Teach for America Left Me

Before I graduated from college I became committed to the idea that I would never write a blog post about an organization after I left it. If it was my choice, I didn’t need to make it worse by writing about it. If it wasn’t my choice, I wouldn’t want to throw the organization under the bus. But at the time I oriented myself this way, I believed this value was at the very bottom of the list of values I might have to exercise in my lifetime.

Then I was in a car crash.

A couple of months ago, I thought my life would go back to normal after I was healed. I knew, for medical reasons, I needed to stay in Ohio so I put in a request for a transfer to Teach for America’s southwest Ohio region.

The Detroit region put my transfer through, but I still haven’t heard from the southwest Ohio region.

I have been passionate about Teach for America since my junior year of college. I have defended it and supported it a countless number of times. What this experience has taught me is that I think I was at first passionate about TFA because I have always and will always be passionate about education. So since TFA has put a roadblock in my way, I have to go around it.

I am going to the University of Dayton to get my license and masters in secondary integrated language arts.

I wasn’t going to publish this blog post. I thought it was going to sit on my computer until the end of time, but yesterday TFA reached out to me about helping them with recruiting. The person who sent the email told me she just emailed everyone on TFA’s corps member list. I haven’t heard from TFA in three months and have no idea what I am “officially” to TFA.

All of that being said, I want it to be known that I am not leaving TFA; TFA is leaving me.

Why Edu-Blogging Is Hard As a First-Year Teacher

Last year Gary Rubinstein wrote a post about how TFA bloggers seem to disappear after the summer or after the first few months of school. At the time, I said I would be that blogger–the one who told the story of what it’s like to be a TFA corps member. But now I understand why I can’t.

Teaching is not like studying abroad. It’s not some cute little thing that I’m doing that I need to share with all of my friends and family with cute little stories. My students are not supporting characters in my story. I am one in theirs.

Teaching is not like having a summer internship where you blog about what having a job is like so that all of your college friends know. No, teaching is an actual profession–one I have an immense amount of respect for, and it seems detrimental to blog about things that I will certainly get wrong, certainly misrepresent.

I am a critical person who loves to work in nuance. But I’ve found that people often think that being supportive and being critical are opposite actions. They are not. Sometimes I support people by being critical. I know very few people who are publicly critical of the people they work for. None of us work for perfect employers. But, part of being a professional, I think, is being critical privately when you can. (There are notable exceptions to this, of course. I’m not advocating against public demonstrations like striking and rallies, but I think you must attempt solving things with meetings before strikes and rallies.) I’ve made my bed with TFA. And now I must lay in it. And help to remake it if it’s not what I think it could be.

I think there is a magnificent pressure from the ed reform critic community placed on TFA corps members, many of whom are liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading young people, to blog critically about TFA so as to keep their liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading titles. I know I’ve felt this pressure. But as far as I know, there are no pressures on investment bankers to blog about their moral considerations in their jobs; there are no pressures for lawyers to blog about how their work has a much broader impact on society; there are no pressures for doctors to blog about how, if given adequate funding, they could save more lives (or, save one specific life).

I am learning how to be a professional now. I’m no longer some kid with a blog. There’s a steep learning curve here that I’m trying to understand. All of the stuff I’ve spent the past two years reading and learning about is now real. It’s like a corn maze. From up above, it all makes sense. From down below, it’s hard to know where you are going. And that’s not even a cry for help. I’ve already found some amazing mentors both in TFA and at my school. But it’s just to say that the professional world is not a term paper. There aren’t easy heroes and villains, or easy successes and failures, in my actual life.

One day, when I know more, when I have actual things to say again, I will take up my platform again, becoming a professional with a blog (like Gary Rubinstein himself is!). But until then, I’ll stick to teacher resource sharing sites and writing about things unrelated to my time in the classroom. Because what I need now is not ed reform critics to critique all of my lesson plans but classroom teachers who I know and trust who can help me develop my style as a professional educator.

Reflections on Yelling Past Each Other

I.

In The Signal and The Noise, Nate Silver writes about the current state of political punditry:

The McLaughlin Group, of course, is more or less explicitly intended as slapstick entertainment for political junkies. It is a holdover from the shouting match era of programs, such as CNN’s Crossfire, that featured liberals and conservatives endlessly bickering with one another. Our current echo chamber era isn’t much different from the shouting match era, except that the liberals and conservatives are confined to their own channels, separated in your cable lineup by a demilitarized zone demarcated by the Food Network or the Golf Channel. This arrangement seems to produce higher ratings if not necessarily more reliable analysis.

