updates for 03.11.2012
Wendy Kopp was on campus Thursday as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education\'s Askwith Forum series. She gave brief remarks about TFA before several via Wendy Kopp Visits HGSE: Has TFA’s Philosophy Shifted?.
Wendy Kopp was on campus Thursday as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Askwith Forum series. She gave brief remarks about TFA before several current ed school students who are TFA alumni joined her. I wandered over from an amazing conference at the law school on "Closing the School to Prison Pipeline" (more on that in another post) to see the event. As always, I enjoyed hearing Wendy speak. It is always good to see what those at the top are thinking. She didn't relay anything new or earth-shattering. But I guess I'm already pretty clued into the statistics and what TFA is thinking about. Yet, I came away from the talk with a sense that the framing of TFA's philosophy (i.e. its "theory of change") has subtly shifted from an emphasis on near-term goals to one on long-term goals. I'll explain what I mean. ***** One major misconception about TFA is that its primary goal is to develop career classroom teachers. Critics who understand TFA's mission in this way point to the 2-year commitment and the fact that many CMs do eventually leave the classroom as evidence that TFA fails to achieve the primary goal it set out to achieve. But this is, and always has been, an oversimplification of what TFA seeks to do. TFA is ultimately focused on creating an alumni network that is better grounded in the problem of public education and that will pursue education reform from all angles. The 2-year classroom commitment is the common bond that all alumni share, but from which each is expected to pursue his or her own unique career path that contributes, in some way, to closing the achievement gap. For some, this will mean staying a classroom teacher. For others, however, this will mean going into school leadership, district leadership, politics, law, medicine--you name it. Seen this way, TFA appears to be quite successful. TFA alumni from the early years are now breaking into leadership positions in all sectors of society. Kaya Henderson (New York '92) runs DC Public Schools. Kevin Huffman (Houston '92) is Tennessee's education commissioner. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg (Houston '92) founded and run the KIPP network of charter schools. Mike Johnston (Mississippi Delta '97) is a Colorado state senator. I even discovered that the Washington Examiner's (former) education reporter, Leah Fabel--whose articles I read every day while I lived in DC--is a TFA alum. ***** But up until now, the "rhetoric" around TFA, at least as I've seen it, has been focused on the short-term--on what CMs are doing in the classroom during the 2-year commitment. Sure, TFA mentions its alumni leaders here and there. But, largely, the emphasis has been on the power of the individual teacher--the effective, indomitable leader--to transform students' lives within the classroom. TFA has collected and disseminated statistics about its "all-star" teachers to justify this idea of classroom success. Implicit in the language is the idea that a strong teacher can lead his or her students to achieve, even in a chaotic, support-less environment and even with students who are many years behind and face tremendous obstacles. The focus has been primarily on the individual, the current CM. Several things that Wendy mentioned indicate that the "rhetoric" is shifting beyond the individual and beyond the CM. A large part of the discussion was about TFA as preparation for subsequent leadership (unsurprising, given that the alumni on the panel were all pursuing careers in education leadership of some sort). During this discussion, Wendy expressed her belief that "the school is the unit of change, not the individual teacher." One also sees this idea reflected in Wendy's most recent WSJ op-ed, which opposes the New York City schools' public release of teachers' performance assessment data, on the grounds that the focus on the individual teacher "distract[s] attention from the long, hard work required to ensure that our schools are high-performing, mission-driven organizations with strong teams, strong cultures and strong results." I found this at odds with the individual-focused TFA rhetoric I'd heard for so long. But I can understand the shift. TFA, having "justified" itself as an organization capable of producing successful CMs within the classroom, is using its gained legitimacy to focus on the real problem--the systemic one. Wendy emphasized that a consensus had developed within reform circles that "we have to change schools [and districts]" Strong leadership at the systemic level is now, more than ever before, needed. Wendy said that TFA views its "mission as to grow the source of those leaders" and is doing a lot more to "galvanize leadership among alumni" to achieve "change at scale." TFA, Wendy reiterated, is really about changing the "values in America" so that those who might otherwise have headed to Wall Street and other positions of mainstream leadership would see, and be energized by, the challenges that so many low-income communities face. The fight for change, in other words, is ongoing--"this is not about 2 years." ***** Just to be clear, the point I'm making is not that TFA's goals have changed; the goal of producing leaders in society--who are exposed to, and driven to change, the injustices of our current education system--has always been a part of TFA's mission. What has changed is how much emphasis TFA places on this goal (at the expense of the shorter-term goal of developing successful classroom teachers). What is happening beyond the 2-year commitment seems to be much more important now than ever before. Even in the realm of law, Tracy-Elizabeth Clay, TFA's General Counsel, recently visited Harvard Law School and spoke to the TFA alumni here about several initiatives TFA is starting to better harness its alumni in law. The long-term vision is to create a "talent pool" from which school districts, CMOs and legal advocacy groups can draw from. I saw in this meeting a clear focus on doing more to leverage the thousands of alumni who are already out pursuing careers of all sorts. TFA has done little to support alumni; it now is trying harder, it seems. I welcome this shift. 20 years since TFA's founding, the state of education still has a long way to go. I'm hopeful that by harnessing the TFA alumni movement, we will move ever closer to a world in which all our students will receive excellent educations and thus have the increased life opportunities they deserve.
