Two weeks ago I went to New Orleans for the NCTM national conference to present a workshop to my fellow math teachers. Going to New Orleans also meant going to the epicenter of ed reform in this country. Though I didn’t get a chance to visit some of the charter schools that I’ve been reading about over the years, I did take the opportunity of being in New Orleans to meet up with some parents, teachers, and bloggers.
I got to the city on Wednesday, April 9th and went straight to a local bookstore where a very interesting meeting was going on. I’m one of those people who doesn’t plan ahead very well, and I’m known for calling people the day before I arrive in their city, saying “Hey, I’m coming in tomorrow. Are you busy?” Usually they are and they say “Why didn’t you give me some advance notice?” and I say “I don’t know.” In this case, things really worked out as I got in touch with someone I admire and follow on Twitter, but had never met, parent activist Karran Harper Royal. She told me that, by luck, there was going to be a meeting the night I arrived with a bunch of TFA charter school teachers who are conflicted about TFA’s role in New Orleans. I went to this meeting where each person got a chance to share their story. These TFAers were very nervous since this meeting was being videotaped, though I’m not sure what it was being taped for.
I heard stories from Kindergarten teachers at charter schools who were not allowed to let their students have any recess because their administrators said that the kids “can play when they go home.” I heard from a teacher who taught, get this, four classes of ACT prep. I heard from KIPP teachers and Sci Academy teachers. Even the teachers who felt that they were doing a good job teaching and that their school was doing a good job, were still very uneasy about the whole charter mission where the success of the individual, or the individual school, takes precedence over the success of others and of the community. These TFAers were very thoughtful and I offered them the chance to write a guest-post on my blog, so I hope I hear from some of them. After the meeting, several of them came up to me and thanked me for the blogging I’ve done these past few years, which I really appreciated.
Karran drove me back to my hotel, and I got to learn about her amazing life story and how she came to be such an opponent of the New Orleans reform model. She is quite an incredible person.
The next night, Thursday, I went to a completely different type of meeting. Teach For America invited all the corps members and alumni who were attending the NCTM conference to a ‘happy hour’ near the convention. I had RSVPed that I would attend, though I wasn’t sure that I really would. I didn’t know if I was welcome there after all the TFA bashing I’ve done over the years. But with the great experience I had the night before, I figured I’d give it a chance.
When I got there, there were just about five people there, and the group grew to maybe twelve by the end of the hour. When I signed in, the guy who was running the happy hour, a TFA STEM initiative staffer, told me that there was not any sort of formal program, just some appetizers and soft drinks. TFA staffers, I’ve found, are some of the most rigid, not-out-of-the-box-thinkers that I’ve ever known, so I’m not surprised about what happened next. At this NCTM conference, I had the privilege of not just attending to watch, but to be one of the presenters. This isn’t easy as you have to apply a year ahead of time and there is a lot of competition to be a presenter. Consequently, I’d say that I was the only TFA person who was doing a presentation. My presentation was going to be on Friday morning so I asked this TFA staffer guy if he could mention to the small group of about 12 people that I was doing my presentation the next morning, in case they wanted to attend. Rather than just say “yes” which is the obvious thing any competent person would say, he told me, instead, that I should tweet the information to some TFA STEM twitter account and that they would then retweet it, as if any of these people actually follow that account.
Now, I suppose you might be thinking, why don’t I just go up to the 12 people in the room myself and tell them about my presentation? Well, it’s because as big of a mouth that I have while blogging, I’m very shy in real life and I just didn’t feel comfortable going up to a group of strangers sitting at a table and telling them. Regardless, it is pretty strange, you have to admit, that the guy running the thing couldn’t give me a ‘shout-out’ about my thing.