Later, he cites a review of a bunch of political scientists by Philip Tetlock concerning how accurate these political scientists were in their predictions:

The experts in his survey–regardless of their occupation, experience, or subfield–had done barely any better than random chance, and they had done worse than even rudimentary statistical methods at predicting future political events.

II.

Yesterday, there were people with the Larouche PAC standing on the corner of the main street of my hometown collecting signatures that they said would help impeach Obama. The first time I drove past them, I was in a rush to get somewhere. When my family asked my opinion on the impeachers, I rolled my eyes and said, “Only in Springboro.” The second time I drove past them, I stopped to talk to them. I figured if they were going to be a butt to my jokes, the least I could do was listen to a five-minute pitch.

Turns out, the Larouche people and I have way more similarities in political philosophy than I would have thought. They, too, were angered with the American involvement in the Middle East. They, too, were worried about the NSA and the government treating American citizens as terrorists even before a terrorist act has been committed. In the end, we still disagreed. I don’t really think impeachment is the answer. But it’s now a little harder for me to pigeon-hole the Larouche people as wackos.

III.

In Chapter Two of Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough describes how the American public conception of poverty has fluctuated between two poles for the past century. In times of boom, the general consensus is that the there is something wrong with the poor–that they have been tested and come up lacking. In times of bust, the general consensus is that there is something wrong with the government and the system. The poor are only victims. Poverty could happen to anyone.

In short, these rotating ideas about poverty have a lot to do with historical moment and (perhaps) very little to do with the objective truth of the matter. And these ideas have affected the way we think about education–what its role should be. If the poor are somehow poor because of something they’ve done, our education system (this line of thinking goes) is working; it’s just that some people aren’t using that opportunity appropriately. If the poor are poor because of systems, the education system is probably one of the systems contributing to their poverty.

IV.

If you’ve had your ear to the ground in the field of education for a while, you know that it often seems like people are talking past one another. Nate Silver’s description of the echo chamber era extends to education. Very few people are listening to all of the thought leaders in education. (Say what you want, but both Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch are both thought leaders.) When the two sides of the debate do talk to one another, they usually do so to call into question the other’s authenticity or reputation (or call each other names). Then the opposing side gets to act like a righteous saint for a hot second; the offending side apologizes; and then the opposite happens within a couple of days.

Both sides exhibit the characteristics Nate Silver accuses pundits of having: a commitment to upholding their viewpoints. New information is simply used as fodder to attack the other side. Even when these arguments are packaged to seem nice and sweet, they often reveal a certain closed-mindedness.

V.

A couple weeks ago, a friend who is very critical of TFA asked to speak with me about TFA. He had some questions, he said. Because I’m a horrible person, I didn’t make good on my promise to talk to him until a couple days ago. But the conversation was very productive. He was asking some important questions:

  1. How can we elevate the entire teaching profession so that any teaching job is seen like the accomplishment of being accepted into TFA?
  2. How can we raise the consciousness of all new teachers so that all teachers feel like their job is a way to promote equality?
  3. How can we provide better support for all teachers so that they have the kinds of resources that will make them successful?
  4. How can we recruit the best of the best into the field of education even without using a problematic organization like TFA?

Perhaps, then, this is the promise of getting outside of our echo chamber. We can start asking and answering questions that matter.

On Joining

My mother and father are both incredibly entrepreneurial people. My father runs his own business. My mother, upon seeing a problem, which she can easily solve herself, just solves it. All through my middle and high school career she volunteered at the school. I remember her constantly taking on more responsibility, streamlining procedures and records to make teachers’ lives easier. I suspect this entrepreneurial spirit is what has led my parents for years to decry the ineffectiveness of meetings.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have railed against meetings. How they take too long. How nothing is accomplished. How the people who need to talk never do. And so it’s a little bit crazy to me that all my life, I have been a chronic joiner.

I join just about anything that has a meeting. In fact, the more meetings an organization has, the more likely I am to be a part of it. I love planning. I love speculating. I love dreaming up recruitment ideas. I love making lists of people to call. I love arguing about ideological points. I love the conflict.

