Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Hard Problems in Education

A conference was held last week at Harvard seeking to trace out the "hard problems" in the social sciences, following after David Hilbert's famous ranking of the hard problems in mathematics.

I thought it might be interesting to talk about what we think the hard problems in education are. Note that many of the problems Hilbert came up with eventually proved to be unsolvable.

I have two, that will surprise no one who has been reading.

    1. How can schooling contribute significantly to the democratic empowerment of marginalized students?

    2. How can we eliminate the relationship between the efficacy of schools and the socioeconomic status of the communities they serve?

Note that I refer to "schooling" not "education." Many of our key problems are less "educational" than institutional, related to a particular kind of institutional structure that produces particular effects and limitations.

Of course, each question contains assumptions about what the "real" problem is. (E.g., if we could change the socioeconomic status of communities, the coupling problem would disappear.)

I know many of us are off to AERA (I'm not going) or otherwise buried by the end of the semester, so I listed this as the "monthly forum" to allow people to easily return to it if they are interested.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This could be a very sad day - I choose differently

this is not policy per se, but it explains about me as a teacher. For those who do not know, Leaves on the Current is the screen name of my spouse. This was originally posted at Daily Kos

1889 the birth of Adolph Hilter
1999 the shootings at Columbine High School

Either could be an occasion to look back - in horror or in sadness.

Instead I look ahead. To the words of a man born around this time - we do not know for sure when, only that he was baptized on April 26.

And for this day, one set of his words seems appropriate, at least in my mind:

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon my self and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate,
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The rest of this diary will be a meditation on this, one of my most cherished poems.

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon my self and curse my fate,

I have, since early adolescence, been prone to depression. I can be very much of a pessimist, seeing all my failures, and how the future may bring events that will dwarf even these. It is easy to look back and weep at the mistakes I keep making, to find myself wondering why I should keep going. When I was younger I had frequent thoughts of suicide, pondering the different methods of disposing of myself. In early adulthood I often felt so alone I wondered that if I died in the small apartments or rented rooms in which I lived if anyone would even notice until my body began to stink.

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least,

I was jealous of others. I was never all that popular. I did not have a single date in my first two years of high school. While later I might be able to start relationships, I could not sustain them. Intuitively I knew that if I wanted friends I had to be a friend, but I did not seem to know how to accomplish that. There were things at which I could excel, and there certainly were things I enjoyed but from which I fled, because they seemed to mark me as different, thereby increasing my sense of isolation.

Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate,

I did seek a magic solution. I imagined that I would encounter the one person, the one relationship, that would make everything perfect. Sometimes when I lived in Brooklyn Heights I would take a cab from the upper East Side bars at which I spent too much time and money and have it drop me off on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge and walk across, somehow imagining that in the hours well after midnight I would encounter that person and all would be well - it was rare that I encountered anyone else walking.

And this seeking of a magic solution in one person was in large part why so many of my attempts at relationships failed.

But I said that I choose differently. That is true today. It became true decades ago. I began to accept myself, in part because I allowed myself to feel vulnerable.

The last six lines of the poem could apply to my relationship with Leaves on the Current, begun on September 21, 1974, when she was 17 and I was 28, eventually leading to our marriage on December 29, 1985. She is my best friend, my most trusted adviser, my truest love. And the words would be true, but they would be an incomplete expression of my understanding of them.

Incomplete, not wrong. Because without that relationship, her love, I would never have had the courage to completely change the direction of my life, to follow what my heart had often called me to, but which i feared doing, despite having enjoyed the occasions where I had tried it. Without Leaves, I would not have left a career that paid decently but left me unsatisfied, and become a teacher.

The four lines before the final two apply as well to my teaching - certainly in my writing about teaching my state sings hymns at heaven's gate.

Many reading this know that I have been honored for my teaching by being my school system's selectee for the Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teaching Award. As news of that has gone around people have gotten in touch with me to tell me how happy they are, to assure me it is well deserved. Some have been parents of current and former students. Some are student with whom I have had little contact since I last taught them. Yesterday I receive emails from two students from years ago. One I taught as an 8th grader in 1996-97, the other as a freshman my first year at Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1998-99. Each message is brief. Each is relevant to my meditation on this poem:

I don't know if you remember me, but I'd like to wish you congratulations on your award. I attended Kettering Middle School in 1996-1997 and remember fondly your history class. I remember how you were always willing to be silly to prove a point. Thanks to teachers like you students like me are inspired to become teachers ourselves.

You may not remember me, but I was a freshman in your LSN Government class for the 1998-1999 school year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. I am now a 4th grade teacher at Perrywood Elementary School. When I was a student in your class, I enjoyed it immensely! I appreciated your humor and animated teaching style. Being as though history/government have never been my favorite subjects, I always regard your class as my favorite class and you as my favorite grade school teacher. I had a college professor who displayed very similar teaching styles to you at UMCP and because of this, I became his intern for 2 years. Teachers liks you are hard to find, but so easy to appreciate. I am thankful to have had the chance to enjoy your expertise and congratulations again on your recent award! You deserve it among many others! =)

Both young ladies now teach elementary school in our district. I have to admit I cannot picture either one in my mind, although even if I could, I am sure as adult women they would appear very different. I remember both names. I could go to my old computer files and look up their grades, but that does not matter. I do know that I was not especially close to either one, and this is the first contact with either since I taught them.

Perhaps the expression of these two letters might not seem to connect with the final two lines of the poem, but for me they do. Think of the latin caritas which is a caring for the best for the other person, as Paul uses it in 1st Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 13 (and coincidentally I am a triskadekaphile): And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity

If you prefer, you can use the word love instead of charity and then perhaps my application of the final words of the sonnet will begin to make more sense.

Teaching is an exercise in faith - that the young people entrusted to my care will have a future in which they can participate and from which they draw sustenance and in which they can be productive to the society in which they will find themselves, perhaps themselves helping to shape it in a fashion more conducive to love and warmth and leaving the world a better place.

