Testimony of Charles Seaton Jr.

Testimony of Charles Seaton Jr.




NOVEMBER 8, 2011 

Good Morning.  My name is Charles Seaton Jr., and I am a Special Education Teacher.  I would like to say thank you to Chairman Harkin and Ranking Member Enzi for inviting me to be here today, and to Senator Alexander for the warm Tennessee welcome.  As a special education teacher, I want to say a special thank you to Senator Harkin for his championship on behalf of students with disabilities over many decades, including his leadership on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).   

I teach in the Memphis City School system at Sherwood Middle School, which is found in the oldest African American community in Tennessee and the second oldest in the nation. This is a community that is over 88% African-American with a median income of $21,802.  The vast majority of students at Sherwood – 97.6 percent – receive free and reduced-price lunch.  My students have a range of disabilities from attention deficit to autism, as well as many talents. For example, I have had a student with autism who is “mechanically inclined” (builds and designs things from pieces, i.e. fans).  We educators need to foster those mechanical abilities in him while teaching.  My calling to teaching came after 15 years of working in the fields of mental health and juvenile justice.  After years of seeing youth with special needs caught in the mental health and juvenile justice system, I thought I might be able to help children avoid this system through early intervention.  I returned to school and got my Master’s degree in Special Education (Bachelor’s in Psychology) because I wanted to give children with varied special needs an opportunity to obtain a chance at the American Dream.

 I am also a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.  Teach Plus is a national nonprofit organization that improves outcomes for urban children by ensuring that a greater proportion of students have access to effective, experienced teachers.  In order for schools to continuously improve student achievement, teaching must become a career that motivates and rewards continuous improvement among practitioners.  Teach Plus addresses the urgent need for effective, experienced teachers in urban classrooms by working with both results-oriented teachers and education policy leaders in transforming the profession to reward excellence and results. It focuses on demonstrably effective teachers in the second stage of their careers (years 3 through 10) who want to continue classroom teaching while also expanding their impact as leaders in their schools and in national, state, and district policy.  I would like to thank Teach Plus – especially Tamala Boyd, Heather Peske, and Celine Coggins – for their great work, because without them I would not have had the opportunity to work with the Memphis City School District in crafting and implementing a new teacher evaluation system designed to ensure the most effective teachers are in our classrooms.

The new evaluation system that Tennessee has implemented is a great start to measuring and improving teacher quality through evaluations and professional development.  Tennessee is experiencing great leadership from the Tennessee Commissioner of Education in this area.  The biggest plus is that Commissioner Huffman is continually monitoring and improving the system.  Memphis City Schools are also setting a precedent for the nation in measuring teacher effectiveness.  The state and city have made giant steps that have, at times, made teachers uncomfortable and unions upset – but they have made the tough decisions to push achievement for young people forward, and they have done this with teachers being involved, every step of the way.  Our state has had leadership through these crucial conversations and confrontations.  I am excited to be working in an evolving system.  Teachers want to know their impact on student learning. We want to see data, aligned to our curriculum, about the progress our students are making. We want good information that leads to opportunities to improve our practice. In polling that Teach Plus has done in three cities, 84% of teachers agree with the statement, “Growth in student learning should be a part of a teacher’s evaluation”. While we may not like our current state test, we are eager for access to something better.

Research shows that nothing is more important for a student’s success in school than the teacher in front of that child’s classroom. Yet the students, who need effective, experienced teachers the most are the least likely to be assigned to them. Our lowest-performing schools not only have the most significant achievement gaps, but also the highest rates of teacher turnover.  Four consecutive years with highly effective teachers could close that achievement gap and begin to give all students the education they deserve.  Teacher evaluations, done well, will ensure that teachers get the information and feedback we need to help us as we continually strive to do better by our students[LS1] . 

I believe the recruiting and training of potential leaders for turnaround schools is a great way to transform the lowest performing schools as well as improve the highest performing schools.  The books by Jim Collins, Built to Last and Good to Great, have led me to believe that we should look at how businesses and their infrastructures have had great success and how it may be applied in these types of schools.  We should be able to develop benchmarks that will give us a good foundation on how to hire and train leaders[LS2] .  

 Accountability for the bottom 5% of schools is important, but all schools need to be included in accountability systems, as do all groups of students, especially students with disabilities who historically have all too often been shortchanged.  I come from a family of educators and I have seen how NCLB has changed things for students with disabilities.  The focus on the achievement of all students and breaking down data by subsets of students has brought needed attention to them.  It has changed the culture in schools, as has requiring all students to be tested so you no longer get a pass on accountability for some students[LS3] .  Schools can no longer isolate special education students without it having a negative impact on the whole school.  I hope we won’t lose the culture that AYP has created with respect to using data to drive achievement for all groups of students. 

I believe that AYP could be better if the law allowed states to measure success of schools not only through test scores but also by their ability to give students the skills that are necessary to make us educationally more competitive worldwide.  The college and career readiness standards in the bill really make me happy.  As a middle school teacher, I believe addressing the dropout problems at the middle school level will give us the biggest bang for our buck because a middle school experience with little to no success leads to increased high school dropout rates. 

There is enough data available about early indicators to create state databases that red flag high-risk youth the same way we currently do for high-stakes tests.  This will give us a head start – not only on improving the drop-out rate, but also on increasing literacy rates.  An example of the importance of early intervention is one of my 6th graders.  He was removed from his parents’ custody and placed in a foster home, and was being medically treated for ADHD and anger problems. After continued behavioral referrals resulting in suspensions, he attempted to jump out of a second story window.  His classroom teacher physically held him until other support could arrive. The staff convened a school-wide intervention.  This intervention used every building employee, as well as the relationships the youth found safe.  Creating this type of intervention environment takes a community.  While this was not the only success story, this was one that was close to home.  Today, this student is in high school making above average grades and playing varsity football. 

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Committee for the time, effort and thought that has gone into their work.  I hope the thoughts and views of teachers, administrators and superintendents will be an asset to this body.

 [LS1]Is there a personal anecdote about a teacher evaluation that really made a difference that Charles could add here?

 [LS2]Does Charles have any reflections on a standout school leader he has worked with?  It would tell us a lot to hear how important the role of principals is in teachers’ ability to transform their students’ lives.

 [LS3]What about one sentence here about how this plays out at Charles’ school?  Do teachers collaborate on how to better-serve students in the lowest-performing sub-groups, or something along those lines?