‘Teaching As Leadership’ book critique Part II

The very first principle described in ‘Teaching As Leadership’ is ‘Set Big Goals.’ All effective teachers do this, they say, which I agree with. Implied is the converse that everyone who sets big goals will be an effective teacher or that many teachers who were not effective would have been more effective had they set bigger goals.

In the 36 page chapter from pages 15 to 50 of the book, a major part is making the case that low income, mostly students of color, are as capable as their rich, mostly, white counterparts. Why they need to spend so many pages on something that only the most racist person doesn’t already know, I can’t understand.

We hear that this CM got 3 years of achievement in one year. Another got 2 years. One CM has a big ‘2’ all over her room to remind her students of the class goal to do this. The idea, which TFA says is based on research, is the ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy of high expectations. Kids will rise to meet the level of your big goals.

The whole truth is a lot more complicated, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t. It would have made my first year a lot easier. Having high expectations is not enough. In fact, those high expectations can even backfire. I’ll explain what I mean.

If you go into your classroom as a new teacher with a big speech about how the class is going to cover two years in one year, you will get an initial rush of excitement. Kids do want to catch up and they might be willing to even trust this newcomer. But then, when the new teacher doesn’t have the skill yet to get the students to master the challenging material, and the students do poorly on the first assessment, that initial rush of excitement can turn to a wave of resentment as the teacher not only failed to teach well, but lied to the class and got their hopes up.

It would be very irresponsible (dare I say ‘negligent’?) for TFA not to acknowledge this fact. Without pointing this out, it would leave the trusting naïve new teacher with the belief that there is no such thing as goals that are ‘too big.’ TFA knows that this fact has to be mentioned but they don’t really want to. This is why in the 36 page chapter from pages 15 to 50, the fact is mentioned in exactly one sentence. It’s pretty easy to miss so get your highlighter out and turn to page 36, first paragraph:

“Yet setting a goal that is impossible for students to reach even with extraordinarily hard work might further undermine students’ shaky confidence, cementing their impression that effort does not lead to achievement and that they are ‘not smart’ enough to achieve in school.”

That’s it. In 35 and 9/10 pages about how no goals are impossible and, hidden in the middle, one sentence about how careful a teacher needs to be while considering how big the expectations should realistically be. This was an opportunity for them to maybe contrast ‘good’ big goals versus ‘bad’ ones of unsuccessful teachers who felt they were following the advice of setting big goals. This was a moment where TFA could have warned the new teachers with specific examples of ineffective teachers who thought they were setting big goals, but really were just demonstrating their ignorance. TFA couldn’t do that, though, since it would force them to admit that there have been some ineffective CMs over the past 20 years.

A new teacher doesn’t have enough experience to know the difference between a realistic big goal and an impossible one. TFA misses the opportunity to guide the new teacher through this important decision. After the point is briefly mentioned, they continue with the ‘no goal is too big’ agenda.

To see an example of what happens when a new TFA corps members does not understand the difference between realistic big goals and impossible ones, see the teachfor.us blog by ‘the projectionist.’ This is a 2009 CM who was obviously committed to the 6 principles. She steadily wrote 61 blog entries between November 2008 and November 2009. One of them was about her ambitious reading list she was preparing for her 12 graders. Obviously she heard the principle ‘Set Big Goals,’ and took that principle seriously. Nobody warned her that if you know little about your students, you run the risk of setting goals that are counterproductive. This is why, I assume, ‘The Projectionist’ quit blogging (and maybe even teaching, I don’t know.) Here’s her last post.

‘Set Big Goals’ is not good advice for new teachers who are likely to misinterpret that advice, especially after reading about the dozen or so dynamos who managed to reach those goals (I’d need to really examine more details about those teachers before I can really determine what factors contributed to their success besides setting big goals.)

I think better advice would be to spend time really learning where your students are. Then set a small goal of achievement for your students. When they accomplish that goal, set another, slightly bigger goal. Keep doing that until the end of the year and you did a great job.

TFA, by not sufficiently presenting the dangers of ‘Setting Big Goals,’ misleads new teachers into thinking that there is no real risk in doing it. But there is a big risk. When you get kids hopes up and then can’t deliver, when you teach over their heads because you don’t have the experience yet to know how to break a tough concept into more digestible portions, you can alienate your class and lose their trust. They will brand you as incompetent and not worth listening to. Your promise that they will gain two years will just be further evidence of why they shouldn’t listen to anything you say.

In my experience, low expectations are self-fulfilling, but high expectations aren’t necessarily. It takes a lot of skill to help the students reach your expectations. Better be sure you have that skill before you publicly make such promises.

One down. Five to go. Maybe the other five will be presented in a more realistic balanced way, in which case I won’t have much to write about. Honestly, I hope this book gets better.

Continue To Part III

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9 Responses to ‘Teaching As Leadership’ book critique Part II

  1. Ben Guest says:

    Agree wholeheartedly.

  2. Ms. L says:

    Very good points; though I remember at my 2008 induction being told to set “ambitious, feasible” goals, which I took to mean “set goals, but make sure you can reach them.” Maybe there needs to be more training on HOW to set goals that are ambitious but feasible, based on where your students are. As long as your goal is on the upward trajectory line to where they *should* be, then it’s a good goal. 🙂

  3. abcde says:

    I’m a 2009 CM and I only just recently realized what you have known all along. I actually wrote about this very same idea–that reaching for the stars can create an ironically negative response (here: http://abcde.teachfor.us/2010/03/13/economics-and-education-part-2-laffer-curve-and-expectations/).