Teaching depends on hope - we as teachers can never know the full impact we have upon those in our care. I know that I make mistakes, but hope that these are outweighed by my intentions and care for those before me, not merely that they may do well in my course, but that they may from having experienced be richer in soul, more believing in their own potential, more willing to be giving of themselves, and perhaps somewhat forgiving to me for the errors I may have committed.

Charity or love - teaching should be full of this. I love the subject I teach because it gives me a window with which to connect with my students. I loved teaching American History - as I did at Kettering Middle - because I could help my students make sense of it, see how it affected them, empower them to make new connections with their own world and lives. Of greater importance, teaching must always include the care of the students before me, wanting to see possibilities for them, so that they can choose who they will be, what they will become.

We can look back at Hitler and see the horrors he inflicted upon the world. As one of Jewish background born in the immediate aftermath of the great war he engendered, living as I did among some who had survived the Shoah of European Jewry, I can never forget nor be unaware at the signs of similar hatred and oppression, in other nations and in my own. As a teacher I can look back 11 years to Littleton Colorado and remember that bullying among adolescents can have tragic consequences, that as a teacher I can not allow a single incident of bullying to go unchallenged.

But I can also reflect upon Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX, the last two lines of which read

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Certainly I am enriched by my relationship with Leaves on the Current, approaching its 36th anniversary in September, bound for eternity on December 29, 1985. Those words apply to her.

They also apply to all the students who pass through my care. I am richer than any kind because I have the opportunity to affect lives.

And when I receive, out of the blue, communications such as the two I have quoted, I feel richer than Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. I wish both men well, and hope they will use their riches wisely.

I am rich, I am honored, I am grateful, I am overwhelmed. And if I begin again to look upon myself and curse my fate I can stop. I can return to these messages, and similar ones I am receiving face to face from students currently in the building, from parents I encounter in a Starbucks or a Safeway, from my peers in the building - but of course, most of all always from the students, remember the final two lines of the sonnet, and find myself energized for another day, another year in the classroom.

So I choose differently on this day which could be tinged with sadness. I choose faith, hope and charity. And if Will will allow me, I borrow those final two lines of Sonnet XXIX and offer them to all my students, former, present and hopefully for a future with many years yet to come:

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America

is perhaps the most important single article to date on what has developed from the Princeton Senior Thesis of Wendy Kopp. Authored by Barbara Miner, it appears in the Spring edition of Rethinking Schools, which if you care about the future of public education you should support (while the material is available online, you can consider contributing if you choose not to subscribe). here is the link directly to the article

A PDF version of the article was circulated among similarly thinkers on education a few weeks before the Spring issue was mailed. I have not written about it until now because I wanted to be certain that it was fully accessible to all I might be able to interest in it, and it was not on the web site (which was being migrated) until earlier this week. It was only on Saturday afternoon that I had sufficient time to do the article justice.

I will be happy if you have already decided to go read the entire article (again, here's the link), but in case you have not, let me offer some thoughts that might persuade you.

First, before I go further, let me note that I have permission from Rethinking Schools to quote beyond the normal fair use limitations for the purpose of my reviewing the article, which begins with an italicized statement that alerts you to the focus, Most Teach for America recruits are idealistic and dedicated. But who is behind the organization, and does its approach bolster or hinder urban education reform?

Miner begins describing her thoughts as she is driving towards St. Louis for part of her research on the article, which is when we we encounter her writing
Do people honestly think that sending Ivy League graduates into the St. Louis schools for two years will somehow unlock the academic achievement that is seen as a cornerstone of rebuilding our cities? Can the antidote to educational inequity, urban disinvestment, and neighborhood decay really be so simple?

Let me stop and digress a moment. Teach for America goes beyond the Ivies to other prestigious schools, including my own Alma Mater, Haverford College, which will on occasion brag to its alumni about the participation of its graduates. I have on occasion talked seniors out of applying, which has not endeared me to some on the campus. My argument as a professional educator is simple - unless the person going in is willing to be open about continuing beyond the required 2-year commitment, it is unfair to the students and the school, because it takes a while for any teacher to become effective, and too many of the students they will encounter already have experienced adults who simply pass through their lives.

I have been vocal in my criticism of Teach for America (TFA) over the years, to the point that once a VP of the organization asked for a meeting to persuade me they had addressed many of the things I had criticized, and they even gave me access to their internal web-based materials. While I appreciated the openness, what I saw then, and what I have seen since, has done little to change my skepticism about the entire approach. Reading Miner's article strongly reinforced what I already felt. If that is going to bother you, you can stop reading now and return to Miner, to which I shall also return.

The purpose of Miner's article, as she notes, is supposed to be about the organization and education reform, not about the abandonment of low income communities of color. Yet when she returns to her home base of Milwaukee after 2 weeks of interviews and research, she is troubled. As she writes,
I have come to distinguish between the generally hard-working, smart, and idealistic TFA classroom teachers, and a nation al organization that is as sophisticated, slippery, and media savvy as any group I have ever written about. TFA is perceived as a major player in the education wars over the future of public schools, and a key ally of those who disparage teacher unions and schools of education, and who are enamored of entrepreneurial reforms that bolster the privatization of a once-sacred public responsibility.

But what exactly is TFA’s role in these education wars? Who is directing the organization and to what ends? More importantly, what is TFA’s role in improving urban education?

For many of us who are committed to public education, the question in that brief paragraph immediately above this are key.

There is no doubt that on some levels TFA, which some critics have labeled as "Teach for Awhile" or "Teach for a Resume," has achieved "success" (although it may not necessarily be on behalf of the students it ostensibly serves). As Miner notes, in 2009 it received over 35,000 applications, including an astonishing 115 of Ivy graduates, and as of the writing of the article it had 7,300 teachers in 35 locations, some of which have
significant teacher turnover and hire large numbers of uncertified teachers.

