Finding Common Ground with Teach for America

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As a teacher educator, my stomach roils at the very mention of Teach for America (TFA), yet for some reason it keeps coming up in my life. My argument against this organization stems from my belief that the most effective urban teachers come from traditional teacher preparation programs, which include a solid foundation of theory, pedagogy, and fieldwork experiences in urban environments. Training effective teachers to work in urban classrooms may bring sustainability to these schools, and bring teachers who understand how to narrow the achievement gap that exists between high and low income schools. Staffing schools with college graduates who aren’t required to have a degree in education or a teaching license, and have only five weeks of training, as is the case with TFA is a disservice to students in urban schools. This is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

About a year ago, a former student who was about to graduate from our teacher education program asked if I would serve as a reference for TFA as she was beginning to seek employment after graduation. I told her I would, but she had to listen to me for five minutes while I explained why I wanted her to have a very clear understanding of the organization before she applied. She came to my office and before I even spoke, she said, “I know you don’t like it, I know it’s not good for urban schools to hire inexperienced teachers, but I think I can do this and I would like the opportunity to try and change their approach.” Knowing my opinions should not impact her choices, I found the common ground and agreed to write a glowing recommendation. I completed the online recommendation, and being a good sport, on the form I checked yes they could contact me with additional questions, but no they could not contact me for networking opportunities. I’m all about supporting my teacher candidates, even if they feel strongly about pursuing employment with an organization I do not support. But discuss networking opportunities with TFA? No, thank you.

This student accepted a position in New Orleans, and came back to campus to visit me at Thanksgiving. I asked how it was going, and her response was, “It’s worse than you think.” I was disheartened, but not surprised.

Last spring I attended accepted students day with my son at the university where he would attend. During the day, two people from two different programs offered this to parents and students, “We encourage our students to take advantage of service opportunities, such as Teach for America.” Each time, my son looked at me as if to say, “Mom, please don’t stand up and debate this.” The voices in my head are screaming, don’t those children deserve the best trained teachers, and not just college students looking for service opportunities?” But for my son, I swallowed the urge to stand and scream in protest, and mentally began writing a letter to the president of the university.  The letter is written in my head, but that’s as far as it’s gotten.

The next encounter was while I was attending a post-memorial service luncheon in honor of my godfather. I was introduced to one of his granddaughters. In casual conversation I mentioned I am a college professor. She asked what I teach, and I told her I am a teacher educator. “You’re not going to like me very much, then,” she said. I tell her I’m sure that’s not true, and she goes on to tell me she was a TFA corps member for two years, worked in staffing for a while after that, and now is co-founder of a program bringing early childhood education programs to urban children in a large metropolitan area. I begin pontificating on the research my colleagues and I have done, our recently published book and how we feel so strongly about our work. I tell her the book comes from work each of has done in providing urban field experiences for our students, paralleled with course work, and activities, which support how our students need to first understand themselves and the cultural lens through which they see the world. In order for teachers to be effective in an urban classroom, they must also understand the students and the environment from which they come. It is only then they can begin to understand their students, and how the culture of these children differs from their own upbringing. She appears to be intrigued by this. Sadly this was news to her.

Somehow what happened next even surprised me. We found a way to reach common ground. She left TFA because she didn’t completely agree with the organization’s plan, said she didn’t need to read any of the exposés written by disgruntled former corps members who admitted to being ill-prepared to teach these students, and in this environment. She already knew about it first hand. I was happy to hear this. She made a point of saying not all corps members are horrible teachers, and I agreed, but countered with why our most needy students deserved our very best teachers. She agreed. We agreed that suburban schools would never be staffed with TFA corps members, and we recognized the issues surrounding why only urban schools employ them.

At the end of the conversation, she told me she would read the book on the flight home. She mentioned a friend who is the Director of Corps Member Development and after reading our book would speak with her friend about our conversation and the book.

I begrudgingly acknowledged I would be willing to discuss the book with her friend, and how it might be implemented in TFA training (still only 5-weeks, but whatever).  In this conversation I learned how something good came out of her work with TFA. I would like to think something good might come of my conversation with her. This got me thinking further. Perhaps the common ground is more approachable, than the defining line in the sand. Am I selling out by agreeing to have a conversation with TFA? Could I be like my student who believes maybe she can affect change within the organization in New Orleans ? I don’t know. But the fact that I found common ground and we could agree, disagree, and agree to disagree was tremendous growth for me.

