A Chance To Make History — my review Part I

About a year ago TFA came out with the ‘Teaching As Leadership’ book, which I thought was horrible and wrote a scathing nine part critique.  This new book, you’ll all be happy to know, is actually pretty good, though not great.

I do admire Wendy Kopp.  She really cares about the cause and she is obviously an obsessed worker who is always thinking deeply about how to improve the organization.  I think, though, that one thing that she struggles with is the need to both run and improve the organization while simultaneously handling the PR aspect and the spinning of the various statistics.  I’ll take you through the various points in the book, and try to show where I feel Wendy might be holding back or somehow distorting her true position on various issues.

The first thing I noticed was that the book was co-written by Steven Farr, who wrote the horrific ‘Teaching As Leadership’ book.  I wasn’t feeling optimistic.

I noticed in the introduction that Wendy was being very careful with her choice of words.  I find that TFA is generally not very specific with their statistics.  We don’t really know, for example, the actual quit rate of new CMs.  We don’t know what percent are making ‘significant gains’ or ‘modest gains’ , or a lot of other really important statistics.  Rather than give numbers, Wendy sticks with ambiguous phrases like “dozens of communities also have growing numbers of schools that are putting whole buildings full of students on much more promising paths” “there is not just one school but a growing number of schools that are showing what is possible” “in dozens of communities around the country, there are growing numbers of classrooms and growing numbers of schools that are demonstrating ”  It seems like ‘growing numbers’ is a common phrase she likes to use.  Now, it could just be a stylistic thing, but I think the phrase is representative of how TFA sometimes describes their successes and it is a bit revealing that they don’t give many actual numbers.  It makes it seem like they are hiding something, even if they are not.

Chapter 1 we are introduced to some of the success stories from TFA.  We meet teachers who had very high expectations and who managed to overcome all kinds of obstacles to get their kids to meet those expectations.  Among them are KIPP founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, both who I know for a long time.  As second year teachers, I think they personified the ‘Work Relentlessly’ part of the TFA values.  These guys are pretty amazing with their work ethic and I’m not surprised at their success.  I also think that they are very unique and most people who would try to work that intensely would have nervous breakdowns.  Still, Wendy has every right to hold a spotlight up to them since they have really helped to ‘change the trajectory’ of the lives of many kids with their network of 99 KIPPs.

Chapter 2 is  mainly about how some great teachers have become great school leaders who have created a high-expectations culture which energizes the teachers and the students.  It features two more people who I know from my Houston days.  (Sorry to be such a namedropper.  I just happened to know most of the TFA successes.  Many were in Houston at the same time as me.)  The first is the founder of the YES academy, Chris Barbic.  He was on Oprah recently, receiving a million dollars for his school, and I think he truly deserved it.  According to this book, his five schools in HISD send more low-income students to college than the other 34 HISD schools combined.

Wendy’s description of Chris’ start in teaching is grossly oversimplified, which I know since I hung out with him a bunch during his first year.  The chapter begins with this paragraph:

“Chris Barbic taught sixth grade in Houston as a member of Teach For America in 1992.  His students made dramatic progress, outpacing most other students across the city.  The next year he and his students’ families watched with dismay as his former sixth graders’ progress stalled and reversed once they entered seventh grade.  A group of concerned parents, teachers, and community leaders gathered to discuss the problem. … At eh parent group’s urging, Chris asked the school board for space at Rusk Elementary that would enable him to keep working with the sixth graders he had taught through eighth grade” and the rest was history.

OK, so the reality is that Chris’ success at Rusk happened during his second year of teaching.  His first year he was placed at Deady middle school teaching a self contained class of sixth graders who had failed the year before.  One of the teachers who had failed those students the year before was me, during my first year in 1991 at that school.  So Chris had the near-impossible task of trying to ‘change the trajectory’ for these kids as a new teacher, and, no, he did not manage to do so.  That entire class eventually dropped out of school.  But through this experience Chris became a great teacher, which enabled him to become a great success in his second year.

Wendy makes it seem like Chris was instantly a success.  Maybe it’s because it’s not that important whether he struggled his first year, but I see it as a bit of the PR aspect of TFA.  It’s not enough for her to just hold him up as one of the most successful educators in the country.  She also sees the need to distort what happened so that the myth that a lot of first year CMs are superstars continues.  The fact is that even a superstar like Chris had a rough first year.  Maybe it’s not relevant, which is why she simplified the story, but I find the description to be revealing.