The article is too rich to fully cover in a posting like this, which is why I will again encourage you to read the entire thing. Let me note a couple of things that caught my attention. TFA now does more training and support of its candidates, including having relationships with a number of schools/colleges of education (which as Miner notes seems to be contrary to the original goal of taking bright graduates and putting them in with little training in the belief that they could still make a difference). What further caught my attention is that some of the training of their candidates is paid for my our tax dollars: members receive tuition towards a masters through Americorp, to the tune of a $4,725 annual educational award. Now, were those receiving that training all committed to remaining in the inner city schools in which they serve I might not object, but for many even this is still but a step on the way to something else, perhaps business school or law school. Of the three members TFA arranged for Miner to interview in St. Louis (out of the total of 183 in public and charter schools), only one was committed to staying beyond the requisite two years, and even she is thinking beyond the classroom: she will spend five years teaching while earning masters in education and educational administration, then go to law school, and then . . .? As this teacher, Melinda Harris, notes
“I can honestly say, what I have learned I could use in another profession: the networking, the time management and organizational skills.”
And of course the ever-present alumni network will help her with whatever goals beyond the classroom she decides to pursue.

One problem with TFA and how it selects its teachers is the mismatch between teachers and students.
In 2008 about 10 percent of corps members nationwide were African American, and about 7.5 percent were Latino; overall, almost 29 percent are people of color. Figures for the TFA staff are similar. TFA classrooms, meanwhile, are about 90 percent African American and Latino.
In theory, there is not necessarily a stumbling block between having white middle class teachers in a predominantly minority school - I and a majority of the teachers in my school are white, while we are a minority majority school. But there are differences. First, while we have students from a variety of economic circumstances, they are still predominantly middle class. Second, our teachers are committed to the school: an art teacher who passed away earlier this week had been there since the building opened in the 1970s. I arrived at the school in 1998, and in my department of 17 teachers there are 5 who were there when I arrived.

Further, 7,500 is a drop in the ocean of millions of teachers. Even if we look at the needs of inner-city and rural schools with high degrees of poverty, we needs hundreds of thousands of teachers. It is not clear to me, or to anyone who has seriously and dispassionately studied TFA, that it provides any kind of useful model for how we serve the millions of children in such schools. The article includes a separate box which has some remarks from Barnett Berry, who coincidentally is co-founder of the Teacher Leaders Network of which I am a member. Barnett acknowledges that a Teach for America Recruit might well be better than the uncertified substitute that a child in an inner city school might otherwise have, and of course we should encourage bright and enthusiastic young people to take on the task of such educational settings. Let me quote 3 paragraphs from that box, so that you get the full impact of Berry's concerns:
“But,” Berry continues, “to suggest that TFA is the solution to the nation’s teaching quality gap is misguided at best.”

Berry likens the TFA recruits to sprinters—talented athletes, but insufficient if one wants to build a well-rounded track team. “TFA gets its recruits ready for a sprint, not a 10K or a marathon,” Berry notes. “They look like they are working harder than the veteran teachers. But the veteran teacher has experience and knows that if you want to make a career of teaching, a sprinting pace will burn you out.”

Because TFA recruits aren’t expected to stay, they have two other advantages: they cost less and they tend to do what they are told. “By and large, they don’t raise questions,” Berry notes.

they don't raise questions - we already have a problem that the voices of teachers are often not part of the discussions about educational policy. Teacher Leaders Network is one attempt to try to change that, and one of my compatriots, Anthony Cody, organized the Letters to the President effort that led to a large Facebook group that is now leading to a conversation with Secretary of Education Duncan. But by and large those of us who are committed to remaining in the classroom have to struggle to get our voices heard. That may explain some of the hostility one experiences from professional educators towards Teach for America - we see those with little teaching experience, sometimes not all that effective, suddenly being turned to as the experts on how to "fix" education when the voices of those whose efforts will be needed for the success of any meaningful reform continue to be excluded.

Teach for America requires a 2-year commitment. The statistics on those completing the commitment are somewhat inflated by TFA - in 2007 only 87% of those who should have been completing the 2 years actually were, and as Miner notes, the completion rate was lower in earlier years. Further, TFA claims that a survey of its alumni (who are supposed to include only those who completed the 2 years) shows “more than two-thirds of Teach for America alumni are working or studying full-time in the field of education.” The accompanying graph shows 50% of these as teachers. But as Miner notes, only 57% of those defined as alumni responded to the survey, and we have no figures on the 43% who did not. Further,
the field of education is loosely defined to include everything from working with a nonprofit advocacy group to getting a graduate education degree. . . . there is no sense of whether those who responded to the survey tended to be recent alumni, perhaps only a year past their initial commitments and more likely to be in graduate school or teaching for a third year, or older alumni who have moved on to other careers.

This is perhaps an appropriate time to remind those of you still reading of Miner's title, which includes the words Looking Past the Spin. Teach for America has been very successful in gaining favorable coverage from Main Stream Media. I have read the results of the survey to which Miner refers in several major newspapers, both in news stories and opinion pieces, yet I had not before her article seen the details of that survey properly deconstructed and analyzed. The positive spin the organization receives is continued with the reflected glory by its alumni who go on to other challenges that are also often not examined as critically as they should be. Thus we have seen favorable news coverage of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools, founded by TFA alums Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, coverage that has now lead to a positive book by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews, who had previously written about Jaime Escalante (full disclosure - I have known Jay since 1998, and consider him a friend, even though I disagree with his evaluation of KIPP), and of course, former TFA'er and now Chancellor of DC Public Schools Michelle Rhee (whose ex-husband and father of her children, Kevin Huffman, is now Executive Vice President of Public Affairs for TFA and, oh by the way, just so happened to win the Washington Post's Next Great Pundit contest.

What concerns many of us committed to public education is the outsized influence and voice TFA and its people have. Let me quote two brief paragraphs from Miner to attempt to illustrate the reasons for my concern.

Twenty years ago, before TFA had placed a single teacher in a single school, there were glowing articles in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time, and a segment on Good Morning America. The media love-fest with TFA has never stopped, extending to soft publications always eager for a feel-good story, such as Reader’s Digest and Good Housekeeping. When TFA founder Kopp calls Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, he not only answers her call, but also quotes her extensively (see Friedman’s April 22, 2009, column).

