Links to the rest of this series here
In the summer of 2001 I found, on the TFA website, a summer job description for something called ‘The New York City Teaching Fellows.’ It was a branch of something called ‘The New Teacher Project’ which was being run in D.C. by Michelle Rhee, who I had known a bit from when I had worked for TFA five years earlier. I applied for the job of ‘Fellow Advisor’ and help trained a group of twelve secondary math and science teachers. Working in the office was a young TFA alum who had just completed his second year teaching in Baltimore. His name was Tim Daly and he was excited to have me on board as he had benefited from my classroom management advice when he was in training.
I liked working for The New York City Teaching Fellows, and did so for three summers. I found The Fellows to be more mature than the TFAers I had trained and seemed a lot more grounded in reality and motivated by the fear of what the first year was likely to be like. I also liked that the training was not a ‘sweat shop.’ Unlike when I worked for TFA and everyone, including me, had to be ‘on’ pretty much all day, this was a lot more humane.
About nine years later, in 2010, I attended a fund raiser for TFA and was surprised and delighted to learn that young Tim had climbed the ranks and had become the head of The New Teacher Project when Michelle Rhee left to become chancellor in D.C.. Not only that, but Tim received the Peter Jennings award for supervising a very interesting sounding report called ‘The Widget Effect.’ I found him and congratulated him.
As I started learning more about the modern education ‘reform’ movement led by many TFA alumni, I would hear about some of the problems with The New Teacher Project. They weren’t just about getting career changers to become teachers anymore. That ‘Widget Effect’ which sounded pretty good at first was getting quoted left and right by the testing and accountability zealots. Then when I saw Tim’s name on Wendy Kopp’s ‘The World’s Most Powerful Educators’ list, I got a feeling that maybe he had become one of those alumni who was now part of the problem. As I examined the reports released by TNTP (they changed their name to that, officially), ‘The Widget Effect’, ‘Teacher Evaluation 2.0’, ‘The Irreplaceables’, and ‘The Irreplaceables in D.C. Schools,’ I saw why TNTP was so disliked by many of the people I follow on Twitter. Many of these reports rely heavily on ‘value-added’ metrics which are falling apart all around the country, despite states having promised to use them to win Race To The Top money. The most recent report about D.C. schools was a really shoddy piece of research. Basically it said that D.C. was doing a good job because the people who were getting good scores on the inaccurate evaluation system were not quitting while those with low scores were getting fired or quitting. After some initial fanfare about this report, most of what I’ve read has been pretty critical of this report. Beside from relying a lot on value-added in some of the reports, they are big advocates of merit pay. Even though these things are happening in D.C. while achievement there is not improving at all, they seem to not be able to admit this and want to go ‘full steam ahead.’
I emailed Tim with some questions, about a year ago, and he got back to me right away. Over the past two years I’d say that he is the ‘reformer’ who has been most ‘validating’ when I’ve written him with concerns. I was disappointed that he has already told me that he probably will not respond to my open letter.
It’s OK though. My point in writing these open letters isn’t really to get a response from any of the recipients. I’m mainly trying to explore the different aspects of the ed reform debate in a personal way and these letters are a vehicle for that. It would be nice if I got some responses, but the lack of response is interesting also since I’m not lying when I say that these are all people who don’t ignore me when I write them private emails. With this letter I’ll be half-way through the eight I’ve mapped out.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t think that teachers are interchangeable ‘widgets.’ There are great teachers and there are bad teachers, and I hope that my own kids have a lot more great ones than they do bad ones. I also think that teacher evaluation systems can be improved.
Here’s a story from my TFA days: In my second year I taught in one of those temporary trailers that many Houston schools had. The teacher in my neighboring trailer was a Spanish teacher who I’ll call Mr. Smith. Smith came to me one day to say that he got word that the principal was coming to observe the next day and that he was prepared with a great lesson. A few days later I asked him how the lesson went and he said that the principal didn’t come so he was upset about that. A few days after that he came up to me and said “She still didn’t come. And, you know what, I’m going to keep waiting until she comes so I can do that lesson.” Basically this guy didn’t teach anything for several weeks, from what he said, until the principal did what she was supposed to do. So obviously there was a problem with this system. I suppose one could blame the principal. If she would have done what she said, he would have taught more. But this was, no doubt, a negligent teacher, one who, even if he did teach, probably wasn’t going to do a great job. Mr. Smith eventually went out for a long time with worker’s comp for slipping and getting hurt on school property.