I’ve been reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography, Living for Change, and one of the things that keeps sticking out to me is her perspective on how organizations should be run. She stresses a “dialectical” approach to organization governance. She writes:

we must be wary of becoming stuck in ideas that have come out of past experiences and have lost their usefulness in the struggle to create the future. So over the years I have always kept my ears close to the ground, testing ideas in practice and listening closely to the grass roots for new questions that require new paradigms.

This is a beautiful way of talking about progress. One of my favorite English professors used to tell me that all life was conflict–one conflict after another. When you run out of conflicts, she’d say, you die. In Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century, Grace and her husband James write: “They [the people] must have come to the realization that there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land, and that humankind will always be engaged in struggle, because struggle is in fact the highest expression of human creativity.” To struggle well is the ultimate aim.

I join things because I like the struggle. When I started Students for Education Reform at Ohio University, the first people to sign on with me were people with whom, at the time, I had massive disagreements. At first, this was very hard, especially as we built a language in order to engage in those disagreements in a respectful, affirming way. But over time, we did. I never saw SFER at OU as something with an agenda. My vision for it was always that it be a place where people could safely and honestly discuss issues in education.

We didn’t pull punches. One week I invited the Students for Liberty (the liberatarian) organization to a meeting. While I sometimes talked about the benefits of the charter school movement in our meetings, I spent that night defending the importance of a traditional public education system. This friction was important as I continued to think about and refine my opinions on education.

I constantly sought out conversations with critics of Students for Education Reform. This, too, was incredibly difficult. There were many times when I simply vented my own rhetoric to friends who knew well enough to just let me finish. But over time, I was affected by the friends I developed in the critic community.

The fruit of all of this was developing a handful of wonderful critical thinkers at Ohio University who are able to think critically about arguments from both sides of the education debate.

Still, I often find myself on the receiving end of negative commentary about Students for Education Reform. But I know I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without it. For that reason, I refuse to “un”join.

I now find myself in a similar space with Teach for America. There are many people who assume they know me because of my identification with TFA. There are people who giggle sardonically to themselves when I do something too earnestly, too naively, too optimistically, or too idealistically.

But my favorite parts of TFA are the spaces where we are allowed to be dialectical. These spaces are few, but I love being able to challenge things and to ask a lot of questions. Because I know that there is not some future point where I will be a pedagogically perfect teacher and where I will have all of the “correct” opinions about education. Instead, I need to learn how to communicate with people who actively disagree with me in a way that allows me to learn from them. I would love TFA to create more spaces like that.

My frustrations with both SFER and TFA are of the same nature–that the struggle is not prioritized. We talk often about the lack of the silver bullet in education (even Waiting for Superman talks about it!), which is recognition of the first half of the Boggses quote from above. Not enough attention is give to the second point.

As we struggle, as we treat each other more as humans, we will begin to create processes, educations, and spaces that humanize people. That, in turn, will begin to solve many of the problems we are trying so desperately to solve by stepping all over each other now.

Some Considerations About Merit Pay

The Board and the Association shall each appoint five (5) members to a compensation committee. The purpose and intent of this compensation committee shall be to develop and implement a teacher compensation structure based on professional teacher effectiveness. The Board and the Association further agree that teacher compensation levels shall not increase until such time that the Board and the Association, through the work of this committee, develop, ratify and implement a professional teaching compensation structure based on teacher performance and fiscal sustainability. – from the Springboro School Board’s contract negotiation

The Springboro Board of Education and the Springboro Education Association are currently in contract negotiations for 2013-2014. The Board, in order to encourage transparency*, posted the first draft of these negotiations online. Both sides have suggested meaningful changes: the Board wants to chop the contract down to a mostly bare-bones type thing; the SEA wants a beefed-up contract that will allow them greater say in their schools.

Perhaps the biggest change in the contract is the question of compensation. The Board is gutting the pay scale the Disctrict has used in the past (which is currently based on experience and education) in favor of setting up a committee that would establish a new system based on teacher effectiveness. This is not a new idea in education policy. It’s generally called “merit pay.”

Merit pay is something that on the surface seems really great. Why not pay the most effective educators more? It seems intuitive. But here are some things the District, and perhaps, more specifically, the Board, should take into consideration before implementing such a system.

