The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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February 2012

GR on Value-Added Metrics

Gary Rubinstein has recently published two blog posts dissecting the data for VAM teacher evaluation in NYC. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 on his site.

A hard lesson-learned for most engineers early in their careers doesn’t seem to have translated to the reform movement very well… data is amazing and we should use it to guide decisions to the greatest prudent extent, but more more important than what data we have is what we know about it’s limitations. I know I’ve made a few rash errors in the cubicle; in my haste to get to the right answer I treated as gospel a dataset which turned out later to be highly suspect. Fortunately I hadn’t published the papers yet, I only ended up having to redo a lot of work. Lucky.

Core rule of the engineering world: you can almost never directly measure what it is you want to know. You must infer results based off of imperfect measurements of associated variables. That is a process that comes with a varying degree of uncertainty, bias, error, and false assumptions. The right thing to do is to explore what data can tell us, experiment and validate using simple and solid areas of known science, then build up models from there with increasing confidence.

In engineering, the consequences of such an error in judgement can be dire — bridges collapse, space shuttles explode, levees fail, weapons misfire, or a lot of money gets burned. These are serious indeed, but in education, the consequences seem potentially horrifying. We’re talking about the education of children, and by extension their future livelihoods and those of their children. The future society and workforce of the nation and world. Not to mention the careers of many thousands of teachers.

“Not everything that can be counted counts; not everything that counts can be counted.” –Albert Einstein.

I don’t get it. What is the root of the contemporary popular belief that if something can’t be quantified it has no value? Or more dangerous, that if the computer spits out a number, it must be right?



Aside  Comment

Been ridiculously busy preparing for the move. I suppose deciding to go off on idealistic adventures does that. Latest news… I rocked the MTEL Communications and Literacy test. Now that I know I can communicate and literate, just that pesky Physics one a week from today…



Aside  Comment

Excerpt from the introduction to The Trouble With Black Boys … and other reflections on Race, Equity, and the future of Public Education, by Pedro A. Noguera. Just started reading it this morning in the carpool.

“I do not make light of the difficulty in addressing the needs of troubled students. Children who come from homes without adequate supervision, guidance, and support post a tremendous challenge to the educators charged with serving their academic needs. I also do not take the positions that schools should be expected to solve these problems by themselves. Charged with the task of educating disadvantaged and neglected children, many educators find themselves overwhelmed by their needs, many of which have little to do with academic learning, but are much more related to their health, unmet social needs, and emotional well-being. In cities, towns, trailer parks, and housing projects across the United States, there are growing numbers of children in such circumstances (Children’s Defense Fund, 2006). If our society is to find ways to reduce the numbers who end up permanently unemployed, incarcerated, or prematurely dead, we must do more to address their needs, especially while they are young.”

Later on in the same introductory essay:

“Despite all of the ways in which educational reforms may have taken the soul out of education — overemphasizing testing and underemphasizing learning, treating teachers like technicians rather than creative professionals, humiliating schools that serve poor children instead of providing them with the support and resources they need — the fact remains that through education, we have the potential and power to open minds, tap the imagination, cultivate skills, and inspire the innate ability in all human beings to dream and create. This is what makes education such a special endeavor, and this is why public schools remain our most valuable resource.”



Statement from the 2011-12 ED Teaching Ambassador Fellows

Aside  Comment

A great article in EdWeek just popped up on my Twitter feed: Teachers Want to Lead Their Profession’s Transformation.

Educators want to take on this work. As highly skilled specialists, we are not afraid of owning our profession. We are not afraid of being held accountable for results when we are given the responsibility and flexibility to craft our profession. We are confident that the president understands what it will take to transform teaching to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and we are eager to join with our colleagues across the country in moving the profession forward.

Includes some response and commentary from the 2011-12 U.S. Department of Education teaching ambassador fellows with regards to the education segments in President Obama’s State of the Union speech.



“Just” a Teacher

EdWeek recently ran an interesting article on the social status of teachers in this country vs abroad. The opening paragraphs of the article got me thinking right away:

One of the most troubling things that the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, hears about her profession can be summed up in a single observation: the idea that she and other top-performing colleagues are “just” teachers.

The word “just” serves as a reminder of a subtle mindset among some in the United States that a career in K-12 teaching, while considered noble, is nevertheless somehow seen as beneath the capacity of talented young men and women.

The response that I have received to my decision to change careers from research engineering to teaching has been mixed. Family and close friends have been overwhelmingly supportive, and I am grateful for that; I’m certainly going to need all the positive thoughts I can get. Even the colleagues here at NASA, the ones whom I will soon be leaving, have responded in large part with inspired encouragement. For example, even though I am not leaving for 4-5 more months, three coworkers have already stopped by with donations of references, materials, posters, and objects for my future science classroom.