And then, this:
Some 27 TFA alumni are currently in office, nine more are running for office, and more than 700 are interested in “pursuing political leadership.” TFA has a goal of 100 elected officials in 2010.

Stop and consider that for a moment. A publicly stated goal of elected officials.

I know teachers who have pursued public office directly from their classrooms - both Tim Walz of MN and Larry Kissell of NC were elected to the US House of Representatives directly from their social studies classrooms. Former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of MD was, like me, both a former Marine and a social studies teacher. We have had presidents who served as teachers - Lyndon Johnson began his work career teaching poor children (largely Hispanic) in Texas, an experience which certainly shaped his agenda in the Great Society while serving as our Chief Executive.

Still, I would hope that we would be encouraging gifted, bright, enthusiastic people who can teach to remain in schools. I think we should be reshaping the teaching profession so one does not have to leave the classroom to make an adequate living. That SOME may go on to administration, or school boards, or even elective or appointive office is fine, but I question if that should be the goal. I wonder how that actually contributes to making our schools better for the children who so desperately need our help.

It seems as if political power is important to those involved with TFA. This became evident during the putting together of the Obama administration. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford had been one of the principal advisors on education during the campaign, and had headed up the transition team on education. For many, she was a logical choice for Secretary of Education. She had served as an inner city school teacher, and in her years in academia had participated in many important initiatives about teaching and education. But she was the principal author of a study that had been critical of TFA, and she was vociferously opposed by the TFA network. For what it is worth, one does not have to be a TFA alumni to participate in politics, and living as I do just outside our national capital I take full advantage of proximity to develop relationships. I heard both personally and via the internet of the organized campaign against Darling-Hammond, the roots of which were solidly within TFA and its alumni.

Let me return to Miner's article. I previously mentioned Kevin Huffman. Miner interviewed him. He made clear that the two-year commitment, about which I and so many are critical, is key to TFA's theory of change. Let me quote two relevant paragraphs:
I struggled to remember media references to this “theory of change.” What was this theory? “That we will bring in great people who will have a tremendous impact on the kids they are teaching and who will go on for the rest of their careers to have an impact on root causes that cause the gap in educational outcomes in this country,” Huffman explained.

I noted that TFA’s theory of change sounded top-down and that it left out the voices and perspectives of the communities who were supposed to benefit. I could sense Huffman’s frustration. “I think that misapprehends our theory of change,” he said. This wasn’t just an educational policy initiative, he noted, because TFA hoped that alumni would enter other fields such as medicine and law and make equally important contributions. “We are decidedly nonpartisan and apolitical about what our alumni are pursuing or pushing,” he said. “We have a belief that our alumni have had an experience that will help them make better decisions.”

By now I hope I have convinced you of some of the riches of Barbara Miner's piece. But there is much more. She examines the 501(c)4 that is used in what seems a strange fashion to advance the agenda of TFA. She also talks with people on the political and educational left who raise concerns about TFA, most notably Mike Rose and the late Howard Zinn (who is honored in the same issue as this article in Losing our Favorite Teacher). Zinn's words are important:
“The idea of bringing in ‘great’ people, ‘important’ people, is counter to the idea of a democratic education,” he wrote. “And all the insistence on not taking policy stands, not having an ‘ideology,’ is simply naïve. Not taking policy stands is itself an ideology, and an ideology which reinforces the status quo in education and in society.”

I am firm believer that one function of our schools should be democratic empowerment, especially of those we teach. It is one reason I have explored rethinking (now there's an appropriate word, eh?) how we design, structure, and operate our schools. One might hope that those who teach in public schools would have similar aspirations for our students, and thus might model it themselves. Which is why a recent study from Stanford is quite illuminating. On the question of civic engagement, the study
found that TFA alumni actually had lower rates of civic involvement than those who were accepted by TFA but declined, and also had lower rates than those who dropped out before their two years were completed, according to a summary in the New York Times.

Miner also follows the money - the sources of funding for TFA. I will let you explore this section of the article on your own. She also explores a study of TFA teachers at which she was pointed by a TFA exec, and which was done by Mathematica. I suppose the exec cited the Mathematica piece because it offered some criticism of the study led by Darling-Hammond which caused such hostility towards the Stanford Prof from TFA circles. Let me offer just a snip from that sidebar:
I went to the Mathematica study and, quite frankly, wondered why TFA was promoting it. I imagined how the Onion might summarize the study: “Teach for America goes up against the worst teachers in the country—they’re both awful!”

Let me offer a couple of other snips to give you a sense of the depth of this article.

In a cover story last fall, Business Week put TFA at the number seven spot in its top 10 listing of “The Best Places to Launch a Career,” just after Goldman Sachs and just before Target.

TFA, meanwhile, actively promotes the value of joining its teaching corps, especially for those thinking of graduate school or immediately transitioning to a corporate job. Its website boasts of TFA’s partnership with over 150 graduate schools offering TFA alumni benefits such as two-year deferrals, fellowships, course credits, and waived application fees. The most popular schools for TFA alumni are Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Northwestern, and the University of California-Berkeley—with Harvard the overall top choice.

Its employer partners, which actively recruit TFA alumni, are equally prestigious and include Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, KPMG, Credit Suisse, McKinsey and Company, and Google. TFA partners in its School Leadership Initiative for alumni, meanwhile, include the for-profit Edison Schools. (TFA founder Kopp has nothing but praise for Edison in her memoir. She is also open to the idea of vouchers.)

So, TFA becomes a ticket-punching stop on the way to a more "important" and lucrative career outside of teaching, with the added benefit that the alum can feel as if s/he has done a good deed and is now also an expert on education?

TFA is big business: "TFA had revenues of $159 million in fiscal year 2008 and expenses of $124.5 million." Remember, this is for a total of about 7,500 actually in classrooms. Do the math . . .

