Feb 08 2011

A Chance To Make History — my review Part II

Chapter 4 is the one where Wendy pulls no punches and says exactly what’s on her mind.  This is the ‘controversial’ chapter where Wendy surprises everyone, even her critics.

I, myself, was very surprised about something that I’ll explain in a bit, but let me first lead up to it.  In the intro to the 30 page chapter, Wendy writes about how people get too fascinated with the latest educational fads.

Charters, small schools, small classes, and longer school days — to name a few – have all been heralded as ways to save our education system.  Each could play an important role, if implemented by leaders driving toward a vision for transformational change who understand what it takes to build and manage high-performing organizations.  Outside of that context, each runs the risk of serving as an unfortunate distraction of energy.

First in ‘It’s Not About More Funding’ she says that she’s seen schools that have had a lot of money thrown at them but are still failing and she’s also seen schools that have very little money that have been quite successful, so money on its own without it being used by a transformational leader could just be a waste.

Then in ‘The Limitations of Structural Changes Like Charters, Vouchers, and School Size’ Wendy really shocks a lot of people by admitting that charter schools are not the answer since there are plenty of bad ones out there.  She says (pg 117) “On average, charter schools aren’t yet doing better than traditional schools according to the preponderance of the research.”  Considering the number of TFA alums who hold positions of leadership in charter schools, this is a pretty frank statement.

In ‘The Limitations of Changing Inputs Like Class Size, Curriculum, Technology, and … Field Trips,’ she again argues that if any of these things occur in the absence of transformational leadership, they will not really accomplish much.

OK, so we should not just blindly follow fads.  And then, on page 125 she began a 3 page section which completely shocked me, in a disturbing kind of way.  Yes, Charters and Technology are fads, but the final ‘fad’ that she describes as a ‘silver bullet’ was in a section titled ‘The Newest Silver Bullet:  Providing Every Child with an Effective Teacher.’  When I read that section title, I had to go to the fridge, fill up a glass of water, walk back to my couch, take a sip and then spit out the water in shock.  How could ‘Providing Every Child with an Effective Teacher’ be a hollow fad?  And if it is a fad, isn’t it one that Wendy championed 20 years ago?  What was going on?  She starts on page 125 writing about how having ‘top quartile’ teachers enables kids to achieve in the 83rd percentile after 3 years vs. the 29th percentile with a bottom quartile teacher.  OK, sounds like effective teachers are important.

Then she writes how Bill Gates came to the same conclusion.  So we need good teachers.

Then she writes, and this is getting pretty crazy

We do need to ensure that every child has a highly effective teacher, but if we take this on absent other changes, we run the risk that efforts to improve teaching will also prove disappointing.  As I’ve tried to bring to life in previous chapters, it is hard to envision the path to 3.7 million teachers performing at high levels without overhauling the larger context in which they are working.  It is a very rare person who can be a transformational teacher outside of a transformational school.

In the ‘Teaching As Leadership’ book published a year ago, it was about how easy it is for the CMs to become transformational teachers and how most CMs seemed to be doing just that.  I think that it is the whole point of TFA, isn’t it?  That we’ve got these poorly run schools but by getting people in who are willing to work relentlessly, we can help ‘level the playing field’ for, at least, the kids we get to teach?  It get’s worse.  She then says about TFA CMs:

our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students in a truly meaningful way.  With a lot of hard work, we are getting better, but we are not where we need to be:  The bell curve of effectiveness within our corps is still too wide.

This is the first time I’ve ever heard a TFA staff member, let alone Wendy, admit that the CMs are not, in general, as heroic as they’ve presented them in ‘Teaching As Leadership’ and elsewhere.

Then a bit later she writes:

our experience should provide a sobering perspective on the idea that we can “fix” our education system through a single-minded focus on teachers.

OK, so we need leaders too.

And it would be misguided to assume that there’s an as-of-yet undiscovered route for teacher preparation or retaining excellent teachers that will prove to be the silver bullet.  There is no evidence, for example, that longer preservice training, teacher residencies that place new teachers as apprentices for a year before they assume full-time teaching positions, or incentives for teachers to stay in the classroom longer produce significant impacts.