My most recent encounter was last month when I reached out to TFA looking for data on the growth of charters in New Orleans pre- and post- Katrina – specifically the number of TFA corp members were in the New Orleans Schools. Honestly, the information I was looking for was for research purposes only. I got a response from the Managing Director of External Research asking me to complete a research partnership request. “Once you’ve submitted this request, we will review the information provided and make a decision as to whether or not to release the data.” On the same day I submitted the form, there was a lot of search activity on my research publications from…. guess where? New Orleans. Not sure how they felt about my research, but I guess I can understand the hesitation to provide the data to anyone, as most of it is used against the organization.

This week I got a response. “We are happy to provide historic placement data for TFA in New Orleans.  I am working to assemble those numbers now and should have them to you soon.” 

I will only use the information I receive for the intended use- research for a book. For as much as I take issue with TFA, it keeps coming up in my life. Maybe some day I’ll understand why.

Sun-Tzu wrote, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

These are my reflections for today.

7/28/17

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More Charter News

Here’s a compilation of recent headlines about charter schools across the country. As you read, keep in mind this is the direction the current administration is going with regards to charters and vouchers.

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The Ohio State Auditor reported a charter school that was closed due to mismanagement in 2015 owes the state $340,000. “The shutdown, for mismanagement, came after the school had received its per-pupil aid from the Ohio Department of Education for the 2015-16 school year” (Columbus Dispatch).

Gene V. Glass, one of the nation’s most distinguished education researchers, wrote of parents applying to a charter school in Arizona. Parents who registered their child early for kindergarten received a letter of acceptance but in March were asked to fill out another form where they noted  their daughter required speech therapy, which they did not indicate on the first application. They were then told the child was unaccepted and would need to reapply through an open lottery.

The principal of the Crescent Leadership Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, was fired after he was filmed wearing Nazi rings and participating in a “white genocide” tape. The students in the school are almost all African-American (The Root).

A judge in New Orleans found that Delta Charter violated the terms of the desegregation  plan. The local school board in Concordia is seeking reimbursement of millions of dollars, and wants the judge to require the charter school to cancel its enrollment and create a plan of a more inclusive and diverse student body. The plan would include offering transportation to the school which would make it possible for more black students to attend (NOLA.com).

This story from South Carolina explains how foreign investors are buying green cards by investing in charter school construction, and the middlemen are raking in money at  high interest rates. Specifically, Jared Kushner’s sister secured investments in Kushner real estate deals in Beijing, where she promised green cards to investors of at least $500,000.

Three Detroit-area charter schools are closing in June after years of low test scores. This will leave hundreds of families to find new schools before fall. Many of these families have not yet been notified (chalkbeat.org).

In California, the East Bay Times reports an audit released this week suggests Livermore’s two charter schools misappropriated public funds, including a tax-exempt bond totaling $67 million, and mainly pointed the finger at former CEO Bill Batchelor. According to the Times, the Tri-Valley Learning Corporation, “failed to disclose numerous conflict-of-interest relationships; diverted, commingled and/or misappropriated public funds, including tax-exempt public bonds totaling over $67 million with various private entities; and contributed to an environment of significantly deficient internal controls” (East Bay Times).

In Indiana, four private schools with a consistent record of academic failure were approved by the State Board of Education to begin accepting publicly funded vouchers for incoming students (WFYI). “The schools  had been rated a D or F on the state’s accountability system for at least two consecutive years” (WFYI). Indiana Governor Holcomb recently signed a law allowing private schools to seek a one-year waiver from the requirement of  reporting years of academic improvement to become eligible for the vouchers. The school is being rewarded for failure.

On Thursday, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a controversial and contested bill awarding $419 million to grow charter schools in the state. According to the Miami Herald, “The bill will make it easier for privately managed charter schools to further expand in Florida and to receive additional taxpayer funding to boost their operations. It also includes a wide range of other provisions including daily school recess for most elementary school students and $30 million in extra funding to expand a voucher program that helps kids with disabilities.”

The Florida bill was in heavy opposition from public school advocates across the state and across the country.  Superintendents, elected school board members, parents, teachers are concerned about provision in the bill forcing districts to share millions of local tax dollars earmarked for school construction. Before signing the bill, Scott said, “When I was growing up, I had access to a good quality education, and every Florida child should have the same opportunity” (Miami Herald). Define ‘good quality education’, Mr. Scott?

