Monthly Archives: September 2012

Why is the “Won’t Back Down” Debate About Adults Instead of Kids?

In yesterday’s NYT, Vivian Yee describes the growing uproar over the film Won’t Back Down. The film tells the story of a parent who exercises a so-called “parent trigger” law to take over her child’s failing school. Though the film is obviously a “Hollywoodification” of the issue–and a work of fiction–education power players like AFT President Randi Weingarten and Michelle Rhee have become amateur film critics, the former criticizing the depiction of unions and the latter supporting the film’s premise and even hosting advance screenings. Though the “educators pretending to be film critics” thing on both sides has been amusing to watch, the debate has been primarily about adults in the film and not the people we should be really concerned about: the students who attend failing schools.

Before the film was released, the AFT sent out a statement to its supporters warning them about the movie’s release; of primary concern was that the film “depicts teachers and unions in such a false and misleading way.” While perhaps true, it is instructive that the statement doesn’t decry as “false and misleading” the depiction of failing schools and the plight of students who attend them.

The decision of the AFT to focus their energies on the struggle of teachers in the film instead of kids gives further credence to the obvious point that teachers unions do not exist to promote the interests of kids. I’ve said it before and will say it again: our educational system–and the parties entrusted with making its policies–should be singularly focused on student achievement. We need to rid ourselves of the idea that unions can somehow pursue the best interests of students and teachers simultaneously. That’s not to say that those interests are opposed–in many cases they are aligned–but just that they aren’t the same. The main takeaway from the movie ought to be the sobering reality that there are thousands of students and families frustrated by having to attend unsafe and ineffective schools. Unfortunately, that seems to have been forgotten.


Teach for America’s Critique of Traditional Certification

Ever since its formation, Teach for America has been embroiled in controversy. It has brought thousands of young, talented non-teachers into some of the toughest classrooms in the country, many of whom have chosen to remain in education in some capacity. But if its detractors are to be believed, the organization steals jobs from deserving teachers, cheapens the teaching profession, and serves as merely a career stepping stone for many purely self-interested college graduates. Yet it continues to expand, with 9000 corps members across the country teaching around 600,000 students.

I’m not going to insert myself into the omnipresent debate concerning the problems with TFA corps members leaving teaching, or how effective they are compared to “traditional” teachers. All I can say is that, as a corps member myself, I have been consistently awed by the drive of my colleagues to improve and become exceptional teachers. The students of the city are fortunate to have many great teachers in the classroom that wouldn’t have been there without TFA.

But TFA’s most important impact, in my view, is beyond these individual classrooms. It has questioned the unnecessarily lengthy, expensive, and bureaucratic traditional path to certification.

Before starting teaching, I was forced to go through the arduous process of becoming “highly qualified,” which I somehow managed before I actually started teaching. (To be honest, despite my credential, the only areas in which I could have definitely called myself “highly qualified” in the realm of education were sending checks to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, signing forms, completing checklists, and not having a criminal record.) The extent of the bureaucracy was comical.

Yet I was lucky: without TFA to help guide me down the rabbit-hole, I would have never been able to secure that certification, and so wouldn’t have had the opportunity to teach in a high-needs school. I have some incredibly smart, talented, and compassionate friends that wanted to start teaching after graduation but were unable to because they weren’t accepted into TFA or similar programs. In this country, if you want to teach, you basically need to major in education in college or be lucky enough to grab a slot in a fast-track cert program. This is a huge disservice to our students.

Now, I’m not saying that TFA’s teacher training system–centered on a 5 week summer crash course called “institute”–is perfect. I did learn an incredible amount about teaching in that amount of time, but my first few months were arduous, to say the least. (I consider it a blessing for my long-term mental health that my brain decided to erase September through November of that year from my memory.) But there is no amount of training that would have totally prepared me for that first year. Indeed, in teaching you learn primarily from experience. I made (and continue to make) many mistakes when I teach, and I continue to learn from them. The intangibles possessed by great teachers–presence in the classroom, effective communication with students–are built with experience.

Yet the traditional system of teacher education and certification doesn’t recognize that fact.     Undergraduate education programs, besides being widely regarded as one of the easiest college majors, require way too much sitting in classrooms and not enough standing in front of them. Their length and cost only serve to restrict and insulate the teaching profession, and for no good reason: Teach for America corps members are at least as effective as teachers coming from traditional certification programs.

Considering the educational crisis in this country, we should be trying to encourage as many people into the teaching profession as possible–a task made impossible by a certification system that is heavy on bureaucracy and light on helping kids. Teach for America has forced us to question the wisdom of that vestigial limb of the educational status quo.

Interests of Teachers Or Interests of Kids?

When I first heard about the teacher strike in Chicago, my thoughts turned to the students. Besides the lost instructional time, I know from teaching in Philly how much students in cities need the structure, safety, and positive atmosphere of school. I shudder at the thought of my own students getting locked out of the school building for a week without anywhere else to go.

Yet as I’ve read perspectives on the strike from both sides, I still can’t wrap my head around the CTU talking point that the strike is somehow in the interests of the kids. To put it bluntly: How could you say with a straight face that locking 400,000 kids out of school for a week is in the interests of students? As I see it, the strike is finally knocking down the illogical but widely-held view that teachers’ unions should be trusted with determining what is best for students. Unions should still exist, but let’s dispense with the farcical idea that what is best for them is best for students.

