Tag Archives: effective teachers

Part One: Questions for Teach for America

This will be the first in a two part series on Teach for America, a program developed by Wendy Kopp while she was studying public policy at Princeton. According to its website, the goal of the program is to “recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.” In these blogs, we will explore just how successful Teach for America has been.

Over the past 20 years, thousands of college graduates have joined Kopp’s movement whose mission is to ensure that students who are growing up in poverty have the opportunity to get an excellent education. In fact, since 2008, applications for the program have doubled and foundations have donated tens of millions to the program.

Studies indicate that family income is one of the most accurate ways to predict how students will perform in the classroom. For example, only 18 percent of low-income eighth-grade students received proficient or above scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

At the center of the debate over how to achieve educational reform is how do schools overcome the challenges that poverty creates? The solution clearly is to fill these schools with highly effective teachers, but statistically, these schools generally have twice as many teachers who have fewer than three years’ experience in schools.

Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who served as the founding director for Teach for America in New York City, said, “The reality, particularly in urban centers in America, is they [highly effective teachers] aren’t there.”

Teach for America believes that it can create a corps of highly effective teachers to fill these schools in a short period of time. However, research has supported the simple fact that experienced teachers tend to be more effective in the classroom, while beginning teachers tend to improve with experience.

One Harvard study which focused on students in Texas, for instance, concluded that a teacher’s level of education, experience, and scores on their licensing exams had more of an influence on student performance than any other factor they studied. Research done in North Carolina on various teacher training programs, which included Teach for America, revealed that when elementary students were taught math by a first-year teacher, they lost the equivalent of 21 days of schooling compared to students who had teachers who had four years of experience.

So how are Teach for America candidates recruited and trained to prepare them for the challenges they will face? First, most of those who apply only consider teaching as an option after speaking with a Teach for America recruiter or program graduate; most of them have no education background and have never even considered teaching as a career.

Ryan Winn, for example, was won over when his recruiter showed him a picture of his third-grade Phoenix class. When the recruiter told Winn that half the students in the photograph would probably drop out by the eighth grade, Winn said, “That struck me as incredibly unfair and I was upset about it.” He is currently a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.

Once a graduate is accepted into Teach for America, they begin their training with thick packages of reading materials. Next, they spend five weeks co-teaching a summer class, usually in an urban school district, with students who are taking remedial coursework in order to move on to the next grade.

While co-teaching, they are overseen by another instructor, who might be a more experienced school teacher or a current or former Teach for America corps member.

Sarahi Constantine Padilla, a recent Stanford University graduate teaching at Holmes Elementary in Miami, said of the training program, “It was a real steep learning curve.”

After this short summer experience, these “trained” Teach for America teachers are sent to the districts they have been assigned to where many of them don’t even know what they are going to teach until just before the school year begins. The districts which hire these teachers pay up to $5,000 to Teach for America for each corps member who gets hired on, as well as paying the teacher’s salary.

Interviews with nearly two dozen Teach for America corps members were mixed. Many described classroom victories, but many also admitted to feeling uncertain about their abilities as first-year teachers.

Brett Barley, who taught in the San Francisco Bay area, said,  “I struggled personally with my ability to be effective, and I think the gains my kids achieved were largely in spite of me. I thought the key thing I was able to bring to them was communicating the urgency of the predicament they faced and having them buy in to the idea they could be successful.”

Barley had reasons to be dismayed; most of his fourth-grade class started the year at a second-grade level in reading and writing. Two of his students were classified as blind, and roughly 30 percent weren’t native English speakers.

“The biggest challenge was trying to learn on the job to meet all the kids at their different skill levels,” Barley said.

Kopp’s book, A Chance to Make History, tells the stories of several Teach for America corps members who achieved extraordinary success in their classrooms, but there are many teachers whose experiences were far from successful, like Megan Hopkins. A Spanish major in college, Hopkins was assigned as a bilingual teacher in Phoenix, but she received no training regarding how to teach English language learners.

“I had no idea how to teach a child to read,” Hopkins said. “I had no idea how to teach a second language learner to read in Spanish, much less in English. After five weeks of training, I really had no idea what I was doing. I felt that was a big disservice to my students.”

She was encouraged by Teach for America to set a goal to advance her students one and a half grade levels, but she had no idea how to attain the goal. She had to work with other teachers to develop a plan.

She said that she was praised “up and down” for increasing her students’ reading levels, but she questioned the validity of the results. She claimed that one of her students, who was a native Spanish speaker, was able to read fluently in English as a result of her efforts, “but if you asked him what he read, he had absolutely no idea.”

So how effective is Teach for America, and how effective are the teachers who the program “trains?” These are questions we will explore tomorrow in the second part of this blog.

Obama Says it’s Time to Fix NCLB: Part 2

Yesterday, I began a blog about President Obama’s plan to fix No Child Left Behind. Since his plan is rather lengthy, I tried to make it more palpable by breaking it down into two blogs. If you haven’t read my previous blog, you will want to start there or this will make little sense. I had discussed Obama’s first four details of his plan, so I will start this blog with his fifth.