TFA is lucrative for its executives:
CEO and founder Wendy Kopp made $265,585, with an additional $17,027 in benefits and deferred compensation. She also made an additional $71,021 in compensation and benefits through the TFA-related organization Teach for All. Seven other TFA staffers are listed as making more than $200,000 in pay and benefits, with another four approaching that amount.

Let's return to Kopp's praise for Edison, Chris Whittle's failed attempt at a for profit chain of schools in the public sector, which lost contracts in multiple cities for failure to perform, whose stock was about to be delisted by NASDAQ when it was propped up when then Governor Jeb Bush of Florida used money from the pension fund of Florida teachers to buy shares and thus prop up the stock price. Kopp just happens to be married to Richard Barth, a former Edison VP (and TFA staffer) who just so happens to be president and CEO of the Kipp foundation. As Miner notes, the joint salary of this new power couple in education is over 600,000/year.

Miner also examines Wendy Kopp's memoir, of which she notes that the only time a school child is mentioned by name is briefly, about 20 pages from the end. I want to react to this.

I need permission to use the names or identifying information of my current students, or students who were minors at the time they were in my classroom. Yet if I think about the times I write about education here or elsewhere, it is not at all unusual for me to mention one or more specific students in a piece of 2,500 words or less. After all, as a teacher I believe my focus is the individual student before me: that is where I must start and that should be the standard by which my effectiveness should be measured. It bothers me that Kopp can opine as an expert on education with little reference to individual students. Perhaps that is because the focus of her organization seems to be on the teachers/future alumni more than it is on the children they should be serving. I admit it, that bothers me.

Barbara Miner is a very effective writer. And an effective writer best skewers a target using that target's own words. I believe the conclusion to Miner's piece properly frames, using Wendy Kopp's own words, what is wrong with the TFA model, which requires only a 2-year commitment to teaching.

So let me conclude using Miner's words, and in advance wish you my final salutation:


But what if one accepts TFA’s assumptions—that its purpose is purely to address educational inequity by recruiting the best and the brightest, training them briefly, and having them teach for two years in a low-income school? And that its model trumps the value of recruiting accredited teachers who view teaching as a career?

Given that the revolving door of unqualified teachers is a key factor in the poor performance of many low-income schools, what are the repercussions of those assumptions? Is TFA aggravating a problem that it claims to be solving?

It is Kopp herself who perhaps best answers that question. Speaking in a 2007 commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke College, Kopp said:

What I have come to appreciate is that things that matter take time. We live in an era when it is rare to meet people in their 20s and 30s who have stayed with something for more than a few years. And certainly, in some cases the right thing is to experiment and move on. But in many cases, the right thing is to stay with something, internalize tough lessons, and push yourself to new levels of knowledge and responsibility. Deep and widespread change comes from sticking with things.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pay Kids to Do Well in School? I Vote Yes

For lots of reasons not necessarily laid out here. If we are going to make them do work they don't want to do, why not pay them? We get paid. And if they like it and they get paid, well. . . . And see Sidorkin.
The kids had much in common. In all four cities, a majority were African American or Hispanic and from low-income families. So why did the results vary so dramatically from city to city?

One clue came out of the interviews Fryer's team conducted with students in New York City. The students were universally excited about the money, and they wanted to earn more. They just didn't seem to know how. When researchers asked them how they could raise their scores, the kids mentioned test-taking strategies like reading the questions more carefully. But they didn't talk about the substantive work that leads to learning. "No one said they were going to stay after class and talk to the teacher," Fryer says. "Not one."

We tend to assume that kids (and adults) know how to achieve success. If they don't get there, it's for lack of effort — or talent. Sometimes that's true. But a lot of the time, people are just flying blind. John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, has noticed the disconnect in his own education experiments. He explains the problem to me this way: "I could ask you to solve a third-order linear partial differential equation," he says. "A what?" I ask. "A third-order linear partial differential equation," he says. "I could offer you a million dollars to solve it. And you can't do it." (He's right. I can't.) For some kids, doing better on a geometry test is like solving a third-order linear partial differential equation, no matter the incentive. . . .

So what happens if we pay kids to do tasks they know how to do? In Dallas, paying kids to read books — something almost all of them can do — made a big difference. In fact, the experiment had as big or bigger an effect on learning as many other reforms that have been tested, like lowering class size or enrolling kids in Head Start early-education programs (both of which cost thousands of dollars more per student). And the experiment also boosted kids' grades. "If you pay a kid to read books, their grades go up higher than if you actually pay a kid for grades, like we did in Chicago," Fryer says. "Isn't that cool?"

Why Are 25 Hedge Fund Managers Worth 658,000 Teachers?

That is the question Les Leopold asks in this Huffington Post entry.

Here is his opening paragraph:
In 2009, the worst economic year for working people since the Great Depression, the top 25 hedge fund managers walked off with an average of $1 billion each. With the money those 25 people "earned," we could have hired 658,000 entry level teachers. (They make about $38,000 a year, including benefits.) Those educators could have brought along over 13 million young people, assuming a class size of 20. That's some value.

Leopold writes
The wealthy will have placed an estimated $2 trillion into hedge funds by the end of this year. (That's about $6,500 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.)

And there is more. . .

It is now tax time, so consider also this: income from hedge funds is not taxed as ordinary income, but as capital gains, 15%. As a teacher at the upper end of the pay scale,my incremental rate is 28%, or almost twice the rate of the income from surplus funds of the rich placed in hedge funds. And of course I pay 7.65% in payroll taxes, making my burden 35.65% compared to the 15% on the earnings from investments in hedge funds.

I think we face a crisis in this country. This year rather than hiring hundreds of thousands of new teachers to teach our young, the future of this nation, schools will be laying off tens of thousands of teachers, increasing class sizes, dropping electives, eliminating support services, perhaps canceling extra-curricular activities.

But in time of major financial crisis for the entire nation, the super rich continue to get rich, without necessarily contributing anything of value to the economy.

