The Very Spring and Root

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

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September 2011

Letter of Intent, Draft 1

Draft below, wrote this on the train back from Sac yesterday… any feedback? 500-word limit (I think it is 503 words at the moment).

On the letter of intent, make sure you answer the questions thoroughly. It’s a good idea to begin with an outline to make sure you fully answer the questions in a meaningful way. Here are the questions asked for the letter of intent:

1. Why do you seek to join Teach For America?
2. What would you hope to accomplish as a corps member?
3. How would you determine your success as a corps member?


As the successful child of immigrants to this country, I have truly lived the American Dream. Yet even as I reflect on my achievements, I know that I had the good fortune to have been born under two very serendipitous circumstances. My parents were already educated and were likely headed for successful careers before coming here; and while my family has never been what I would term wealthy, neither have I ever been in true need of the basic foundations on which individual merit can actually build success. My sense of justice aches for the students across our nation and the world who lack even these basic elements – such as stable families, freedom from hunger and violence, and a supportive community – yet are still expected to achieve greatness with the same (or less) investment as those born to comparative privilege.

Realizing the American Dream has turned me into the worst kind of idealist – the stubborn kind. The knowledge of preventable human suffering (or loss of potential) is an ever-present reminder that no matter how much I achieve as an individual, my true happiness can never be fulfilled until I share what I have gained with those who are less fortunate. I know that through Teach For America, I cannot directly ease poverty or fix broken families. I can, however, enable those students who need it most to break out of the prison of social class – to which they have been relegated by fate and forgotten by their nation.

My desire is to bring the wonder for the physical world that I have experienced in my career to the classrooms of these students. As a corps member, I hope to provide the catalyst for scientific literacy that our least-privileged students need. As a NASA research engineer, I have been honored to work with some of the world’s most creative, passionate, and intelligent people on the cutting-edge engineering challenges of today: energy, environment, transportation, and exploration. Addressing these challenges requires viewing science as something much grander and more beautiful than a dry sequence of memorized facts. Science is applied curiosity – powered by wonder, and expressed through the language of mathematics. I intend to instill this perspective by setting a personal example of hardworking grit and a curious mind. I would also make full use of my experience to bring an array of practical applications to the forefront of my pedagogy.

As an engineer, I know that any credible metric of success must be rooted in quantifiable results. But in addition to increasing performance on exams, there are qualities which are far more critical to our nation’s scientific competitiveness. I know that the true test of the scientist is to apply creative innovation to challenging, integrated problems. This skill is difficult to measure. However, I would strive daily to instill this quality in my students, and its reflection would be a key metric of gauging my own success at enabling their own American Dreams.

(Edited 10/5/11 with a revised essay.)

Why Not? Apply Anyway.

So… that’s basically what I’m thinking. Criticisms of TFA as an organization aside, from the research I’ve done, it does seem to be the most direct path from working professional to teaching in a high-need area. Going the “traditional” route means going back to school and doing a degree in education. And further, going the alternative route to certification by directly hiring on with a school district seems to be a non-starter… as cold as it sounds, it seems like programs with the political clout of TFA are the only way to get into districts that are laying off on the whole.

There are similar programs, such as Math for America or The New Teacher Project, but I’m not sure either of these is a better choice. For one thing, I would want to teach science, not math necessarily (and anyway my grades in pure math, while good, would probably not compete in a program focused exclusively on the subject).  MFA also requires at least a year of going back to school and a five-year commitment. TNTP appears to be the exact same organization as TFA, except with a different name and a focus on particular cities over a national program. (Probably not-so-incidentally, TNTP was founded by notable TFA alumna Michelle Rhee.)

Hey school districts: If you are so hurting for experienced STEM professionals to consider teaching as a career, but don’t like the incursion of external non-profits, then how about a nice “STEM PROFESSIONALS: CLICK HERE FOR OUR FAST-TRACK ENTRY PROGRAM!” button that would help this along?

So, I started a TFA application. I’m going for it. Haven’t decided yet if I truly want to do it, but there is no harm in going through the application process just to see what will happen. Initial online application due October 26th, several follow-up steps come after depending on how far you get, and I would know my admission status and where/what I would be teaching by January 17. I would then have until January 30 to decide whether or not to accept.

IF I accept, I see this going one of three ways:

  1. I love it. Well great, now I have a teaching credential and experience in the classroom, I could take my credential and go to another school or stay put and keep fighting the good fight where I end up. This would be the intended outcome of accepting: long-term teaching career.
  2. I hate it, or at least don’t love it, and want to return to engineering or a technical field. Well great, 2 years of teaching isn’t going to erase my Bachelors and Masters in Aerospace Engineering, 5-year research stint at a NASA center, and 8 publications.
  3. I hate it, or I at least don’t love it, and want to do something else entirely different. Well, the above technical qualifications, former civil service, leadership experience, teaching credential and experience. and a Masters in Education (possible in most TFA deployments)… sounds like I could go many places with that. Education policy? Research/science policy? Run for public office? Work for a think tank? Lead somewhere else in civic engagement?

