Oct 07 2013

Saving Public Ryan

There’s nothing more dangerous than a first year TFAer who is having an easy time.  And don’t tell them that they’re having an easy time or they will protest that it is not easy, but actually the toughest thing they’ve ever done in their lives.  But the fact is that although most new TFAers are struggling to control their classes and around 10% won’t even complete their first year, a few fortunate souls, for various reasons, have first years that are relatively good.

Ryan Heisinger is a 2013 TFA corps member who I’m on quite friendly terms with.  I first became aware of him over a year ago when I critiqued a pro-TFA blog post he had written.  At the time Heisinger was a campus representative for TFA and also the leader of the SFER (Students For Education Reform) chapter at the University of Maryland.  Heisinger and I have kept in touch through e-mail he has been a guest on two of my rare Spreecast talk shows here and here.  and I sometimes tease him on Twitter, all in good fun.  He seems to be able to take it much better than another first year who I think I might have inadvertently traumatized.

Communicating with people online is an unusual experience since you don’t get to see the person and read their facial expressions.  Whether you’re communicating with a someone who is nineteen or someone who is eighty, there is something about seeing black letters on a white screen that is, to me, some kind of great equalizer — minds communicating free of some of the distractions of the terrestrial world.  I realize that not everyone on the Internet sees it like I do so I suppose that it can be a bit strange for a young teacher to be receiving pointed Twitter comments from a forty-three year old guy like me, and I probably should keep this in mind, but I’ve been trusting my instincts on all the social media and it seems to have been working out for me, generally, so I don’t know.

So last week I noticed this Tweet from Ryan:

So I responded asking if he was saying that the teachers this student had for the past two years were not good at motivating this student, and he wrote back that he wasn’t pointing fingers, just celebrating a small victory.  Ryan detailed the entire conversation in his very first teachforus.org blog post which I encourage everyone to read and see everything in context.

Now I have been begging TFA to improve their training for nearly twenty years, and Ryan having early success could be the result of improved training, so I could see how I might seem like a hypocrite for responding to his break-though moment in a somewhat negative way.  In a past time, maybe even five years ago, I would have been more apt to celebrate what seems to be a prolonged honeymoon period for a young teacher.  But in this current climate, particularly in Newark, a story like this will, unfortunately, get used by ‘reformers’ as some kind of ‘proof’ that TFA training is good enough and that TFA is doing more good than harm.  So my job, I feel, is to put Ryan’s story into context.

I’ve done this before.  Last year, around this time, I was writing posts about blog entries I read from two very idealistic 2012 CMs.  One post critiqued the first day of Dalton Goodier mainly for being too friendly and for making a sort of promise that his students were going to be the best writers in the state at the end of the year.  Another post critiqued a post by The MEGnitude of change for being overly dramatic and implying that she was the first teacher who ever cared about her students.  I took a lot of criticism for writing these posts including a post from YoTeach warning new CMs to not let me ‘bully’ them.  Well, a year has passed since then and I’ve followed the blogs of the two CMs who I had ‘bullied’ and have seen how they have become much wiser.  In the most recent post of The MEGnitude of change, she wrote “What is the purpose of this blog entry? Maybe just to wonder at how limited we are in TFA, how limited our time is. The solution to improving our educational system has to incorporate those who simply have more time than we do. I firmly believe TFA would do well to involve more seasoned veterans into our training, in addition to MTLDs and other staff members.”  For Dalton Goodier, who I email with from time to time, he has surely learned that a full out sprint is not a good strategy to run a marathon.  He is having a great second year.  In his most recent post, he wrote “This year, I’ve been much less prolific on this site. Even though I find myself with exponentially more free time than I had at this time last year, I come here less and less often. I’m just not driven by the near-manic desire to record and remember every single moment that happens. Because it’s not some new grand, crazy, soul-squeezing adventure. It’s just life.”

So back to Ryan.  Ryan is an extremely poised guy.  You can watch the interviews I did with him on Spreecast, which there are links to above, and see that if he doesn’t continue teaching, he has a future as something that involves public speaking.  And he is a very nice guy too.  We even almost met up once at a Starbucks, but it fell through for some reason that I can’t remember.  But the reason I have to add some ‘perspective’ to his story is that his situation is somewhat unusual.

As he explains in his post, he is at a ‘renew’ school in Newark that fired its staff and split into two small schools.  I do believe that it is possible for a school to have become very dysfunctional and it might be ‘easier’ to ‘renew’ the school rather than go though the tough work of helping the school without firing everyone, but I think that this kind of reform is very dangerous and I don’t think that the ‘gains,’ if there are even any genuine ones, outweigh the cost of this type of ruthless reform.

