In the last few weeks I’ve noticed a rise in the ‘student voice’ around education and ed reform. First I had read about StudentsFirst and a student chapter at Cornell, the alma mater of both Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten. Then I heard about SFER, Students For Education Reform, which intentionally sounds a lot like DFER, Democrats For Education Reform. I started getting worried that students were being manipulated into supporting policies that will ultimately hurt other students.
Then, a few weeks ago two superstars shot onto the scene, Rutgers Sophomore Stephanie Rivera and a Maryland Freshman Zak Malamed. They are members of something called Student Voice, which is, from my perspective, the ‘anti-reform’ counter to those other organizations.
They probably wouldn’t want to be labeled as ‘anti-reformers’, as I don’t like what it implies to some people when I am, but I’ve come to think of it as a badge of honor. To be against something that is making things worse than even the ‘status quo’ is the first step in working toward improving the system.
Stephanie Rivera recently wrote a blog post called ‘A Student, Future Teacher, and Educational Equity Activist’s Critique on Teach For America.’ This is a very thorough summary of many of the problems with TFA, and it includes a lot of links to support her arguments. The reason that this is such an important post, though, is that nobody can possibly accuse her of being a union shill. She, up until very recently, thought she was destined to be a TFAer, actually, but through learning about some of this issues, especially now that the issues are out there in the media on blogs and even in the mainstream media, somewhat, she seems to agree that ed ‘reform’ as defined by the TFamous alumni causes more harm than good. One of the braver things she does is acknowledge in her last point that poverty is more than just an ‘excuse.’ This takes guts since ‘reformers’ seem to think that it means that anyone who says this doesn’t believe that teachers should even try to help kids who are poor. But there is nobody who thinks we shouldn’t do the best we can. And there is nobody who thinks that the ‘status quo’ is good enough. But looking for the ’cause’ of the achievement gap is really the only way to ever get a plan to shrink it. When reformers start with the premise that the gap was caused by bad teachers and will be shut by great teachers, it sets into motion a series of costly and wasteful reforms that have no chance of fixing things and, more likely, will make things worse.
Ryan Heisinger is a college senior who has been his TFA campus coordinator. He also just submitted his application to TFA. He wrote a response to Stephanie Rivera’s critique which I am going to respond to here.
Now before some TFA staffers start to go off on me for ‘attacking’ a college kid, let me say that responding to this post is, and I’m sure Ryan will see it this way too, a compliment. What he wrote was very thoughtful and compelling. And just like Rivera can’t be accused of being a union status-quo apologist, Heisinger can’t be accused of being a hedge-fund corporate reformer millionaire. His post does not suffer from the massive defensiveness of anything coming officially from TFA. He truly believes that TFA does more good than harm and presents a collection of arguments much in the way Rivera does.
His post reminds me a bit of a well-written Huffington Post piece by Whitney Tilson. Tilson is one of the purest ‘reformers’ out there. I’ve been debating him, via email, for over a year. (Some of the debate has been published on this blog and on his famous ‘mailing list.’) Though Tilson is ‘hated’ by many people on ‘my side,’ I actually like him. I respect his intelligence and his belief that what he does will help kids, though I am positive that he has almost no idea what he is talking about. But I don’t ‘hate’ him any more than the players on the Yankees ‘hate’ the players on the Red Sox.
Heisinger includes many interesting statistics and graphs, many from papers by Kane related to value-added. My concern is that any theories that rest on the foundation of the strength of value-added are destined to crumble. I’ve demonstrated in one of my posts that there are teachers who have taught two grades in the same year and who have been rated highly effective in one grade and highly ineffective in the other grade. Value-added is maybe fifty years away from being anything that we can draw any meaningful conclusions from.
Here are some graphs
This was from a study and of the many conclusions, some of which showed TFA to have negative results, these were some of the positive results. Notice that the big bar on top signifies just .2 of 1 standard deviation, which corresponds to one month. This study has been analyzed by many people and is known to have mixed results. One main conclusion the authors reached, which is something I agree with is that The authors also recommend that schools use TFA teachers only when “the alternative hiring pool consists of uncertified and emergency teachers or substitutes.”
Here’s a graph that shows that teachers are as stupid as athletes. But notice that the graphs begin at 900, which deceptively makes things that are very close seem further apart. A 100 point difference on the SAT really isn’t significant. Now Heisinger did not create these graphs. They were made by people who knew that they were being deceptive when they made them. But Heisinger, like many policy makers, was definitely seduced by them.
Heisinger also quotes something from the TFA publicity packet that 7,000 alumni are still teachers. This number is quite misleading. Keep in mind that of those 7,000 teachers, more than half of them are people who are either in their third (and final) year of teaching or their fourth (and final) year of teaching. A more meaningful statistic, and one that we will likely never get from TFA, is what percent of alumni from 1990-2006 are still teaching. I’d say that about 10 percent of TFA alumni became career teachers. This more accurate number is still pretty impressive, but it is way less than the 1/3 that they claim.