Diane Ravitch reported today that the New York State Senate is holding a deal to renew mayoral control unless NYC Mayor De Blasio agrees to allow more charter schools.

The Trump administration is pushing a plan to increase funding, fully support charters and vouchers – expand privatization to include vouchers, virtual schools, homeschooling, and other alternatives to public education all unregulated, and many for profit. All of this with very  little research or evidence to support their success.

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What’s happening in Washington, and across the country is disturbing. Politicians are promoting failed and discriminatory practices, and the implications of these failed practices will be felt far and wide, and for a very long time.  What’s reported in the news consistently is a pattern of fraud, misappropriation of funds, discriminatory acceptance practices, and rewards for failure.

What’s happening in your state? Where do your elected officials stand on these policies? If you don’t know, it’s time to find out.

These are my reflections for today.

6/17/17

 

 

 

1.6 million poor kids lose in ED budget

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The White House released the proposed education budget this week. The budget is harmful to public education- cutting teacher training and funding to reduce class size, and ending the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which would affect 400,000 students. And no surprise to anyone who has been following, charter schools would receive $500 million in new funding, an increase of 50%. This is  bothersome.

Equally as disturbing is the $1.2 billion cut of the 21st Century Community Learning Center. This program provides after school academic enrichment for 1.6 million children in the US (ThinkProgress). Children who benefit from this program generally come from high poverty, under-performing schools.

According to the program’s 2014–2015 performance report:

  • 80% of parents whose children are served by after-school programs say that those programs helped them keep their job.
  • 65.2% of teachers reported an improvement in homework completion and class participation for students served by the program.
  • 56% of teachers reported improvement in student behavior (ThinkProgress).

Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation whose work focuses on educational inequality said, “Their stated reason for cutting after-school programs is the idea that there isn’t evidence quickly boosting student achievement.”

This budget is adding $500 million to a voucher program which has very little evidence to support its effectiveness (especially with regard to the positive effects on children living in poverty), while cutting programs which positively affect 1.6 million poor children and data supports its effectiveness. How does this make sense?

With data collected from 30 states, the program’s performance report shows how this program has an overlapping positive impact on the children and  families who participate. Let’s not forget the report which came out recently showing how the DC voucher program was not working.

What’s in the budget for DeVos?  “An additional $158 million for salaries and expenses in the Education Department.” A portion of this money will go for increased security for DeVos, who has contracted the U.S. Marshals Service instead of the ED’s security team (The Fader).

This budget is aligned with what Trump and DeVos have been pushing all along – the privatization of public schools. It’s interesting to note that with all the president has on his plate lately, he still has time to destroy public education and ignore the needs of so many children in this country.

DeVos and her husband are deeply rooted in their evangelical Christian beliefs. Her actions and her beliefs seem to take distinctly different positions on educating poor children. The irony is not lost on me.

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If you would like to get involved in the campaign to let your representatives in Congress know how you feel about the proposed budget: https://networkforpubliceducation.org/2017/05/act-now-stop-cuts-public-education/

These are my reflections for today.

5/20/17

Michelle Rhee – Back in the News

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Remember her? The former Chancellor of  DC Public Schools. She was called the face of reform of public schools in the US-especially in DC. On her first day on the job she said, “I am Michelle Rhee. I’m the new chancellor of the D.C. public schools … and no, I have never run a school district before” (CNN). Nailed it.

She has no degrees in education, and three years of classroom experience with Teach for America (TFA). In her first year with TFA in the Baltimore City Schools, she failed miserably. So on the first day of her second year, she took a different approach. “I wore my game face. No smiles, no joy; I was all thin lips and flinty glares. My mistake the first year was trying to be warm and friendly with the students, thinking that my kids needed love and compassion. What I knew going into my second year was that what my children needed and craved was rigid structure, certainty, and stability” (Substance News).

She taught second grade.

According to Kugler (2010), “Rhee admitted that she taped shut the mouths of her young students because she could not control their talking”.  According to Rhee, she tried the tape method after she was unable to keep the little ones from making noise when she marched them through the hallways to lunch. In an even more disturbing revelation  Rhee laughed about when the tape was removed hurting the children- some even started to bleed (Substance News).

