Dec 06 2012

Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 4: Timothy Daly

Links to the rest of this series here

In the summer of 2001 I found, on the TFA website, a summer job description for something called ‘The New York City Teaching Fellows.’  It was a branch of something called ‘The New Teacher Project’ which was being run in D.C. by Michelle Rhee, who I had known a bit from when I had worked for TFA five years earlier.  I applied for the job of ‘Fellow Advisor’ and help trained a group of twelve secondary math and science teachers.  Working in the office was a young TFA alum who had just completed his second year teaching in Baltimore.  His name was Tim Daly and he was excited to have me on board as he had benefited from my classroom management advice when he was in training.

I liked working for The New York City Teaching Fellows, and did so for three summers.  I found The Fellows to be more mature than the TFAers I had trained and seemed a lot more grounded in reality and motivated by the fear of what the first year was likely to be like.  I also liked that the training was not a ‘sweat shop.’  Unlike when I worked for TFA and everyone, including me, had to be ‘on’ pretty much all day, this was a lot more humane.

About nine years later, in 2010, I attended a fund raiser for TFA and was surprised and delighted to learn that young Tim had climbed the ranks and had become the head of The New Teacher Project when Michelle Rhee left to become chancellor in D.C..  Not only that, but Tim received the Peter Jennings award for supervising a very interesting sounding report called ‘The Widget Effect.’  I found him and congratulated him.

As I started learning more about the modern education ‘reform’ movement led by many TFA alumni, I would hear about some of the problems with The New Teacher Project.  They weren’t just about getting career changers to become teachers anymore.  That ‘Widget Effect’ which sounded pretty good at first was getting quoted left and right by the testing and accountability zealots.  Then when I saw Tim’s name on Wendy Kopp’s ‘The World’s Most Powerful Educators’ list, I got a feeling that maybe he had become one of those alumni who was now part of the problem.  As I examined the reports released by TNTP (they changed their name to that, officially), ‘The Widget Effect’, ‘Teacher Evaluation 2.0′, ‘The Irreplaceables’, and ‘The Irreplaceables in D.C. Schools,’ I saw why TNTP was so disliked by many of the people I follow on Twitter.  Many of these reports rely heavily on ‘value-added’ metrics which are falling apart all around the country, despite states having promised to use them to win Race To The Top money.  The most recent report about D.C. schools was a really shoddy piece of research.  Basically it said that D.C. was doing a good job because the people who were getting good scores on the inaccurate evaluation system were not quitting while those with low scores were getting fired or quitting.  After some initial fanfare about this report, most of what I’ve read has been pretty critical of this report.  Beside from relying a lot on value-added in some of the reports, they are big advocates of merit pay.  Even though these things are happening in D.C. while achievement there is not improving at all, they seem to not be able to admit this and want to go ‘full steam ahead.’

I emailed Tim with some questions, about a year ago, and he got back to me right away.  Over the past two years I’d say that he is the ‘reformer’ who has been most ‘validating’ when I’ve written him with concerns.  I was disappointed that he has already told me that he probably will not respond to my open letter.

It’s OK though.  My point in writing these open letters isn’t really to get a response from any of the recipients.  I’m mainly trying to explore the different aspects of the ed reform debate in a personal way and these letters are a vehicle for that.  It would be nice if I got some responses, but the lack of response is interesting also since I’m not lying when I say that these are all people who don’t ignore me when I write them private emails.  With this letter I’ll be half-way through the eight I’ve mapped out.

12/5/12

Dear Tim,

I’ll start by saying that I don’t think that teachers are interchangeable ‘widgets.’  There are great teachers and there are bad teachers, and I hope that my own kids have a lot more great ones than they do bad ones.  I also think that teacher evaluation systems can be improved.

