Title I Researchers Just Don’t Get It

Photo Credit: cs.ucsb.edu

Photo Credit: cs.ucsb.edu

Over and over again, educational headlines blast the same news, something like, “Title I Students Are Being Ripped Off,” “Proof that Poor Kids Get Poor Teachers,” or “Minorities Still Get a Lesser Education.” These headlines lead into yet another article proving that Title I schools have less-experienced teachers, less-educated teachers, more with emergency credentials, and some classes with no teachers at all. As a highly qualified, eleven-year veteran who has always taught in Title I schools, I am sick of it. Not because it isn’t true, but because they all keep asking the same question. It’s as if one person had a great research idea and a herd of grants followed.

I have spent the last dozen years working at Title I schools with dedicated, experienced, well-educated colleagues. We struggle for so many reasons, and it’s time for that herd of grants to head in more interesting directions. Try one of these…

We spend months testing instead of teaching, actual real months. A colleague from a different state once told me that she had to stop teaching for a month to assess and communicate College & Career Readiness. She taught 2nd grade! But even without mandates like that, ongoing assessment is wiping out learning.

Title I elementary schools are required to collect an enormous amount of data on each student. To feed this monster, learning stops three times a year. At the beginning of the year we don’t yet have procedures in place (sorry, Harry K. Wong), but test we must. Some of these tests, like the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment), must be given individually. So we find something for rest of the class to do, and hope they behave, while we assess. On a good DRA day, it takes about half an hour to find each student’s reading level. For a class of thirty students, an efficient teacher will spend fifteen hours. That’s 45 hours of lost learning across the year. If we’re lucky, we might get a half-day sub each time, allowing us to test in the library while the sub runs our class, so subtract 3 hours three times. That’s still 36 hours of lost learning just for the DRA, which plays out as 12 days of reading deskwork three times a year so the teacher can test individual students.  When I asked a non-Title colleague how she managed, she told me she didn’t do them. Even a conservative estimate has that non-Title classroom engaging in meaningful reading lessons for six weeks longer than mine.

That’s not the only test. The district writing assessment takes three lessons two times a year. Math benchmarks take a lesson three times a year, so does spelling. The primary grades have many more tests like Concepts About Print, but the intermediate grades have the dreaded online assessments, not state tests, but district tests to predict state scores in reading, language arts, and math. Computer lab time is scarce and students take these at their own pace, but at a minimum they take three hours per student. A few students take as many as nine hours. And we can do nothing with our lab time until everyone finishes. Three times a year. Non-Title schools have to take these online tests as well, but in general, non-Title schools aren’t as stressed for computers. My last class was so large that we hoped for absences on lab days so everyone could have a computer. A ridiculous amount of our precious computer lab time is tied up with test-taking.

Many teachers use their own sick days to get a sub and test in the hallways and library, but still have to use learning time to finish, especially for children who were absent. Others have resorted to inviting students before the school year starts and testing on their own time. We borrow computers and excuse students from class so they can complete online tests. And all of that is just the assessment time. We spend nearly as many hours, scoring tests then filing and reporting scores. This is all time we would rather spend planning those amazing lessons everyone wishes for. Why isn’t someone researching this? And while they’re at it…

We can’t reliably plan. Veteran teachers sink deeply into thought over the summer, completely revamping their writing plans, re-imagining their physical education sequence, combing through the new social studies curriculum to understand how it will play out in the classroom, or flipping their classroom with technology-based lessons. Teachers in non-Title schools do this with confidence, knowing what their schedules will be. Teachers in Title I schools are much more tentative.

Non-Title schools have stable enrollments, so stable that at the end of 5th grade, my daughter spent part of her class day in her new 6th grade classroom. Her teacher had the whole summer to put her students’ names on books, boxes, seat assignments, and letters home. I write my letter without knowing who my students will be hoping to get their names far enough in advance to make it worth mailing. I guess how many desks I will need, rearranging and restocking every day as my lists changes, last year from 23 to 31, and ultimately 36, students. All of this uncertainty and backtracking takes time which could be better spent planning an awesome first day of school. Still, I’ve had worse problems.