Note: I wrote this last Tuesday, and will have more to say at a later date It’s officially district testing week and today was both extremely disheartening and very satisfying. My students took their Third Nine Weeks District Exam in language arts (reading and writing)- 50 questions of English inquiries based primarily on long reading passages. It’s a great thing these tests are un-timed because they struggle mightily with all the reading. I have this theory that goes like this: test prepping is easier for math because of the limited amount of ways to test certain objectives without employing predictable patterns; also, the use of calculator serves as a confidence boost and crutch for students who lack prerequisite skills. For English exams, there’s really no easy way out for students who are years behind grade level- and it shows. I got so incredibly discouraged by our system today because I questioned how so many kids can reach 8th grade without being able to read fluently. Reading is such a fundamental skill I can’t imagine living without and it saddens me to know my kids (and their kids) will remain essentially crippled by a lack of literacy if something doesn’t change. Seeing the achievement gap stark naked like this really lights a fire in me to make a greater impact. I asked my roommate who teaches English for insights about how people learn to read. While I think I would make a pretty good math teacher, I don’t know if I could teach reading. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I read at night with my little sister since she was a baby, but she seemed to just pick it up over time. I can’t imagine having to lead instruction without that foundation. To me, these experiences stress the importance of all children receiving a sound start through early education in school and at home in order to set them up for success in the future. This seems like such a simple solution, there must be more involved- and there is, unfortunately; nonetheless, one of my lifelong goals is work towards ensuring all students are set up for success. All was not lost, however. A few of my students were giddy with glee after their test because they said I’d help them since I’ve used the phrase, “don’t instigate” often in class. Well, looks like we’ve found a way to circumvent complaints of cultural-biased vocabulary on standardized tests: simply use words about discipline. I tried to take these realizations to teach them another word: advocate. My MTLD feels strongly about students advocating for their own education and she has helped me refocus my classroom around a similar principle. If you asked my kids, they’d probably say that I am “tough” on them and borderline “mean” sometimes. As the only male on my hall, I guess that’s a fair description, but I have my own brand of “love.” Perhaps the biggest difference in my soft teaching strategy in my second year is a greater focus on building relationships. Basically, if my students know that a.) I care about them and b.) they can learn from me, then classroom management runs much more smoothly. As an introvert, navigating 125 different moods and personalities can seem like I’m instigating my own downfall, but overall it’s definitely worth it. Relatedly, I had three strong “teacher-student moments” that I think can qualify as breakthroughs. As a disclaimer, I generally don’t like to share the private sentiments of my students for privacy considerations; at the same time, I’m thinking of ways to give them more of a voice on my blog, because they have a voice and a vision for their own futures that need to be heard. Student 1: “Why’d you keep bothering me during the test? You must care or something?” This student has a pretty foul attitude with his teachers but has been a work in progress the entire year. He got upset with me for waking him up and constantly checking up with him during his test. I responded: “Yes, if I didn’t care, I would have let you sleep and you’d be back in 8th grade next year. I want to watch your high school games next year but I can’t do that if you’re back here.” Student 2: “You must see something in me!?” One of my favorite kids, who has a streak for mischief but usually puts in the effort to do right. I constantly stay on him about things like keeping his shirt tucked in, coming to class on time, and using appropriate language. I made him write guidelines (“I will keep hands, feet, and objects to myself”) when he and his classmates choose to play a slap-boxing game when they came to my class for lunch. I let him know that while he and his peers were wasting time figuring out who to punch, kids elsewhere where reading a book, studying, and figuring out how to make more money than him. After initial resistance, he asked to speak with me after class. I honestly thought he was going to say: “I didn’t do nothing, so I only did half the lines.” Instead, he pulled me aside and made the assertion that I was hard on him because I cared and “saw something in him.” This student is a natural leader and I told him I wanted to see him leading others towards positive things, especially since society would look at him and think he was lazy or a gangbanger. He has so much potential, I just want him to see and value that for himself, so he can be his strongest advocate in the years to come. Student 3: “I can’t do my work at home- that’s why I rush to do my homework in class.” Self-explanatory. Response to my question whether he had a quiet place to study at home. He's one of the students who makes me reflect careful on the role of charter schools. Since he's a high-achiever, part of me wants to get him placed in a school elsewhere for his own sake. At the same time, what will remain if all the top performers are pulled out of already struggling schools. Granted, those were all boys. I need to work on things with my girls. I try to be tactful and understanding but sometimes they drive me crazy with their irrational tendencies. I had a few get mad at me when I publicly named students with grades below a C in order to express urgency. Girls: “Why did you have to call us out like that?” My response: “it’s better to have me call you out now then to have you call yourself out when you can’t get a job because you didn’t graduate from high school. C’mon now, you can do better!” Note to self: talk to them one-on-one next time, even if they aren’t overtly receptive, they will appreciate it #sensitivity update: the rest of the week went smoothly since I kept this in mind and 90% were more receptive to the personalized attention. That 10% will need some additional work though....
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