In 2007, after three years with TFA, Rhee was appointed as School Chancellor by DC’s newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty. In her time in DC, she closed schools and fired teachers. Lots of teachers. According to Deal (2008), Rhee, “… gained the right to fire central-office employees and then axed 98 of them. She canned 24 principals, 22 assistant principals, 250 teachers and 500 teaching aides. She announced plans to close 23 underused schools and set about restructuring 26 other schools (together, about a third of the system). And she began negotiating a radical performance-based compensation contract with the teachers union that could revolutionize the way teachers got paid” (The Atlantic).

She spent three years as a highly polarizing figure in DC, and a self-proclaimed change agent for what’s wrong with public schools, though there is no data to support her success. She left the job in 2010 when Fenty lost his reelection bid for mayor.

Well she’s back in the news this week. Rhee and her husband, former Sacramento mayor and NBA player Kevin Johnston started a charter school chain called St. Hope in Sacramento, CA. Rhee is on the Board, and though her husband was a founder, he is no longer affiliated with the chain.

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The Los Angeles Times reported this week that teachers at St. Hope want to unionize, citing growing discontent over the schools’ management and high turnover of staff, teachers, and administrators. A majority of teachers, school psychologists, and other certified educators signed a petition to be represented by the Sacramento City Teachers Association (which is an affiliate of the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association).

The chain’s four schools employ about 100 teachers. One teacher said, “Our desks are old, we have to fight for resources for kids — and when we asked where the money’s going, we never get a full answer” (Phillips, 2017). The union says that educators are frustrated with the network’s lack of transparency regarding school finances and their evaluation system. Salaries fluctuate by as much as $10,000 a year, based on observations from “often overworked and inconsistent” administrators (Brown, 2017). A science teacher, earned an unsatisfactory rating after creating a new course, at the school’s request, then received his contract for the fall: “It was for $10,000 less than he’d made the year before” (Toppo, 2017).

“Our kids deserve consistency,” said Kingsley Melton, a government teacher at Sacramento Charter High, who is in his sixth year of teaching there. “In many cases, our students come from homes where there is no consistency. They need us to be the constant and not the variable.” Kingsley said teachers also want more transparency from the administration—“We have never seen a budget,” he said. “We don’t know where the money goes and why” (Will, 2017). Melton also said, “Next year I’ll have my seventh principal — and I’ll be in my seventh year” (Toppo, 2017).

In response to the request for unionization, Chief of Schools Shannon Wheatley expressed disappointment in employees who want to form a union. Wheatley said he had worked for a traditional public school “that prioritized the needs of adults before those of children.” …I came to St. Hope so that I didn’t have to deal with union politics and adult issues dominating the day”  (Phillips, 2017).

Rhee has offered no comment.

Another charter school story with a different twist. Another story of Michelle Rhee doing what she does. With Betsy DeVos taking all the news lately, thanks to Michelle for providing fodder for this week’s blog, which could have been called Charters and unions: The continued failure of educational reform.  People always say of weather forecasters – how can they be wrong 100% of the time and still have jobs?  Is this also true for reformers?  I’m going with yes.

These are my reflections for today.

5/13/17

 

The Voucher Sell Just Got Harder

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A study conducted by the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), found that students in Washington DC’s federally funded voucher program performed worse academically, particularly on math test scores, after a year of private school. Reading scores were also lower, but researchers say that was not statistically significant (statistical significance helps to quantify if results are likely due to chance or  other factors).

The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) was created by Congress in 2004 to provide tuition vouchers to low-income parents who want their child to attend a private school. This is the only federally funded program in the country.

The program selected students to receive scholarships using a lottery process in 2012, 2013, and 2014, which allowed for an experimental design that compared outcomes for a treatment group (995 students selected through the lottery to receive offers of scholarships) and a control group (776 students not selected to receive offers of scholarships) (source).
This table shows the impact of the program after one year (source).

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There have been numerous studies conducted recently on the effectiveness of vouchers, data is consistent that children from low-income families who attend private schools on vouchers do not perform better. According to Rios (2017):
  • A November 2015 study of Indiana’s voucher program determined that students who attended private school through the program scored lower on math and reading tests than kids in public school.
  • In Louisiana, students who attend private schools through the voucher program showed significant drops in both math and reading in the first two years of the program’s operation, according to a February 2016 study by researchers at the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans.
  • Researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, concluded in a July 2016 study of Ohio’s voucher program that students who took part in the voucher program fared worse academically than those who attended public schools (Rios, 2017).