When I switched to elementary, I was hired less than a week before the first day of school to teach a combination class in a room that had been a computer lab, had no desks, and was full of junk. The district reduced my mandatory training by several hours, which was both good and bad, but I was still frighteningly unprepared for that first day of school. It’s a common story, particularly in Title I schools where enrollment is unpredictable. Districts won’t hire until there are verifiable heads, and many Title I parents don’t enroll their children until the first day of school. Title I schools all over the country hire last-second teachers who have to run their entire year on two days of planning.

Middle school has it much worse. Non-Title schools fill up and refuse new students. This stabilizes their enrollment and allows them to generate their master schedule months in advance. The teachers know what courses they have and how many copies to make. The students get their schedules well in advance, and 6th graders can come to “day camp” and practice going from class to class. Title I schools take the overflow students and, not knowing their enrollment, don’t know how much staff they will have. I vividly remember one year when my principal was arguing with the district over 0.2 of a staff member up to the day before the new school year started. We projected enrollment requiring 0.8 of a part-time teacher, and the district would only hire based on actual enrollment and thus approved 0.6. This argument over one single course held up the master schedule so over sixty teachers had no confirmation on what they would teach. The 6th grade parents were panicked. And when we finally did get the 0.8 approved and got our course assignments, several of us were surprised with a new course and had less than a day to prepare. Even a great teacher fails in that circumstance. Worse, that scenario repeated the next year and the next.

The saddest enrollment problem of all, however, happens six weeks after school starts, when enrollment projections were horribly wrong and the district decides to reorganize classrooms. This can happen anywhere, but I hear about it from my Title I colleagues all too often. A teacher is hired or released, and dozens of students are shuffled into new classrooms. Their teacher has a single weekend to set up a new classroom and come to terms with an entire new grade level’s worth of materials. And on that first day, all of the affected rooms have to come to terms with their losses, regroup, and move on. Especially for young children, learning takes place inside a relationship with the teacher, and forging that now has to start six weeks late. Teachers and students are not widgets to be moved willy nilly. Both will do their best, but are at a huge disadvantage for the rest of the year.

Speaking of disadvantaged classrooms, here is another question that needs research…

We don’t have regular ed classrooms. Late one night, I watched an entire documentary, probably produced in the 1990’s, on ADHD in schools. It was fairly contemptuous of using medication and pretty hard on teachers. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have a daughter with ADHD who takes medication.) I struggled with what they expected of me as a teacher until the very end when the last interviewee, a professor, wanted to know why a teacher couldn’t be creative about handling that one kid in the back of the room. One kid! One kid! Is he kidding me? Try eight. Or ten.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, and schizophrenia all have had their place in my classroom, some many times. Most are on medication, some aren’t. When that many students take medicine, all of the problems with medication compound. On any given day, someone ran out, or someone else forgot, while another is trying a new combination, and someone’s seeing how it goes without it, or maybe his got sold to buy food, and hers just didn’t work. The net result is that every day a couple of children are struggling to stay settled and pay attention, and that struggle is taking all they have. Learning is very nearly out of the question.

One night, as my ever patient husband listened to my complaints about challenging behavior popcorning across my classroom, he asked me how many kids I was talking about. There were eight. Eight out of 24, one-third of my class, had a formal diagnosis. “That’s not a regular ed classroom,” he said, “That’s special ed.”

While his insight helped me completely rethink how to handle my class, it also intrigued me. I began asking other teachers what their ratios were. It turned out to be hard to count because not every parent reports their child’s diagnosis to the school. Roughly half are revealed during conferences or if the child gets into trouble. But every Title 1 teacher I spoke to had at least one-quarter of their census with a behavior diagnosis. One primary grade teacher had one-half! How can you teach children to read at that critical age when one-half of your students have such extraordinary needs?