Chapter 2 also features a friend of mine Brett Kimmel, who was recently feature during Wendy’s Today show appearance.  Brett is doing a great job.  For a few weeks I was contemplating leaving my job to become his Math coach, but with my daughter being born right around that time, I wanted to minimize the number of dramatic changes to my life so I decided to stick with my job.  (Even in book reviews, I can’t help making it all about me.)

Chapter 3 is where Wendy starts to walk a tight-rope.  She wants to show the next logical progression, that entire school systems can be transformed through strong leadership.  She uses as her examples New York City and Washington, D.C.  She gushes about Klein and Bloomberg in New York City, though as a New York City teacher and resident, I can tell you that many of the successes in New York City are just games with statistics and numbers.  Wendy is aware of this, which is why she uses very ambiguous phrases since she doesn’t want to get behind, too enthusiastically, something that might not be real.  My favorite expression she uses on page 78, where she says “the needle is moving against the achievement gap in ways that are meaningful for students.”  Come on — the ‘needle’ is ‘moving.’?

On page 83, Wendy makes first mention of the most famous TFA alum of all, Michelle Rhee.  This is a tricky sell, and Wendy is aware of it.  The fact is that Michelle Rhee was essentially fired — voted out by the people after coming in and firing teachers, firing principals, and closing schools.  Unlike the other successful alum in the book, Michelle lacks a vital leadership quality of motivating her team to get the best from them.  She was portrayed as a hero in ‘Waiting For Superman’ , and even with that unbalanced portrayal of her, I thought she came off as a scary individual.  I was scared during the movie that she was going to look into the lens of the camera and fire me from the audience of the theater.  (Yes, I have a history with Rhee too, after she almost fired me from the 1996 institute.)

Some of Rhee’s accomplishments, like crating an e-mail system, are things that any number of chancellors would have done.  It speaks more about how awful the previous chancellor must have been.  Also, it’s coming out that many of the principals she hired have already quit.  Unlike the other leaders who have done great things, it’s not clear whether Rhee is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  Wendy is in a tight spot.  She’s got to spotlight Rhee in the best was she can, but at the same time, she is careful to say (pg 84) “While it is too early to predict the sustainability of the reforms Michelle, Kaya, and their team …” and then (pg 86) “and given the tumultuous political landscape in all of these places, it is still to early to know whether the pace of change can continue” and then one page later (pg 87) “Though we cannot predict how these models will evolve, and it is also too early to claim victory in any of the systems that are showing signs of progress…” and then (pg 100) “It remains to be seen whether and how Michelle’s vision will be realized, but her hard-charging focus … created shock waves well beyond the nations’ capital.” and then (pg 102)  “Although it is too early to know whether one particular governance structure is a prerequisite for reform …”  Wendy refuses to get fully behind Rhee, but has to acknowledge her since she’s one of the ‘poster children’ of TFA.  It seems to me that she doesn’t deserve all the fame she’s gotten.  I guess time  will tell.

Chapter 4 is the best part of the book.  This 30 page chapter, in my opinion, ‘is’ the book.  It’s a great chapter where Wendy surprises everyone by writing about what she calls the ‘silver bullets’ and the ‘silver scapegoats.’  Silver bullets are things that are supposed to fix education, like Charter schools, vouchers, school size, more funding, technology, new curricula, and even better teachers.  She argues that none of these will, in isolation, ‘fix’ schools if not implemented in the context of high expectations.  Then she argues against the ‘silver scapegoats,’ and shows that the blame game is not an effective use of energy.  She says that it’s not the students or their families to blame since she’s seen CMs succeed with all kinds of students an families.  She then says not to blame the teachers — though this is just what Rhee does.  Then, and I wonder if this was just a Freudian slip — Wendy is careful about not pointing the finger at these silver scapegoats.  Her headings are ‘Students and Their Families Aren’t the Problem’, ‘Teachers Aren’t the Problem’, and then when it comes to unions she calls the heading ‘Teachers’ Unions Aren’t the Primary Problem, Either’  I wonder if that ‘primary’ was intentional.

I was hoping to do this as one post, but I realize that I’m running out of steam.  I want to analyze this chapter 4 in greater depth in my next post and then go into the remaining chapters.

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