Leveling' Teachers Doesn’t Always Level the Playing Field for Kids

Oct 21, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Imagine you’re a new teacher in a traditional public school district.

You have spent the summer planning for and worrying about the upcoming year. You have scanned and re-scanned your ever-changing, somewhat undependable roster, making name tents and seating charts. You have spent hundreds of dollars of your personal money on supplies to transform your bare classroom into a warm, inviting and welcoming environment.

The school year begins.

You memorize your students’ names and reach out to their families. You establish systems and routines. You build warm and demanding relationships to ensure students feel supported and pushed. You’ve cried and laughed and lain awake in bed on Sunday nights.

You get through September.

And then, [pullquote]one day in October, you’re told that you’re being leveled—forcibly reassigned to another school to make class sizes equitable across the district.[/pullquote] 

Your school has too many teachers for the number of students enrolled. Other schools in the district have too few teachers for the number of students enrolled. You, being the newest teacher in the school and thus the teacher with the least amount of building seniority, are being forced to transfer to another school in the district.

You go back to your classroom, which is no longer your classroom. You say goodbye to your students, who are no longer your students. And you move to your new school to start all over again.

This Is Where Equity Gets Messy on the Ground

In Philadelphia, hundreds of teachers can be leveled every October. Theoretically, it makes sense.

If there are two schools and one of them has enough teachers for the average class size to be 22, and another school only has enough for the class size to be 35, but moving a few teachers would enable both schools to have average class sizes of 25, then that would seem to be a step in the direction towards fairness.

In reality, however, it’s painful. 

[pullquote]Students who had adapted to a classroom and a teacher now have to see the teacher leave them behind—to adapt to a new classroom environment.[/pullquote]

Teachers who are leveled are often the youngest, most inexperienced teachers, who now have to leave the environment they’ve adapted to and start again in a brand new building, and then try to establish a classroom community in October—a difficult feat for any teacher, let alone a novice.

I don’t know what the answer is.

I can’t say that leveling needs to be stopped, because then I’m saying that I’m OK with some students being forced to learn in classrooms of over 30 students, while others enjoy the more empowering experience of smaller class size.

At the same time, I can’t say that leveling is thoroughly good—because I have seen the faces of teachers who have been told they must leave. I have read letters written by their students wishing them farewell and decrying the perceived unfairness of it all.

I don’t know what the solution is. I just know that it stinks.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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