At this school, Ryan teachers only eleventh grade.  Not that he needs to be ashamed of this, but I don’t know if he realizes this, and I don’t mean to diminish the hard work he is doing, but eleventh graders are way easier to teach than ninth graders who, in turn, are much easier to teach than middle schoolers.  I’ve taught all levels at all kinds of schools and the sad truth is that eleventh graders are particularly easy, at least where I taught, since the kids who are most difficult to work with generally never make it out of ninth grade.  I’d rather teach a class of fifty eleventh graders than a class of twenty seventh graders, to give you a sense of the comparative difficulty.  Maybe his school is different, but I don’t think this is likely.

So did a kid start doing his homework for Heisinger after bragging that he did not do homework for the past two years?  Sure.  Is the kid exaggerating about never doing homework in two years?  Probably.  This does not mean that Heisinger should not feel good about this accomplishment.  Of course, not to be a grump again, but it is likely that the kid if he really didn’t do homework for two years, will fall off the wagon again and stop doing homework for Heisinger.  I’m not hoping for this, but it has been known to happen.

I suppose that one day after the inevitable collapse of the corporate reform movement I’ll be able to view an anecdote like Ryan’s in a positive light.  But for right now I see it as yet another thing that will get used by TFA and others to prove, once again, that ‘poverty is not destiny’ and that young teachers are generally better (and cheaper) than old ones and that ‘renewing’ a school is a good strategy.  Newark is a big experiment in corporate reform, with a TFA ‘cage busting’ alum leading the district.  As I wrote about a few months ago, even the KIPP schools there that have gotten so much attention have had awful SAT and AP scores.  If Heisinger and the ‘renewed’ Newark High School has some secret methods that enable them to outperform the KIPP schools that have been there for over ten years, that would be a pretty interesting development.

But I don’t want people to think that I’m rooting against Heisinger or that I hope that this eleventh grader stops doing his homework.  My feelings about this anecdote are complicated and I hope that Heisinger will be equally candid about when enthusiasm and relentless work isn’t enough to overcome all the out of school factors that even the eleventh graders have to deal with.

Maybe it’s just that I see him as someone who could one day be a ‘reformer’ that I’m writing an open letter to, and I’m trying to nudge him away from that.

16 Responses

  1. Awesome post. I am also torn when I hear stories like Ryan’s because it is important to celebrate classroom victories. But I am always concerned, like you, about the “reform” crowd’s tendency to suggest that stories like these prove something they don’t.

    That said, I’d love to hear from Ryan on exactly how the ~30% homework completion rate changed to ~90%, especially if it happened without a large change in the difficulty or length of the assignments. I taught all levels of middle school math to expelled students over the past few years. The largest uptick I got in assignment completion came when I required students who didn’t finish the previous night’s assignment to stay after school until they finished all their homework for the following day, but I never got 90% consistently.

    • ryanheisinger

      Happy to answer that question. And to be clear, it has not stayed that high. It dipped back down to about 50-60%, and I’m working on re-norming homework completion. Although I will note that I blame *part* of that dip on a lack of consistency; the school had standardized testing last week, during which time I did not assign homework.

      Anyway, I worked really hard on an investment plan, which my kids have (fortunately) bought into for the most part.

      I also do culture building for the first couple minutes of class, after the Do Now. For example, on Mondays, I do “Meme Monday” and share memes and gifs with them, which relate to something we’re learning about or working on. I try to make them humorous, and the kids tend to enjoy them. So I’ve done some funny homework-related things with those culture builders.

      I also, for two days during the week I saw homework completion skyrocket, gave double credit and a point on the school-wide reward/incentive system homework to the students who completed it, and I took one of those points away from the students who didn’t. I did make clear, however, that the double-credit and point were not going to happen after those two classes.

      Ultimately, I’ve found that effectively communicating purpose to students in a relatable manner is really helpful when trying to get them to work on anything, so I would attribute most of my success to investment.

      Happy to hear any thoughts.

      • Thanks for the response. I’d definitely agree that effective investment is the most important part of teaching, although the hardest part is building that investment. Kudos for working on it and for seeing some early success with your students.

        I appreciated Gary’s article because, as I wrote before, I’m always torn when reading teacher success stories. Celebrating our successes is incredibly important, but I think it’s equally important for us to remember that the majority of student outcomes, both positive and negative, have little to do with the teacher and school. That doesn’t mean teachers and schools can’t have a large impact – they can and often do – but it does mean that we should exercise great caution when interpreting a causal link for our students’ results. Most people in education unfortunately don’t exercise that caution and draw erroneous conclusions from stories like yours.