Though this story will possibly be taken by ‘reformers’ to prove that there are way too many teachers like this, I found the quality of teachers at my ‘failing’ school in Houston to be quite high. This guy was one who stood out as very bad while most were good, and some were quite great. The few ‘bad apples’ did not, I think, spoil ‘the bunch.’ And though I was a youthful ‘irreplaceable’ myself at that time, I really never gave it a second thought how much money Mr. Smith was making.
The New Teacher Project officially changed its name to TNTP, I suppose, because training new teachers is just a small part of what you now do. The reports I’ve read by TNTP promote merit pay, ending LIFO, and teacher evaluations based on ‘student achievement.’ The premise these suggestions assume is that these three things are a significant problem with education and that fixing them will therefore improve education significantly. And I can see why, in theory, these seem like good ideas.
But when merit pay is done wrong, it is a waste of money. I haven’t seen any convincing study that implementing merit pay raises student achievement and I’ve seen many studies that say that it doesn’t accomplish anything. If a teacher is unsatisfied with her pay, all she has to do is get her administrative license and become an administrator. Though this could be seen as the ‘loss’ of a great teacher, it could also be considered a gain as that teacher helps other teachers and, in that way, positively impacts even more students than when she was solely a teacher.
As far as LIFO goes, I do agree that it costs more money to lay off the first year teachers and keep the older ones vs. any system that eliminates some of the older teachers. But since ‘effectiveness’ generally, nowadays, focuses on ‘value-added,’ I don’t think these measures are accurate enough to serve this purpose. If a first year teacher is laid off under LIFO, that teacher can easily move on with his or her life. When he or she applies for another teaching job, there won’t be a stigma attached to being laid off for being new. But the veteran who is fired when LIFO is eliminated because his inaccurate ‘value-added’ isn’t high enough, that teacher will have a very tough time finding work again. So you might think that I’m putting that teacher’s needs to support his family above the needs of the kids who could have a ‘better’ teacher, but in the long run I think that the kids will suffer if people avoid becoming teachers knowing they can be arbitrarily fired during layoff season which may or may not be truly needed.
In some TNTP papers they say that teacher evaluation doesn’t take ‘student learning’ into account at all. I don’t agree. Surely there is some correlation between what a competent principal observes in the classroom and how much the students learn. In a good lesson, the principal should be able to see evidence of student learning throughout the lesson. These new ‘objective’ value-added scores which I know you say should only be one of ‘multiple-measures,’ but in TNTP I’ve seen recommendations that it be 50% of a teacher’s rating. As even D.C. has backed that off to 35%, would you advise them to be more aggressive with that, or do you agree with that change? As a dilemma, note the irony that one of the 12 Fishman Prize winners that TNTP awarded in 2012 went to a New York teacher named Ryan Hill. But when I looked up his value-added score it said he was merely an ‘average’ teacher, only better than 65% of the teachers in New York City. How can you put such faith in these measures while simultaneously praising someone who did so poorly on it?
Now I do agree that teacher evaluation can be made more meaningful and could be a way to help teachers improve, which I’m in favor of. And if there are other ways that TNTP can think of helping teachers improve, rather than just making them scarred they may get fired arbitrarily, I think that would be a good use of TNTP’s ample resources. What are you doing to help teachers? Certainly your own five week training program isn’t turning out great first year teachers. I know because I worked for TNTP for a while and, believe me, it took all my teaching talent to turn that curriculum we had into something meaningful. I felt like a contestant on Top Chef who had to make a gourmet meal out of Doritos. Fortunately, I knew what I should emphasize, what not to emphasize, and when to teach the opposite of what the manual said. As I was the only FA to have 100% of my trainees complete their first year (how’s that for value-added?) I think I’ve proved that I know a little about training teachers.
From my perspective, TNTP approaches the difficult job of figuring out what could improve the schools much in the way that a new teacher fumbles through that first year. Things that sound good to a new teacher before trying them end up having unintended side effects. The same goes with education policy. I know that the ideas you promote ‘seem’ to have some logic to them. But when these ideas are put into place before they are ‘ripe’ the risk is that education can be made worse, ironically.
Well, that’s what I think about all this. I know that you have a big future in education reform. If you continue to follow in Michelle Rhee’s footsteps, you will soon be some kind of chancellor and possibly even become the leader of StudentsFirst. If that is your path, you’ll want to get there before the whole ed reform ‘bubble’ bursts.
Even though you’ve already told me that you probably won’t, I hope you change your mind and decide to respond to this open letter publicly. Really the only reason not to respond publicly is that you don’t want certain people to think that you have enough respect for me to openly discuss these issues, like some kind of peer.
Either way, I’m sure that we’ll still have contact from time to time through emails. I do appreciate that you always respond to my questions I send and hope that this public letter doesn’t dissuade you from continuing to do so in the future.