passed initiative requires explicit voter approval or two-thirds support in the Legislature for all tax hikes.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, vice chairman of the higher-education committee, called the court ruling a powerful signal and said he would fight against education cuts. But he could not take them off the table completely.

“We cannot simply put a check mark next to one category and walk away,” said Carlyle, D-Seattle. “It is simply not possible to balance the budget without courageously putting all spending on the table.”

Protecting education funding at the expense of other programs would be devastating to the social safety net, said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Murray, chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, pointed out that even if education funding hadn’t been cut this year or last, the state still would be $6 billion to $9 billion under the minimum amount needed to provide full funding for education.

“I don’t know where that money would come from,” he said. “I don’t know that there are $6 [billion] to $9 billion in the budget, unless you wanted to maybe close down some community colleges and maybe stop meeting our pension obligations and things like that.”

Instead, the Legislature will work to gradually increase education funding over the next six years, officials said.

“I think there is great relief to the Legislature that the court recognizes that we need time to do this,” said state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle. “The fire is lit under the feet of the Legislature to continue to make progress.”

Santos, Murray, Carlyle and other Democrats said the ruling made it clear that the state needs to increase taxes to fund existing state programs. Gregoire used it as an opportunity to push her temporary half-cent sales-tax proposal.

Republicans, on the other hand, said the decision should be taken as an indication that the Legislature needs to rethink how it funds education. Senate Minority Whip Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said lawmakers should focus on reducing regulation and state control of local school districts.

While officials debated the implications of the ruling, one woman spent the day celebrating. Stephanie McCleary, the case’s namesake, said hearing about the high court’s decision felt surreal.

“As the day goes on, it gets more and more exciting,” McCleary said. “It was worth going through.”

McCleary filed the lawsuit in 2007 on behalf of her two children, Kelsey and Carter, who were students in the 1,100-student Chimacum School District in Jefferson County. She was joined in the filing by another family and a coalition of school districts, union and community-based organizations that called itself the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS).

Pointing to an increasing reliance on local levies to fund school districts, the coalition argued the state was not fulfilling what the constitution calls its “paramount duty” to make “ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

That’s one of the strongest — if not the strongest — constitutional provisions regarding education in the country.

It’s also a section that has been hotly debated since at least 1978, when the Washington Supreme Court originally ordered the state to define and fund a basic education for all students. Lawmakers since then have conducted several studies and come up with a definition but have not moved as fast on the funding as some education advocates would have liked.

McCleary, who was not involved in the 1978 case, turned 13 that year.

“It’s disappointing that it’s taken this much of an effort to get legislators to comply with the constitution, but we can only hope that from this point forward they can all see that this is the priority,” she said.

Last February, King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick agreed with McCleary and the coalition. But the state appealed Erlick’s decision, sending the issue to the high court, which heard arguments in June.

Tom Ahearne, the attorney who represented the coalition, called the Supreme Court ruling “about the best decision I could possibly imagine.”

He said he interpreted the ruling to mean any future cuts to education programs must come for education reasons, not financial ones.

Seattle education advocates were equally excited.

“I think it sends a strong message to policymakers that they’re going to have to find another way to balance the budget,” said Lisa Macfarlane, founder of the League of Education Voters. “They are going to have a tough time cutting funding for K-12, given the fact that the court just ruled that the current system isn’t meeting its obligation.”

Seattle teachers-union President Olga Addae also was ecstatic. Asked for a comment, she responded with one word: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Others were more cautious.

Lauren McGuire, the president of the Seattle Council PTSA, noted that while the decision eventually may move the state in the right direction, it will not help many students now in school.

“It’s difficult for those kids who are in school between now and the next six years,” said McGuire, referencing the 2018 deadline. “Six years is a long time to wait in the life of a child.”

Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell said he, too, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

The ruling will not change the board’s budget process this year, he said. Seattle Public Schools expects to cut some $25 million this year from its budget because of the state funding situation.

But, DeBell said, “this gives us some hope.”

Brian M. Rosenthal:

206-464-3195 or

On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

NEA Stance on Teach For America Continues to Raise Questions

By Anthony Cody on January 5, 2012 8:00 PM (Originally published on Mr. Cody’s blog, Living in Dialogue)

The decision by Dennis Van Roekel to co-author a column with Teach For America director Wendy Kopp continues to generate negative reaction among educators, the latest being the decision by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and her son Matt Damon to reject the union’s Friend of Education award. The response by the union has been defensive. Van Roekel’s statement said,

I believe NEA should talk to those who support public education, even if we don’t agree on everything, and work together to serve students. Wendy Kopp and I agree that students will benefit from stronger recruiting and teacher preparation. NEA isn’t going to quit fighting for students and our members, or for stronger teacher preparation. In fact, better teacher preparation is part of our 3-point plan on Leading the Profession that was released last month.

