1) If you read anything I send out this year, let this be it. One of my friends responded to the survey I sent around a couple of weeks ago by emailing me this story of his experience as a TFA teacher in the South Bronx a decade ago (though he’s no longer there, he is still (thankfully) very much involved with educating disadvantaged kids). It is one of the most powerful, heart-breaking, enraging things I have ever read — and perfectly captures what this education reform struggle is all about. Stories like this about what REALLY goes on in our failing public schools need to be told and publicized, so please share yours with me:
Thanks so much for putting this survey together. It brought back some memories well beyond the few questions about what it was like to teach in the South Bronx with TFA back in the late nineties. I want to emphasize here that I no longer teach in the Bronx, so I have little idea how things have changed and have seen the current Administration take a number of important steps that may be making a great impact. I’m not close enough to the ground to know, but my guess is that there are still plenty of schools in the Bronx and in every other low-income community in the country that reflect some of the miserable stuff I saw in my school. You should really start collecting a book of stories like these. Among all the people I know who’ve done TFA, these stories are just a few among many sad ones.
As I filled out the survey, I was first reminded of the art teacher in our school. She was truly a caricature of bad teaching. Like something out of the movies. She spent almost every minute of every day screaming at the top of her lungs in the faces of 5-8 year olds who had done horrible things like coloring outside the lines. The ART teacher! Screaming so loud you could hear her 2-3 floors away in a decades old, solid brick building. When she heard I was looking for an apt, she sent me to an apt broker friend of hers. I told the friend I wanted to live in Washington Heights. “Your mother would be very upset with me if I let you go live with THOSE PEOPLE. We fought with bricks and bats and bottles to keep them out of our neighborhoods. Do you see what they have done to this place?” This same attitude could be heard in the art teacher’s screams, the administration’s ambivalence towards the kids we were supposed to be educating and the sometimes overt racism of the people in charge. The assistant principal (who could not, as far as I could tell, do 4th grade math, but offered me stop-in math professional development for a few minutes every few months with gems like “these numbers you see here to the left of the zero are negative numbers. Like when it is very cold outside.”) once told me “I call them God’s stupidest people” referring to a Puerto Rican woman who was blocking our way as we drove to another school. She also once told me I needed to put together a bulletin board in the hallway about Veteran’s Day. I told her we were in the middle of assembling an Encyclopedia on great Dominican, Puerto Rican and Black leaders (all of my students were Dominican, Black or Puerto Rican). “Mr. ____, we had Cin-co de May-o, and Black History Month, and all that other stuff. It is time for the AMERICAN Americans.”
Not everyone in the school was a racist. There were many hard working teachers of all ethnicities who did not reflect this attitude at all. But the fact that the leadership of the school and a number of the most senior teachers was either utterly disdainful of the students they taught, or has completely given up on the educability of the kids, had a terrible effect on overall staff motivation. And many of the well-meaning teachers were extremely poorly prepared to make a dent in the needs of the students even if they had been well led. The Principal told more than one teacher there that “as long as they are quiet and in their seats, I don’t care what else you do.” This was on the day this person was HIRED. This was their first and probably last instruction. He never gave me a single instruction. Ever. And I was a new teacher with nothing but TFA’s Summer Institute under my belt. The Principal proceeded to get a law degree while sitting in his office ignoring the school. When we went to the Assistant Superintendent to report that the school was systematically cheating on the 3rd grade test (i.e., the third grade team met with the principal and APs, planned the cheating carefully, locked their doors and covered their windows and gave answers) she told the principal to watch his back. A few months later, inspectors came from the state. After observing our mostly horrible classes for a full day, they told us how wonderful we were doing and that they had just come down to see what they could replicate in other schools to produce scores like ours. And the list goes on and on.
Like when I asked the principal to bring in one of the district’s special education specialists to assess two of my lowest readers, both of whom had fewer than 25 sight-words (words they could recognize on paper) in the 3rd grade, he did. She proceeded to hand one of the students a list of words that the child couldn’t read and tell her to write them over again. Then she went to gossip with the Principal. After explaining to him in gory detail, IN FRONT OF THE STUDENT, that she had just been “dealing with a case where a father had jumped off a roof nearby and committed double-suicide with his 8 year old daughter in his arms”, she collected the sheet with no words on it, patted the child on the head and left. No IEP was filed nor was I allowed to pursue further action through official channels (I lobbied the mother extensively on my own). I never asked for her to come back to assess the other student.