However, NASA is itself a place full of intelligent, passionate, idealistic people, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at this kind of a response from my coworkers. The general public response when the subject has been brought up is more along the lines of “Wow… that’s pretty cool. But that’s insane. Why would you do that?”

Certainly there are very practical reasons to not do what I did, but the underlying problem is an ugly one: why should it have to be such a sacrifice to teach? As much as people say they see individual teachers as noble and pursuing high calling, the same people seem on the whole opposed to putting through the reforms we need to address this.  Because simultaneously, these same people (us, we) are the voters, who are reluctant to raise salaries for a profession which as a collective is increasingly being perceived as bureaucratically bloated, ineffective, and even overpaid.

I don’t buy it. There may indeed be areas of mismanagement, wasteful bureaucracy, and antagonistic protectionism that need fixing, but on the whole I think JFK had it right:

Modern cynics and skeptics … see no harm in paying to those whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.
— John F. Kennedy

It’s half a century later… and here we still are.

How do we make it so that a qualified engineer deciding to go into teaching isn’t a big deal, isn’t seen as something crazy, but is maybe even lauded as an achievement? I don’t think all of that has to do with money, though money certainly is a factor. There’s also the concept of professionalism, which implies a sense of individual discretion in the approach to the objective. There is independence from criticism arising from external entities. There is the perceived selectivity of entry. Addressing each of these will require a hard look at training, standards, personnel practices, and how the money gets spent. Only in conjunction with this can we credibly ask for the commitment to increase spending on education overall.

Beyond all this though, is a more fundamental issue: there must be a respect for the end result of the service being provided.

I shared the above article with Dr. Christian Gelzer, a historian and former professor of history. He is also someone I count as a valued confidante and mentor. I quote his response below, with permission:

If you denigrate a pursuit, as Americans have done for teaching for generations and generations, what more can one expect? I still point to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as a pivotal work on the subject because he traced a genuine animosity toward intellectual activity from the late Colonial period on. Even better, it won the Pulitzer that year, most ironic. Think of all those who “made it” without book learnin’ and you’ve got a list of American greats, including Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, to list but three. Even Thomas Jefferson had a warm spot in his heart for people of the soil, far warmer than he ever had for those who created factories (stuff that took brains). This isn’t a recent problem in the US and it won’t be fixed in five lifetimes, I’ll wager. The culture simply does not, has not, and never will value the likes of JQ Adams or those who—and I think this is integral to the problem—would pursue a calling or career not because it gives the best income, but because it rewards the soul and contributes to the commonweal one is a part of in a nation. Those are downright impolitic things to say.

I was a teacher, albeit at a different level, and I was forever frustrated by the abject indifference my former profession held for teaching—indeed, I was warned many times not to say that I liked teaching when I went on a job interview. I was never taught how to teach, doubtlessly because my mentors could not have cared less about the act, and because they probably assumed we’d all pick up what little we needed to get by by stumbling through it the first time. I enjoyed teaching, I relished trying to figure out how to get students to understand why we keep harping on the Romans so many centuries later, or why looking for the ones who make the decisions about things can be really rewarding, even when the culprits (I say that fondly) had the peculiarities of Nikola Tesla. You could no sooner make someone a teacher in 6 weeks than you could make a carrier-qualified F-18 navy pilot in 6 weeks, and anyone who says so or thinks so is as dumb as a bag of hammers. But will we as a nation, as a people ever come around to the idea of having our children aching for the chance to become a teacher?

I have to agree in large part with Christian’s sentiments. A culture that has devolved to, for example, demand that a candidate for office mask, or even apologize for, the fact that he or she is an educated intellectual is not a culture which will be sustainable as a democracy. Yet this this happens all the time today. See if you can count how often President Obama has been characterized as an “out-of-touch liberal elitist” for his “condescending and professorial” manner. Sure, he is remarkably well-educated; but regardless of one’s politics it says something when demagogues can successfully apply those labels to him despite the fact that he grew up well outside of the elite class in a single-parent home, slept on the street in an alleyway the first night he moved to Harlem, and was working as a community organizer in the south-side projects of Chicago.

How do we turn around that culture? Is it even possible to associate status with knowledge in a country in which some educators make as little as $20,000 or so per year and our celebrities and athletes make hundreds of millions? Not that those figures need to be reversed, but the the distance between those extremes should at least be… well, less extreme.

The money issue and the rigor issue are controversial subjects full of heated debate today. What is sobering is that they seem to be only the surface expression of a much deeper problem. And I have no idea what to do about that.  All I know is I’m going to try and be the best educator I can be, and hopefully the path forward will become clearer as I go.



Why I Didn’t Choose TFA

The most common question I get when I explain what I am going off to Boston to do is: “Oh, so like Teach for America?” I’m never quite sure how to respond to that, but the immediate association between lateral entry into teaching and Teach for America makes me uncomfortable now. The answer is no, I’m not doing something like TFA, and for very good reasons.