Here’s a story from my TFA days:  In my second year I taught in one of those temporary trailers that many Houston schools had.  The teacher in my neighboring trailer was a Spanish teacher who I’ll call Mr. Smith.  Smith came to me one day to say that he got word that the principal was coming to observe the next day and that he was prepared with a great lesson.  A few days later I asked him how the lesson went and he said that the principal didn’t come so he was upset about that.  A few days after that he came up to me and said “She still didn’t come.  And, you know what, I’m going to keep waiting until she comes so I can do that lesson.”  Basically this guy didn’t teach anything for several weeks, from what he said, until the principal did what she was supposed to do.  So obviously there was a problem with this system.  I suppose one could blame the principal.  If she would have done what she said, he would have taught more.  But this was, no doubt, a negligent teacher, one who, even if he did teach, probably wasn’t going to do a great job.  Mr. Smith eventually went out for a long time with worker’s comp for slipping and getting hurt on school property.

Though this story will possibly be taken by ‘reformers’ to prove that there are way too many teachers like this, I found the quality of teachers at my ‘failing’ school in Houston to be quite high.  This guy was one who stood out as very bad while most were good, and some were quite great.  The few ‘bad apples’ did not, I think, spoil ‘the bunch.’  And though I was a youthful ‘irreplaceable’ myself at that time, I really never gave it a second thought how much money Mr. Smith was making.

The New Teacher Project officially changed its name to TNTP, I suppose, because training new teachers is just a small part of what you now do.  The reports I’ve read by TNTP promote merit pay, ending LIFO, and teacher evaluations based on ‘student achievement.’  The premise these suggestions assume is that these three things are a significant problem with education and that fixing them will therefore improve education significantly.  And I can see why, in theory, these seem like good ideas.

But when merit pay is done wrong, it is a waste of money.  I haven’t seen any convincing study that implementing merit pay raises student achievement and I’ve seen many studies that say that it doesn’t accomplish anything.  If a teacher is unsatisfied with her pay, all she has to do is get her administrative license and become an administrator.  Though this could be seen as the ‘loss’ of a great teacher, it could also be considered a gain as that teacher helps other teachers and, in that way, positively impacts even more students than when she was solely a teacher.

As far as LIFO goes, I do agree that it costs more money to lay off the first year teachers and keep the older ones vs. any system that eliminates some of the older teachers.  But since ‘effectiveness’ generally, nowadays, focuses on ‘value-added,’ I don’t think these measures are accurate enough to serve this purpose.  If a first year teacher is laid off under LIFO, that teacher can easily move on with his or her life.  When he or she applies for another teaching job, there won’t be a stigma attached to being laid off for being new.  But the veteran who is fired when LIFO is eliminated because his inaccurate ‘value-added’ isn’t high enough, that teacher will have a very tough time finding work again.  So you might think that I’m putting that teacher’s needs to support his family above the needs of the kids who could have a ‘better’ teacher, but in the long run I think that the kids will suffer if people avoid becoming teachers knowing they can be arbitrarily fired during layoff season which may or may not be truly needed.

In some TNTP papers they say that teacher evaluation doesn’t take ‘student learning’ into account at all.  I don’t agree.  Surely there is some correlation between what a competent principal observes in the classroom and how much the students learn.  In a good lesson, the principal should be able to see evidence of student learning throughout the lesson.  These new ‘objective’ value-added scores which I know you say should only be one of ‘multiple-measures,’ but in TNTP I’ve seen recommendations that it be 50% of a teacher’s rating.  As even D.C. has backed that off to 35%, would you advise them to be more aggressive with that, or do you agree with that change?  As a dilemma, note the irony that one of the 12 Fishman Prize winners that TNTP awarded in 2012 went to a New York teacher named Ryan Hill.  But when I looked up his value-added score it said he was merely an ‘average’ teacher, only better than 65% of the teachers in New York City.  How can you put such faith in these measures while simultaneously praising someone who did so poorly on it?

Now I do agree that teacher evaluation can be made more meaningful and could be a way to help teachers improve, which I’m in favor of.  And if there are other ways that TNTP can think of helping teachers improve, rather than just making them scarred they may get fired arbitrarily, I think that would be a good use of TNTP’s ample resources.  What are you doing to help teachers?  Certainly your own five week training program isn’t turning out great first year teachers.  I know because I worked for TNTP for a while and, believe me, it took all my teaching talent to turn that curriculum we had into something meaningful.  I felt like a contestant on Top Chef who had to make a gourmet meal out of Doritos.  Fortunately, I knew what I should emphasize, what not to emphasize, and when to teach the opposite of what the manual said.  As I was the only FA to have 100% of my trainees complete their first year (how’s that for value-added?) I think I’ve proved that I know a little about training teachers.