    I feel that applying blanket goals (read: “80% mastery”) is not the best way to approach goal-setting. Without knowing the context for each school, each classroom or even each student it is dangerous to set a universal goal.

    Analogies are nice. I ask this: would a HS cross country running coach set the same goal for his entire squad? For example, would the goal for each runner ever be identical–to run a sub-5:00 mile? I don’t think so.

    There is also something to be said for knowing your students BEFORE you set the goals. If you “expect” too much of them early on, their investment in the goal could backfire, especially if–as in my situation–your students are below 50% mastery on the first unit test.

    This situation reminds me of an old computer game that I used to be fascinated by back in elementary school. Sim City 2000. One major part of the game was setting the “right” tax rate. If you taxed too much, your city would riot. If you taxed too little–well, you weren’t getting the most from your city. Connection? You need to know your constituents before you expect anything of them.

    Recap: set high goals but don’t ignore the context.

  4. E says:

    Gary–Please be mindful to support, not tear down, as you offer feedback. I can’t help but say you have been hard on Projectionist, and though you seem well-meaning, I might stop blogging too if I knew a veteran teacher was watching for signs of failure. Projectionist has made herself vulnerable by discussing the frustrations of first year teaching in a public forum.

    She clearly is working hard (and continues to work hard–she is still at her same high school and working with the same kids as this fall) She is a joy to know and, so far as I can tell from our encounters, hitting her stride with teaching and goals.

    I will say that I agree with you that Teach for America’s framework and book need to be seriously critiqued, as we would expect our students to read literature and interpret scholarly argumens. I personally am terrified about setting a too ambitious big goal and yet would be remorse (and angry) to send my students away below grade level, or to fail the high performing kids by setting a too-easy goal and using them as support for my lower students. Waiting to meet my kids–or at least my summer school kids–before I make the big decisions.

  5. E says:

    what has / has not worked for you in terms of goal setting? are you still teaching? thanks!

  6. garyrubinstein says:


    I hope that The Projectionist understands that my use of her as an example was to show how TFA was misleading when they trained her. Someone as obviously bright and reflective as her could only make such a mistake if she was improperly trained.

    I think what happens is that TFA teaches so many different things to think about that CMs can’t master the subtleties of all of them. Then TFA does not tell CMs what the most important ones to master are.

    I really hope that she didn’t quit blogging because of me. Her blog was going to become a great source of help to future new teachers as they learned through her successes and through the mistakes that all teachers make. It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and also if others learn from them too, it’s even better.

    Nobody’s first year mistakes are more public than mine. They are the primary focus of my first book ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’. Though I wish I hadn’t made so many mistakes, I’m glad they helped me become a better teacher and also an authority to help others avoid such mistakes. When TFA gets CMs all hyped up on the hero teacher stories, of course a new English teacher is going to make an ambitious reading list. I’m sure that she revised her plans pretty quickly, so the only real harm that was done was that she wasted a few hours creating the list when she could have been planning a bit more ‘purposefully.’

    If you read the other blog entries I’ve written, you’ll see that I rarely refer to other blogs. I’m not combing through them searching for mistakes that people are making. I hope I haven’t caused a culture of fear on this site. I doubt I have, but I hope The Projectionist starts blogging again sometime. I wish her all the success I’m sure she will have.

  7. E says:

    I feel a little better now, Gary. I see that you are trying to critique an organization and approach much more than a person, but my original reaction is one others might also have. Just be mindful that sometimes perception is all that matters (not too far from your point, that how corps members perceive Teach for America’s directives is most important)

    I agree with you that “TFA teaches so many different things to think about that CMs can’t master the subtleties of all of them” but I don’t know if any of us know which ones are most important to master…I think the Teaching as Leadership book makes it clear (some of the time) that personal factors will influence one’s choices, if they really are good choices.

    Thanks for being another voice in the Teach for America discussion!

  8. A says:

    “In the 36 page chapter from pages 15 to 50 of the book, a major part is making the case that low income, mostly students of color, are as capable as their rich, mostly, white counterparts. Why they need to spend so many pages on something that only the most racist person doesn’t already know, I can’t understand.”

    As an incoming 2010 CM, I was shocked in my interview to find that other potential corps members who had made it to the final round of TFA interviews in fact did NOT know this. As sad as it is, it is not only “the most racist person” who doesn’t understand this concept, but many people ignorant of the nature of the education achievement gap (including many incoming CMs who do not have a background in education). Since it is such a crucial point, the case made for it in the book may do some good for those who have just started on their journey in education.

    That being said, I greatly appreciate your perspective and comments, and I will be reading along as I complete the pre-institute readings.

  9. MR says:

    I have just discovered your blog, and I love it. I attended your discipline workshop as an ’07 CM at what must have been the last time you presented it in NYC. This running critique of the TFA book’s strengths and weaknesses is incredibly useful, and as someone who is about to be a CMA at institute this summer I find your concerns about TFA’s training very interesting.
    I agree with most of your points about big goals and would like to add another point: A huge part of determining what is feasible for your students comes from assessing them accurately at the beginning of the year, and I worry that new CMs don’t always know how to do this which seriously hinders their ability to choose a feasible & ambitious goal. I also wholeheartedly echo A’s sentiments; it’s very hard for people to get past stereotypes about poor students’ abilities and I suspect that this issue is the main reason the book starts with 100 pages of proof that students of TFA teachers can succeed before getting to the good advice in the last chapters.

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