I guess what’s she’s trying to say in this whole section is that there are only a few dynamos who can overcome a toxic school so as a country we can’t expect to produce 3.7 million of them.  So by getting great leaders who can make decent teachers good and good teachers great, we have a much more realistic route.  But within this section she admits that the CMs aren’t doing all that well.  And then, almost in answer to what critics might say about the TFA training model that I have been railing about for over 15 years, she says in that last quote that the model is fine.  Making it longer won’t help.  Giving teachers incentive to continue in the classrooms won’t help either.  Now, if this is what she’s really saying, I definitely disagree.  She’s already said that having effective teachers is one of the keys to student achievement.  Then to say that our training model is good enough since without a transformational leader it won’t matter anyway.  This is outrageous to me.  As a teacher I know that if my students get six hours of practice rather than five, they will be that much more prepared for the test.  The same would go with training CMs.  If the institute was a bit longer or better in many other ways that I’ve outlined in other posts (20 hours of student teaching is negligent) then it would make the CMs that much more effective.

It seems like Wendy is dropping the ball on the most urgent part of TFA — to teach the kids who need it right now.  Kids who can’t wait for their school to get a transformational leader.  The data should make Wendy want to dedicate more resources to improving the training, not to focus on this very lofty new goal of developing transformational leaders who will take the undertrained CMs and help them to succeed.

For Wendy to say that there is ‘no’ evidence that more training results in better teachers is crazy.  If that’s true, why not make the institute just two weeks.  It makes no sense.  As far as incentives to remain teaching, I have first hand knowledge of that.  Just as I was preparing to retire from teaching (again!) in 2003, I received a pretty hefty fellowship as long as I kept teaching for four more years.  Then when that ended, I got fellowship again.  Without that money, there’s a pretty good chance I’d be computer programming again.

OK, now I’m tired again.  I’m only halfway through chapter 4, but the rest of the book is pretty reasonable, so I’m really hoping to wrap this up in part III.

6 Responses

  1. G

    I can’t wait to see what you have to say about the rest of her book. I haven’t read it yet, so I am interested to see what others have to say before I pick it up (honestly, I have very little time to myself these days).

    One comment that she made rings true for me. “It is a very rare person who can be a transformational teacher outside of a transformational school.” When you work at a school whose administration insists that it wants to be exemplary and then does everything under the sun to undermine every single, solitary thing that teachers (including, and especially, anything I do), it’s difficult to be transformational. This is my personal experience, and others’ mileage may vary, but that comment really hit home for me.

  2. Wess

    I haven’t read it yet, either (BIG disclaimer), so forgive me if this is way off–but it sounds like rather than dropping the ball on CMs, she’s just making another no-silver-bullets point.

    From what I gather, she’s saying she’s seen effective teachers have an incredible impact on students, but not on the system.
    There is no evidence, for example, that longer preservice training, [...] produce significant impacts. I think we can assume the “significant impacts” here are not impacts on teachers or on their students, but on that “needle” she so likes to reference. I don’t think she’s saying there’s no evidence that more training results in better teachers. I think she’s saying there’s no evidence that more training, in isolation, leads to significant impacts for American education as a whole.

    But again. Haven’t read it, so let me know if that doesn’t make sense within the context of the chapter.

    • garyrubinstein

      I guess I can see that, but when is anything done in complete isolation of everything else? It’s a matter of prioritizing energy and resources and training teachers seems like the most effective place to invest the majority of resources, though there should certainly be some dedicated to other things, like Wendy’s own silver bullet — developing transformational leaders.

      • Another one who hasn’t read it… but does she claim that transformational leaders are a silver bullet? Or just the most effective thing for right now? She seems to be (from your description) pretty level-headed and honest about everything. In fact, from reading your post I just gave her +20 respect points I never had for her. Props for excellently and publicly critiquing her own organization…

        But in her defense, if she is claiming this leadership is a silver bullet, maybe I’ll buy it. It’s vague enough to make sense. The 20th anniversary summit did a pretty stellar job of promoting that concept, as well. While I was in it I didn’t quite understand why there wasn’t more focus on TEACHERS because it is a teacher-based (seemingly) organization, but after reading this post the whole theme of the conference makes complete sense.

        And this makes me want to read her book.

        Great analysis.

  3. eatsleepeducate

    In this post you mentioned that you received two teaching fellowships that kept you motivated (financially, and maybe otherwise?) to stay in the game. I’ve heard of fellowship programs, like NYC Teaching Fellows, which are very TFA-esque. What are the types of mid-career fellowship programs that are out there? I didn’t even know they existed.

    • garyrubinstein

      The one that I got is available for Math teachers only. It was from a program called ‘Math For America.’ I don’t know of any others that give any significant amount of money, in general, but the Math For America one has been great for me. If you’re a math teacher, let me know and I can give you more details.

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