Saturday, April 23, 2016

Standardized Testing Matters...Kid's Lives, Not So Much

We are raising today's children in sterile, risk-averse and highly structured environments. In so doing, we are failing to cultivate artists, pioneers and entrepreneurs, and instead cultivating a generation of children who can follow the rules in organized sports games, sit for hours in front of screens and mark bubbles on standardized tests. Darell Hammond, CEO KaBoom

In June of 2015, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed HB2186, The Jason Flatt Act in Memory of Johnathan Childers, into law.  The law requires that all Texas schools train their teachers, counselors, and administrators on suicide recognition and prevention.  I helped lobby for HB2186.  I wrote numerous emails, made dozens of posts to social media, and met face to face with lawmakers and their staffs.  The bill passed both the House and Senate of the Texas legislature almost unanimously, and because of that, went into effect immediately after being signed.

Before this law went into effect, Texas had no mandatory training, and the only time I can remember having any training in my 25 years as a teacher was after a student suicide.  Because of my involvement, I anxiously anticipated what my school would come up with.  In addition to my son Peyton (not a student at our school), we lost a young lady to suicide the previous school year.  I was expecting this training to be in depth and informative.  What we received, could have been taken off the home page from any of a dozen suicide prevention web sites.

It began with the introduction of our "...exciting suicide training," followed by our lead counselor stating "I know we did this last year, but now state law says we have to do it again."  After this statement many of those in attendance turned to look at me and gauge my reaction.  I tried to look impassive, but inside I was seething.  I wanted to walk out while shouting, "Are you f-ing kidding me?"  Not only appalled by the casual manner that this matter was treated with, but also with the incorrect information that was presented (i.e. cutters aren't suicidal), and the fact that a presentation designed to help save lives too less than 15 minutes to complete.  I left as quickly as I could and went upstairs to my classroom. I was fuming, but what could I do.  If the topic had mattered, then more time would have been given to it.

Fast forward eight months.  So far this year, our district has endured two student suicides, two suicides by 2015 graduates, and a teacher suicide ( see #PrayForTheVictims).  I am able to count on less than one hand the number of times that the district has addressed this topic.After each death, they had the prerequisite counselors on campus, but let's face it, these are high school guidance counselors, not crisis counselors.  It would not surprise me if each one had a laminated sheet covered with cliches to say.

Yesterday I attended STAAR training.  For those of you, STAAR is the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.  It is our state mandated test that our entire school year revolves around. Everything we do in core subjects is some how related to STAAR.  Even if your students have passed all five STAAR tests, you are still judged based upon their results of STAAR based common assessments provided by the district (which are STAAR tests that have been released by the state).  However, if you have a student in a core class that is not tested, but failed STAAR in a class related to your class (i.e. if the student failed the Algebra I test and you teach Geometry), you are required to come up with a plan to help that student pass when they retake the test.

Like Suicide Awareness and Prevention training, STAAR training is mandated by the state.  All teachers involved with the STAAR are required to attend this training.  There are multiple training sessions where you must sign in, sit through the training conducted by the campus testing specialist, go over, in detail, the procedures for the day, possible testing irregularities, setting up the testing environment, starting times, ending times, the role of each tester, the handling of materials, and of course, the litany of circumstances that could cause a teacher to lose their certification.  At the end, all teachers are required to initial, sign, and date an oath stating that we have been trained, and will do anything and everything to All in all, this training takes about 30, or twice that of Suicide and Prevention training.

At my school if a student fails STAAR, they are provided with a Bootcamp in the summer where they are given intense tutoring and lessons designed to help on the summer retake.  During the school year, those students are pulled out of class for one on one instruction, a full blitz day with teachers the day before the retake.  We even have a one semester elective class for kids that failed the English I or English II STAAR test.

On the other hand, if a student says that they want to harm themselves, they are kept under observation by the counselor or administrator until a parent comes to pick them up. After that, they may check on them from time to time, but that is about it.  There are no special classes for them, no summer programs, nothing.

Now don't get me wrong, no student should graduate high school without the basic skills necessary to function in society.  But as I stated in my earlier entry Dead Kids Don't Take Tests, you can't test a dead student.  Living is also a requirement for graduation.  It is even a generally accepted fact that living people are more productive than those that are not.