Amidst the present ubiquity of education reform in the news and on pundits’ tongues, it’s easy to forget that education only recently became a real public policy issue. Indeed, prior to No Child Left Behind and its precursors, education was pretty much a local concern, handled by the only people viewed as qualified to do so: teachers and administrators. Teachers’ unions, then, were given the power to define and pursue the interests of students as well as teachers. Pretty sweet deal. (N.B. I wrote in much greater depth about the history of the unions in chapter 2 of my undergraduate thesis.)

But with the emergence of data showing the flaws of public education in this country, unions are having trouble proving that they still represent the interests of students.  Clinging to structural anachronisms while opposing logical reforms like evaluations linked to performance, substantive tenure reform, and expansion of high-quality school choices in cities is hard to square with claims that the unions speak for anyone but teachers.

The strike in Chicago is bringing that disconnect to light even more.  Teachers are banishing nearly half a million kids to the Chicago streets over getting a less than 30% raise in a recession and  because they don’t want to toughen an evaluation system that laughably rates 99.7% of teachers satisfactory. It takes serious cojones for the CTU to say that those demands are in anyone’s interests but their own.

News reports suggest that the sides are getting closer and students will be back in school on Monday–by all accounts, a great development. But the whole ordeal should serve as a reminder that any organization that keeps kids out of school for a week does not represent the best interests of students. We ought to reconsider where objective educational expertise actually resides.


The Need for Innovation in Schools

P.S. 114 in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn made headlines this past week with a pair of instructional reforms that run against traditional elementary school orthodoxy. According to Principal Darwin Smith, one teacher will deliver a lesson to a class of 60 while another teacher assists struggling students. Furthermore, students from 3rd-5th grade will switch classes, allowing teachers to focus on 2 subjects instead of the traditional 4.

Unsurprisingly, the former reform in particular has caused an uproar among advocates of smaller class sizes. As Leonie Haimson, executive director of the NYC-based group Class Size Matters, is quoted in the article: “I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s an unsustainable model that has no evidence to support it. It’s a recipe for chaos.”

I’m not going to comment at length on the merits of the ideas themselves; that is for the another post. What is relevant is that there are strong arguments in their favor: two teachers in the same room could serve a dual purpose of helping struggling students and giving the co-teacher an opportunity to learn from a master; the 3rd-5th graders switching classes allows teachers to devote more time to making high-quality lessons. In other words, they could plausibly work. And that kind of innovation and experimentation should absolutely be encouraged in our schools.

It’s no secret that our education system is fraught with arbitrary traditions and anachronism. We continue to cling to summer vacation despite the consequences of the “summer slide.” Researchers say that school starts too early, yet kids nationwide spend first period wiping sleep from their eyes instead of learning. So who says that the traditional model of one teacher in front of a class of 20-25 through 5th grade is the best? Especially in a time of limited resources, schools should constantly be reflecting and making logical changes when warranted. It would be one thing if our current system effectively served all kids. But we know that’s not true. So why not ask our principals and administrators to think as we hope our students do–with reflection, logic, and creativity? Of course, there is a possibility that the reforms in P.S. 114 will not improve schools. But we can’t let fear of failure halt innovation in a system that sorely needs it. It is unfair to kids to do otherwise.

The Urgency of Fixing Schools

This week at school, I took a bit of my prep period to introduce myself and get to know one of my 5th graders who just transferred to the school. (Let’s call him Jim.) Born and raised in Philadelphia, he loves playing football, eating hot wings, and riding bikes with his brothers. I was immediately struck by his warmth and ease in conversation, despite being approached by a stranger. At that age, I tended to start counting the dots on floor tiles when adults tried to talk to me.

After a bit of small talk, I asked him about his old school. Exasperation exploded across his face, and he sighed. “That place was crazy. They was always fighting, and teachers never made us do nothing. We used to walk out of class and play in the hall.” His academic progress matched the school description: the baseline one-on-one reading test administered to him when he arrived at our school showed that he reads at a mid-1st grade level. In other words, after only 5 years of attending school he is 3.5 years behind, a chasm that statistics show is rarely closed.

I’ll put it bluntly: the fact that Jim had to attend his old school is a moral failing for which we are all culpable. Each day that ineffective, unsafe schools operate is a slap in the face to our society.

Opponents to school turnarounds cite the dangers about corporate involvement in education and spin romanticized, nostalgic tales about “traditional” public schools. While I’m not suggesting nefarious intent from those people, their concerns don’t help Jim and the thousands of other students attending schools that deny them their right to a quality education. For me, it is a simple question: Would you want your own child to attend that school? If not, something needs to be changed, and quickly.

My credentials as a “liberal” have been repeatedly questioned for my support of turnarounds, but what could be more liberal than wanting the same for all kids? As I’ve written previously, pointing to poverty as the root cause of educational equity doesn’t help kids attending terrible schools right now. We need to remember that Jim and his family aren’t interested in a sociological debate about whether poverty is the main cause of educational inequity; they just want good, safe, schools–an unquestionably reasonable request. And until it is fulfilled, we should cast unproductive debates and pie-in-the-sky policy goals aside.