Basically, the problem with TFA is that they have a tendency to stretch the truth. I don’t want to call them ‘liars,’ but if TFA were a person, its pants would definitely be on fire. They ‘exaggerate’ about the effectiveness of their teachers. This downplays how difficult teaching actually is. The typical first year is full of frustration trying to get the kids to listen for most first years. Here is a recent post by a new TFAer that is typical, I think, of first years. There are just too many things that have to go right.
TFA also ‘withholds the truth’ about charter schools. Many are run and staffed by TFAers so they kind of have to tout them, but the absolute truth is that charter schools, particularly the ‘high achieving’ ones do not have the ‘same kids’ as the struggling neighborhood schools. A major study came out a few days ago analyzing charters in Texas including KIPP and YES. This study took about 2 years to complete and the results are decisive. You can read about them here. The worst thing about the charters is that when they skim off the most motivated students from the public schools, and then those schools get shut down and their teachers fired for not keeping up with the miraculous results of the charters.
TFA also ‘takes liberties’ when they speak about the TFA alumni who have become leaders of districts, states, or advocacy non-profits. Since TFA claims now to be a leadership organization, this small group of ‘leaders’ has been the net result of 21 years of TFA. The idea is that out of 6,000 2012 CMs, maybe we get 100 career teachers, 50 career education administrators, and 10 big shot leaders. I would be OK with this if any of the leaders that have emerged from this meat grinder so far have had the humility to admit that they don’t really know how to get ‘transformational’ change on a major scale. So far all the big leaders have blind faith in the power of value-added. They are sure that it is good enough to determine which teachers should be fired and which should get bonuses. They are sure that it is good enough to declare a school ‘failing’ and put it on the chopping block.
One criticism of TFA that Heisinger addresses is that they are slow to change. He wrote “ But in my experiences in recruitment, visiting and observing at Institute, and speaking to corps members and many of the folks on staff, I have seen an unwavering commitment to constant improvement. TFA collects mountains of data, then looks at all of its practices with a critical eye and adapts them accordingly as it moves forward.” So he has seen the organization improve, even in the couple of years that he has been involved. But I’d say that in my 21 years of experience watching the development of this organization, they have not always gotten better. I think they improved for the first few years. I see that they have gotten worse in the past few years, though. They are getting more defensive and more stubborn, I think. Even their recent attempt to improve by showing everyone how the alumni are diverse in their education philosophies resulted in the ‘Pass The Chalk’ blog which, so far, has not produced even one blog entry that was not the TFA ‘party line’ which they claim does not exist.
Heisinger ends his post with a plea “Here’s my final ask: Let’s all continue these conversations in a constructive manner and leave the name-calling and oversimplified political rhetoric at the door. The sooner we elevate the conversation, we’ll elevate the profession and be able to return focus to the people this is all about––the students.” I suppose that some of these ‘conversations’ are not very constructive, but since they have all the money and all the power and they also are ‘creative’ with the facts sometimes, it gets very frustrating to try to have a constructive debate with people like that. I recently had a back-and-forth discussion with TFA (I won’t mention any names here) about whether or not it would be accurate to say that the ‘average’ TFAer has about 3 years of experience. Remember that 11% don’t finish 2 years, 60% stay for a third year, but it goes down quick after that. They would not commit to a number, even an approximation. There is no way that the average TFAer stays for 4 years. That would mean that half stay 2 and the other half stay an average of 6. It must be somewhere around 3 or even 3.5. They just would not acknowledge that this was a good approximation. They said that there’s no way to calculate this since people’s careers aren’t over yet and some people might get back into teaching later. Finally I told them that retention is known to be part of the model and of course it is a problem, but it is, hopefully balanced out by other things that are good. They can’t claim that they don’t have a retention problem. It is built into the design of the program. Still, they wouldn’t acknowledge that the number, if calculated would at least be under 4. This is like saying that motorcycles are dangerous, but you get good gas mileage, and they’re not dangerous. It just doesn’t make sense.
TFA, and their recruiters, should take a more honest approach. They should say that the hope is that everyone who does TFA becomes a career teacher, even if they were planning to do something else. They should admit that the first year nobody really closes any achievement gaps. With 1 out of 9 TFAers not completing the two year commitment, well, those 11% probably weren’t making transformational change. The second year is better. Still the second years won’t be that much better than the average teacher. But for people who stick with it, they can become assistant principals and then principals and work their way up the ranks. As far as ‘politics,’ TFA should remain completely neutral. They should admit that their alumni are very divided about what constitutes feasible reform and that some alumni think that the ideas of other alumni actually will harm the children and schools they were supposed to help. TFA should not present skewed statistics to make it look like their most famous alumni are making progress. I know this would be a tough temptation to resist, but it would stop many critics from continuing this onslaught on blogs and other social media.
Anyway, I am glad that there are students getting involved. Even though they might be on different ‘sides,’ they seem to be willing to discuss openly, so far. Right now they don’t have anything personally to lose the way some of the big players today do, which helps the discussions continue. I’m looking forward to seeing them (particularly the ones I agree with) continue to write, analyze, and debate.