The Very Spring and Root

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

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Color for Dollars


From Karagiozis et al 2011


I didn’t work on this specifically, but this was the nature of my previous job. A humorous aspect was the fluid nature of the acronym CFD… formally it stands for Computational Fluid Dynamics, but others that captured the often tricky business of interpreting the results included Colorful Fluid Dynamics, Color For Dollars, Contours For Debate, and my personal favorite, Can’t Fucking Decide.


A little over a week ago, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the culmination of years of engineering. The mission’s landing, in particular, was the subject of intense scrutiny as Curiosity’s size necessitated some new techniques in the final segments of the landing sequence. As it hit the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, the compression of the carbon dioxide behind the capsule’s shock wave slowed the descent.  At roughly 1,000 mph—speeds still large enough to be supersonic—Curiosity deployed its parachute. Shown above are the parachute in numerical simulation (from Karagiozis et al. 2011), wind tunnel testing at NASA Ames, and during descent thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The simulation shows contours of streamwise velocity at different configurations; note the bow shock off the capsule and the additional shocks off the parachute. These help generate the drag needed to slow the capsule. For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the wind tunnel testing for Curiosity’s parachute check out JPL’s fourpart video series. Congratulations to all the scientists and engineers who’ve made the rover a success. We look forward to your discoveries! (Photo credits: K. Karagiozis et al., NASA JPL, NASA MRO)

“Toward More Bird-Like Flight: Thinking Outside the Box”

A great TEDxNASA talk by someone I’m proud to call my friend and colleague. Al’s talk speaks for itself, so I won’t bother summarizing it here. However, I will add that the ideas in this talk have led to one of the most innovative and exciting things going on at NASA Dryden right now, and I’m not even sure its an official project.

A team of engineers, designers, and machinists, as well as some incoming students from the NASA Aeronautics Academy, are actually going to be building and flying two Horten wing gliders as research-instrumented RPVs here in the high desert. The PDR was yesterday, and what I saw was a design that is smart, lean, and suitable for rapid prototyping.

Al’s approach to project management is Antoine de St. Exupery’s quote personified:

Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

(If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.)

It works. Everyone in that room is inspired; rather than needing to be pushed to work, most have to be pulled back from going too crazy. Decisions are enabled at the lowest level that makes sense, and ideas emerge and mesh at the front lines. This is no small matter either… applying these ideas to wing and propulsion design lead to massive practical fuel savings for the whole aviation industry, and Dryden might be the first to push this envelope and grab some flight data. 

At a time when NASA is being criticized for being a lumbering bureaucracy well past it’s prime, it’s so refreshing to see that grassroots and groundbreaking projects can organically form and even thrive at Dryden when the right people are given enough free rein.

You can read Al Bowers’ own perspective on his blog post for Dryden.

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.

A Counter-Counter Perspective

TIME Magazine’s “School of Thought” columnist Andrew J. Rotherham wrote an article some months ago entitled Teach for America: 5 Myths That Persist 20 Years On, which provides a list of rebuttals to some of the most common criticisms of TFA.

On the whole the article can probably be taken at face-value, but there are a few sentences that raised my skeptic flags. The major one was:

My nonprofit firm, for instance, is full of them [TFA alumni] — one of my partners helped launch TFA — and remarkably that doesn’t make us unusual among our peer organizations.

Hmm… not necessarily damning, mind you, but an interesting connection that does dilute my sense of “credible neutrality”. The other flags are for what appear to be at least minor cases of facts out of context. For example, when discussing early in the article why these myths must indeed be myths, Rotherham concludes the paragraph with:

Another solid indicator? The marketplace. Superintendents and principals, who are on the hook for results, can’t get enough TFA teachers.

Well, ok, true. But two things to consider:

  1. Superintendents and principals are also on the hook for budgets, and TFA teachers are indisputably cheaper. Given the numbers-driven frenzy induced by Bush’s NCLB and the intense political pressure to deliver (hyperbolically) double the results with half the budget… I frankly would not be surprised if it were true that experienced teachers were getting laid off to make room for bright-eyed recent graduates.
  2. Given the the fact that they are on the hook the for results without the support needed to deliver it (also NCLB), I am also frankly not surprised that an organization like TFA, which boasts fantastic values of the right numbers, would seem appealing.

Rotherham responds to the “revolving door” criticism:

Fifty-two percent of its alumni remain in teaching after their two-year commitment, and 67% still work fulltime in education in one way or another.

The study I found on this subject, linked from TFA’s research page gives a statistic of 61% of alumni remaining in teaching profession longer than their 2-year commitment, which is actually a good deal better than what Rotherham quotes (probably having to do with the 1 year disparity between their respective publication dates). The flip side of that, from the same study is only 10% of respondents stayed in the profession longer than 6 years, which is around the minimum range for what I would consider to be actually treating teaching as a career.

Other than these quibbles (the last of which is admittedly fairly petty), Rotherham’s qualitative defense of TFA is on the mark I think. It does stand to reason that having leaders in all aspects and levels of society that have gone through the gauntlet of what our public education system is like in the poorest pockets of the country are probably going to factor in their experience when making decisions.

The big takeaway for me from the process of dissecting this article? Realizing that in the final sense, statistics don’t actually mean jack shit. Regardless of whether 10% or 90% of TFA alumni stay in the profession long-term, the statistic has no bearing on what I can choose to do with the program if I take that path. So ultimately, perhaps the majority of this post is, in the long-term, really irrelevant. Sorry about that. At least it’s somewhat interesting to think about, right?