Transitions

I guess I’m now a statistic.

In the fall of 2009, I was a senior in college, excited to escape the “bubble” of my liberal arts experience yet terrified about what I might find outside. Facing a highly competitive job market and a dearth of marketable skills—I probably should have focused a lot more on quantitative work in my Political Science studies—I spent a lot of time thinking about where I should be headed.

Education was my first consideration. Growing up, talking about education was as much a part of family dinners as forks and plates. Both of my maternal grandparents worked in the New York City public schools; my mother has been deeply involved in our local school district (Lawrence, New Jersey) for as long as I can remember, first as a special education advocate for my brother, and for the last 9 years as the President of the school board. While I was fortunate enough to attend great schools my whole life, just a few miles down the road was Trenton, a struggling city with a troubled school system. The injustice of students having to attend inferior schools simply because they lived a few miles away was certainly not lost on me, and conversations with my mother on topics of education reform and school finance in the context of her school board responsibilities piqued my interest.

In college, I jumped at the opportunity to learn about the topic in greater depth. I wrote my thesis on the influence of teachers’ unions in federal education policy, and became well-versed in the issues. Yet my knowledge was all in the abstract: I read about educational inequity and agreed on paper that it was something that needed to be fixed, but I had never attended or worked in any of the schools that were apparently in dire need of improvement.

In that sense, Teach for America seemed like a great fit. I applied and was accepted into the program. I was placed in a turnaround charter school in Northeast Philadelphia with an administration of visionaries, a remarkably dedicated faculty, and a vibrant, supportive community. I spent the last three years growing alongside my students. I can’t properly articulate how incredible the experience has been.

Yet I’ve decided to move on. I have accepted an offer to write about education policy full time for StudentsFirst in Sacramento. Telling my students and fellow teachers that I was leaving was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Though my skills as a teacher are far from irreplaceable, the guilt of causing any sort of disruption in a school I care so much about was almost too much to bear.

So yeah, I’m a statistic: another TFA corps member who left teaching after a few years.

I could try to cook up a justification for my decision. I could lie and say that I didn’t get along with my coworkers, or that my administration wasn’t responsive to my concerns. I could blame my curriculum. I could simply say that I didn’t have the fortitude to stay in the classroom long term.

But I’m not going do that. The fact is, I decided to leave because the policy world is a better fit for me and my skills; I believe that this role will allow me to have a bigger impact on kids. I have been obsessed with politics and policy since attending my first political rally at age 7, and always assumed that I would end up in the space professionally. (I also insisted on carrying around a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution throughout high school. It might have helped my grades in my U.S. Government class; it definitely didn’t help me get a girlfriend.) A great opportunity presented itself, and I decided to take it.

Of course, the transition is bittersweet. As I write this, I am thinking about my kids and their families; about my school and the incredible teachers who give their all every day; about Philadelphia, this city that I have grown to love; about my friends and family on the east coast that I leave behind. But I am energized and excited about fighting every day for policies that will make a difference for kids.

I’m not sure how active this site will be going forward, but feel free to contact me on Twitter @jacobwaters, or at jacob.waters (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll see you on the left coast.

Jacob

Schools Should Collaborate, Not Compete

In my time teaching, I’ve found that observing colleagues in their classrooms is one of the best ways to improve my own practice.  Teachers have different styles,  sure. But there are certain methods that simply work better than others. Implementing some of those best practices–how to best distribute materials and organize group work, for instance–has absolutely made me into a better teacher. To some extent, the subject, grade level, or curriculum is irrelevant. If it works, it’s worth trying out.

Yet for some reason we are reluctant to apply that logic to improving schools as a whole. Instead of trying to identify and replicate what makes schools great, we get bogged down in competition and useless, arbitrary labeling. Are charter schools better than traditional public schools? Are charter schools “public schools” or not? These questions are akin to me observing a number of great teachers and only taking away that, on average, classrooms that use Staples-brand pencils perform about the same as those that use OfficeMax. A classroom is a classroom, a school is a school. If it is effective, who cares what we call it?

