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updates for 07.24.2011

8 new posts today

Twenty Percent.

LA Institute has twenty percent left. This is what we were told Friday. That instead of counting down the days, we should be focusing on the amount of time we have left, and how much time we can actually get accomplished. I will admit, I laughed at the black and white slide show that showed the importance of 20 percent. However, now that I think about how I have one more week left at Institute, I find myself wondering if I helped my students in room 115. The ten boys and girls I have taught for the past three weeks are beautiful, smart, thoughtful, curious. But don't get me wrong, they surely are not all angels and I do regulate my classroom with some good old BCM (which makes me a pretty strict (sometimes mean) teacher) This next week I am teaching Reading. I want to be the best I can be, but I struggle with the subject since I was in speech therapy when I was in school due to my speech impediments. They often come out when I have to read aloud - sometime I am dreading. My student's during AIT already correct me when I am struggling, I just hope when I am in front of all my students I am successful. On a complete side note. I ran up the escalator today, ate Pinkberry and took my second Praxis test (I was so happy that I passed Middle School Math with such high marks, and so disappointed that I just had to wake up at 5:15am on a precious Saturday during Institute to take Elem Ed). After fro-yo, we were discussing things we will miss about Institute, but for the next six days, I am going to take it all in.


Wings like eagles

Conversation while walking to the cafeteria M.: "I want to go to St. John's or Harvard Law School." Me: "Hmm, why Harvard?" M.: "Because the smartest people go to Harvard." Me: "Did you know that Yale has the best law school in the country?" M.: "No, you're just biased." (Disclaimer: I admit that I am biased, and I would be happy wherever M. goes to law school. Or college, for that matter. But that doesn't mean I won't stand up for my alma mater.) In other news, week four has been quite eventful, even by Institute standards. On Monday, I attended a workshop called "Math Doesn't Have To Be Boring!" (with somewhat low expectations, admittedly) and was blown away. The 1.5-hour workshop consisted of a brief intro followed by 10-12 simple and concrete strategies for guided practice, independent practice, and review, as well as their benefits and potential pitfalls. I used one such strategy ("Drive Mr. Kim off a cliff!") to reteach an objective on Thursday, and the kids ate it up. There were cries of "Mr. K, you're going down," and for the first time all summer, students seemed disappointed when they got questions wrong. Plus, they averaged 92% on their exit slips, so it wasn't just all fun and games. Hooray for student investment! My collab and I finished teaching the ISAT ("Institute Student Achievement Toolkit," oh TFA acronyms) objectives on Wednesday, and according to exit slip data, all of my students have met or exceeded their individual growth goals. We can't celebrate quite yet, since they still need to do well on the final next Thursday, but I'm so proud of all of them--from K., who scored a 35% on his diagnostic exam but now has a 91% average on ISAT-aligned exit slip questions, to J., who doesn't need this class to begin with but usually works hard anyway and was able to solve most of the extremely difficult math puzzles that I gave her yesterday. I'm still a mediocre teacher, and there are other CMs with much more inspiring results, but I'm so grateful that I've been given this opportunity to make a (hopefully enduring) difference in these kids' academic trajectories. On Thursday, after spending two days observing all of us at our placement schools, the Rhode Island regional staff ate dinner with us and led a brief session about the First Eight Weeks after Institute (formerly Round 0). It was great to see them again after four weeks of being away, but it was even greater to find out that we'd have several weeks to prepare for the upcoming semester, including establishing a vision, creating unit plans, setting up a tracker, and writing assessments. It will certainly be a nice change of pace from the day-to-day planning of Institute. They also brought us delicious birthday cakes for the three birthdays that occurred in July, as well as coffee milk (apparently a Rhode Island delicacy) and chocolate lollipops. Basically, my region is awesome. Yesterday, in the midst of one of the most intense heat waves to ever hit the Northeast, our school team decided to hold a teacher stare-off. That's right, a teacher stare-off. Despite never having heard of the "teacher stare," I was volunteered by my CMA (against my will, I might add) to go up against fifteen other CMs in the most bizarre staring contest of all time. Long story short, I ended up getting second place, though at the expense of receiving intimidating, soul-piercing stares from CMs who I never thought could be intimidating. I would not want to be a misbehaving student in one of their classrooms. Throughout this week, with all these things happening (and more), I've been thinking a lot about where I derive my strength and motivation from. Especially as things start to pick up, as I fall into my teacher stride, as lesson planning gets easier and more efficient, ad infinitum, I need to remind myself that I cannot rely on my own ability to keep me going, nor can I ground my identity in teaching, TFA, or even my students. One of my greatest struggles is acknowledging God in my life even when I feel like I'm doing alright (whatever that means). But the reality is that life is entirely unpredictable, and it is only by His grace that I happen to find myself in a place of peace, comfort, and relative stability at any given moment. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to worship Him in everything I do--not because I have anything to add to His glory, but because it is what I was created for, and what every blessing and joyous occasion exhorts of me. In the words of the psalmist:

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Conversely (inversely? additionally?), when times get tough next year, I need to remind myself that God is faithful, that "He who began a good work ... will carry it on the completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). So, to my future self when I read through old entries for encouragement, as well as to anyone out there currently struggling to get by, I offer the words of Isaiah 40:28-31.
28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
And on that note: final week of Institute, here I come!

Best Kept Secrets

Since my own public school education is not so far back in my memory, I can't help but think, sometimes, of my old teachers in my current position. Of course, there is something unique about TFA Institute that can't compare to a regular school year teacher's life, but stil... I wonder what our kids think about the bulletin boards that decorate their halls, the ones that are sometimes more for their teachers than for them, with evening schedules and Teaching as Leadership mottoes posted across them. About the fact that almost all of us, when asked, tell them we will be teaching in a different state next fall. About the obvious divide between young teachers, who lead most lessons, and older teachers, who observe from the side or the back of the room. If only the children knew that their teachers rode school buses every morning, returned home to dorms and lived all together at night, packed their lunches in 'Teach for America' lunch boxes every day. If only they knew we were the same age as their big sisters, that many of us were standing in front of a class for the very first time this summer. That our responsibility is not just empowering, but often terrifying. These are our best-kept secrets.


Ravitch vs. Kopp Part II

Follow garyrubinstein on Twitter Click to read Part I first Part 1 ended with Wendy Kopp misquoting an already exaggerated claim by a charter network as her proof that "it" is happening all over. Ravitch was surely skeptical of this claim, but without time to research it and refute it, she had to let it go. That was certainly a problem with debates before the digital age. There would be all kinds of things that you would wish you had said, in retrospect. But now, I hope that post-debate analyses like mine can help these debates continue and filter out all the misinformation and exaggerations that often are a part of them. Round 3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06yTKgLas08 The moderator asks Ravitch "Is there a crisis?" and "Have we learned anything from the charter movement?" To the "is there a crisis?" question, Ravitch responds that the crisis is one of poverty. Some 'reformers' like to jump on this answer, saying that she is suggesting there is nothing we can do to help close the achievement gap until poverty is eliminated. They frame her argument as a cop out. But here she gets a chance to explain it a little more. Babies in poverty are often born prematurely and 1/3 of premature babies grow up with learning disabilities, for example. There are many good articles, including this one, that go more into detail about HOW poverty is the real issue, and why we can't just ignore it and say "poverty is not an excuse." Then she turns to the charter question.  The big issue with charters, not everyone knows, is that their success is sometimes inflated in various ways.  At issue is whether or not charters serve the same populations as the public schools they compete against, co-locate with, or replace.  The schools claim to be open-enrollment with selection by lottery, so to the casual observer it seems pretty fair.  But some schools have a complicated process to enter the lottery which excludes families that aren't capable of navigating the system.  There are also schools that cheat, as reported recently in The New York Times, by removing applicants from the lottery.  The other way some charters inflate their scores is through attrition.  By expelling, counseling out, or otherwise eliminating the lowest performing kids, their scores go up that way.  Until recently, this wasn't reported widely, but recently we are seeing a lot about this.  I believe it will be bigger than the Atlanta cheating scandal when enough evidence finally surfaces. Ravitch says something a bit unusual in her answer.  She says "I'd love to see a high performing network like KIPP take over an entire district."  The moderator gasps, asking if she really has that much confidence in KIPP.  Rather than say that she is really just offering a dare (which is what she was doing, because I asked her to clarify for me), she answers that this would be good way to find out if they really have the ability to serve all kids.  Again, she says, "If that school district was willing I'd love to see them try it."  As much as I revere Ravitch, I think that she was a bit too subtle on this answer.  Many in the audience may have believed that she felt it was possible for KIPP to take over a city like Detroit and turn it around.  