About Thomas Courtney

Thomas Courtney is a senior policy fellow with Teach Plus, a member of Edsource's Advisory Committee, and author of many articles on educational curriculum and policy. He is also a fifth-grade teacher, guide teacher, and father of a child at a Title 1 school in southeast San Diego.  

What’s getting you through 2020’s chaos?

For me, it’s the knowledge that education could change, and not by a little.

As with all things education, I’m not alone of course, And many others have come before me. I know because I used the pandemic to read them all.  Reardon and Timar. Ravitch and Tatum, Delpit and Darling-Hammond, and Zaretta Hammond too! Each of us dreams of a better environment, a better future for our students. Meanwhile, parents across this country, now as much a part of their children’s learning as ever they were, want a better future as well. As Bettina Love tells us, our kids want to do more than survive. 

Each of us is hopeful that change is still possible. 

And it is. But as each of the bestselling author’s books above conclude, we cannot go back to the way things used to be and think that we will somehow experience better results. We have big things to tackle:, inequity, social and racial injustice, pure racism in and outside of schools, in and outside of ourselves. We must build more inclusive classrooms and schools (much less a society), and we have the business of improving our academic instruction overall, not to mention closing an achievement gap which we created in our schools in the first place.

These are and always have been lofty goals. And they will require forward-thinking and quite possibly some thinking that much of our country doesn’t think is necessary at all.

But if you are a salmon-like me, and you feel the tug to swim, then the good news is that the dam is lower now. It is up to us to decide on which way to go and how hard we’re willing to swim.  Do we teach to the test, as we have done for the last 20 years, hoping that somehow all becomes resolved? Perhaps, we can simply stick our heads in the sand and resolve ourselves that the excruciatingly glaring gaps in our schools revealed during the Covid crisis were the result of mere happenstance.  Maybe another 20 years will give us a second 5% increase in test scores. 

But what an opportunity we have now! Why not choose the path we’ve not traveled? Why not stop teaching to a test, and start teaching the rest

But what is the rest? What could we teach, should we decide in this moment to consider an alternative to the last 20 years of high stakes testing? Whatever we call it, the fundamental components of that rest can be collated from the concluding chapters of our role model authors. Furthermore, the moment is ripe! States are being flooded across the nation with federal stimulus dollars. We have both the means, and the opportunity to address what authors, well-respected educational authors, have advocated for years! But where do we start?  

How about the very training teachers receive! 

We Must Train Inducted Teachers As Per New Standards and Continuums

The California Standards for the Teaching Profession were last renewed in 2009. A lot has changed since then. The new CSTPs are in the process of revision, and those standards will likely reflect what other standards and norms address is similarly progressive states like New York. It is time we do not just expose fledgling teachers to SEL, with identity, restorative, and culturally affirming practices,, but to make it part of a robust training. This training, as with all sound training, should be included for veteran teachers as well so that staff discrepancies do not lead to misunderstandings.

Embedded in our district and site training should be a regiment of what the tone-deaf policy of NCLB forgot–authentic and genuine connections with parents and listening to parental input. It was absurd to assume that people who park their cars in a parking lot for 8 hours a day  somehow know what is best for the community in which the school (and parking lot) sits. We should stop using the inability of hard-working parents to attend meetings as an excuse, and start reading what the polls we send them say. Their desires and wishes for their children, in any form, should guide our work. 

Of the need for training teachers who teach other people’s children, Delpit writes, “the worldview of many in our society exists in protective cocoons.”   Hammond reminds us that, “While the achievement gap has created the epidemic of dependent learners, culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is one of our most powerful tools for helping students find their way out of the gap.”

 What will we call it if after the pandemic when we tell families hit hardest by the pandemic that we’ve returned to “normal” and wipe our hands of what it taught us and should teach the next generation of teachers?

Stop Neglecting the Idea of Well Rounded Education for Poor and Minority Students

In two decades of teaching, I have never once had a student or family thank me for increasing their test scores from basic to proficient, nor tell me how our collective grade level 8% increase in test scores contributed to their child’s success later on in life.  And the same goes now that we’re on lockdown. Why did it take a pandemic to show us that kids are not computers?

