The Very Spring and Root

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

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boston teacher residency

Pardon the Disruption – We Just Love Each Other

As posted by me this morning on the Boston Teacher Residency blog:

If you were at a certain bar and grill on Boylston Street in Back Bay last Friday night, you may have noticed a large group of constantly-smiling people who had apparently transformed a significant fraction of the underground bar into their own eight-hour raucous dance party. You would have noticed that said party continued to exude warmth regardless of incredulous stares and even the slightly awkward attempts by others to join in. You would have heard vigorous debates on race as a social construct and multidimensional n-branes as a fundamental building block of spacetime. And you would have heard a lot of overpowering laughter, swelling repeatedly like a tidal wave trying to drown the room in our good times.

Um, yeah, so that was us. A bunch of urban public school teachers in training. Hi. Allow me to attempt to explain our exuberance in disrupting your regularly scheduled evening at the bar.

The context for our party was a desperate, pent-up need to have a great time after what I can only lightly characterize as “a rough week.” We explored (many of us for the first time) how ugly, pervasive, and seemingly inescapable some of the injustices in the world are. We all lived out multiple examples of how none of us, no matter how committed we are to social justice or how much we have suffered or studied, are immune from the very systemic biases we are trying to correct. All in all, it was a painful and emotionally raw week in many ways. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, we were asking ourselves, “In spite of all this, what is it that gives us hope? What makes us think we can do this?”

I heard many good answers to that question in class, but I saw a great answer to that question in what happened after class: that in the face of the darkness of the moment, our unconscious response was love.

In retrospect, I think now about how we were easily the most diverse group in the room, on so many levels: race, class, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, educational background, family dynamics, where we grew up, how we talk, and so many others. We were such an obvious grab-bag of different kinds of people together. And we were positively radiating a lot of love for each other and having an amazing time, oblivious to how anyone else was looking at us. Say what you will about our sense of decorum, but no one could have been in that bar and not felt the love.

In Language, Power and Democracy class we talked about creating “Islands of Decency” and “Pockets of Hope.” Perhaps few of the people who observed us on Friday would consciously frame it in these terms. But as a group I think that we are a pretty awesome Island of Decency and Pocket of Hope ourselves—just in who we are and how we treat each other. Maybe someone who saw us will remember our faces laughing and dancing together—and internalize a small kernel of what humanity could be like if we tried. If that vague memory of us changes even one action by one person for the better, then we did some good for the world just by showing it how much we can love each other.

I am forced to an unavoidably cheesy but logically inescapable conclusion: that we can succeed in this endeavor by making a moral choice to believe in love and living our lives like we mean it. Maybe this is how we can make the impossible possible.



Is intelligence something you have, or something you get?

It’s only two days into orientation, and we don’t even start formal classes until next Monday. But already there has been much in BTR to challenge me and prompt reflection.

In the first place, the cohort is incredibly diverse, not just in ethnic background and gender but also in content area, family social class, politics, perspectives, and preferred approach to intellectual discussion. The very fact of such a broad cross-section of people in the same room, all educated and passionate, is bound to create a sense of hugeness to this endeavor. We also realize that, in order to effectively address our common purpose, we must face head-on a disturbingly large number of interconnected issues together, all of which even individually are normally “third rail” topics in polite and professional conversation. The resulting mix is as charged as a thunderstorm, yet affirming and heady at the same time.

My favorite discussion so far has been a small-group breakout session on Resnik and Hall’s “Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education”. In it, the two authors explore the social and cultural forces that shape how we Americans often harbor misconceptions about the nature of aptitude, effort, and intelligence. They attempt to create a new working definition for “intelligence” based on cognitive and social science research. I won’t summarize the whole nuanced article here, but rather focus on a specific facet:

The core problem is that our strong belief in the importance of intelligence and aptitude leads to a devaluing of effort.

Most of the discussion focused on the the negative side of this (i.e. that low expectations of students can drive a self-fulfilling cycle of low-performance), and I think deservedly so since this is a central impediment to learning in urban schools. However, in reflecting later, I wondered if unreasonable positive expectations might be detrimental in their own way too.

An example, using “positive” ethnic stereotypes. I remember a Filipino friend of mine telling me that growing up, she was afraid of being seen as “the dumb Asian”, and therefore was afraid of doing anything that might reveal incompetence or lack of knowledge. In other words, the superficially positive perception that Asians (both east and south) somehow have a natural aptitude for learning and “just get it” or are “just smart” can make them feel socially pressured to appear as if they understand and don’t need to put in a high amount of effort to do so. Outwardly, they may have become good at “faking it”, latching onto key phrases and repackaging them for their peers and teachers, but inwardly they may really want to ask a question or admit they don’t understand the why and the how. Or, they may decline to use study hours to indicate that they are above all that, but make things harder for themselves later when they have to rush in privacy. Thus, a great amount of material is memorized and repackaged (great for standardized test scores and even grades in many classrooms), but little in the way of actual thinking and learning have taken place.

In any of these cases, the student’s learning is still compromised by a devaluing of effort brought on by perceptions of intelligence and aptitude, even though the perception is, on the surface, a positive one.

Anyway, soooo many more thoughts on this and other subjects, but alas, many other items on the to-do list at the moment. Summary: I love this program, and can’t wait for Day 3 tomorrow (we got the day off for the holiday).

Next on the list: beer and socializing with my new cohort! Very important.

Happy Independence Day everyone! Toward a more perfect union…



NPR: “Is Teach For America Failing?”

Gary Rubinstein was recently interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More, ostensibly due to the kerfuffle caused by his highly controversial blog post lambasting the nonprofit service organization Teach For America.

Yeah.

So, I think it’s time to re-post one of the rants I originally posted on Feb 4, 2012 to my previous blog, The Very Spring and Root. Note that there are comments and discussion on the original blog thread that unveil new points and help to clarify the original content a bit.

Here it is:

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.

Addendum 1: If your goal is not actually to become an educator for longer than a brief stint (or you are not at least entering the profession with the intent to make a good faith effort to try to stay), then the above reasoning will not apply as well. In that case, I would urge you to consider very carefully how and whom you are actually helping.

Addendum 2: I make no pretense of knowing what teaching is like. I have yet to teach a single hour in a single classroom. So, I am well aware that my opinions on this and other educational issues may change and grow with my experience. That’s called life. In the meanwhile, I’ll perform the best analysis I can with the information I have.



BTR Announces Host Schools

BTR has posted the schools with which Cohort X will be working this next year. Looks like since I’m on a high school physics track, I will be at either Burke High School in Dorchester (where I had my final interviews on Selection Day) or Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park (now in Brighton, but moving).

Some quick stats from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Burke High School (public high school):

  • Minority: 92.6%
  • First language not English: 38.7%
  • Limited English proficiency: 25.1%
  • Low-Income: 75.9%
  • Special Education: 20.4%

Boston Community Leadership Academy (pilot high school):

  • Minority: 98.9%
  • First language not English: 53.7%
  • Limited English proficiency: 26.8%
  • Low-Income: 84.8%
  • Special Education: 14.6%

Nervous of the challenge but excited to face it. Burke for example: 0% pass rate for the just 10 students who attempted the AP Physics (Mechanics) exam. Overall only 7% are testing at “proficient” or higher in science by Grade 10. Looks like there’s work to do… saddle up.




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