Our Union Rep was said to have tried to push another teacher down a flight of stairs. The same Union Rep, while I was tutoring a child, cursed out a fellow teacher in the room next door at the top of her lungs so the child I was tutoring could hear every word. When I went to address her about it, the other teacher had to restrain the Rep as she threatened to physically attack me. And when the cheating allegations were finally take up by city investigators, the same Union Rep was sent to a cushy desk job in the district offices. I hear that most of the people I’m referencing here are long gone now, and some of them actually got pushed out of the system, but how rare can this story really be given the pitiful results we see from so many of our nation’s poorest schools and how far the system goes to protect horrible teachers and administrators like the ones I worked with?
At the same time as all of this was happening, by the way, the few good teachers in the building often became beaten down and disillusioned. One of the best in my building was consistenly punished for trying to make her corner of the school a better place for learning. They put her in a basement corner with no ventilation, no windows and nothing but a 6-foot-high cubicle-style partition separating her from the other 5 classrooms in the basement. After fighting the good fight she went to teach in the suburbs. When I got a financial firm to donate 20 computers, the principal said he didn’t have the resources to get them setup for use and refused to allow them into the school. When I had my students stage a writing campaign to get the vacant lot behind the building turned into a playground, the principal wanted me silenced.
The saddest thing about the whole damn mess was that our K-3 kids still REALLY WANTED TO LEARN. Every day they came eager for knowledge. And every day this cabal of cynicism, racism and laziness did everything within their powers to drain it out of them. It was unreal. Don’t get me wrong. There were some good teachers there. And some well meaning, but poor teachers. But in many classrooms, the main lesson learned was that school became something to dread, many adults thought you were capable of very little, and some adults couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger.
I hope if any of the good, hard-working teachers who fought so hard to rid the school of this mess read this, they’ll know I’m not lumping them in with the rest. But the problem was, when I addressed the worst practices in the school at a staff meeting, the bad teachers laughed and the good teachers took it the hardest and thought I was criticizing them.
Thanks again for the survey. Let’s make these stories known.
2) Some INCREDIBLE news from NY State: education reform warrior David Steiner was elected NY State Education Commissioner!!!
The New York State Board of Regents voted today to elect Dr. David Milton Steiner as New York State Education Commissioner and President of the University of the State of New York. The Regents took this action at their July meeting held today in Buffalo.
Currently the Dean of the Hunter College School of Education at the City University of New York, Dr. Steiner is best known for his leadership of the national effort to transform teacher preparation and improve teacher quality….
…At Hunter, Dr. Steiner led a national partnership with the KIPP Academies, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and Teach for America to create a dedicated teacher preparation program for charter and non-charter school teachers geared to the unique challenges of urban schools. Known as Teacher U at Hunter, the partnership has gained national attention for rethinking what rigorous teacher preparation looks like. This year Teacher U at Hunter will begin a new partnership with the New York City Department of Education to prepare 90 New York City Teaching Fellows in Special Education.
Dr. Steiner, in conjunction with the New York City Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools, has just launched a Teacher Residency Program aimed at preparing public secondary school teachers in the sciences and English Language Arts.
3) I’ve blogged about Dean Steiner in the past:
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Comments on Ed School Quality
In my email last night, I didn’t say every school of education is pathetic. One very notable exception is the Hunter College School of Education under the leadership of Dean David Steiner. Dean Steiner has been the skunk at the ed school garden party ever since he published a study a few years ago documenting (according to one article, “the depth to which ed schools impart a leftist leaning “edu-dogma,” where discourse is dangerously limited, where there is a lack of important historical and contemporary perspectives, and where pedagogical approaches are championed for their ideology rather than their effectiveness.”) To read his article in Education Next about his study, see: http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/3252116.html
Dean Steiner is on my email list and wrote the following in response (shared here with his permission):
As you may know, I have been an outspoken critic of ed. schools. My research of “top” ed. schools showed programs stuffed with required courses that used little or no research-based material, treated student teaching as if it were a side-show rather than the central element of a serious teacher preparation program, and used required reading materials from only one side (the left) of the political spectrum.
