The Very Spring and Root

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

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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.

Correspondence with my “Thought Partner”

Hi [TFA Recruiter], thanks for offering yourself as a thought partner. Here is my honest line of thinking, though I am also looking forward to speaking with [Other TFA Recruiter] soon as well.

I am interested in teaching long-term, as a career. TFA is one among many entry programs to which I have applied. While I am genuinely excited to have been accepted to TFA, I am in the nice position of having a choice between TFA and these other programs, some of which include built-in masters programs and classroom residency time in the training process.

My direct concern with TFA is that, even though the preparation is much faster, it seems consequently much less effective. I am not interested in teaching for two years and leaving, so a year-long preparation program (as some of the other programs offer) is not of major concern. Why should I choose TFA over a program with more rigorous preparation, if I have a long-term commitment to education?

More broadly, I have done quite a bit of analysis (I am, after all, a research engineer) on TFA from the data available, and have arrived at some serious concerns about the organization in general.

For example, how would you justify TFA’s expansion into regions in which, due to the recession, there is apparently a surplus of already-qualified teachers? When I applied to TFA, I assumed that I would be placed into schools for which no qualified personnel are available; in analyzing the contracts you have with Washington, California, and Massachusetts as examples, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Another serious concern is what appears from your own documents to be what is in my opinion an over-reliance on quantitative data. Again, I am a research engineer, I *love* data – it takes me to my happy nerd place. But I also understand the limitations of data, and the importance of human factors. When we screen applicants to NASA, the quantitative elements of the applicant’s portfolio (grades, test scores, etc) are used for cutting off a minimum threshold only; 60 years of doing the hardest science and engineering imaginable has led us firmly to the conclusion that of far greater importance is creativity, judgement, analytical skill, and critical thinking. We don’t care as much about what they know as we do about how they approach what they *don’t* know. What does TFA believe about these factors, and how are those values built into the way you assess CMs and teach them how to teach students?

Of more general concern are the following:
What is the relationship between TFA CMs and traditional teachers? How do you respond to the (often highly vitriolic) accusations that TFA is displacing qualified, experienced teachers in favor of less expensive, less-well-trained, temporary teachers? What is the difference between a two-year CM and a long-term substitute? Are these issues different for the specific case of math/science, and/or the Bay Area?

Thanks for your time and support. I haven’t decided against accepting the TFA position by any means, but these are the questions I am pondering.


I am not Superman

Last night I watched Waiting for Superman, the much vaunted documentary on the education system. It was a powerful, emotionally-driven film. While it certainly did help me solidify my feelings that I want to dive into these trenches, I don’t think it did so in the way the movie intended.

On my top list of things that I find distasteful: being the recipient of an emotional argument for a very legitimate purpose, when the analysis part of my brain is simultaneously screaming disingenuous!

Now, I am not an educator or in the field of education, so perhaps I don’t have the firsthand perspective. However, given my potential (I would even dare say probable) imminent career change and the research I have done pertaining thereto, I would consider myself at least more informed on the subject of the documentary that the average viewer.

Here is what I liked:

  • Increasing public awareness of education as an important issue.
  • Sparking a debate on what it means to have a good school and a good teacher, thus prompting the further question of what that actually means.
  • Pointing out some of the glaring blemishes of the teachers unions’ claim that they are the staunch defenders of a noble profession. (Note: this is worthy of its own blog post or five, so I won’t get into details, but say that I *do* in fact view teaching as a noble profession, I just disagree that the unions are presently helping that cause).
  • Making the social conditions in which some of these kids are growing up visible to the largely educated, suburban, and insulated populace that governs the country and controls the flow of information and money.
  • Arguing against the idea that kids who fail are failing due to circumstances within their control (e.g. they should just be working harder, their families are just lazy or don’t care, etc).

Here is what I didn’t like:

  • Making all (or most) public schools appear to be failing “dropout factories” and all (or most) charter schools to be a highly successful proven solution. Firstly, the whole concept of failing or succeeding is based completely on a flawed (or at best, incomplete) metric, standardized test scores. Further, most studies on charters are likely flawed, many (including KIPP) have been accused of counseling out poor students from continuing or even applying, resulting in a pick-and-choose, and finally, even with these biases, the studies don’t actually even show that charters are more effective on the whole anyway but probably worse.
  • Extrapolating from the known fact that there are bad teachers to the conclusion that metrics exist to accurately quantify good teaching, and that we should be using these metrics to fire teachers.
  • Asserting that teaching is like other professions (e.g. lawyers, doctors, etc) and therefore should be treated the same. (Ironically, the anti-reform side uses this same logic to argue that traditional schools of education are better than alternative entry programs in terms of quality… “Would you trust a surgeon who never went to medical school?” Highly disingenuous as well.)
  • Glorification of Michelle Rhee as some kind of hero, when she was closing schools (the only stable thing in some of these communities) and firing teachers (at a time of enormous need for them) based on metrics which are inconsistent and unreliable at best.  I mean, I don’t want to vilify her as some have, but I’m just saying the portfolio on her is at least mixed, and this documentary doesn’t seem to give any balance to that.
  • Using emotional (and, as it turns out, staged) content to encourage activism on behalf of the corporate-supported charter movement, which is even further harming the ability of our public schools to make the reforms they need to make.

More on many of these sub-issues later…. or this will be a really long blog post.