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that supports that kind of sentiment. Entitled “Searching for Excellence,” the report examines the performance of charter schools in five U.S. cities—Albany, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and Indianapolis. Though much of the report is devoted to comparing charters with regular district schools—an exercise that I consider to be useless—it also suggests a path to improving charters overall: closing or replacing low-performing schools and expanding or replicating high-performing ones. It’s an incredibly simple yet logical step, echoing the well-publicized NACSA “One Million Lives” campaign (which I have previously discussed).

But why can’t we push that idea even further? Traditional public schools, charters, and parochial schools undoubtedly have a lot to learn from each other. Especially in struggling districts, kids deserve a culture of collaboration, not competition, between all schools.  Our initial reaction to a successful school should be to celebrate it, not debunk it; educators should be excited to  pick up tips and strategies that have proven to be successful. If a real culture of collaboration existed, the recent finding that KIPP schools boost relative academic performance would have led to teachers and principals lining up out the door to see KIPP in action. Yet it seems to me that far more energy has been spent attempting to criticize KIPP’s practice and undermine the study’s findings. That competitive, negative attitude is nothing but a distraction.

Any teacher knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to teach; any principal knows that there isn’t a single “right” way to run a school. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from each other. With so many great educators in districts across the country, there is  a wealth of knowledge and experience that we could be sharing. It’s just a matter of swallowing our pride and doing it.

What Is A Diploma Worth?

Much has been made recently of the nation’s dropout crisis, especially in our cities. In Philadelphia, for instance, only 61% of students entering 9th grade in 2007 graduated in four years. The failure of so many of our students to complete high school is a shocking indictment of the state of public education in this country. (RiShawn Biddle at Dropout Nation does as good of a job as anyone documenting and analyzing this issue.)

What is scarier than the dropout numbers, however, is the fact that they make our education system look better than it is. The reality is that a high school diploma doesn’t necessarily signify a quality education. Especially in struggling districts, there is so much pressure to keep down dropout rates that graduation has little to do with actual academic accomplishment: Though I don’t teach high school, multiple high school teachers in Philadelphia have told me that coming to class and completing most work–regardless of whether it is correct–is enough to earn a diploma. Is it any wonder, then, that two-thirds of African-American and Latino students who enter college need remediation? Indeed, I would argue that, while around 60% of students earn a high school diploma in Philadelphia, the percentage that are actually prepared to continue their education in some capacity is much lower.

That is one of the main reasons why I support increasing the rigor of our education system through faithful implementation of the Common Core. An education system focused on graduation only works if a high school diploma is actually meaningful. It is a disservice to our kids to attach such gravity to an accomplishment that has, at best, inconsistent value. But by standardizing the meaning and implications of a K-12 education in this country, we can more accurately identify where we are coming up short and–most importantly–better prepare our kids for life after graduation. Though this transition will almost certainly make the failings of public education even more apparent, education leaders in our country will need to accept the political wounds and move forward. Our nation’s students deserve nothing less.

Interests Matter: Why Teachers Shouldn’t Be the Primary Shapers of Education Policy

The recent transformation of education into a prominent nationally policy issue has prompted an  increasingly important question: who should be crafting our country’s education policies? Though teachers and school administrators have largely controlled education policy for decades, in recent years outsiders–including think tanks, charter management organizations, and other advocacy groups–have had impressive success in implementing reform policies. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a backlash from the traditional educational establishment, who insist that teachers are the only people qualified to decide what our education system needs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that teachers shouldn’t be involved in shaping education policy. Besides their obvious expertise and importance in student success, as the primary actors in implementing any reform it would be both illogical and impractical to ignore their input. But that doesn’t mean that they should take the lead. Teachers shouldn’t be the primary shapers of education policy because they have material interests in the system independent of its effectiveness. Education policy should be guided by actors that are solely interested in what is best for students.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that interests of teachers and interests of students or opposed–in other words, that teachers do not want their students to be successful. But it’s indisputable that teacher and student interests are not identical. Last-in first-out layoff policies? Nearly unbreakable tenure guarantees? Blocking of meaningful teacher evaluation systems? While certainly in the interests of teachers, those sorts of policies are at best marginally helpful to students. And that’s a problem. We should be able to point to every facet of our educational system and explain how it is the most efficient and effective way to help kids learn. Teachers primarily shaping policy won’t get us to that point.

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers can and ought to continue to pursue their interests within our education system. But let’s stop the illogical charade that they can simultaneously support what is best for our kids.