It is documented that KIPP once tried to take over a single school in Denver and failed miserably with it. Wendy didn't pick up on the sarcasm, which was why she began her response with "Maybe we are making progress."  Then Wendy gives an empty monologue, void of any substance.  "We know how to do it,"  "We know how to replicate it."  Scaling up, though, she admits is a problem.  She says that there is 'depressing' news, which is that "in aggregate we have not moved the needle" much, and also 'interesting' news that "some systems have moved the needle."  Is it me, or is does the expression 'move the needle' make it very clear how little the success is that she's bragging about. The successful schools are "on a mission."  "They set out to change kids trajectories."  They do this by having a strong team, they recruit and develop talent over time (is 2 years 'over time'?), they build 'a culture of acheivement', they do 'whatever it takes.'  Then she mentions a few specifics like having a longer school day, offering health services, and mental health services. To scale the problem, leaders need to be 'empowered' and given the 'flexibility' they need.  This 'flexibility,' I think is the power to fire teachers more easily, though she doesn't explicitly say that here. Round 4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgFj56GRF-A The moderator asks Ravitch how can we get accountability without standardized testing?  Ravitch is strongest in this seven minute answer which I won't even summarize here since everyone must click on the video and watch it for themselves.  Even Wendy starts to applaud in the middle of it, and when Ravitch finishes, she gets a round of applause from the crowd. Then when it is Wendy's turn, she defends testing with the most lame justification I have ever heard:  "Giving our teachers, you know, good assessments is like giving them like something from Heaven.  You know, it's like awesome."  She says we should not go back to the days when we didn't know how they were doing, as if that is what Ravitch is advocating for.  We need better tests, though.  This gets Wendy her own round of applause, for some reason. Wendy does not touch Ravitch's big point that when we attach bonuses and firings to test scores, it leads to gaming the system in different ways.  I would have liked to hear where Wendy stands on whether or not teacher evaluations should be based, in part, on standardized test scores. To be continued ...


I could hug this book right now.

It's been so reassuring in the last few weeks, especially when I think about the upcoming school year. I can do this, I think.  I just have to be prepared.



Week four was an off week for everyone. Everyone cried this week-including all the guys. You know something is hard when you see guys breaking down in the hallway. I am not sure what made this week so hard-maybe it is not sleeping, eating, or having personal time. This week was hard but cool things keep happening :) In my classroom I have all Hispanic Students. Therefore, all of their parents speak Spanish. I took two years of Spanish in high school and I hardly remember any of it. It is absolutely hilarious to try and talk to them because I have no idea what they are saying. I usually just nod by head all the time. One of the parents is trying to teach me a few word and I really appreciate it :)  The majority of my students if not all speak Spanish at home and English at school.  I love that when I am giving a DRA (its a reading assessment) they start to speak in Spanish to define an unknown.  I just think they are incredibly smart for being able to speak two languages. My students amaze me everyday. Two of my students(who are twins-and I have no idea why they are both in the same class---ahh CHAOS) are significantly learning. They got so excited about learning this week!  One of them told me she will not go home without 100% on her paper every day. It's just so exciting to their faces light up when they master a new objective. Their mom came up to me this week and explained that she wants them to have a good life. She wants them to go to school and college so they can have things. She wants one of them to be a lawyer and one to be a doctor. So sweet. She asked for my help because her English isn't very good. (sounded good to me-she may be my only parent I understand) I really want to help. I have one week left-one week with these kiddos. I don't really want to leave. I'm worried in a few years they will end up in gang.  Ugh, I just love them. Every year TFA sends the new corps members to institute.  Institute is a 5 week teacher boot camp training program to get us ready for inner-city.  There are a lot of different institute's every year and in many different places. Mine just happens to be in LA. Yesterday, I found out that all of this hard work is paying off. We have had the most student achievement in any LA institute. We have also had the most achievement out of any institute EVER!!!  Yes! LA institute this year made TFA history. It is so great to have this feeling that we are making a difference-that we are closing the gap.  All the sleepless nights, no food, and timing my showers is paying off :) I am so excited to see what is to come in the future.