And you and I paid for it. Don't believe me? Let me quote Leopold again:
The $1 billion each those 25 hedge fund managers netted (for themselves) was impressive -- but doing it in the year 2009 was also slap in the face of struggling Americans. That's because hedge funds would have earned little or no money at all in 2009 had the government not bailed out the financial sector with trillions in loans, asset guarantees and other forms of financial assistance. It was, in effect, a generous gift from we the taxpayers. Much of that money was "earned" by betting that the government would not let the financial sector collapse. Smart bet.

I know of one manager who put tons of money into bank stocks when they were at their bottom, gambling that the government would not let them fail. The money he invested did not contribute to hiring more people at the banks. In fact, the money he invested did not go to the banks at all. It was our money, through the government, which recapitalized the banks (at the same time they still were restricting loans, and slashing lines of credit for companies and individual's credit cards).

Each hedge fund manager was, according to Leopold, worth 26,320 beginning teachers.

I make more than a beginning teacher. As a public employee, what I am paid by Prince George's County Public Schools is a matter of public record. My base pay is 83,000 and I get 7,000 for being National Board Certified. If I take that 90K and divide it into the 1 billion averaged by each of the 25 hedge fund managers, I am worth 1/11,111 of a hedge fund manager. Restated as a decimal, as a highly regarded teacher who each year is responsible for the learning of around 180 young people, I am worth 0.00009 of a hedge fund manager.

Now, I am not asking to be paid billions, or even millions. But quite frankly, I think I am actually contributing more to the future of this country than is the average hedge fund manager, unless the only value that matters is wealth, in which case, why bother to have skilled, experienced teachers like me at all, since most of students will never enter the rarified air of the very wealthy?

I can look back a few years at the fascination of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I see our glorification of wealth and of power.

Yes, we will occasionally recognize those who do good works. We smile and say how nice it is that there are people like that, then as a society we move on - will Tiger win this year's Masters? How much is Bill Gates actually worth?

Bill Gates. It is honorable that he is trying to use his wealth to make the world a better place. But why should his billions give him a more influential voice on education than the skilled professionals who have been trying to make a difference for years? Yet it does. Gates and Eli Broad have been driving the educational agenda using their wealth. Similarly, the US Department of Education is now using funds through Race to the Top to drive educational policy without those policies being any more vetted and discussed than have been the initiatives funded by Gates and Broad.

I began this diary with a question: Why are 25 Hedge Fund Managers Worth 658,000 Teachers? My answer is simple - they are not. But so long as we measure primarily by money, our values will continue to be distorted, we will devote resources that could be used to improve the lives of millions for the further enrichment of the already wealthy.

Don't worry. I'm not so motivated by money that I will quit teaching and enter the world of hedge fund management. I would rather see the light go on behind the eyes of a struggling adolescent than be able to add a string of zeroes behind my currently very limited net worth.

The average teacher does more good than does the average hedge fund manager. Too bad our society does not see things that way.


Friday, April 09, 2010

Why a School of Education?

I have recently become the founding dean of the school of education at Merrimack College. The school itself brings together already existing undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as a graduate institute that focuses on non-degree programs and professional development for K-12 teachers and administrators. It is, as such, not a true “new” school of education. Nevertheless, I had to reflect on whether it was even legitimate to take on the position of dean of a school of education in today’s educational policy climate. I am giving a short speech at the beginning of a forthcoming conference on the future of education that formally launches the school of education, and I thus want to lay out some of my thinking around why a school of education is not only relevant, but vital for preparing future educators.

(I should be clear at this point that I am speaking for myself as an individual and not on the behalf of the institution. Nevertheless, as dean, I occupy a public role and thus cannot simply take off my “dean” hat to put on my “blogger” hat. Thus whereas before I wrote in and through my expert and professional role as a social foundations scholar, this line, at least to me, is no longer clear. Let the reader, as such, beware.)

Twenty-five years ago just about every licensed teacher came through a traditional, bricks-and-mortar school of education. The alternative pathways in place were few and far between; in 1985 less than 300 individuals across the country had gone through an alternative route to gain teacher certification. Then along came Teach For America, the standards and accountability movement, the emphasis on “teacher quality” and alternative pathways, and, poof, a generation later schools of education are on the defensive, feeling outdated, maligned, and marginalized. 60,000 individuals a year go through alternative pathways towards teacher certification, states routinely create regulations and partnerships (e.g., ABCTE) that privilege “off-site” licensure programs (oftentimes seen in district-based residency programs), and the entire notion of a teaching degree within a “traditional” institution through course-driven seat-time seems antiquated. (This is not a dissertation, so check out NCEI’s data, David Angus’s brief history, or any of David Labaree’s writings on the subject.)

I of course hear AACTE’s cogent argument that 85% of all teachers still go through schools of education (they include the number of individuals going through alternative pathways run by higher education institutions), and I think Arne Duncan’s speeches about teacher preparation programs have been way too stereotyped, as they are in fact not antagonistic to the idea of schools of education (whereas the Bush administration completely was). Nevertheless, schools of education are clearly on the defensive, and I see that every day through the very positioning of how AACTE is responding and what the federal government is privileging in its funding, and, closer to home, in how Massachusetts and other states are revamping regulations and priorities within the context of the RTTT competition.

So why a school of education? Why buy in to a physical school of education within a residential liberal arts and pre-professional college?

The answer – rhetorically, pragmatically, and, yes, data-driven – is that it is the only formal place where future educators will have the opportunity to reflect, rethink, revise, and re-vision their ideas of what it means to be an educator in a complex and bureaucratic organization called a school enmeshed within a pluralistic, stratified and “global” society while beholden to deeply linear, outdated, and all too often punitive notions of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. To put it simply and quickly, schools of education offer the opportunity to change your mind about oneself as a teacher, to break out of the pattern of teaching simply as one was taught.