I mean, why not, really? Life is short… I’ve got one shot to experience the world and make a lasting positive impact on it. Is spending the next 40 years in engineering the best use of what I have to give?

A Better Counter-Counter Perspective…

…is knowing you can survive the first year. From the TeachForUs blog “The Sky is Yours”: A Change Has Come.

(Principles) >> (Practicality).

‘Nuff said.

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?

Educated Populace –> More Relevant NASA

Excerpt from a debate on Yammer about the relevance of NASA. Credit: engineer K. Sanner.

Honestly, what you are asking for requires embracing a liberal education in America at an early age. America embraces a liberal education at the university level, but is perfectly comfortable with half the population being educated just well enough to be employed at a skilled trade. To then expect that half of the population to suddenly abondon their dogmatic approach to life and values, which ensure social stability, harmony and easy consensus is expecting too much of them. One brilliant lecture by Neil Tyson is not going to bring enlightenment to millions of Americans and make us realize we need to strive for understanding the universe around us. “Of course” we should be greater than we are, and we should constantly strive to learn more about who we are and the world around us. “Of course” the value in this is enormous, as it would make our civlization greater, and increase the level of humanity we could achieve and leave to all of humanity in the future. But, I say “Of course” because this is an obvious value system to me. To many millions of our voting public, the people we work for, their value system has an abrupt eclipse at the end of a traditional dogmatic doctrine they have accepted as a complete and final value system that needs no refinement, adjustment, updating, or change. How can we possibly convince that population in America that humanity needs to rise to a higher level and that there is value in exploration and discovery worth spending money on to do this versus more natinal security? I think it is a change that will require a generation of commitment to teaching a liberal education to children, and that is not the direction our political leaders want our public education system to take. This is beyond the scope of NASA. We can always preach to the choir, but I don’t expect any sudden enlightenment in the public to occur because of our publications and presentations that are so great they change our national priorities. The first great American accomplishments of the space age occurred because we appealed on a political level to beat the communist Russians. The next great level of accomplishments in human space flight will probably occur because we will appeal on on a political level to beat the communist Chinese. I wish it were otherwise. But, there is a minority of opinion in our country that learning for its own sake, understanding the world around us, accomplishing great engineering feats, developing new technologies and making scientific discoveries without obvious commercial application has great and significant value to us individually, culturally, nationally, and to all of our humanity that should be a gift to the whole world. Join your school board if you have time and fight for a liberal education in your school. Bring it up to your state legislators. Maybe, in a generation, there will be a significant shift in our value system as a country, and we will achieve these great things for their own sake, and for the sake of humanity in the future.

Skeptical of the Kool-Aid Already

Gary Rubinstein’s blog on TeachForUs (the independent network of TFA blogs)  is probably the best source of the counter-argument to TFA’s hype. For one thing, he simply makes very intelligent critiques of TFA’s philosophy, training institute, and implementation. For another, he’s a former TFA’er himself from 1991, much earlier on in the program’s history, and he appears to have remained “actively involved in the discussion” surrounding TFA, shall we say. He’s been through it, and seen it grow and change.

A recent post addressed to the 2011 Corps, entitled “@2011s: Can you Handle the Truth?” (check out the comment thread too) got me thinking… it gets at what across the board seem to be the major criticisms I’ve read about TFA:

  1. They encourage a revolving door of inexperienced people, further adding inconsistency to the lives of children who need it so badly. (See my previous post for a link to a good rant on the subject.)
  2. They seem to think that arming a new teacher with nothing but hope and idealistic optimism will automatically result in better teaching.
  3. They have the systems and national/local political clout to spin the numbers any way they want in spite of this.

So could I address these three in a way that would make a personal experience in TFA ok? Well, in response to #1, see my previous post. In response to #3, I’m pretty sure I’m stubborn enough of an idealist on my own that I would independently track what I think is important regardless of whether or not TFA does. It’s #2 that really worries me.

I think I know the subject matter, I think I have the personal effectiveness, I think I genuinely believe science is fun and could make it fun, I think have the personal grit and stubborn idealistic streak required…. but I really doubt I have one of the most important things it takes to be a teacher, one that apparently TFA doesn’t seem to spend a single once of energy preparing or supporting their corps with: classroom management. And seriously, considering where they are putting you, you’d think that would be really high on the list. So, I’m not surprised actually that TFA might have to spend some time massaging statistics to show that they are making Adequate Yearly Progress.

So, I emailed Gary. I intended it to be short, but like most of my emails, it ended up tangenting and much longer than I intended. Anyway, he was very kind to respond quickly. In his email, among a list of possible alternatives, was the following sentence from one of TFA’s most vocal critics:

Doing TFA isn’t a bad idea, as long as you know what to watch out for.

That is, do your own homework on observing, learning from, and reading about effective teaching methods, and take everything TFA says with a huge grain of salt.