I have no desire to prevent Mr. Van Roekel from talking with anyone he likes, even if they do NOT support public education. Talk away.

I do, however, wonder about the substance of his agreement with Ms Kopp regarding teacher recruitment and preparation. Specifically, does Mr. Van Roekel agree that it is a good idea to recruit people who have no desire or intention to become teachers for a two year commitment? Research has revealed that 57% of the people who enter Teach For America do not intend to become teachers, and lo and behold, three years after they start, 75% of them are gone. [Be aware that TFA fudges these numbers by tracking the number who remain “in education,” which includes the many TFAers who become staff members or work in other parts of the non-profit and for-profit educational landscape.]

I wonder how it is possible to fight vigorously for a minimum one-year residency program and simultaneously praise someone whose recruitment model features a five week summer training course, and targets people who do not even wish to become teachers?

Regarding teacher preparation, I have an even greater concern. Valerie Strauss connects Mr. Van Roekel with Wendy Kopp at an event hosted by Arne Duncan last October. Secretary Duncan made it clear how he believes teacher preparation ought to be improved. He said:

We seek to create more accountability in teacher preparation programs, better prepare teachers for the classroom, boost student learning, and foster systems of continuous improvement. Unlike today’s teacher preparation system, we want to reward good programs, improve the middle, and transform or eliminate consistently low-performing programs.

Duncan explains how this works:

Both Louisiana and Tennessee now have statewide systems that track the academic growth of a teacher’s students by the preparation program where the teacher trained.

For the first time, teacher preparation programs in Louisiana and Tennessee are able to identify which of their initiatives are producing effective teachers and which need to be strengthened or overhauled.

It turns that there is a big difference between a strong preparation program and a weak one. Just as teachers are not interchangeable widgets, neither are the programs that prepare them. In fact, the variation between programs is stunning.

After controlling for student differences, the most effective preparation programs in Tennessee produce graduates who are two to three times more likely to be in the top quintile of teachers in a subject area. The least effective preparation programs produce teachers who are two to three times more likely to be in the bottom quintile.

How are these finely tuned quantitative judgments possible? By the use of the most detailed systems that track student test score data. What is the effect of rewarding and punishing teacher preparation programs based on test scores alone? Obviously this is one more pressure point, one more set of stakes that can be raised to get teachers and those who prepare them for the profession to attend to these scores first, last and always.

And what was the first of the “3 Ways to Improve the USA’s Teachers” that Van Roekel and Kopp agreed upon?

Use data to improve teacher preparation. 
In Louisiana, a state aggressively tackling the question of teacher quality, studies have found significant differences in student outcomes based on where their teachers trained.

The simple fact that different teacher preparation programs have different performance levels on their tests does not mean these are valid indicators of teacher quality.

Then we get the “multiple measures” sop:

“States such as California and Maryland are evaluating programs based on multiple measures, including student, principal and alumni surveys.”

If these multiple measures are anything like the ones described by Melinda Gates at the Education Nation Teacher Town Hall, they are validated only insofar as they correlate back to high student performance on tests — and thus we have still have a test-centered system, with a bit of window dressing. If we are to stand for the interests of our students, we must take a strong stand against the unrelenting pressure to increase test scores.

Forgive my cynicism here, but we have been caught in this whirlpool for the past decade and more. We will not get out of it without some very steady hands at the helm, and some clear principles by which to navigate. My concerns about Dennis Van Roekel’s position here are not reflexive or “knee-jerk.” They go to the heart of what we believe, and how we take a clear public stand for our principles.

(see my first post on this issue from two weeks ago: NEA President Sends Mixed Messages about Teacher Preparation.)

What do you think? Do (or should) NEA and Wendy Kopp have solid common ground here? Is this a real concern for teachers – or are some of us over-reacting?

NAACP issues strong statement against charter schools

The NAACP has published an official rebuke of charter schools’ growing presence in (particularly urban) school districts nationwide. Among the reasons for the NAACP’s disapproval: charter schools “draw funding away from already underfunded traditional public schools” and “at best…serve only a small percentage of children of color and disadvantaged students.”

You can find the full report here.