1. Merit pay does not conclusively increase student achievement.
Many of the merit pay systems that currently exist (mostly in urban school districts) are relatively new, and it’s too early to tell if they will have substantial effects. Of those that already exist, the New York City system is probably the most notorious. It mostly failed. Although, many argued that the system was not used correctly. Scientific studies have been inconclusive. One study says merit pay does increase student achievement, but that the fear of losing pay actually increases student achievement more. Another study showed that performance pay did not affect student achievement. And the entire concept of merit pay seems to go against what popular psychologists know about motivation.

2. A good merit pay system will involve compromises.
The model for a good merit pay system is probably Newark, New Jersey. Last November, the Newark Teachers Union approved a contract that included merit pay. This approval was the result of an almost year-long negotiation that at times involved Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and a commissioner hand-chosen by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. As a result, the Newark model is one-of-a-kind because it combines merit pay with peer evaluation. Teachers, fearing their pay being attached to test scores, suggested peer evaluation as a way to judge performance.

3. How do you judge merit?
The problem Newark faced is, of course, the problem any district would have to face in order to enact merit pay. How do you distinguish the great teachers from the mediocre ones? The reason merit pay has been jumping around education headlines recently is because there is an assumption underlying education policy today that we have an objective measurement of student achievement–namely, standardized test scores.

But standardized test scores are entirely constructed, and at times, quite arbitrary. Mr. Petroni, a Springboro School Board member, has noted that the distinctions the Ohio Graduation Test makes are almost useless. Where Mr. Petroni and I disagree is that he thinks we should demand better scores on these tests and I believe we should rethink the tests. Standardized tests, more generally, and the OAT and OGT more specifically, have been accused of being heavily biased. A study at Youngstown State University by Dr. Randy L. Hoover found that the OAT and OGT do not test for student growth as much as they test for student circumstance. It’s easy to see, when looking at OAT data, that more affluent districts do better than less affluent ones, but Dr. Hoover argues that this has less to do with the quality of education in these differing districts and more to do with the economic and historical realities of the students. All the OAT tests, in other words, is whether a student is rich or poor.

This is something that confounded me for a really long time so I’m going to parse it out here. The common education reform line is that there is an achievement gap–that low-income students achieve at a lower level than their high-income peers do. And there are certainly horror stories. In Detroit, for instance, there are 100,000 adults with high school degrees who are functionally illiterate. These horror stories, however, have been combined with the high-low income “achievement” disparity to obfuscate the reality of our standardized tests. Policy-makers have thus far clung even closer to standardized tests, reasoning that we can ensure a literate graduated populace by forcing them into testing.

The problem is standardized tests don’t really tell us whether we have a critical-thinking, well-educated populace. A student union in Rhode Island recently challenged 50 high-power highly successful individuals to take the standardized test high school students in Rhode Island have to pass for graduation. Shockingly, 60% failed.

All this to say, standardized tests are not testing what they are supposed to be testing. And if a School Board wants to change the way teachers are compensated, they better bring something a lot better than tying salaries to student test scores to the table. Or, perhaps, the Board would be willing to take the OGT themselves.

*Pretty much everyone who writes about this negotiation is accused of being biased toward a certain side. I admit, for instance, that I most often find my opinions in line with the Springboro Education Association. However, any phrases that I use to show intention by either side should be approached with much caution. In this piece, I have tried to extend the benefit of doubt to both sides, assuming the best. It should be noted that some of these acts also have more nefarious effects. For instance, posting the negotiations online could perhaps be a strategic move–one made by the Board to antagonize the Association.

Springboro School Board Should Take Time To Investigate Other Reforms Before Making A Decision About Charter Conversion

My hometown (Springboro) school board recently announced that it would be exploring the option of charter conversion.

Jonathan Wright Elementary, a building that has not been used by the District since 2009, currently houses a community center and a church, but no students. The District still owns the building, though. And now the School Board is interested in transforming it into a charter school.

Admittedly, I have been a supporter of charter schools at least in the sense that I don’t think they should always be written off as a corporate scam to make money off our children. Last winter, I interned at a charter school in Columbus and loved it. Some of my former students at Breakthrough Cincinnati go to charter schools in Cincinnati, and sometimes it’s a great alternative to what CPS offers.