But before throwing contempt on ed. schools, note that Art Levine in his full report cites a number that in his view are doing a serious job. At the school of education at Hunter College, I am proud that three of the best charter school networks — KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Achievement First — are partnering with us to co-design and co- teach a certification and masters program. The program, currently in its pilot year, integrates student-teachers’ work in their schools with their study of that work in our classrooms, and has its goal as nothing less than demonstrated, measurable impact on student learning. As a whole, we at Hunter are shifting what we do as a school of ed. from inputs to outputs. One example: within three years every one of our students will be videotaped in their student teaching and have those videos rigorously analyzed. At the same time we are indexing those videos so that our entire faculty can use them as case studies. We will use weaknesses we see in the performance of our student-teachers in these videos to back-engineer our programs, focusing on what matters.
Soon we expect that all teacher education programs in New York City will be told where their graduates rank in terms of the value-added they produce in the city’s classrooms. The data — produced in a major study by Pam Grossman, Jim Wyckoff and their team — currently focuses on childhood education, where the numbers are great enough to generate robust statistics. No matter where Hunter comes out (and the first full data will be at least four years old), I welcome this study as a critical step toward getting serious about holding ed. schools accountable for the quality of their teacher preparation. I cannot wait until our current programs, for which I have responsibility, are measured, and the results made available to me so that I know where improvements to our programs are most immediately required. If any school of ed. consistently graduates teachers who fail to perform effectively in the classroom, then indeed that school of education should be closed down.
If outstanding teacher preparation were not needed, top charter schools would not pour vast resources of time and effort into professional development. I think your readers should know that some of us are indeed working to transform schools of education into true partners in this effort. We are moving deliberately towards becoming results-oriented, accountable institutions dedicated to graduating only effective teachers.
For more on ed school idiocy, see this City Journal article: http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_3_ed_school.html and this book, Ed School Follies (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0595153240/tilsoncapitalpar
4) A story in today’s NYT about union efforts at charter schools around the country:
Here in Chicago, where students at several Chicago International campuses have scores among the city’s highest for nonselective schools, teachers began organizing last fall after an administrator increased workloads to six classes a day from five, said Emily Mueller, a Spanish teacher at Northtown Academy.
“We were really proud of the scores, and still are,” Ms. Mueller said. “But the workload, teaching 160 kids a day, it wasn’t sustainable. You can’t put out the kind of energy we were putting out for our kids year after year.”
Some teachers disagreed. Theresa Furr, a second-grade teacher at the Wrightwood campus, said she opposed unionization.
“Every meeting I went to,” Ms. Furr said, “it was always ‘What can we get?’ and never ‘How is this going to make our students’ education better?’ ”
For Joyce Pae, an English teacher at Ralph Ellison, the decision was agonizing. Her concerns over what she saw as chaotic turnover and inconsistency in allocating merit pay led her to join the drive. But after school leaders began paying more attention to teachers’ views, she said, she voted against unionization in June.
Union teachers won the vote, 73-49.
“If nothing else,” Ms. Pae said, “this experience has really helped teachers feel empowered.”
5) A spot-on editorial in the Baltimore Sun:
Baltimore’s KIPP Ujima Village Academy is an unqualified success. Despite serving a poor, inner-city population, the charter school routinely posts some of the highest standardized test scores, not just in the city but in the state.
…But a dispute with the Baltimore Teachers Union threatens to derail that. KIPP teachers have been paid 18 percent more than their peers at other schools because of the extra hours they work. But the union says they’re being shortchanged. KIPP teachers work nine hours and 15 minutes a day rather than the standard seven hours and five minutes, and the union insists that they should be paid 33 percent more than other teachers. (That doesn’t even count compensation for Saturdays or the three weeks of summer classes.) Union officials had let the matter slide for the first seven years of KIPP’s existence, but they say they got some complaints from teachers and are now simply trying to enforce the contract.
What that means for KIPP is this: The school day is being shortened to 8 hours, and Saturday classes have been eliminated. Art and music teachers have been fired, along with some administrative staff. Summer school is still in the budget, but it might not be next year.
