Links to the rest of this series here
In the early days of TFA, when the size of the corps each year was fewer than 1000, it was a pretty small world. Unlike now where 6,000 new TFAers attend about twelve different institutes, back in the early and mid-90s, there was just one institute, and I participated in every one from my own in 1991 until around 2002. My workshop on classroom management was always well attended and appreciated.
Back in 1997 my friend Stephanie Kitz recommended that a new TFAer she was training, Michael Johnston, attend my workshop. I don’t remember if we spoke afterwards, but somehow at the 2001 ten year alumni summit in 2001 I spent a good amount of time hanging out late at night with Mike and his girlfriend (now his wife) Courtney. Over the next five years, I’d run into them from time to time at TFA events and always enjoy my time with them.
In 2003, Mike published a book about his two years teaching in Mississippi called ‘In the Deep Heart’s Core.’ It was an excellent and realistic book about the small victories and also the larger losses when trying to help kids overcome so much. I remember going to the book signing at the Barnes and Noble in New York City and when it was my turn to get my book signed, Mike graciously said “The man in whose footsteps I walk” referring to the fact that I had published my own story about my TFA experience a few years earlier. I always found Mike to be a very likeable and gracious guy.
In 2008 while Mike was a principal of a high school in Colorado, I had read that he was one of now-President Obama’s education advisers. Right after the election I asked if he was willing to pass my name onto the new Secretary of Education, whom I had never heard of, Arne Duncan. It never amounted to anything, but I don’t doubt that my name did make it onto some kind of list.
In 2009 I was thrilled for him when he was elected to be a Colorado state senator. At the TFA 20 alumni summit, I heard him speak about how he had gotten some kind of education reform bill passed. I cheered for him at this announcement.
After that alumni summit in February 2010, I started learning about what was really going on in ed ‘reform.’ Until then I was always a little suspicious of charters, but I thought them to be relatively harmless. I wasn’t thrilled by ‘Waiting For Superman,’ but really didn’t think much about education policy.
Then, as I learned more, I realized that much of ed ‘reform’ amounted to punishing teachers for not being able to work miracles. And these punishments were justified because of ‘miracle’ schools and ‘superhero’ teachers who were proving that any teacher who says “this is unrealistic” is simply making excuses.
As different players came into my radar over the months, many of them were TFAers. But most of them weren’t people I had hung out with much. So it was with a lot of surprise when I read Steven Brill’s ‘Class Warfare’ and found Mike described as on the ‘reformer’ side while that bill that I had cheered about was an example of using value-added to rank teachers and close schools. I then learned that Mike was supported by Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) an organization that pushes ideas that have little basis in research, but they have the money to push them anyway.
Brill’s book described how Mike had become a principal and how he had taken his first 44 tenth graders and had beaten the odds by having all 44 graduate high school and get admitted to a four year university. As a researcher I had the uncomfortable task of ‘investigating’ someone that I like. I learned that Brill’s depiction was not accurate. There were actually 73 tenth graders who had dwindled to 44 seniors — a pretty relevant detail. Whether Brill misunderstood or whether Mike implied that he had gotten a 100% four year graduation rate, rather than what is sometimes called ‘graduation rate’ but is just the percent of seniors who graduate. Since most dropping out occurs before students make it to senior year, this type of graduation rate should generally be pretty high.
Recently, I read on Whitney Tilson’s email blast about an article from Forbes magazine called ‘The Best Speech About Education — Ever.’ When I hear something like that, I know where it is going, so I got my notebook out to start listing the lies. To my dismay, it was Mike making the speech, and though there were many moments of humility, he did begin with the story of the 44 students that I had read about in ‘Class Warfare.’ Though he doesn’t directly say that the 44 students were all the students that had started, I think that it was somewhat implied, at least I believe that everyone in the audience understood it that way, particularly at minute 6:55 where he says “Our school becomes the first public high school in Colorado where 100% of our kids are admitted to a four year college.” He then admits that there were a lot of failures too, but doesn’t list any explicitly and the impact of what is implied has already happened.