All this comes on the heels of this administration posturing to dump $1.4 billion into more federally funded voucher programs. Mrs. DeVos had few things to say about the findings of the DC study.  She has long argued that vouchers help poor children escape from failing public schools. In defending the DC program, she said,  it is part of an expansive school-choice market in the nation’s capital that includes a robust public charter school sector. She added, When school choice policies are fully implemented, there should not be differences in achievement among the various types of schools (Brown, 2017).

I guess she didn’t read the study.

Opponents of vouchers read it, and were quick to stand behind the study.

  • Martin West, a professor of education at Harvard, said the D.C. study adds to an emerging pattern of research showing declines in student achievement among voucher recipients, a departure from an earlier wave of research (Brown, 2017).
  • Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA.), who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said that given the findings of the study,  DeVos should “finally abandon her reckless plans to privatize public schools across the country” (Brown, 2017).
  • Bobby Scott (D-VA.), serving as ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, slammed the DC voucher program in a statement to the Associated Press. “We know that these failed programs drain public schools of limited resources,” he said, “only to deliver broken promises of academic success to parents and students” (Rios, 2017).

According to the website for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the OSP – offers scholarships – sometimes called vouchers – to low income children in the District of Columbia to attend a participating D.C. private school of their choice.  Ninety seven percent of participating children awarded scholarships are African-American and Hispanic, with an average income for participating families less than $22,000 per year. Nowhere does it say how successful the program is, because it isn’t. Nor does it say how students are better served, because they aren’t.

DeVos continues to sell the federal voucher program, and so far it’s working because she’s still talking. She wants to replicate the ineffective DC voucher program and take it on the road. The pricetag? $1.4 billion.

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A snake oil salesman knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is himself (or herself) a fraud, quack, or charlatan.

These are my reflections for today.

5/6/17

Teachers of the year celebrate Trump

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Every other year in the long standing tradition of honoring teachers of the year and the national teacher of the year, the title would have been (insert president’s name) celebrates teachers of the year. But in the true narcissistic fashion of the current president, this was an abhorrent reversal.

As many news media outlets are reporting, this is how the 2017 Teacher of the Year celebration went down on Thursday compared to tradition:

  • In the past, the teacher of the year had an opportunity to speak. This year only Trump spoke.
  • In the past, the president spoke with the teachers. This year Trump hardly spoke with the teachers.
  • In the past, family members joined the teachers at the celebration. This year they were relegated to a separate room.
  • In the past, the celebration was either in the East room or the Rose Garden. This year the teachers were invited inside the Oval Office where Trump had them stand around his desk.
  • Trump introduced the teacher of the year, Sydney Chaffee, from Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts as the other teachers applauded. Trump handed her the trophy while remaining seated at his desk.
  • In the past, the teacher of the year gives remarks. This year Chaffee was not invited to give remarks.

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In stark contrast, Obama met with the 2016 teachers in the East Room where he gave a speech praising them and calling for more federal funding for public education. In his speech, Obama said, “So for seven years, I’ve stood in the White House with America’s finest public servants and private-sector innovators and our best advocates and our best athletes and our best artists, and I have to tell you there are few moments that make me prouder than this event when I stand alongside our nation’s best educators” (source).

In 2004, George W. Bush met with teachers in the Rose Garden where he spoke of the tradition of presenting the award to the teachers every year since Harry Truman. Bush said, “When you’re in the company of some of the nation’s finest citizens, our greatest teachers, you’re in the company of people who give their hearts and their careers to improving the lives of children. You’re in the company of the best of our country (source).

In his words to the teachers on Thursday, Mr. Trump said, “When you go home, I hope you all say that your trip to the White House was something very special.  I know Melania has been working with you now for quite a while.  She is a tremendous fan of wonderful teachers.  But she’s worked very hard and we’re having some special times here.  This is Melania’s birthday and you were very nice to sing happy birthday, even though we’re celebrating you” (source).

If only the President quoted inspiring words from Helen Caldicott for example who said, “Teachers, I believe, are the most responsible and important members of society because their professional efforts affect the fate of the earth” (source). If only he had the respect to stand to present the award and address these teachers, commending them for their hard work, diligence, and undying commitment to the children in their schools. Rather, seated in a chair, the best Trump could muster was to say, “You’re all great, great teachers” (source).

This week, Trump was also quoted as saying of the presidency, “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier” (source).

How hard is it for the President to stand before a group of committed teachers from across this great nation and commend them for their hard work and determination? Even his speechwriters could have come up with something to say. My guess is they were never asked to do so.

These are my reflections for today.

4/29/17