Happy Holidays (and my end-of-year thoughts)

My Judaism hasn’t stopped me from embracing the ideals and emotions of the Christmas season–love of family, giving to those less fortunate, the time to reflect upon the year. And, as I think many other teachers would agree, the week off from school doesn’t hurt, either.

But this Christmas tastes sour. During a time of year when we ought to be celebrating the best of humanity, we have been left to question and comprehend the very worst. The events in Newtown left us dazed, grievously wounded yet looking forward, acutely aware of a horrifying truth: this could happen again.

Yet we will rebound. Each day since the attacks I’ve seen remarkable resolve: we recognize more than ever that there is so much work to be done. Though most of us will spend today celebrating the season with family and friends, parts of us are in Newtown, in Egypt, in Syria. How do we actually effect change in our stubborn political system, one might ask? When we allow our compassion and empathy to trump our self interest, just as we are seeing now. That, if nothing else, is good reason for optimism.

Our hearts are heavy, but they are full; our eyes are wet, but they are bright. I wish all of you a happy holiday season and a sweet new year. Be well.

Jacob

What School Districts Should Learn from “One Million Lives”

As even a casual observer could tell you, contemporary education reform debates rarely feature admissions of fault or guilt. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to read about the lauded–and self-critical–campaign of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Dubbed “One Million Lives,” the effort seeks to  engage charter school authorizers, along with a broad coalition of school operators, lawmakers, funders and others, to lead the way in closing failing charter schools and opening many more excellent ones.” In other words, NACSA is acknowledging a fact that we already know: there are many charter schools across the country that are not adequately serving kids. By actively working to shut down failing schools, NACSA is sending a powerful message that school effectiveness is more important than maintaining illusions of organizational perfection. School districts around the country would be well-served to follow suit by committing to closing or turning around unsuccessful schools.

As I’ve previously written, I think it is misguided–and unfortunately common–to view charter schools and traditional public schools as fundamentally different entities that are competing against one another. As I see it, a school is a school; what matters is whether it is serving kids. But the increasingly heated public battle between charters and traditional public schools has spawned a situation where both sides are trying to prove that they have the “right” model for school management–an argument that is obviously about adults, not kids. “One Million Lives” sacrifices the public image of charters for the sake of students that are attending bad schools, a demonstration of self-assessment and reflection that is all too rare in education reform. Why are school districts not making the same types of statements? There are at least “a million lives” attending  failing traditional public schools as well. If districts were willing to set aside concerns about their public perception and recognize the urgency of closing or turning around failing schools, kids would be much better off. It’s time for us stop concerning ourselves with labels and start prioritizing what really matters.

The Useless Competition Between Charters and Traditional Public Schools

Charter schools were in the headlines this past week with the release of a CREDO study which found that New Jersey students that attend charters outperform those who attend traditional public schools. On its face, the results are a boon to charter advocates and education reformers in general. As NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf put it, the study “reflects the work we have undertaken . . . to increase our accountability standards, strengthen the rigor of our authorizing process, and, when necessary, close schools that are underperforming.”

It is certainly exciting to see evidence of student achievement improving, particularly in struggling districts like Newark. But education reformers should resist the temptation to use this study as proof that charter schools are inherently “better” than other types; this only perpetuates a useless, damaging competition between charters and traditional public schools. Instead, we should emphasize that school effectiveness, not labels, is what matters in education.

We all know that some schools are better than others. This goes for traditional public schools, charters, parochial schools, or anything else. That is why it is so baffling to me that people point to average performance among a particular group of schools as evidence that one school label is inherently superior.  To put it bluntly, if a school is effective, who cares what we call it? All too often, discussion about charter schools devolves into a horse race: whether charter schools or traditional public schools are “winning” over the other becomes important. And what sometimes follows that is the despicable and disturbing reality that a failing school is a “victory” for the other side.

Conspicuously absent from that type of rhetoric, of course, is actual concern about student learning. Instead, we should be trying to figure out why some schools–whether charter or traditional public–do better than others so we can spread their best practices. Is the day structured differently? How are teachers trained and supported? What instructional strategies are they using? Let’s stop treating education like a competition and realize that when kids are successful, everyone wins.