My daughters make me laugh. They go to a non-Title school and tell stories about the one child who yells in their class. What does the teacher do? She calls the principal who comes and removes him. Another year, my daughter had a teacher who kept dissolving into tears. She was frustrated because three students wouldn’t stop talking and would leave their seats. I wish for such easy problems, but that’s the first ten minutes on a Monday morning. Then the real work starts.

Whether it is one-fourth or one-half, these extraordinary children have a measurable effect on each other and on the “regular” students who are well-behaved or get into “normal” amounts of trouble. Last year, in my class of 36 students, I used ClassDojo for the entire year. On the whole that class earned 90% positive marks, but there were 5,720 negative points. That’s 5,720 times we stopped learning while we handled an issue. That’s 34 times a day or every 12 minutes, all day long. How many times can learning be interrupted before everyone loses ground?

Looked at another way, I wrote 144 pieces of discipline paperwork. In our system, very little goes to the office, but every piece means something serious happened, something on the order of screaming, stealing, refusing to work, running away, being defiant, physically fighting, or throwing racial slurs. At least one student has to stop and reflect in writing on their behavior, and I have to stop my regular work to speak to the involved parties and write it all down, and then debrief with whoever had to reflect. I basically wrote, and had to track, four sheets per week all year long. At a conservative 15 minutes per sheet, we lost 36 hours to serious outbursts. At what point does this affect student learning?

Not all of the sheets, and not all of the negative points, belonged to students with diagnoses. But that year, they represented a little over one-fourth of my census, three-fourths of my discipline sheets, and hours and hours of my time while we worked through some intense issues. I understand and value that special needs students, my daughter included, have the right to be mainstreamed in the most open environment possible, but their sheer numbers have altered that environment so substantially that I wonder when a regular ed parent is going to bring a lawsuit contending that their child cannot receive an education in a perpetually challenging environment. However some parents are in no position to file a lawsuit. This leads to the next Title I challenge that needs research…

We spend hours on social work. In one class, five of my students had parents in jail. This affects children as strongly as any disorder. One girl told me she had made no new memories since she was two because she was waiting for her dad to get out of jail. When he did get out, her hopes were too high, and being terribly disappointed, she gave up on life and quit doing any work. Another boy had both parents in jail and was taken in by an aunt who wasn’t too committed to getting him to school. Yet another boy was alternately terrified and angry because his mom had a court date which kept getting postponed and he didn’t know if or when she was going to jail. I could do nothing for these children except hug them, talk to them, and spend hours on CaseNet trying anticipate the next crisis.

With parents struggling to make ends meet we take school time for basic needs. During the time my non-Title colleagues are doing bell work and going over homework, I am managing breakfast in the classroom and, some years, mass tooth brushing. While other classroom sponsors arrange parties and send art supplies, mine also sends clothes and shampoo. While other teachers shop for decorations, I shop for food – not for class parties, for mid-morning snacks and for food bags. We spend a few math lessons a year, opening, counting, and dividing food into bags for everyone to take home. And no, that food doesn’t come for free, which leads to another issue that needs research…

We have almost no discretionary funds. A single book fair at my daughter’s school raises more money than my school’s PTA raises in an entire year. The mandatory band fee at the non-title middle school across town raised as much money as my middle school’s entire PTA budget. Another middle school’s science department fundraiser did the same. While their science teachers were spending that cash, ours were writing grants to fund the most basic experiments and working their way through the school site council’s approval process. It’s not just the money. It all takes extra time.

When I coached softball, we played on fields with grandstands, beautiful grass, clean dugouts, raked dirt, and padded fences. Then we came home. We didn’t worry about padding on our fences because we didn’t have any, nor did we have dirt. We played on a solid grass field with an old backstop. We hoped they didn’t water on game days, and we rolled out the equipment from my classroom closet in an old shopping cart. Not inspiring.

We need to inspire new headlines. We know all about teacher quality issues in Title I schools. There are so many more issues that experienced, qualified, caring teachers struggle with every day. Give us our teaching time back by reducing the mountain of tests and the number of students with challenging behavior. Give us a social worker, and a little money to work with. Maybe the wealthy schools in the district could share with the poorer schools. In any case, please get us some help by doing some new research.

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