Because schools that are doing well are frequently mislabeled “failing” under NCLB, the President’s fifth proposal is to offer states and school districts more flexibility when it comes to determining areas which require improvement and strategies which would address poor performance. He would continue to place expectations on struggling schools to make necessary changes to become more successful.

Frankly, I think most schools are already working to identify where improvements need to be made and developing the necessary strategies through collaboration to do just that, so I’m unclear how this is different from current policy, except perhaps doing away with the label “failing.” Unless, I’m not reading this correctly, this seems like a lot of gobbledygook.

The President’s sixth proposal addresses the valid concern that at this time it is frequently the case that schools which face the greatest challenges don’t have the most effective teachers. Obama proposes providing incentives and accountability to get effective teachers to work in these schools and to identify effective teachers and use them as mentors for less effective teachers.

Let’s face it; the reason why many effective teachers are unwilling to work in challenging schools is because these schools are usually intercity schools where the teachers battle far more than low academic performance. I would also assert that there are probably many effective teachers in these schools already but they are laboring against such unbelievable odds that their effectiveness is not even recognized.  But if teachers who have been labeled effective are willing to take advantage of incentives to teach in challenging schools, more power to them. I would hope that the effective teachers already in those schools would receive the same incentives to stay.

I heartily support President Obama’s sixth proposal: to get away from federal government’s “one size fits all” solutions, and increasing local control to track down their own solutions to address problems in their schools. Yes, get the federal government out of our business so that we can more effectively proceed with the business of educating our children!

The next phase of President Obama’s plan addresses the fact that NCLB does not promote or reward innovation in our schools. His plan calls for extending the school day and school year, creating smarter tests, using collected data to improve teaching methods, raising standards for all kids, and supporting grant programs which reward both states and schools who find better ways to get highly effective teachers in the classroom.

The only issue I have with this last part of his plan is the idea of increasing the school day. I recently wrote a blog which advocates going to year-round school. We all know that the first month or so of school is spent reteaching the skills from the year before because our students all suffer from amnesia over the summer. If we want to stay competitive with other nations, we must look realistically at year-round schools. But a longer school day? No way! We risk student and teacher burn-out if our days are made significantly longer, and I believe the extra minutes tacked on are not worth the price we will pay.

Next, Obama addresses the fact that, under NCLB, the schools which are the lowest-performing schools simply do not have the resources or the reforms to make necessary improvements. The President’s solution: “Invest in ambitious and bold efforts to transform our nation’s lowest achieving schools, while demanding new and dramatic change in their leadership and reforms to teaching and learning at those schools.”

I’m sorry, but this just sounds like political talk, in fact I couldn’t even figure out how to put this in my own words, which is why I gave you the exact quote. What does this really mean? How is this really going to happen? And who’s paying for it? Blah, blah, blah!

The President then claims that currently, many parents are not engaged in their children’s education, and schools are not always welcoming of parents. Again, I must quote directly from Obama whose plan supports that we “double the federal investment in family engagement” (what the heck does that mean?) and that incentives be provided for schools which create innovative ways of engaging parents and community members.

Yes, parents do need to get more involved in their children’s education, although I’m uncertain how doubling “the federal investment” is going to encourage that. (What does that even mean?) If President Obama’s plan could focus as much attention on ineffective parents as it does on ineffective teachers, we might see some real changes in our schools.

And, while it may be true that some schools are not welcoming of parents, I would argue that the vast majority of elementary schools are. In my school, for instance, I can honestly say that I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t see parents in our building helping their child’s teacher, attending a function in their child’s classroom, meeting with the principal over a school project, etc. 

President Obama’s final focus is on rural schools, as he concludes that currently states don’t have the resources to adequately provide support for rural schools which face unique challenges. Obama’s plan supports the innovation, reform, and better funding of rural schools particularly in regards to better use of technology. Finally, and here we go again, he calls for the need to recruit and retain effective principals and teachers in rural schools.

So, how do I feel about these proposals to fixing No Child Left Behind? Frankly, I am somewhat ambivalent. While I wholeheartedly support fixing this ridiculously punitive legislation with its cookie-cutter view of education, and its idiotic expectation of 100% passage of state tests by 2014, I have been in education long enough to know that whatever new policy is adopted will eventually be thrown out only to be replaced with a new policy, which in time will also be thrown out only to be replaced with a new policy yet again…

And educators become pawns in the hands of those who have the power to make the decisions; we are expected to embrace the policies, or we will be held accountable when the newest policy fails. Ironically, we who know the most from first-hand experience in the trenches are not asked to share our opinions. We have no voice, but we will be expected to be good, little soldiers ready to fight the next policy’s battles. It just gets old after awhile. And I get so tired of the political rhetoric instead of real solutions to real problems.

Those of us who teach have no choice but to wait this next round out. The good news is that, from the looks of President Obama’s plan and based on how terrible NCLB has been, anything he is proposing would be better than this broken, unrealistic policy.

So, my ultimate reaction is to wait it all out, to try not to be too cynical, and to hope for the best. What about the rest of you? Let us know how you feel.