Now every story gets embellished. Whether it was 73 kids becoming 44 graduates or 44 kids all graduating, it is still a story about kids beating the odds. But in today’s fierce climate around ed reform, the story as most receive it is not just about the potential of students, but about how a new principal with new teachers prove that ‘poverty doesn’t matter’ and that all it takes is youth and enthusiasm to work miracles.
Mike recently wrote to me and told me that usually in his speeches he makes it very clear that he didn’t have a 100% 4 year graduation rate, and even that many of those kids who did graduate and went on to college were not able to remain there. He was upset, though, that I seemed to be belittling what he and his staff did accomplish with their students. He also seemed concerned that I was spreading the word that significant change is not possible in education, something that he very much disagrees with.
It is with this background that I compose my third open letter to reformers I know.
Though we’ve only met a few times, I think of you as a friend. Certainly we’re friends in the Facebook sense as I sometimes enjoy your family pictures when they appear on my newsfeed. I also have great respect for you. You are a true ‘mover and shaker,’ getting elected to state senator so young and doing a lot of good there in Denver, which has a special place in my heart, having lived there for six years. I think of all the people I know, you have the best chance of being President of the United States one day — I mean that.
But I’m concerned about what’s going on with education around the country and I want to clear some things up about how I see you fitting into it. From what you once wrote to me, it seems like you view ed reform as if there are two ‘sides.’ There’s the side of the ‘reformers,’ people, many of them TFA, who believe in the unlimited potential of students. And then there are the other people — maybe they can be described as the ‘union.’ These are pessimists who see change as a threat to their comfortable lifestyle. They don’t think education can be improved much until “poverty is fixed” first so why bother? I think that if I thought those were the only two sides, I would side with the ‘reformers’ too.
But I don’t oppose the proposed reforms of DFER because I don’t think schools can be improved. My fear is that since the DFERers have little idea about how schools actually work, they propose reforms that will, in my opinion, make schools worse. A big example is the overuse of standardized test ‘growth’ as a measure of school and teacher quality. Though it seems like a good idea in theory, these ‘growth’ scores are too inaccurate. I already see places like D.C. backpedaling and reducing the percent from 50% to 35%. One day it will be down to 20%, I expect.
I don’t know a lot about the bill you got passed, but I know that it does put a lot of faith in these metrics. But I think you have made a time table where things don’t get implemented until 2014. To me this means that you are not just rushing into something that is not ready yet. You could have easily just taken D.C.’s IMPACT model, and the fact that you didn’t, to me, shows that you are trying to do something that is fair.
Though I do think that schools can improve, I will admit that I do think there is a limit to what can be accomplished by just ‘fixing’ schools and ‘fixing’ teachers primarily by ‘fixing’ teacher evaluation. I have not seen much evidence that this type of reform is working anywhere. It certainly isn’t working in D.C.. But the ‘reformers’ never seem to want to face the mounting evidence that the reforms aren’t improving achievement and are, instead, encouraging teachers change their teaching so they might ‘game’ the new metrics.
I’ve been teaching now for fifteen years, and some of my best lessons are the ones where I insert something into the curriculum that won’t be part of any standardized test, but will inspire my students to like math more. If my salary and my ability to support my family were heavily weighted by my ‘value-added’ I’d have to think carefully before risking doing something that won’t be on the test.
I think it is easy to forget, after leaving the classroom, how tough teaching is. I hope that whatever school and teacher evaluation system you eventually adopt, you take the time to see how your own school that you were principal of would have fared on the system. Though the test scores at MESA were very low, you know that your teachers were working hard and ‘making a difference’ despite some computer saying that the students were not getting enough ‘growth’ and the teachers were not adding enough ‘value.’ I think that there can be great schools that score low on these types of metrics and other schools that are not really so good, but manage to rank high when measured by these same formulas.
I encourage you to see that there are not just two sides that you have to choose from. There is a full spectrum. If you are not an extremist, let us know that.
You are the fourth person I’ve written an open letter to. The first three, Tilson, Levin, and Feinberg have all written me back short private emails. Nobody, yet, is willing to go on record with ‘the enemy,’ I guess. I’m hoping that you’d be willing, though, to answer publicly. It might encourage the others to do so as well and then we can really get a chance to have an honest discussion about what is working, what isn’t, and what to try next.