        I love TFA’s emphasis on consistently improving teacher practice in response to the results we see from our students, but the organization significantly overstates what excellent instructional practices can accomplish. Most teachers I’ve met and work with, no matter their background and training, employ some version of the investment strategies you mentioned. And the variance in their results correlates far more with factors outside of their control than with how well they use those strategies. While the strategies are very important and worthy of our study, school-level and classroom-level changes alone will never come close to solving the problem of educational inequity. When “reformers” use your writing to portray teachers as mostly omnipotent, the public loses sight of the social policies that could really help our students. It’s obviously not your fault when people draw inaccurate conclusions from what you wrote, but I understand why Gary felt compelled to comment.

        That said, we should do everything in our power to help our students and it sounds like you’re off to a great start. Good luck with the rest of your first year!

  2. Asa

    Gary, this is one of your best posts in a while. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and I’ll admit your recent posts have seemed cranky and more complaining than helpful. With that said, this post feels really honest and it explains a lot of why you’re so “cranky”. Change is not going to happen quickly which the reformers just don’t understand. Ryan’s anecdote about homework is a nice story, but it’s the long term we need to care about. Yes, celebrate victories when get them but after just three weeks? Hold the champagne. Keep up the fight for truth.

    • ryanheisinger

      I have no problem with breaking out the champagne after a small victory. One of my special education students who has refused to work in most classes wrote a full paragraph yesterday. So, although I haven’t solved all of the problems in the world (or even with his behavior or academics), I think I earned a nice glass of wine last night.

      • yoteach

        I wish my alcohol consumption as a teacher was directly correlated with my (even small) victories… Unfortunately in my case the two were inversely related.

  3. yoteach

    Gary, I think the irony of this whole back and forth is that Ryan didn’t really make any claims about policy/his school/the reform until you brought it up. I certainly agree that his anecdote is just that, and not evidence that his school is successful, but if he doesn’t try to make that point, all your doing by making it a point of debate is raining on a much-needed parade.

    The (reasonable) arguments that he and his classmates (or her?? I forget) may have been just saying that as a way of seeing how far they could push new teachers/a new school is only fair game if he’s making that causal claim. He’s not, and it is an accomplishment to get a student who is at the very least trying to make you think he never does homework to actually do his hw regardless.

    I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s the controversializing/politicizing of anecdotes and stories that tend to frustrate your discussion partners the most, and these arguments end up being the least persuasive. Because in the end, the only worthy policy discussion worth having of a datapoint of n=1 is to discuss why that datapoint is being used to make a generalize. Since he wasn’t making a generalization, there’s really no discussion to be had.

    Again, perhaps ironically, only in his defense of the initial tweets Re: your critique does Ryan come close to making more generalized claims based on his experience. And a lot of people seemed to respond well to it, even though I generally agree with your worry about how informative this anecdote actually is.

  4. James

    I’m willing to cut Ryan some slack here, although I will state that it was really, really, really annoying as a first-year corps member who struggled to have friends constantly sharing these ‘miracle’ anecdotes at the same time as I was battling PTSD most afternoons. Also, you are spot on regarding the fact that it is so much easier to teach high school than middle school — it should come as no surprise to you that many of the TFA ‘miracle videos’ used during Institute staff training were culled from high school corps members.

  5. Educator

    Just in case you missed it, I think someone from Students First tweeted about this post and alluded to you having low expectations.

    I think the reason why TFA and other reformers get so defensive is that each of them really does have a positive personal anecdote like the one Ryan had. These are all good and valuable. I have also seen teachers with bad reputations have some students who have been positively impacted. All this is to say that anyone in education usually has a good story or two. The problem occurs when people with good personal stories somehow believe that this is the answer to end poverty. Have enough teachers who have lots of good stories and high expectations, then the achievement gap will close they say. I’m actually open to this idea, but I haven’t seen any school do this – even the most famous charters. And when it seems like one does, there are always footnotes like not having as many special Ed, ELL students, or a high attrition rate, or a dictatorship style of pedagogy, or a self selecting lottery, or a high college dropout rate, or a lawsuit from parents over their son not getting special education services required by law, or burned out teachers, or a requirement for parent volunteer hours, or a complicated application process, or lots of math and English classes but few electives, or intense test prep, or a high suspension rate, or having students who travel by car with their parents to attend the school from afar, or a high dropout rate one month before state testing time….you get the point.

    I think many reformers start by having good stories (which is good), then they think to themselves, do I really want to teach any longer? Then starts the cost benefit analysis, and all too often, the choice is to leave teaching for something better. It’s really dangerous when folks with so little experience then choose to create education policy based on their few good stories, and them thinking that other teachers in failing schools are so inept. (Ryan if you’re reading this this isn’t directed to you. I think you were just celebrating a good thing, which you should and I hope you have many more positive stories.)