But here are some things the School Board should think about before going forward with a charter conversion:

Resources include more than money.
School board member Don Miller, the only member to vote against looking into the charter conversion, was quoted in the Dayton Daily News, saying he was concerned about money and other resources. The Dayton Daily included a statistic about how much money Springboro Community City Schools gets from the state for each student. This statistic is misleading.

The idea of money following the student scares some people, but it’s actually exactly how school funding works now. We aren’t talking vouchers here. If I move to Cincinnati Public Schools after attending Springboro Community City Schools (SCCS) for a while, Springboro no longer gets my money. CPS does. Essentially, when a charter is given, it becomes its own district so even if I am a charter student living in Springboro, my money from the state will go to the charter.

The reason why SCCS might oppose this arrangement is because once money gets doled out to the district, it stops following the student. Overly simplified, what this means is that the district gets a lump sum based on the number of students in the district and then decides where that money goes. Thus, theoretically, a district could decide to spend more on kindergarteners than fifth-graders.

So say SCCS decides to open a charter school that serves fifth-graders. Now the kindergarten is underfunded because the kindergarten program was drawing from funds provided by the fifth-graders. So yes, this could happen, but it’s not the ultimate concern when considering resources and charter conversions.

Board President Kelly Kohls told the Dayton Daily that she thinks the charter conversion could serve the district’s gifted population. If you run through this scenario, a couple of disconcerting things happen. First, you are going to drain the gifted population from the district. This drain is not necessarily bad, but changing the demographics of the district schools will change how the district doles out resources.

Less gifted students at the high school level, for instance, would provide incentive to the district to cut AP and honors classes. These cuts would have an adverse effect on the entire population of students because students who are not identified as gifted or who are but stay at the district school will have less access to these rigorous courses.

This effect would be similar for any population of students the charter conversion was meant to serve.

Charters are sexy, but there are other ways to promote growth in a district.
Because charter schools are legal in 42 of the 50 states (this study says 41, but Washington recently passed charter legislation) and because charter systems like KIPP have achieved significant success, charters are politically popular. When charters are mentioned in the media, people rarely talk about the failing ones (of which there are many). So they are sexy.

The success of charters, however, is not solely due to their charter-ness. The charter school where I interned was highly successful. When it first opened, it struggled. It took finding the right school leader and hiring the right staff before the school could really take off. But once those things were taken care of, student achievement experienced big gains. The school leader was free to institute policies that benefited students, and teachers, out of trust for their school leader, bought into these policies. These two things are not radical things to implement–innovative school leaders and trust between administration and teachers.

Contrast this example with an incident at Springboro High School last year. In March, it was mysteriously announced that Dr. Malone, the school’s principal, would finish out his contract at the Central Office, effectively ending his duties as principal. The specifics of this decision were never fully released. The Superintendent at the time, Gene Lolli, took the hit for it, but popular sentiment was that the school board had been trying to pull something. The school board kept silent during the announcement, during the public outrage, and quietly reinstated Dr. Malone to principal.

This kind of micromanaging–moving a principal who had frequently led the high school to high ratings from the Ohio Department of Education–is exactly what prevents Springboro City Community Schools from innovating. SCCS has an army of qualified, experienced, well-respected principals, but too often, their hands are tied when district policies come down.

The School Board could promote more innovation simply by allowing principals more lee-way in how their schools are run.

Diversifying a district’s portfolio need not include charters.
Springboro would do well to learn from another Ohio suburb, Reynoldsburg. Reynoldsburg has diversified the options open to students not by charter conversions but by creating STEM elementary, middle, and high schools and by pioneering a high school system where students can choose one of four career-oriented academies.

When talking about charter schools, conversions are the most consistent, but no conversion charter school meets Springboro’s achievement.

nondrant-charter-structure-Aug-30

From a 2011 study of OH charter schools by the Fordham Institute

This chart shows that conversions do relatively well on expected growth but hover around the average for Performance Index scores. SCCS’s PI is 106.5. No conversion breaks 100. Even with the relative success of conversions (they seem to be more consistent than startups), it’s statistically doubtful that a conversion would provide Springboro students with the quality of education they receive in the district.

Obviously, I would love to see an addition to the community that provides more academic benefits to its students, but let’s explore all options before doing something that could potentially harm what we already have.