Teacher preparation consists of three things; two of them are standard and what is usually talked about: the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to practice. The opportunity to learn includes content knowledge (e.g., math), pedagogical content knowledge (e.g., how to teach math at the elementary level), and pedagogical knowledge (e.g., good classroom management skills such that one can actually deliver the math lesson one meant to). The opportunity to practice, in turn, is to actually try all of this out in an actual classroom. This traditionally includes pre-practicum and actual practicum opportunities (i.e., student-teaching) that can range anywhere from six weeks to an entire year. The third (which is never really talked about but what I argue is at the crux of powerful teacher preparation) is the opportunity to change.

This three-fold formulation – at least for me – greatly clarifies why traditional teacher preparation oftentimes appears so outdated. This is because the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to practice can legitimately and powerfully be done in a wide range of locations and modalities. (Which of course doesn’t mean it is done legitimately and powerfully in other locations and modalities outside of higher education institutions; but that is another argument and a completely different issue that I bracket for now.) I can become immersed in math and even in how to teach math through in-seat, hybrid, or online courses. I can teach myself calculus and I can sit with a master teacher in a professional development workshop to gain her perspective on “tricks of the trade” of ways to get student interest and enthusiasm. Similarly, the opportunity to practice can legitimately be done in a wide variety of formats. The key is that one sees multiple models of practice, attempts multiple modes of teaching, and gains substantive, ongoing, and critical formative feedback in one’s attempts as a new teacher. Institutions of higher education, in my perspective, have no monopoly on these opportunities to learn and practice.

Where higher education does have a monopoly, and one that is paramount to future teacher success, is in providing the opportunity to change. College – be it at the undergraduate or graduate level – is the only formal place I know where future teachers have the opportunity to carefully, thoughtfully, and critically examine the underlying assumptions and in-practice narratives of what teaching and learning means, what it should look like, and how do they fit into this picture. College – to put it both in truly banal yet also truly profound terms – changes us. Or at least it should, if we as academics and teacher educators do our job.

And this opportunity – the opportunity to change – is crucial. School is not a simple or obvious place. It is embedded in complex economic, sociological, political, psychological, and historical networks. This can refer to how school is organized, the demographics of who goes to school, the psychometrics of who succeeds in school and why, or the political realities of school funding (to name but a few off-the-cuff issues). None of us has thought all of these things through. And they matter. Perhaps not to the immediate classroom lesson. But to why I am teaching that lesson in the first place, in the way I am teaching it, with what kind of scaffolding, and with what kind of assessment I give afterwards.

I would claim that none us can be a good teacher without – at some conscious or subconscious level – having delved deeply into these dynamics, even if it is at the level (memorialized by Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise) of realizing that the classroom is a negotiated inter-dynamic process. One has to consciously realize this before one can change it (if one so wants). (Which is why Sizer used this example as his set-up for the profound argument of what came to be known as the Coalition of Essential Schools model.)

And, and here’s the kicker, one can’t do that on one’s own. I can’t on my own push my mind beyond the boundaries of what I already know. To use Wittgenstein’s metaphor, the limits of our language become the limits of our world. I need a space – most likely a physical space with a real professor who has delved deeply into these issues for most of his/her academic career focus – in which to be pushed and prodded to think beyond what I have traditionally thought. To be shown connections I would have never imagined. To be dragged down the logical path I would have never wanted to explore. To be reminded that I don’t know how an argument plays out. To come to grips with the complexity that I will all too often gloss over. To think.

In the end, I may walk out of that college classroom with the same beliefs and propensity for actions I had when I first walked in the door. Which is in fact just fine. Because at least now I can better articulate and understand why I do what I do. And that – the self-reflective individual able to contextualize one’s beliefs and actions within a conceptual framework as impinged upon by the realities around us – is at the heart of powerful teaching. It gives me the chance to think about what it means to teach in the type of school I am hired by and with the type of kids sitting in front of me; and it gives me the chance to wonder, deeply and profoundly, whether in fact I want to teach as I was taught. And if I don’t, then how the heck do I want to teach? And why?

Thus what a school of education ultimately offers – beyond the opportunity to learn and the opportunity to practice – is the opportunity to come to grips with what it means to be a teacher today. This experience will never change for new teachers and why we need a school of education.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"Dr. Death vs. The Vampire"

Just so people know that us academics are not completely pedantic, my novelette, "Dr Death vs. the Vampire" has just been published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

My wife got very nervous when I had a bunch of different books on how to poison people laying around the house.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Ravitch:  A new agenda for school reform

this was written for and originally posted at Daily Kos. The links to my previous posts are to the Daily Kos versions of those pieces

I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice.
So begin Diane Ravitch in an op ed in today's Washington Post titled A new agenda for school reform. And yes, she hotlinks in that sentence to an earlier Post piece about her new book, a book about which I wrote in this diary.

In today's piece Ravitch criticizes both accountability, telling us NCLB did not produce large gains in reading and math and that choice has been disappointing and provides data to support that assertion.

But Ravitch does more than criticize. After explaining both of the assertions, she tells us
It is time to change course
and that is the heart of her piece.

In case anyone reading this does not know, let me reiterate the following before getting to the heart of the Ravitch piece

1. I am, and have been since 1995, a public school teacher

2. I am on record as having expressed strong opinion of NCLB

3. I have been highly critical of much of what we do in public education

4. I have also been highly critical of the Obama administration's proposals for education, for example in this piece critical of the newly announced Blueprint

5. I have known Ravitch professionally for about a decade, consider her a friend, even though she and I disagree on some key points

Now let's get to the heart of what Ravitch suggests.

She begins by acknowledging that everyone - or should I say everyone sensible - agrees that education must be far broader than the skills tested under NCLB (which are still used in the Blueprint to ascertain the 5% or 5,000 schools still under the gun for reconstitution or worse. She supports " learning history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature and foreign language. Schools should be expected to teach these subjects even if students are not tested on them." As one who teaches in the latter group of subjects and who majored in another, I agree. I also note, as Ravitch and others (including me) have done elsewhere, that it is often the "softer" subjects such as music, art, photography, phys ed, and the like that are the reasons that some students persist in school, thus giving us the opportunity to work on their basic numeracy and literacy and to expand their horizons.