    I don’t know Gary, but from what I read on his blog, in my humble opinion he sees the danger of well intentioned CMs moving on to do more transformative work in education as so many TFA alum do. Transformation is good only if it improves things.

    Although Twitter might be snarky, I would encourage TFA people who read this to look past what may seem like snark and examine yourself, the organization, and the arguments being made by the critics.

    • ryanheisinger

      I would just note that I work at a public school, which in the past has been among the most low-performing in the state. We have an inordinately high ELL population, given that our school is about 60% Latino/Hispanic and 40% black. And we’re about 30-40% special education students, which is well, WELL above even the Newark Public Schools’s average.

      • Educator

        Wow! OK yeah didn’t mean to communicate you were at a charter. I wasn’t sure. A lot of the disappointment I’ve had over the reform movement has been with the charters, which are heavily staffed by TFA alum in a lot of cases. I used to think they were all awesome and status quo @$$ kickers until I started meeting actual charter school employees who would basically tell me privately all these negative things. Then I started looking on the internet, and found a treasure trove of information – bloggers, newspaper articles, anonymous charter school employee leakers, etc…

        So in my opinion, TFA could do a lot more good by acknowledging the many faults of many charters, instead of communicating that they somehow were doing much better because the personnel have higher expectations, etc (This is how it seemed it was communicated at the TFA 20 year summit with their lineup of status quo challenger speakers)…this is VERY dangerous, as policy makers make policy off these ideas.

      • Educator

        One more thing. Cause I’m sure you have plenty of time to read pedagogical books! check out Marzano’s “Classroom Instruction that Works” There’s a chapter on HW and its impact on standardized test scores. IF your goal is to get higher standardized test scores, the book goes over what pedagogical techniques seem to have the greatest impact, like note taking vs homework vs cooperative learning vs other stuff. If you’re goal isn’t standardized test scores it’s still worth looking at.

        On a separate but related note, one year I pounded the students especially in the lower level class to get their assignments in, and I guess I heavily invested them in it. But there was this one kid who just wouldn’t buy into it. I kinda got harsh with him one time when I was talking to him one on one (cause it’s not good to humiliate a student in front of the rest of the class). Later found out he had the 4pm-11pm shift at the local restaurant as a chef. Yeah that’s illegal, but his family needed him to get the money, and he was cheap labor, and I guess the restaurant didn’t care he was a 15 year old in school. This didn’t happen until my 4th year of teaching, and I thought to myself “I wonder how many chefs I’ve taught these past few years that I didn’t know about.”

        So not to say that you Ryan are like me, but I’ve learned over the years that I’ve learned more about teaching and its complexities that I didn’t two years in. In general, I think lots of career educators get frustrated with TFA because there are countless more stories that make us realize how challenging and complex education is, and career educators get resentful when those with little experience make policy that career folk feel are harmful. Of course, the reformers would dismiss many career folk as protectors of the status quo.

        I hope you keep Tweeting and writing despite random blog commenters like myself!

  6. veteran

    In my second year of TFA, I thought I was awesome. Then I heard a few years later about guided reading and realized maybe my whole group instruction wasn’t so great. Many years later I went through the National Board certification process and felt my teaching again be rocked to the core.
    What scares me is when TFA alum after 2 years even if they were successful 2 years go on to influence K-12 reform. Do they have any experience outside their grade level? Do they have any experience in non-TFA type schools?
    Was their “great” teaching even so great?

    Educator- I really liked all your points Thank you!

    • Educator

      Thank you!

      I’ve struggled with the 2 year then go into policy debate actually. I do know that sometimes organizations need an outside perspective in order to see a problem differently. That’s why, for example, boards of directors usually are from various fields – you’ll have a lawyer, a business type, a different industry, etc…all sitting on a board, whether it’s a school board or a company. So sometimes I think a fresh perspective can be good. The problem I’m seeing is that it seems to be more in style in education now to NOT have education experience or very little experience. (Education Pioneers, Broad Academy, TFA 2-year then policy, Charter starters, etc…) It seems like it’s becoming more of a resume builder to NOT have any teaching experience to run a school. Not only that, it seems like people dismiss what teachers say for the sake of dismissing what teachers say. There’s an assumption that someone who has taught for 10 years doesn’t have a clue what s/he’s doing. Will anyone ever say this? Nope. But I look at the policies that are being implemented, I see what the teachers say about them, and for some reason, the policies are the opposite of what most teachers would say. It’s swung too far.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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