Ravitch vs. Kopp Part I

Follow garyrubinstein on Twitter On June 29th 2011, two of the most important people in the current ed reform debate squared off for a 'discussion' at the Aspen Ideas Festival.  As they are opposed on many of the vital issues, this had the makings of a heavyweight title fight. At the core of the conflict, I'll try to summarize each of their views: Kopp:  There is a huge achievement gap in this country.  This is the country's biggest crisis.  There are now many schools run by TFA alumni that are proving that this crisis is solvable and the current reform movement is helping solve that crisis faster. Ravitch:  There is a huge achievement gap in this country.  The cause of this achievement gap is the effects of poverty.  This does not mean we should give up trying to provide the best possible education to kids in poverty, but to fire teachers and close down schools based on poor test scores is unfair to teachers, who can only do so much to counter the problems caused by poverty.  The current reform movement is making things worse. The entire 70 minute discussion is posted here, but since a lot of people don't have the patience to watch the whole thing, I broke it up into 'rounds' with my commentary at the end of each round.  This post will cover rounds 1 and 2, the first 16 minutes of the discussion. Round 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjFX9J2i-SQ Wendy quickly makes the point that she feels that education is our country's most fundamental problem.  This, I think, is Wendy's way of getting one of the most common (though erroneous) critiques of Ravitch -- that she doesn't think that there is an education crisis in this country.  They call her a defender of the status quo. As a 73 year old woman, Diane Ravitch has lived through the education crises of many decades, and as a historian, she has studied all the education crises for the past hundred years.  Ravitch gets accused of saying there is not an education crisis, mainly because she opposes severe punishments on low-performing / high-poverty schools.  She often says, and has plenty of research to back this up, that the difference between our country and the other high performing nations is that 20% of our students live in poverty.  Without an incredible amount of added resources, teachers and schools can't overcome all the effects of poverty so we have to, in some sense, expect low standardized test scores in low-income communities. So if there is a crisis in education, Ravitch does not think it is the low test scores.  But she does seem to think there is a crisis in the direction that the country is moving with standardized testing driving us to narrow the curriculum and the attacks on the teaching profession.  If we're not in crisis now, we will be in ten years if the country continues in this direction. Wendy explains that they invest a lot in the training and development of the corps members as teachers, though I believe they would need to invest a lot more to make that training effective.  As I wrote about in a recent post, in the 2011 institutes it seems that teachers only get 20 hours of student teaching 15 students, with some teaching as few as 1. Wendy also makes the common claim about TFA that after the two-year commitment "most of them stay in education."  As I've written about, this claim is based on a self-selecting alumni survey that had a pretty low response rate.  Also "in education" is very broadly defined. When it is Ravitch's turn, her most compelling point is to contrast what we're doing in this country with regard to teacher recruitment and training to what is done in Finland where teachers are highly respected and remain teachers for long careers. Round 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDFGSqlfwSA The moderator asks if teachers are to blame for the education crisis. Wendy says that it is not the teachers.  The problem is that most schools are not designed to meet the needs of the kids in poverty.  But TFA leaders have created schools that are designed to meet those needs and they will help kids get out of poverty. Moderator asks Ravitch about her recent New York Times OpEd (in which I am mentioned by name!) which revealed that all of the so-called 'miracle schools' that politicians showcase to prove that they have figured out how to fix the schools, have major flaws when we look beneath the surface.  When she says "I know these guys who do the investigations" she was making a 'shout out' to me and Noel Hammat.  The point of the OpEd is that we need to have honest accounts of what is and is not working before we start claiming we have figured out how to improve education on a large scale. An important quote:  "If you expect schools alone to solve the problem of poverty, it's not happening.  It's not going to happen and it hasn't happened in other countries."  This is in direct opposition to what Wendy had just said. Wendy responds that she has learned that "we do not have to wait [to end poverty] to provide kids with the kind of education that is truly transformation for them."  She claims there are "dozens of communties with growing numbers of whole schools" that are doing this.  Notice the lack of specific numbers here.  Then, and here is where she says something ridiculous.  After saying "We can give any number of examples to prove that," she commits to one of her own 'miracle schools' to showcase and prove her point.  The one she uses is the Houston-based YES academy.  Wendy makes the claim that when they open their 5th campus in 2014, they will "produce as many high school graduates as the rest of HISD."  A pretty amazing and convincing stat.  Unfortunately it is a lie.  YES academy is a school that has been featured on Oprah and elsewhere because of it's amazing record that 100% of their graduates get accepted into college.  I researched their numbers and found that this year they graduated a total of 175 students in their four campuses.  At their North Central campus, they had only 43 graduates in 2010.  Six years earlier, there were 100 sixth graders at that school, which indicates a huge attrition.  Some of the schools don't have a senior class yet, but I've estimated based on the state website which you are welcome to check yourself, they should graduate around 250 seniors in 2014.  HISD has 200,000 students with 9,503 graduates in 2010. Well, fortunately the founder of YES prep, Chris Barbic, is someone I have known for 19 years.  I don't know if he will still consider me a friend after this, but I wrote to him to ask what Wendy might have meant.  He explained that she should have said that they would have the same number of low-income students who graduate COLLEGE as the entire HISD.  The estimation is based on the assumption that they will fix their attrition problem so they will have 450 seniors and that ALL 450 of those seniors will eventually graduate college (which is a pretty big assumption) and also on an assumption that only 500 of those 9,500 graduates from the rest of HISD are low-income students who will ultimately graduate college (which is an even more outrageous assumption). To be continued ... Follow garyrubinstein on Twitter


