I’m going to summarize and then finish this review in this post, I hope.
Here’s what we’ve learned in the first two parts of the review:
Chapter 1: TFA has produced some transformational teachers who have managed to succeed despite being in schools run by poor leaders.
Chapter 2: Some of those teachers have become transformational leaders and their schools have defied the odds and expectations of most people.
Chapter 3: One has even become a famous chancellor, though the jury is out on whether or not she was any good.
Chapter 4 is the one that I’ve had the most to say about. Basically Wendy is explaining that fixing the schools is very difficult and we have to be careful about thinking that it can be fixed by following the latest ‘silver bullet.’ Among those silver bullets are more funding, more time in class, more charters, and more technology. None of these, she says, accomplishes much unless they are combined with a transformational leader.
One problem I have with this thesis is that Wendy does not realize that she is proposing her own silver bullet: Have more transformational leaders. Michelle Rhee tried that and many of the principals she hired have already quit. New York city tried that with something called ‘The Leadership Academy’ where business leaders were trained to be principals. That didn’t work either. Even Bloomberg has tried that by hiring a magazine publisher to run New York City schools.
But the thing that really bothered me, and I wrote about this a lot in the last post but I’m still working out the ideas so I’m going to write about it a bit more, is that lumped in with things like Charters and technology, she describes another silver bullet: “Providing Every Child with an Effective Teacher.” Based on some comments that people left on the last post, I want to clarify my analysis of this. I’m definitely not trying to twist Wendy’s words into something she didn’t say or intend to say. Here’s what her argument seems to be:
1) Effective teachers, she knows, are the primary tool in closing the achievement gap.
2) It is very hard for a teacher to be effective without a transformational leader.
3) TFA has struggled to produce the kind of teachers who will succeed in a non-transformational school, despite the fact that they have done everything they possibly could to improve their training over the past twenty years.
4) Training can not really be improved any more since there is no evidence that longer training will result in better results.
Conclusion: We should not invest all our energy into teacher training at the expense of other goals like developing transformational leaders.
I agree that we shouldn’t focus on ‘just’ teacher training at the expense of anything else. It’s more of a question of how much energy and resources should be allocated to this particular goal. The thing I disagree with, and which I think topples her argument is that the TFA training model cannot be improved. This is TFA’s main purpose, to train teachers to go into tough schools and make a difference. Their training is sub-par, and her comments make me think that she truly believes that they’ve done everything they can to improve the training and it still hasn’t worked so let’s focus on developing transformational leaders.
But transformational leaders have to be people who were first great teachers. You can’t just develop those leaders without starting by training more effective teachers.
If you ever read this, Wendy, please know that it is possible to train people over the summer to be effective. You just haven’t come up with that way yet. See my critique of ‘Teaching As Leadership’ to get you started. Your comments make it seem like you are not willing to invest significantly more resources into improving the training either.
OK. That’s all I want to say about that right now. I get frustrated since I’ve been complaining for fifteen years about this and, unless I’m really misreading this, I hate to think that they’ve given up trying to improve the training because they don’t see how it can be improved.
The rest of Chapter 4 is about how we can’t solve any problems by just blaming groups of people like the parents, the kids, the teachers, or even the teachers’ unions. This is a nice contrast to what they put forth in ‘Waiting For Superman’ where it is implied that if the teachers’ unions were abolished, the education system would be fixed.
Chapter 5 is about how the political process is shifting to help education. Featured is another TFA superstar, Colorado state senator Michael Johnston. And, yes, I’m friendly with him too. My first time meeting him was after his book ‘In The Deep Heart’s Core’ came out about 8 years ago and he was doing a book signing in New York. When I got to the table to have my book signed he looked at me and said “Ah, the man in whose footsteps I walk,” since my first book had been out for a while by then. Of course by now he’s far past me in achievement, but it was a nice thing for him to say. I hope I get to hang with him at the 20 year summit this weekend, though I can imagine there might be some ‘A-List’ parties that I won’t be welcome at.
Chapter 6 has more personal stories including a funny scene where Wendy’s 8 year old questions the logic of sending inexperienced college grads to try to fix the toughest education problems. I think that this scene demonstrated Wendy’s humility, and how TFA might just be one of those ideas that’s so crazy, it might just work.
In general the book is pretty good. By not getting behind any particular solution aside from developing transformational leaders, Wendy definitely played it safe a lot in this book. On the other hand she did take some risks by writing about how there are problems with Charter schools, by admitting that CMs are struggling to be transformational, and by not blaming the teachers’ unions. Had it not been for page 126 and 127 which upset me so (maybe I was misreading it, or what came through wasn’t what she intended it to mean) I think it would have been much better. Maybe she’ll see this review and try to edit those pages a bit for the paperback edition.