On the surface, Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America appear to have much in common, and indeed I applied to, and was accepted to, both programs. They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides. They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits, and send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools. They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

So what’s the difference? As a good applicant should, I was continuously researching both of these organizations throughout the application process, in order to make an informed decision. What I discovered under the surface surprised and disturbed me, even some of what I got straight from TFA staff themselves.

Bear in mind, I am a new BTR recruit… I do not in any way speak for the program or anyone else but myself. This is purely based off of my research into the issues and my personal experience with the application processes of these organizations.

Let me go point by point.

They both are lateral-entry teacher training programs with a goal of closing the achievement gap across systemic racial and socio-economic divides.

Not much surface-level difference here. But when it comes to strategy, there is a world of difference. BTR is a partnership with the existing system, taking what already works in public education and distilling the best elements thereof to improve itself. It is locally-focused and has a holistic, long-term investment in the communities it serves. This seems far better aligning with the true problem in teacher staffing, which is not recruitment, but retention[pdf] of qualified individuals.

By contrast, TFA is a large, national non-profit organization, whose members for the most part leave after their two-year commitment. TFA claims a roughly 60% retention rate of corps members “staying in education” after their 2-year stint, though they include those who have gone on to other positions in education besides the classroom, as well as those who have moved out of their initial high-needs assignment. Counting these factors brings the percentage down to about 44%. By the fifth year, slightly less than 15% remain.

As for BTR? Fully 80% of those hired in the program’s ten-year history are still teaching in Boston Public Schools.

They both claim a highly selective admissions process and a rigorous training period for their recruits.

The first part of this statement is unequivocally true. Never in applying to undergraduate programs, graduate schools, or three employers (including NASA) have I experienced such a varied gauntlet as those to which these programs subjected me. Application questions, several essays, content examinations, responses to articles and videos, observation of group interaction and teamwork, multiple interviews, demonstration of the practice… there is no question that both of these programs are highly selective.

But what about the second part of the statement, about rigorous training? BTR offers a 13-month masters in education program, including full licensure in your subject, incorporating a full school year of mentorship in an urban school modeled on a medical residency… and they give it to you at effectively no charge, before you are placed into a classroom as a teacher of record for other people’s children. Following this, they offer ongoing mentoring and support as residents develop and grow as educators. Many of my fellow candidates at the final Selection Day were career-changers or had post-graduate experience in their field of study or in education.

By contrast, TFA compresses your training into a 5-week Institute, in which the most hands-on training you get is small classes of summer students. A masters degree is possible in most assignment regions, but is generally on your own time and dime… in addition to simultaneously teaching full-time, getting credentialed (because you entered the classroom on an emergency or waiver credential), and participating in TFA programming. As far as I could tell, all but two of my fellow candidates at the final interview day were undergraduate fresh-outs.

Now, I have done some challenging things in my life, but I do not in any way feel prepared to teach, let alone teach in a failing urban school, just based on my content knowledge, experience, and idealism. Maybe I’m misjudging the scale of the challenge, but right now I seriously can’t believe that someone would choose to send in such inexperienced young people (intelligent and high-achieving though they may be) into our most challenging schools. Especially when there is an option for more rigorous preparation that doesn’t cost you as much and allows you to focus on learning to teach before you actually enter the field!

Unless… unless the goal isn’t to recruit, retain, and grow long-term educators…

They both send high-achieving individuals into struggling schools.

Again, on the surface-level, absolutely true. But considering what I have gone over already, particularly about preparation, what am I to conclude about the nature of the program and the intentions of its applicants? What does each program incentivize?

I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that TFA appears to incentivize the entry of those in a hurry or those in it to check off a box. The core problem in our public schools is retaining high-quality teachers in high-needs areas. If you are in this for the short term, you are probably going to do more harm than good for your students by becoming a teacher. By all means, get involved through volunteering, advocacy, fundraising, or mentoring… but don’t use the futures of your students as collateral for your own idealistic goals.  If you are not in this for the short-term (but still don’t want to go through the traditional schools of education), why go with a program like TFA when so many residency programs with more rigor and preparation exist?

I found myself asking the question, whose interests are best served by the approach of each of these programs, the students or the recruits? The nation absolutely needs every talented, intelligent, passionate, and creative person it can muster to the cause of improving our education system. But if an additional year of preparation and a long-term view of that on which you are about to embark deter you, then I would suggest that you are getting into teaching for the wrong reasons.

They both promise that the experience will be a foundation for long term transformational change in education.

In light of the previous discussion, there isn’t much left to add here. I’ll just leave you with a link to a great article in Rethinking Schools, Looking Past the Spin: Teach for America.

In the end, it really wasn’t much of a question… the reasoning, given what I have discovered and more importantly what I value, pointed to one clear choice, and I took it. Boston, here I come.




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