Say you'll be there

On the last day of Institute, in the minutes before my school site officially closed for business, my CMA led us in an activity. I'm not sure what she called it exactly, but when I've done it before, it's been called "warm-and-fuzzies". More or less, a group of notecards goes in a circle, each notecard assigned to a person, and all of the group members write nice things about the person on their card, so that each person ends up with a card full of nice things written about them in the end. My CMA group was really, really close; so my card means a lot to me. In my usual fashion, I think I wrote one-liners about things that had happened on most of the CM cards, along with reminders like "I will be expecting your couch when I come to Hawaii." The "warm-and-fuzzies" that I got were really meaningful. Many nights, I'm finding myself looking at that card, because it brought up areas that I've never really thought of before.

"You were always honest about the struggles that you faced..."
When stuff goes wrong, I'll be the first one to complain about it, and any of my friends can tell you that. Heck, a CMA at Houston Institute went as far as to call be a "negative Nancy" - not even a "negative Ned"! But I've never thought about the other side of that - I never hide anything from friends or colleagues. Maybe it's because by presenting a situation honestly, you're going to get the most honest feedback. And in working to become a better teacher, I'm open to all channels of communication.
"I know you'll be great for your kids!"
Throughout institute, I feel like you're sort of reminded about how bad you are. CMA co-cos and such try to accentuate the positive, but it's hard to see or feel like you're doing the right thing after a class period full of failure, or after a school director reminds everyone how far behind students are from reaching their growth goals. So when a peer who is undergoing the same challenges tells you that it's all going to work out in the end, it's more assuring that you can imagine.
"You are funnier than you know!"
I love this, because someone actually thinks I'm funny.

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