Will that jeopardize the school’s high performance? It’s hard to know, but KIPP has good reason to believe that the extra time its students spend at school has been crucial to their success. KIPP Baltimore Executive Director Jason Botel says his students typically come to middle school two to three grade levels behind in reading and math, and there’s no shortcut to making up that difference. Furthermore, many of the students come from tough neighborhoods, and the more time they spend in school, the less time they’re subjected to the pressure of the streets.
“We know we have a lot of catching up to do. If we want them to perform on the level with their peers from wealthier communities, we need more time to do it,” Mr. Botel says. “We’re going to work very hard to maintain the level of performance we’ve been able to lead students to in the past, but we’re very concerned about it.”
6) Some good news from the public schools in Baltimore, no thanks to the union there:
Isn’t it ironic? When Andres Alonso moved to Baltimore City two years ago to turn around a failing public school system, the Baltimore Teachers Union fought him over practically everything except which color tie he should wear.
Forget about radical items like merit pay. Marietta English, BTU president, called for his resignation because the union didn’t want teachers to give up some individual planning time for group planning. Neither was the union enthused by his decision to move 300 people from school headquarters to schools or out of the system — or to give more power to principals.
But earlier this week English and a host of other “dignitaries” and a packed house of principals, teachers and other onlookers celebrated what was previously unthinkable two years ago: Students learning in Baltimore City schools.
7) Mike Antonucci, with a report from the NEA convention, with his usual trenchant comments:
Whether it was Chanin’s retirement, Van Roekel’s new emphasis, or a spontaneous paradigm shift, this year NEA finally embraced the labor union label it has downplayed for 25 years…
…He finished by reminding the delegates that NEA’s power derived not from its noble mission or righteousness of its cause, but because 3.2 million members send hundreds of millions of dollars in dues money to NEA to fight their battles.
Whatever you think of Chanin, he is to be applauded for his clarity in an age where obfuscation is the norm in politics. We shall not see his like again.
At 50, Paula Lopez Crespin doesn’t fit the Teach for America demographic of high-achieving college senior. The program rarely draws adults eligible for AARP membership. In fact, just 2 percent of recruits are over 30.
But what Ms. Crespin lacks in youth, she makes up for in optimism, idealism and what those in Teach for America call “relentless pursuit of results.” Ms. Crespin beat out tens of thousands of applicants to get where she is: fresh off her first year teaching math and science at Cole Arts and Science Academy in a gang-riddled section of Denver.
Many friends thought she was crazy to give up a career in banking for a $32,000 pay cut teaching in an urban elementary school. But the real insanity, Ms. Crespin insists, would have been remaining in a job she “just couldn’t stomach anymore,” and surrendering a dream of doing “something meaningful with my life.”
These days, crazy never looked so normal. Teaching has always been a top choice for a second career. Of the 60,000 new teachers hired last year, more than half came from another line of work, according to the National Center for Education Information. Most bypassed traditional teacher education (for career changers, a two-year master’s degree) for fast-track programs like Teach for America. But unemployment, actual or feared, is now causing professionals who dismissed teaching early on to think better of its security, flexibility (summers off, the chance to be home with children) and pension. Four of Ms. Crespin’s colleagues at Cole are career changers, ages 46 to 54, including a former information technology executive and a psychologist.
Teach for America, the teacher-training program that has evolved into a Peace Corps alternative for a generation bred on public service, is highly competitive and becoming more so: this year, a record 35,178 applied — a 42 percent increase over 2008 — to fill 4,100 slots. Eleven percent of all new Ivy League graduates applied.
Teach for America is a young person’s game. But that perception may be shifting.
WHAT TO KNOW
Career changers hoping for admission to a competitive alternative teacher-training program should worry less about academic and job accomplishments and more about the personal traits that helped them succeed. Problem-solving skills, emotional intelligence, a belief in the power to create change: these are a few of the elements that generate success in underprivileged classrooms.
Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, which helps career changers get teaching positions across the country and runs the New York City Teaching Fellows program, says he is looking for candidates who are “in it for the right reasons” and not, say, waiting for the current economic wave to pass.
He suggests career changers visit a classroom, observe good teaching and ask, “Is this something I really see myself doing?”