From my perspective, TNTP approaches the difficult job of figuring out what could improve the schools much in the way that a new teacher fumbles through that first year.  Things that sound good to a new teacher before trying them end up having unintended side effects.  The same goes with education policy.  I know that the ideas you promote ‘seem’ to have some logic to them.  But when these ideas are put into place before they are ‘ripe’ the risk is that education can be made worse, ironically.

Well, that’s what I think about all this.  I know that you have a big future in education reform.  If you continue to follow in Michelle Rhee’s footsteps, you will soon be some kind of chancellor and possibly even become the leader of StudentsFirst.  If that is your path, you’ll want to get there before the whole ed reform ‘bubble’ bursts.

Even though you’ve already told me that you probably won’t, I hope you change your mind and decide to respond to this open letter publicly.  Really the only reason not to respond publicly is that you don’t want certain people to think that you have enough respect for me to openly discuss these issues, like some kind of peer.

Either way, I’m sure that we’ll still have contact from time to time through emails.  I do appreciate that you always respond to my questions I send and hope that this public letter doesn’t dissuade you from continuing to do so in the future.

Sincerely,

Gary

9 Responses

  1. Ms. Math

    The statisticians I’ve spoken with in my PhD program in math education are not fans of value-added models. They said that there is so much variability in student performance due to non-teacher related variables that it was very hard to statistically measure the impact of teachers above and beyond the other factors.

    I’m not an expert in Value Added Models, but as a ex-teacher and current teacher-educator, it doesn’t feel like the right place to go. When I think about what motivated me to do better, and who helped me make progress, it was always people who helped me understand my students better.

  2. veteran

    Gary
    I’m a big fan and I am enjoying this series very much.

    One quote did concern me “If a teacher is unsatisfied with her pay, all she has to do is get her administrative license and become an administrator. Though this could be seen as the ‘loss’ of a great teacher, it could also be considered a gain as that teacher helps other teachers and, in that way, positively impacts even more students than when she was solely a teacher.”
    Don’t you think this is part of the problem in education? The only way to make more money is to go to admin. and the further one gets removed from students the more money one makes. It would e nice if we could raise the professionalism of the classroom and have people ( TFA and otherwise) make the choice to STAY in the classroom and be successful as well as be compensated in pay

  3. Jennie

    I will have to agree with Veteran here about the grim possibilities for earning more. I think the point you (Gary) were trying to make was that teachers don’t go into teaching for the money, and that they do not want to be paid based on bogus, meaningless test scores. That is certainly true enough. However, most teachers DO want to earn more, especially those at the bottom of the ladder, many of whom see a salary schedule where they won’t hit $50K until some 15 years into their career, and with budget cuts freezing salaries, perhaps never. This is very discouraging. That is NOT to say that these same teachers want to be paid based on student test scores. It is just saying they want to see a solid salary schedule that starts off with a decent salary and improves, and that won’t get frozen for year after year until they feel there is no hope of ever making a decent living.

    I know because I was one of those teachers, until I got out of the classroom as of this past summer. Salary was not my #1 reason for looking to leave the classroom, but a lack of a career path definitely WAS. (The performance pay B.S. certainly did not help, either…that whole testing garbage was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back.) I wanted the opportunity to advance and to be rewarded for my work and growth–through compensation, responsibilities, respect, etc.–and I did not see that happening in education at all. Basically a teacher, whether new or veteran, spends a career getting beaten down…by the state, by the federal government, by the media, by “reformers,” by the district, by administrators, even by parents and students sometimes. My greatest rewards from teaching were a few thoughtful notes from students and former students thanking me for my hard work and dedication. Those were touching and made it worthwhile in the short term, but in the long term those small tokens of appreciation from about 1% of students were not enough to keep me in the classroom.