I’m not sure, but something tells me no one ever will tell me that their child’s test scores changed their life. That’s why long ago, I decided I was going to teach the whole child, like affluent households across the nation do for their own children, and it’s time others joined in–especially in urban and inner-city schools. For starters, schools in the inner city should offer more extra-curricular than schools in affluent neighborhoods, not less and not in equal proportions. Extra-curriculars provide schema, background, a foundation of more than content, but what Duckworth calls “practice” in developing grit and passion. The entire designation of Title 1 was meant to address these very inequities in the first place, not just to close test score data. Extra-curriculars, says Darling-Hammond, is something nations high in scores around the world have invested in across their societies. Our system is outdated. Because we rely on those who can afford soccer payments to take their children to soccer. Just as we rely on our inner-city teachers to focus on test scores, and trust the parents of their students to pay for the types of experiences that other nations accept all children need, and in equal measure. 

It is well noted amongst other researchers that NCLB already exasperated the gap between the types of experiences children of color and their more affluent peers have during childhood. The fact that we’ve not just ignored this in our schools as well, but also widened the gap by eliminating these programs for narrowed curriculum, is nothing short of criminal. At least it is to me.  But maybe that’s because I bring my children to the school I teach at, and I’ve seen it as both a teacher and a parent! 

It’s time for us to stop pretending that experiences that motivate children do not have an effect on their effect on what and how they learn. It’s time to bring back quality art, science, history, and physical education programs during and after school, and for all kids. It’s time to re-assess what is the rest of what kids need now, and then to actually do something about it. As Delpit tells us, “That, I believe, is what we need to bring to our schools: experiences that are so full of the wonder of life, so full of connectedness, so embedded in the context of our communities, so brilliant in the insights that we develop.”

Change The Way We Evaluate Teachers

The problem with high-stakes testing is, always has been, and always will be that it trickles down to every single classroom and the way we do or do not teach. Central to this is the evaluations, both verbal and unspoken, that we use to assess our teachers. 

Collaborations under high-stakes testing foci become perverted into a biweekly or even weekly quota share that feels far more like a sales check-in than education. In twenty years, for every evaluation I’ve ever had, I have been officially observed for only two things: shared reading and my math lesson. 

And that’s a shame because I do a lot of other wonderful lessons. And although my principals were aware of them, we both know very well that they are not central to my evaluation. 

What incentive does that give me to do any of them better?

Curtail Privatization of Public Schools

If privatization was working, I wouldn’t be teaching at a public school. It isn’t. It’s a matter of fact that charter schools underperform public schools in the aggregate and that those charter schools that do better often select students, eliminating those they deem unfit to their policies. Charter schools are businesses. Businesses in competition with our public school system. And that’s nice, but with over a decade of evidence that their advertising posters don’t often match their realities, it’s time to cut the growth of these schools. That translates directly to policies of federal and state boards of education in loosening the restrictions of these charters. For example, AB1505in California all but gives charter schools a 5 year grace period for not offering the basic services provided for children in their local public schools.

It is no secret that charter schools target minority students in low socio-economic neighborhoods. But why? Read from the various websites and it sounds like there is a Superman born every minute willing to start a better school. They just need a bit of cash is all.  

And what is it about charters that are so tempting to parents in the first place? When polled, parents tell us, and it isn’t the increase in test scores. It’s everything else–the rest. It’s the rest of what public schools said kids would get after we implemented an all-or-nothing testing campaign that failed across the board. We tried that. Perhaps we might want to take a new look. Perhaps, instead of paying our for-profit charter schools to do what we refuse to do in our public schools, we might wish to actually give it a go ourselves!

They’ll Get the Rest Later

Many years ago, staring at a graph that showed all children nationwide would be proficient in reading and math by 2014, a principal told me, “They’ll get the rest later.”

“Trust me,” she said with a knowing grin.

I gave it twenty years, two of my own kids, and my blood, sweat, and tears. And along the way, I noticed something, that apparently she didn’t.

Giving them the rest first has and always will be the best part of my teaching. 

I wish I could go back in time, and let that principal know that she had it backward. That the rest is what kids like my daughter, like my son, as all kids need. It’s why white teachers in low socio-economic public schools don’t often bring their own kids to school with them, and nearly half take their children to charters or private schools! It’s why teachers leave urban schools for “greener pastures” to finish off their careers. It’s why we aren’t closing an achievement gap, because we aren’t even thinking about the opportunity and motivation gaps that we created in our school policies. 

When it comes to the rest of what education needs to be, some kids get it, and some don’t.  The test has only ever measured who gets that rest. 

It’s time we stopped thinking they’ll get the rest later. It’s time we taught that too. Once and for all, and for all kids. My daughter, yours, and the children in the neighborhood we park our cars in for a few hours a day.

Pandemic

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