A Chance To Make History — my review Part III

I’m going to summarize and then finish this review in this post, I hope.

Here’s what we’ve learned in the first two parts of the review:

Chapter 1:  TFA has produced some transformational teachers who have managed to succeed despite being in schools run by poor leaders.

Chapter 2:  Some of those teachers have become transformational leaders and their schools have defied the odds and expectations of most people.

Chapter 3:  One has even become a famous chancellor, though the jury is out on whether or not she was any good.

Chapter 4 is the one that I’ve had the most to say about.  Basically Wendy is explaining that fixing the schools is very difficult and we have to be careful about thinking that it can be fixed by following the latest ‘silver bullet.’  Among those silver bullets are more funding, more time in class, more charters, and more technology.  None of these, she says, accomplishes much unless they are combined with a transformational leader.

One problem I have with this thesis is that Wendy does not realize that she is proposing her own silver bullet:  Have more transformational leaders.  Michelle Rhee tried that and many of the principals she hired have already quit.  New York city tried that with something called ‘The Leadership Academy’ where business leaders were trained to be principals.  That didn’t work either.  Even Bloomberg has tried that by hiring a magazine publisher to run New York City schools.

But the thing that really bothered me, and I wrote about this a lot in the last post but I’m still working out the ideas so I’m going to write about it a bit more, is that lumped in with things like Charters and technology, she describes another silver bullet:  “Providing Every Child with an Effective Teacher.”  Based on some comments that people left on the last post, I want to clarify my analysis of this.  I’m definitely not trying to twist Wendy’s words into something she didn’t say or intend to say.  Here’s what her argument seems to be:

1)  Effective teachers, she knows, are the primary tool in closing the achievement gap.

2)  It is very hard for a teacher to be effective without a transformational leader.

3)  TFA has struggled to produce the kind of teachers who will succeed in a non-transformational school, despite the fact that they have done everything they possibly could to improve their training over the past twenty years.

4)  Training can not really be improved any more since there is no evidence that longer training will result in better results.

Conclusion:  We should not invest all our energy into teacher training at the expense of other goals like developing transformational leaders.

I agree that we shouldn’t focus on ‘just’ teacher training at the expense of anything else.  It’s more of a question of how much energy and resources should be allocated to this particular goal.  The thing I disagree with, and which I think topples her argument is that the TFA training model cannot be improved.  This is TFA’s main purpose, to train teachers to go into tough schools and make a difference.  Their training is sub-par, and her comments make me think that she truly believes that they’ve done everything they can to improve the training and it still hasn’t worked so let’s focus on developing transformational leaders.

But transformational leaders have to be people who were first great teachers.  You can’t just develop those leaders without starting by training more effective teachers.

If you ever read this, Wendy, please know that it is possible to train people over the summer to be effective.  You just haven’t come up with that way yet.  See my critique of ‘Teaching As Leadership’ to get you started.  Your comments make it seem like you are not willing to invest significantly more resources into improving the training either.

OK.  That’s all I want to say about that right now.  I get frustrated since I’ve been complaining for fifteen years about this and, unless I’m really misreading this, I hate to think that they’ve given up trying to improve the training because they don’t see how it can be improved.

The rest of Chapter 4 is about how we can’t solve any problems by just blaming groups of people like the parents, the kids, the teachers, or even the teachers’ unions.  This is a nice contrast to what they put forth in ‘Waiting For Superman’ where it is implied that if the teachers’ unions were abolished, the education system would be fixed.

Chapter 5 is about how the political process is shifting to help education.  Featured is another TFA superstar, Colorado state senator Michael Johnston.  And, yes, I’m friendly with him too.  My first time meeting him was after his book ‘In The Deep Heart’s Core’ came out about 8 years ago and he was doing a book signing in New York.  When I got to the table to have my book signed he looked at me and said “Ah, the man in whose footsteps I walk,” since my first book had been out for a while by then.  Of course by now he’s far past me in achievement, but it was a nice thing for him to say.  I hope I get to hang with him at the 20 year summit this weekend, though I can imagine there might be some ‘A-List’ parties that I won’t be welcome at.

Chapter 6 has more personal stories including a funny scene where Wendy’s 8 year old questions the logic of sending inexperienced college grads to try to fix the toughest education problems.  I think that this scene demonstrated Wendy’s humility, and how TFA might just be one of those ideas that’s so crazy, it might just work.

In general the book is pretty good.  By not getting behind any particular solution aside from developing transformational leaders, Wendy definitely played it safe a lot in this book.  On the other hand she did take some risks by writing about how there are problems with Charter schools, by admitting that CMs are struggling to be transformational, and by not blaming the teachers’ unions.  Had it not been for page 126 and 127 which upset me so (maybe I was misreading it, or what came through wasn’t what she intended it to mean) I think it would have been much better.  Maybe she’ll see this review and try to edit those pages a bit for the paperback edition.

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5 Responses to A Chance To Make History — my review Part III

  1. Ben Guest says:

    Hmm. Why do transformational leaders first have to be great teachers? It seems to me those are different skill sets?

    • garyrubinstein says:

      I guess I see your point. Isaiah Thomas was a great player, but not a great coach while Jeff Van Gundy was a great coach, but probably not a very great player.
      But TFA is in the process of teaching teachers so they need to start there. Maybe ‘great’ teacher was an overstatement, but the leader should at least be a competent teacher, so that’s a good starting point. Most attempts to develop school leaders directly haven’t worked that well, I think.

      • Ben Guest says:

        Actually I don’t think a school leader even has to be a competent teacher. To follow up on your example, Van Gundy was never a professional basketball player but he was a good professional basketball coach. School leaders manage people and resources. Teaching can inform those skill sets but those skill sets can also come from a variety of different backgrounds.

  2. Ms. Math says:

    After coming back from Summit I was concerned that I was one of the only people working in TFA who had very much knowledge of any of the research on how students learn math. I know we have at least one good instructional designer, but to be fair, she is young and never had any formal training in math education. After seeing just how much I learned in six months of graduate school and being around someone daily who truly understood what it meant to teach math well, I’m concerned that TFA needs to focus more on helping new math teachers develop pedagogical content knowledge. They also need to give math teachers ASSESSMENTS that are good and not just copied from some stressed out second year teacher who didn’t have time to deeply understand how to write and improve a test.

    I see how long it takes to create a truly wonderful assessment and I’m very concerned with what i see on the Resource Exchange. I think that TFA is very good at developing our skills to get kids motivated to do what we ask-but they are not helping us see what it means to teach math meaningfully. I still don’t really know who is working on math education in TFA, but I went to summit, gave a presentation on math ed and only met two other people who were working on it. This is simply not enough. They need to hire someone who has years of experience because I work with one of these people and the difference between how they think and how all the teachers I’ve interacted with think is truly stunning. I finally understand a piece of why we are so far behind in math.

    In any case, I’d be curious about what you know about how the organization develops content specific training and why it’s not more of a focus. I don’t want to TFA bash-and I know they have limited resources, but I’m worried. I shouldn’t be qualified to design professional development for this many people as a first year graduate student and I think that might consider me ready if I had the right mindset.


  3. Delta Blues says:

    Currently, in the Delta, 2010 and 2011 Math, ELA, and Science CM’s are participating in content specific training in a pilot program. As a second year ELA I am thrilled with the program and looking for real transformational change. Hopefully, we will be successful and it will become a model for Institute nation-wide.

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