    Ironically, I went into teaching from TNTP (Miami Teaching Fellows). I did feel the teacher prep program over the summer was helpful, though it also fed us a lot of reformer-type garbage that I figured out to be nonsense pretty fast. I came into the classroom full of TNTP/TFA ideology, and by my third year in the classroom I was a union steward and co-chair of the union’s Legislative Action Committee, fighting these bad reforms…that tells you something right there. When I finally quit teaching, I did so to go to work for a union full time. I am earning a better salary, and most importantly I see a career path ahead of me with the opportunity to grow and advance (in compensation, responsibility and respect), and I am regularly shown appreciation by my superiors and coworkers for the work I do. I cannot express how invaluable this is. There DOES need to be a career path open to teachers besides going into administration; perhaps I would have stayed in the field if I felt there would be potential to grow and reward.

    I repeat, this CANNOT be done with test scores. There should be opportunities for teachers to become “lead teachers” or something like that, and take on additional responsibilities in exchange for teaching fewer classes, etc. Administration has all the things I hated about teaching and none of the things I liked about it…so I would never, ever want to be a school administrator. But that does not mean I wouldn’t have liked a career path open to me that was longer than just sitting in my classroom the rest of my 25 years.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Good points. Something in between a teacher and an administrator, like a lead teacher would be a way to make extra money while still directly helping many students and indirectly helping others.

    • Bella

      This….exactly.

    • Tee

      Love this idea and everything you’ve said.

      In addition, what about the opportunity to revamp the mentor process?

      In many districts, “mentor teacher” means teaching the regular number of classes and getting a small stipend. Can you imagine how much more effective the mentoring process would be if mentor teachers could teach, say, 4 classes instead of 5, and use the additional period to go into the mentee’s classroom, observe, provide useful feedback, spend time collaborating on lesson plans, etc?

      This would be a great way for teachers to “move up the ladder” in a way that is meaningful and useful to everyone involved.

      The bottom line is, there are so many possibilities for revamping the system and creating a career ladder that doesn’t just involve getting higher pay for better test scores.

  4. Me

    Please keep writing more and critically challenge the assumptions being made out there in the education reform space. You seem very well reasoned and analytical, so it’s hard for any reasonable reformer to just dismiss you as some angry status quo teacher, or some angry union person (if you’re even part of a union.)

    More educators, parents, and probably most importantly reformers need to read these open letters. If one really cares about students, they ought to be open to critical feedback.

    How many hits does your blog get!? I hope it’s in the thousands. I’m going to tell everyone I know about this blog.

    Please keep writing Gary.

  5. KrazyTA

    Gary, you are being eminently reasonable when you suggest above that there could be something “in between a teacher and an administrator.” I know from personal experience that such an idea has been proven in practice to work very well indeed.

    Decades before I ever worked as a bilingual TA and a SpecEd TA, I worked for an outfit called Western Electric [part of the communications industry]. There was [literally] a designation of worker called an “in-charge man” who would provide advice and assistance when our supervisors weren’t around. Not that being “absent in action” was rare since the supervisors were usually wandering the building I worked in, flirting with secretaries, taking very long breaks and lunches, and doing other essential administrative tasks. When those of us actually working needed immediate help we turned to our “in-charge man” and — at least in my direct experience — were never disappointed. Not hard to understand why, since the “in-charge man” was always picked from among the hardest working, most conscientious, and technically-adept workers. They got paid a little extra, but had no actual “authority” although perhaps “moral authority” counts more in a discussion like this. In fact, to be quite honest, almost to the last man [in those days, all male] we preferred turning for help to someone who was willing and able to get the job done. What did the ‘supervisors/administrators’ do more than anything else? Thankfully, their most common response [they weren’t stupid, just looking to make more money for less effort] was spot on: “Talk to your in-charge man; he knows what to do.”

    :)

    Once again you hit the nail on the head. Keep on keepin’ on.

  6. Tim

    We tried this in my NJ school but ran into difficulty because of DOE regulations on titles. According to regulations, “titles” were limited to department chair, vice principal, etc. You were not allowed to “make up ” new titles and pay accordingly.

About this Blog

By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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