I realize that schools are under tremendous pressure to have high test scores.  There are district and state rankings to think about, and during the course of the year, more kids will fail the Algebra I section of the test than take their own lives, but for the love of all that is holy, something must be done.  I know I am not in the minority of educators when I say I didn't get into education to teach a test. I got in because of my love of literature and writing, and because I give a damn about the whole student.  I coach not only because of my love of sports, but because it allows me to see kids in a different light, in an environment where they not only want to be, but they can also measure their improvement in relation to their effort.

I know high stakes testing is not going away any time soon, but if public education going to continue to throw money and manpower into preparing students, and put so much emphasis on the outcome, then shouldn't they make an effort to assure that the students are there to take it.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Thursday night, as we were heading home from our track meet, one of the other coaches exclaimed, "Holy Shit!!!" as he was looking at the phone.  He then showed us a news report that the head softball coach at another high school in our district had been charged with sexual assault of a child after accusations of an improper relationship with a player on his team.  He then stated that the coach was on the run, a warrant had been issued, and police were seeking the public's help in locating him.

It was shocking, and the rest of us started to look at our phones as well hoping for any kind of information.  There really was nothing other than what we had already seen.  Even this morning when I looked, more news sources had run the story, but there was nothing that hadn't already been said.
About ten minutes before the end of my conference period, one of the other coaches came into my room.  He told me that they had found the coach, and that he had taken his own life.  I was asked not to say anything until the district had released a statement.

When I looked at the article in the Houston Chronicle, the comments were scathing.  People had already tried and convicted the man in the court of public opinion.  Some going so far as to say it was "the only right decision" he made.  Maybe he was guilty, and if so, he should have had to face justice, but then again, he wouldn't be the first teacher to have his career ruined by false accusations. Regardless of the truth, today we have to #PrayForTheVictims.

Who are the victims here?  Unfortunately, there are many.  Let's start with the obvious, the 16 year old girl at the heart of accusation that may have led to the coach's suicide. Regardless of whatever physical attributes this girl posses, she is still just a girl.  Despite the fact that most 16 year old kids think they know all there is to know, the reality is that they know very little.  Maybe she the victim of a predator, a man that abused his position of authority to take advantage of her,  or perhaps she had made advances and been rejected or had her playing time reduced and thought that making accusations would be a good way to get him back.  Sadly for her, there are many in the comments section of the paper that are more than ready to blame the victim and think she should be held accountable as well.  Regardless of the case, she is going to need support, support and more support.

The teachers, administrators he encountered every day are victims.  Many will be angry and feel betrayed.  They will wonder how they were "fooled" by this man.  Will they begin to doubt themselves, will they go back in their minds and replay every conversation they ever had, will they over analyze every clue they will think they missed?  It will be hard for all.  Some will be dragged in for repeated questioning, placed under undue stress, and have their professionalism called into question, and once they think it is over, have it happen all over again when the inevitable civil trials begin.   Others will look for some one to blame, as it makes most feel better when there is concrete blame assigned.  They will say they knew something was amiss, but no one would listen.  They will blame the culture of athletics and how people were more concerned with trophies and victories than academics and the students.

Speaking of students and athletes, imagine coming to school Friday morning with everyone abuzz about the accusations against the coach, only to find out that he was now dead by his own hand. There is a different bond between students/athletes and teachers than there is among colleagues. For many, a male teacher/coach is more than just a teacher.  They can serve as a father figure, a role model, and an inspiration.  The kind of anger and betrayal they experience will be different from that of the adults.  They may turn away from the adults, after all they were taught to trust them.  They may find different ways to act out in rebellion and will need ongoing support.

The most prominent victims are his wife and three kids.  First and foremost, they lost a husband and father respectively.  As if the shock of losing a loved one to suicide was not enough, now throw in the accusations and charges.  How can a family recover from such a thing?  The rumors and speculation are already overwhelming, how will they feel as the investigation continues and this man is dragged through the court of public opinion?

In the not so distant future, the investigation will conclude, the findings made public, the civil suits will be settled, the classes will graduate, a new coach will be hired, the team will take the field, the whole ugly incident will be talked about less and less, and life for many will go on.  unfortunately, life for the victims will change for ever.  There will be no forgetting, moving on, or getting over.  That is why I ask you one more time, #PrayForTheVictims.

Author's Note:  The above is my opinion, and my opinion only.  It is based on my experiences survivor of suicide, and a teacher/coach for 25 years.