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.

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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.

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.

The Trouble with Gaps

There was a moment this summer, while I was teaching a room full of high-achieving, and in my mind, at-risk students, where I faltered. I don’t remember the lesson or what made me privately freak out in my mind, but I remember the feeling… the American dream is a lie, “at-risk” is a stupid term, students are students are students, and teaching students so they can live up to a white, wealthy ideal is pointless.

But I didn’t let the feeling take hold of me. I pushed it away. It got lost in the stress of lesson plans and grading papers.

Several weeks later I returned to Ohio University, where my main extracurricular commitment revolved around education reform, a nebulous term that means many things to many different people. And because I am someone who enjoys a good discussion, I made sure I was immersed in the literature of people who are critical of the reform movement.

It is within this literature, that I first read Dr. Camika Royal’s argument against the use of the term “achievement gap.” A term I had used countless times myself, achievement gap had become, for me and many of my peers, a shorthand way of articulating the problem we saw in education. Upon my first reading of Dr. Royal’s piece, I thought this was the problem with the term–that achievement gap did not accurately portray the complexity of the problem.

And organizations I am a part of changed; instead of using achievement gap, both Students for Education Reform and Teach for America have adopted “opportunity gap” as part of their lexicons. Dr. Royal suggested the term in her first piece about the achievement gap on Good.

Several days ago, however, Dr. Royal began suggesting that this simple substitution of the terms is insufficient.

Image

At first, I was taken aback by this. It seemed like organizations were listening to Dr. Royal. Why was she still frustrated?

And then I thought about her piece, again. This time, though, I thought about my summer experience, specifically the feeling I had had one day in class and ignored, and then some things clicked.

Dr. Royal is not frustrated about the term with a linguistic concern. She is frustrated with the power struggle that gets buried in language.

I asked my friend the other day how I can avoid a white savior complex. And he told me I had already fallen prey to it just by believing there was a group of people, categorically different than me, who needed my help. By dividing the world into white and black, I had already named difference, and by naming difference, I had already committed oppression.

This, I think, is what we do when we talk about gaps. Because when we acknowledge a gap, we set up a situation where things are better. And it’s not necessarily racial. Like we assume that wealth is better than poverty, that a Princeton degree is better than a GED, or that scoring in the 99th percentile is better than scoring in the 61st.

But here’s the rub. Oppressors have always chosen the grading stick. Oppressors have always been the ones who get to decide what we test, how we test it, and what background knowledge we test. Oppressors have always been the ones who decide what is better. And that is the issue.

If we ignore this problem, we risk, at the very least, pretension–the kind that claims you are not allowed to talk about a problem because you aren’t well-informed enough.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to talk abut the issues we need to talk about. But I know that lumping entire of populations of students into one “at-risk” category is trouble. And that’s exactly what gaps do.

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.

To The Critic/Skeptic/Asshole at the Party

My friends and I have a joke that I can make any conversation be about education. There’s a lot of truth in it.

The world just makes more sense in terms of education. I think about the world in terms of teachers and students. I can’t help it.

My friend Benji says that the act of education is one of the purest acts of love–that there are teachers and students everywhere. I think he’s right.

And that’s why you make me sad. That’s why I avoid large social gatherings. There is always one of you. Usually alone in a corner. Either with or without drink. Brooding. You don’t fit here.

The worst part is that you don’t have to be here. But you think you do. You think that the only way of being is the way your peers are being.

And it depresses me because no one ever loved you enough to tell you that you are allowed to believe in something. You are allowed to have faith in something so big and crazy that no one else can understand it. You are allowed to be head over heels for something or someone. You are allowed to make your dreams into reality.

But no one ever told you.

When I look at you, I see someone who was always told what to do. I see someone whose opinion was never respected. I see someone who desperately wants to be different.

But no one ever gave you permission.

You are the reason I want to teach. You are the reason I want to put the formal label on the act of love I already prize.

Everyone should know that it’s okay to believe in something.

What War On Teachers?

Now, we believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed, to put students first so that
America can compete, that teachers don’t teach to become rich or famous.  They teach because they love children. – Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated his belief in the good-will of teachers on August 28 at the Republican National Convention. It’s not a hard stand to take. According to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, Americans almost universally support teachers. About three fourths of Americans say they have confidence in K-12 teachers. Compare this with the way Americans would grade schools and the difference is striking – over three fourths say they would give the US public education system a C or lower. Governor Christie, then, is by no means stretching himself when he supports teachers. Most people hold teachers fondly. Most of us had a couple dozen of them before we graduated high school, and we associate the majority of them with helping us navigate our formative years.

It’s confusing, then, when leading critics against the education reform movement, like Diane Ravitch, say there is a “war on teachers.

What war on teachers?

I have never met a person who universally hates teachers. In fact, basically everyone I know in education, education reform, and education policy absolutely adores teachers.

But Diane Ravitch is not alone in the war on teachers claim. Teacher unions claim it, too.

On Tuesday night, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers Union, tweeted about Gov. Christie’s remarks.

The remarks Weingarten probably takes issue with are these:

They believe the educational savages will only put themselves ahead of children, that self- interest will always trump common sense, they believe in pitting unions against teachers, educators against parents, lobbyists against children. They believe in teachers’ unions. We believe in teachers. – Gov. Christie

But this is not an attack on teacher’s’ unions. It’s an attack on Democrats (which, quite frankly, is to be expected at the Republican National Convention). This is a sentiment with which unions should agree. Unions should not be set up to perpetuate themselves but to support teachers.

This, then, is where the divide begins.

For the teachers’ union, the interest of the union is the interest of teachers is the interest of children. The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that these three interests are not the same. They are definitely related and often overlap, but they are not the same. Critics of ed reform, however, believe that they are the same. One need look no further than Diane Ravitch’s interview with Randi Kaye on CNN.

In the interview, Kaye asks Ravitch about merit pay. Ravitch answers matter-of-factly that “teachers don’t want merit pay.” Kaye challenges this idea by showing Ravitch a comment from an inner-city teacher that says merit pay is not a war on teachers.

Ravitch, of course, is making the mistake I outlined above. The interest of the union is not necessarily in the interest of every teacher. That’s not how unions work. Most everyone who supports merit pay supports it precisely because it is a way to reward the teachers they hold most dear. No one supports merit pay in a sinister attempt to divide teachers. There is no war on teachers.

It’s important to note that there are thinly veiled attempts at union busting that are lauded as ed reform. Ohio faced this issue with SB5 a year ago. The bill would have outlawed collective bargaining. This bill did not have children at interest. It had the state’s budget at interest.

With all of that being said, it’s surprising to see Weingarten express distaste for Gov. Christie. Just a couple of weeks ago, Gov. Christie signed a law into effect that makes it harder for teachers in New Jersey to gain tenure. Teachers’ unions helped shape the law, and it was met with bipartisan support. This is the kind of compromise we should be working for.

But we can’t hope to promote this type of compromise when we are demonizing sides. Saying there is a “war on teachers” implies that the supporters of teacher tenure laws are enemies of teachers. This is damaging rhetoric. If teachers’ unions feel like they aren’t being respected, they should speak up and say so, but they also need to respect that the ed reform movement loves students and loves teachers.

War metaphors, in general, are lazy. So let’s try a little harder.