I stood by myself until a very interesting person approached me. This was a woman who was about 60 years old who identified herself as a third year TFA corps member. Apparently she was a successful businesswoman in New York City and she retired a few years ago and then she heard about TFA and since she owned a bed and breakfast in New Orleans, anyway, she figured she’d join TFA and do some good for society. The woman was really quite a character and, knowing how tough teaching can be and how much energy it takes, I respected that she seemed to be doing a good job teaching. But she told me something very strange: Her first year she taught at the KIPP high school there. This is a school that KIPP people don’t talk about much. They got a ‘D’ on the New Orleans report card and they were featured in the book ‘Hope against Hope’ as a total mess. I believe they have had 4 principals in 4 years. So she verified that the school was a mess and that she transferred to another school, I forget which one, for the next two years. But her new school, she told me, was getting closed down. “And it’s a good thing,” she said. “Why is that?” I asked. “Because the school is so poorly run it just needs a fresh start.” And then the kicker, “Next year KIPP is taking over the school.”
So this very bright and successful woman contradicts herself, putting down KIPP in one sentence and then happy that KIPP is taking over the ‘failing’ school she now works in in the next sentence. This was very strange to me.
I struck up conversation with another person there. She was someone who had been teaching in New Orleans ever since Katrina. She felt that the reforms were working because drop out rates were down and college rates were up. She sincerely believed that what is going on in New Orleans is a good thing. I didn’t get into it with her. It was interesting to meet an actual person who believes in the corporate reform model.
Aside from the TFA staffer and these two women, I didn’t talk to any of the other people. As I left I asked that staffer again if he’d be willing to say something to the group inviting them to my presentation, and he again suggested that I tweet it to TFA STEM and then asked why I didn’t just tell everyone myself, and I said “because I’m socially awkward,” giving him another chance to make the announcement, but that was just too off of the script for him, I guess.
My presentation, the next day, went quite well. I worked very hard on this idea I had last year about how to structure a math lesson around a mysterious looking curve. Students could explore the properties of the curve and learn how it is defined, what it might be used for, how to create it on a computer, and things like that. The idea was that math doesn’t always have to be ‘relevant’ in the practical sense. The main thing is that it is thought provoking. For the hundred or so people who attended, they seemed to appreciate the message in this age where people are stressing how math lessons must be relevant to get student’s attention. I disagree. If you can get kids excited about a strange curve, or a strange number pattern or something like that, you’ve really done your job as a math teacher.
Friday night I had my first face to face meeting with the great Mercedes Schneider. Now I’ve met, in person, most of the big names in blogging, including Jersey Jazzman, EduShyster, Leonie Haimson, and of course Diane Ravitch. Mercedes brought along a woman who I had known from twitter, Lee Barrios, who is a retired teacher and an activist who is active in school politics out there. We had a nice meal together. It really was great finally getting to meet them in person. Mercedes is quite the bundle of energy. I can see how she belts out three-thousand word blogs the way most people do 140 character tweets. Sitting down with them, I reinforced for myself that I am definitely on the right ‘side’ of the school reform wars. While we might be seen as anti-reformers or status-quo defenders or whatever, the activists I know and have been lucky enough to meet over the past three years are all such genuinely good people. We are not getting any money for what we do. I suppose we get a little bit of ‘fame,’ but we do it because we deeply feel that the ‘reformers,’ if not held in check, will ruin education in this country.
I left New Orleans Saturday morning. It was a fun trip and I got to interact with people from both ‘sides’ of the ed reform debate. It felt good to do that as I have been functioning very removed from what’s going on down there. I’ve analyzed their state data (at least the data that they haven’t already deleted from the state website) and tracked the various lies of the TFA alum commissioner of Louisiana, John White. I’ve read all the stories about the ‘miracle’ charter schools, like Sci Academy. I would have liked to have walked the halls of the Oprah ‘Blackboard Wars’ school which is being scheduled to be shut down at the end of this year, but there just wasn’t enough time and I didn’t have the right connections.
I don’t know when I’ll be back in New Orleans again. The last time I was there was about fifteen years ago. Fifteen years from now I seriously hope the ed reform war will be won and I’ll be able to sit again with Mercedes and Lee and only need to talk about the Jazz and the crawfish.