Being a Student Ally: Teachers as Necessary Voices of Protest

POSTED BY  ⋅ DECEMBER 26, 2011 on Cooperative Catalyst

A few months ago I was teaching a somewhat uninspiring writing curriculum to a group of sixth graders as part of teacher training program. As young educators, participants in the training were expected to prepare original lessons from a pre-written curriculum and teach them to classes of about twenty students on a daily basis. We were observed by mentor teachers several times a week, and met with those mentors about once a week to receive feedback on our growth as aspiring teachers. Even with many great supports in place, my colleagues and I were struggling to make the curriculum our own, as well as making it engaging for our students. The program, which was private and in league with many of the standard “reform” movements of the day, put a great deal of emphasis on preparing students with the skills they would need to excel in elite academic institutions, and very little on social justice and community empowerment.

For one of my initial lessons, students had been assigned a short story for the previous night’s homework, preparing them to begin writing a simple summary in class that day. At the beginning of the lesson I asked students to describe what they had read and how they had interpreted the course of the events for themselves. Immediately hands shot up as students clamored to give their own interpretations, and I as I began to listen I quickly realized that members of the class had not understood all the events in the same ways. One student, Kelvin, was particularly adamant about his interpretation of the ending of the story, and a debate broke out amongst different students about what had really happened by the end of the tale. Even as I encouraged students to find evidence from the text to support their claims, I was excited to see their enthusiasm around the assignment, their ability to articulate and problem-shoot their own interpretations, as well as to see that each student had brought their own lens to the reading. The lively discussion was by far the most encouraging event in the class at that time, and as I had been frustrated with my lack of success in engaging students with the material and finding ways of connecting it back to their own lives, this seemed like a step in the right direction.

When I met with my mentor teacher later that week–a compassionate but by-the-book Teach For America alum–one of the first lessons he wanted to discuss was the aforementioned summery class. Specifically, he wanted to discuss the debate which the students had had around the events of the short story. “Kelvin was wrong,” he instructed me. “It was irresponsible for you as the teacher to let a student with a wrong interpretation have so much room to speak. You should have stopped him, corrected him, and made sure that every other student in the class knew what the right answer was. If a test was given to the students right now, I guarantee that few of them would be able to describe the events of the story correctly.” When I countered by saying that I thought giving the students the opportunity to argue their own perspectives allowed them to cement their understanding of the story more deeply, he replied, “But if they’ve cemented it incorrectly, then you have failed as the teacher. If they are wrong, you need to correct them. It is your job to give them the right answer, and if they try to argue with you, to assert your authority as the instructor.”

This meeting jarred me, and gave me a great deal to think about in terms of my responsibilities as an educator. On the one hand, I was confronted with the reality that as a teacher I do have to think about the real obstacles that my students will come up against in their lives, and providing them with the necessary skills that will need to navigate those obstacles. On the other hand, I recognized that I must also think about the systems and codes which oppress my students–the same ones which oppressed me in my own education–and aid in creating a foundation for them to fight those systems. Finding a balance between giving students the tools they need to survive world, while simultaneously preparing them to transform the world into a place which does not merely have to be survived, is a constant struggle for teachers dedicated to radical learning, and this meeting was the first time that I, as an aspiring educator, had come up against it. Yet, I would argue, given the current climate of public education across the globe, this is the key battle in which we as educators and advocates must engage in. As charter schools become the imagined wave of the future for oppressed communities, as massive corporations and hedge fund managers take control of the public sector, and as Teacher For America and other privately-funded organizations become primary training grounds for young educators, demanding that education remain in the hands of the public and that classrooms serve the communities they teach becomes not only a radical act, but a threatening one. Helping students pass while also encouraging them to resist a set curriculum and the invasion of their communities by private corporations becomes the feasible but fraught goal of the educator, and one which is not met without a real fight.

To be true advocates for the intellectual growth of our students, and to remain genuinely committed to the radial purposes of education, teachers must become voices of protest in the face of privatization, and the hijacking of learning for mere vocational and occupational preparation. This means asking difficult and unpopular questions of ourselves and of the institutions which employ us, the same types of questions which I attempted to pose later on to my mentor teacher: If I want my students to see the world from multiple angles and perspectives, how can I tell them that there is only one correct interpretation? If I want my students to challenge power, how can I run my classroom as an unquestionable figure of authority? These are not frivolous quandaries, for answering them for yourself as an educator can be the difference between creating a classroom which mirrors the dominating social order, and one which works to fight it. Acting upon them can make one even more unpopular (while my mentor teacher entertained my questions, he was resistant to their actually being given priority in the classroom, and was not pleased when I refused to make certain changes to structure of mine), but if our goal is to empower our students to stand up in the face of oppressive and conservative institutions, we must learn to do the same alongside them. This is the definition of a true ally.