And she focuses on good teachers. Sh would accept either a major in the subject they teach, or strong background in two subjects, and would require all teachers to pass a test on subject area content, as well as on basic literacy and numeracy. I might quibble some - I would be perhaps a bit more willing to have someone who has demonstrated expertise in one subject to teach that subject. Thus I would not care if a professional artist or photographer had majored in that subject provided s/he can demonstrate the expertise in that subject. Also, I do think that before stepping in the classroom those who teach need some background in things like basic pegagogy, classroom management and organization, human development, and the legal requirements of things like special education. I would accept an intensive 6-10 week training period provided there were ongoing support and supervision during the first 1-2 years of teaching.

Ravitch also focuses on principals. Here, before I quote the entire paragraph on this subject, I need to disclose that I explored an alternative program for becoming a principal, New Leaders for New Schools. I had one final round of interviews in the selection process for DC schools, but withdrew for several reasons, of greatest importance that I realized that I was not sure I wanted to leave the classroom. Thus I am not opposed per se to the idea of alternative routes to educational leadership.

Ravitch offers what I consider valid concerns:
We need principals who are master teachers, not inexperienced teachers who took a course called "How to Be a Leader." The principal is expected to evaluate teachers, to decide who deserves tenure and to help those who are struggling and trying to improve. If the principal is not a master teacher, he or she will not be able to perform the most crucial functions of the job.

As to district level leadership, Ravitch offers a similar set of concerns about Superintendents. She wants them to be experienced educators " because their decisions about personnel, curriculum and instruction affect the entire school system." And of course, they are responsible for picking principals and advising school boards on curricular matters.

The selection of district level leaders is perhaps the most problematic area of American schools. There have been a few examples of those not themselves professional educators who have been successful. There are very much the exception, and certainly should not be used as models. Thus just because a former General, John Stanford, was fairly successful in Seattle did not justify DC hiring former General Julius Becton, who turned out to be a disaster. We are seeing non-educators as the result of two sets of pressures. One is that of mayoral control of schools. Thus we have had Alan Bersin in San Diego (and Ravitch thoroughly explores his tenure in her book) and Joel Klein in New York (similarly covered in the book, and even more in her ongoing writing for newspapers and other print publications). OF course, the critical example is Arne Duncan first in his role in Chicago, and now as US Secretary of Education.

The other is one result of the effort by Eli Broad to use his wealth to reshape American education in his vision. Ravitch explores some of this in a chapter in her book on the Billionaire Boys Club. When it comes to superintendents, Broad has established an Academy which says right on the home page: WANTED: THE NATION'S MOST TALENTED EXECUTIVES TO RUN THE BUSINESS OF URBAN EDUCATION. Except education, especially urban education, is very different than a business. There are aspects of a large school district in which business expertise is appropriate, and having an assistant superintendent with appropriate experience and expertise to address those domains is not something to which I would object. Like Ravitch, I am concerned with district leaders who do not fully understand the nature of education.

Ravitch cannot fully explore the topics she attempts to address in her op ed. She wants better assessments, more than picking one multiple choice answer out of four, the most common form of state assessments. She is in general opposed to labeling schools as failing, noting that many of such schools have a large proportion of the kinds of students who start as low-performing: they are English language learners, they are students
who live in poverty, who miss school frequently because they must baby-sit while their parents look for work, or who have disabilities that interfere with their learning. These are not excuses for their low scores but facts about their lives.

She offers suggestions for how to address their needs, including bringing in inspection teams to exam WHY such schools are not meeting the needs of the students and then suggesting target methods of addressing those needs. Here I note that simply closing the school down and/or firing all the staff neither identifies the causes nor fixes the problems. Ravitch has a standing challenge she often makes when she speaks - please point at a single school or district that has improved performance by an approach of firing all the staff and/or closing a school down. And lest you be inclined to point at examples in Arne Duncan's Chicago, I should warn you that the schools about which Duncan and his supporters were prone to brag did not contain the same student body as had been in the school before it was reconstituted, and thus you do not have an honest comparison or any way of controlling the educational background, readiness and preparation of the new student body.

For Ravitch, there is another reason we should rarely close down schools:
In many poor communities, schools are the most stable institution. Closing them destroys the fabric of the community.
. To this I would add that closing and consolidating often puts children in urban areas at risk, as they have to cross territory of hostile gangs to get to the schools to which they have newly been assigned. That in itself should remind us all that many of the factors that impact school performance are outside the control of school officials. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone recognizes this. Let me quote from the ABOUT page:
In the early 1990s, HCZ ran a pilot project that brought a range of support services to a single block. The idea was to address all the problems that poor families were facing: from crumbling apartments to failing schools, from violent crime to chronic health problems.
This approach has been expanded:
In 1997, the agency began a network of programs for a 24-block area: the Harlem Children's Zone Project. In 2007, the Zone Project grew to almost 100 blocks. Today the Children's Zone® serves more than 8,000 children and 6,000 adults. Overall, the organization serves more than 10,000 children and more than 7,400 adults. The FY 2010 budget for the agency overall is over $75 million.
Note especially the inclusion of adults in addressing the overall needs of the schoolchildren.

I know my friend Diane will not mind that I have explored some of her points in greater depth than the space the Post granted her would allow, but remember, the exploration is mine, and while Ravitch would agree with much of what I offer, she might will disagree on some points.

Where we absolutely agree is the need to abandon the punitive mindset that underlies NCLB, and which, unfortunately, is perpetuated in the Blueprint and in the demands imposed if one is to qualify for funds under Race to the Top. We both would agree that this is requires a long term effort, that there are no magic bullets nor ready-made solutions that can be taken off the shelf and imposed wholesale on schools and districts.

Her last brief paragraph says it all:
We wasted eight years with the "measure and punish" strategy of NCLB. Let's not waste the next eight years.

Indeed, let's not waste another day in the failed approaches of the last eight years. It is unfair to too many of our children.