Along those lines, check out the last comment on his blog post, from someone listed as “Ali”:

I think a huge issue with the TfA training is that they set it up as- do a+b+c and you will be successful. Set big goals, work relentlessly, believe in your students. They put the onus on you- if you are not successful, it is because you are failing to follow the directions we told you. And if you don’t get that 1.5 years of growth like you are supposed to- well that is your fault for not trying hard enough.

I have never seen a more depressed, anxious group than the TfA corps members who believed it was their fault they were not succeeding and getting the growth tfa wanted quickly.

Teaching is really hard. Teaching kids in difficult circumstances is harder. Being told that your lack of success falls squarely on your shoulders because you weren’t as good as everyone else, leads to a lot of corps members in therapy.

Yeah. Grain of salt. If you go with them, use them for your own goals (like trying to become a long-term career teacher in a needed field or district), don’t let them burn you out using you for theirs, at least not without a quid pro quo. And remember that the district is your employer, not TFA… they just facilitated the arrangement and took the middle-man’s cut. Convenient, but not really necessary in the long run / big picture?

Quarter-Life Crisis

Education in America as a subject has interested me for a long time. There’s a personal side to it, and an intellectual side as well. All four of my grandparents were educators back in Sri Lanka, before my parents immgrated to Washington state in the late 70’s. I grew up outside of Boise, ID, attending public school. I remember the good and the bad.  My middle school was surrounded by farmland at the time and basically falling apart physically, for example. Oh yeah, and I’m pretty sure I was the only non-white and non-Christian student at my elementary school… interesting social dynamic. But I also remember the fantastic teachers here and there who really and truely cared. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, for sure.

Intellectually (and more abstractly), I do firmly believe that “education should be the great equalizer”, that education appears to be the only factor (besides, obviously, money) in our society that can allow one to transcend social class, that we are not a true meritocracy until such things as access to education are made as independent of demographic as possible. I’ve been reading up a lot on these.  More darkly, I am afraid that my contributions to research now will mean little in the alarmingly near future if our nation continues its death spiral into complete scientific illiteracy.

Today I am a propulsion systems research and development engineer at one of NASA’s research installations. I enjoy my career here. I have a comfortable salary, a secure job, challenging work, and very dedicated, passionate colleagues. I have no logical reason to leave. But lately I feel something missing… maybe its my grandparents’ blood rising, or maybe just my increased attention on education and education reform lately. Or maybe it’s my increasing immersion in Buddhism and the realization that my measures of “success” haven’t been exactly in line with what I purport to value most.

Whatever it is, for some reason a few months ago, after I mentioned in conversation for the umpteenth time “we should get more STEM professionals to share their knowledge in the classroom”, I caught myself and thought, well, maybe is it time to put up or shut up?

I think that I know a decent amount of math and science, considering my present job and all… I’m also a huge history, literature, and theatre nerd… and I understand how well-rounded individuals who can tie the “fuzzier” subjects into their technical fields make for some of the most creative and innovative leaders in R&D. And I genuinely, wholeheartedly think science is fun. I love it. I think, I hope, that I could teach that. I’m still not sure I want to make that career change yet, but it’s something I’m thinking about.

The appeal of a program like Teach for America to me is that, while I fully recognize that the task (teaching in high-need schools) may be harder than a “normal” pathway into teaching in a more “normal” community, the logistics seem much easier. TFA appears to be already in arrangements with schools and credentialing programs, and appears to be truly committed to improving the plight of underachieving schools in high-poverty communities, etc.  I also do like the two-year commitment. While I agree with the multitude of criticism out there that TFA seems to encourage a revolving door of law and business school applicants who want the check box on their resume, I have no such deferred plans. I am honestly interested in teaching as a career, but am unsure as to whether I fully realize what that means and if I really do want to devote the rest of my life to it. I think that a two-year commitment gives me both a chance to get thrown into the mud to see if I can actually wrestle with the elephants, but also an out if I decide that I really hate it and its not for me.

Thanks to great counter-perspective blogs from TFA’ers like Gary Rubinstein, I’m definitely now thinking twice about TFA, but the problem is I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. I didn’t realize the degree to which different states’ educational systems vary. Most of the official websites for credentialing and entering teaching as a normal hire into the school system are, at best, tangled messes of regulations, links to obscure documents, and what seem like mutually contradictory statements.

So, I suppose my specific question would be then, what else? What other pathway would work should I decide to leave NASA and go teach in a public school? Should I have to go back to school for an education degree to apply my skills to the classroom? In an environment in which traditional teachers appear to be getting laid off by the thousands, should I wait for the odd chance that there is a traditional posting available and that they are also willing to accept me on a conditional credential waiver? Does the purported need for STEM teachers make the layoff situation irrelevent? Or should I use TFA as a convenient trial period and entry point into the profession?

Actually, let’s get even more basic than that:

Is leaving a GS-12 research position with federal benefits at a high-level government research installation where I work with wonderful, passionate colleagues for a career in public education a really really stupid idea? Or one of the best things I could do for myself and the nation?

Stay tuned as I explore these questions and more. I may not end up changing careers afterall – in fact, this is what I consider to be the most probable outcome at this point. But I would at least like some documentation of the journey. So here goes.