Sunday, October 21, 2012

Back from the Classroom

Dear Reader(s?),

It is with great pleasure, and absolutely no fanfare, that I resurrect my 5 years dead blog.

Where have I been these years?  In the classroom.

After 1 more year in policy I became a teacher at KIPP in Washington, DC, teaching mainly 8th grade math for 3 years.  After that I spent a year teaching at another charter school, Harlem Village Academies, in Harlem NYC.  If any of you remember my post arguing with NYC Educator, I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and went off to see if KIPP was all it was cracked up to be, both as a workplace and as an institution of learning.  In future posts, I think I will have a lot more to say about my experience as a teacher in charters schools, but in short I still think KIPP (and the world of nearly identical No-Excuses charters) is an AMAZING educational institution for students, but I am not nearly so sold on it as a workplace that meets the needs of employees.  Nonetheless, I in no way regret my experience, and am tremendously proud of the work I did there, the kids who worked their butts off, and the amazing team I worked with.

One thing I will be proud of for the rest of my life: in 2011, my majority low-income, 99% African American students in southeast Washington, DC blew the DC-CAS out of the water and broke the KIPP DC and Washington DC records for 8th grade math test scores. 100% of my kids scores proficient or above and of that 62% scored advanced.*   Boo yah!

But despite these and other successes, I've decided to leave the classroom, perhaps for good.  More on that later.  For now I'll just say that it's good to be back in DC and back writing about ed reform. My hope is that from here going forward I'll be able to blow a lot less hot-air, and speak with the wisdom of real experience.  As it is, I don't suppose many bloggers have been both successful classroom teachers and full time policy wonks, so hopefully that will bring unique perspective to my blog.

Best wishes to you and looking forward to future conversations.

*For reasons of privacy I won't link to the actual school report card, but if you are really curious to verify this claim, send me a message and I will tell you the identifying information, so you can look it up yourself. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Because NYC Educator decided to pick a fight

NOTE: 7 months ago I was mugged and my laptop was stolen. Laptopless I let this blog die a quiet death. But since my response to NYCeducator turned out to be longer than his comments page would manage I figured it would be worth temporarily resurrecting the blog.

It all started here:
NYC Educator’s original derogatory post about KIPP
Then Eduwonk on the NYC Educator post (especially the comments page)
And then NYC Educator taking a major swipe at me and my comments.

Below my response:

Dear NYC Educator,

As much as I do enjoy yelling on blog comment pages, I'm actually much more interested in persuading you than I am in trading insults with you. Contrary to your impression, I did in fact read your post carefully, as well as the news article you referenced, as well as Eduwonk's post. And having re-read all 3, I stand by my argument that your position on KIPP is anti-teacher, whether you think of it in that light or not. But before launching back into that argument, perhaps a little context is important.

About my comment:

When I said, "if your school produced results like KIPP, I'd want you to be given a trip to the Bahamas also," I was not being rhetorical. It was not immediately apparent to me from your blog where you teach or even who you are. But I am not the most tech savvy person, so it's quite possible this information is readily available and I just didn't see it. If I had, I would have googled your school and its results, rather than commenting in the hypothetical. And if you tell me where I can find those results now I would be very interested to read about them.

You joke that you "don't suppose that commenter will send me an airline ticket anytime soon." I don't have much money and I can't afford to buy you a plane ticket, but send me your schools scores and an address to mail to you. If your success is what you claim, I give you my word I'll will send you a small gift that I can afford, in order to show you my appreciation of your work. Appreciation is the least we can do for those who help the needy.

To be clear, I have just as much respect for outstanding educators in district schools as I do for outstanding educators in charter schools and I want just as much to learn from their successes. I get very upset however when people look for reasons to discount other people's success, especially successes with disadvantaged students. It still seems to me (after re-reading and reflection) that this is what you are doing in regard to KIPP teachers.

So you understand where I'm coming from:

I think KIPP is both a good place to work and a tremendous success in the effort to educate poor and minority students (which is for me the most important educational issue). I don't think this based on ignorance. I teach Saturday school at a KIPP school (for free) and have done professional development for KIPP Math teachers (for money). I am very well acquainted with the students, teachers, and administrators there. The picture you paint of a sweatshop just doesn't ring true.

Instead what I see is a school where much, much more is demanded of everyone in the school: students, teachers, parents, and administrators. At the same time there is much more belief in the ability of all of those people to rise to this higher standard of performance and effort. To me expecting more of people and believing they can meet your higher expectations is the essence of respect.

So back to our disagreement, and to my position that the philosophy you expressed was anti-teacher.

You said, "Whopee! Let's spend five days in the Bahamas on the taxpayers' dime!" implying that this was either a frivolous or even corrupt use of public money. Your comparison to vouchers further implied that you felt the KIPP leaders would corruptly pocket the money if they could. And you reference more than once the issue of the disputed documentation around the source of funding for the trip, public or private. If you believed it was okay to use public money for the trip, it presumably wouldn't matter which pile of money the trip came from or whether there was documentation to prove the source.

Taken together this all seems to me to imply that you don't think sending teachers and administrators on a nice trip is an appropriate use of public money. If my inference is incorrect, please correct me. And please do so publicly as well, because I think that many other readers would have to assume that you think this is an inappropriate use of public funds. My simple question to you is "Do you think it is okay for publicly-funded schools to use some of their public funds to give teachers and administrators perks like trips to exotic locations?"

If your answer is "No" then I think you are buying into the philosophy that we should not be rewarding teachers with job perks, similar to those received by other high-performance professionals. To say that teachers shouldn't be given what other professionals routinely get is to imply that teachers are less deserving than other professionals.

I don't think you can escape this argument by saying that the trip was an ineffective use of money. Both teachers and administrators said that the trip was great for their morale, and that they returned inspired and energized. My own experience of such work-related trips has always been of the same character. Such trips energize and motivate people who work very hard and are shown little appreciation.

If the teachers at the school appreciated the trip (as the faces in the photo seem to imply) who are you to complain about it? Who exactly are you sticking up for here? It seems the only person who you could be bringing a grievance on behalf of is the taxpayer. And the only grievance a taxpayer could have is that his money was wasted or used corruptly. It is very hard for to me to believe that money spent inspiring and energizing teachers is money wasted or used corruptly.

I understand that the general drift of your argument is that KIPP teachers have bad working conditions. But your comments about the trip specifically contradict this general theme. An argument about poor working conditions would follow something like the this logic:

"KIPP teachers work more, but their extra pay is not proportional to their extra work. They get little vacation and are always on call. Even when they do get some time off it gets used for PD instead of time with their families. It is nice that their bosses treated them to a trip, but that is a small compensation for their otherwise poor working conditions."

But instead your logic shifts at the point when the trip comes up. Instead of making the point that the trip is good, but not enough to offset the other bad things about the working conditions, you instead imply (in all the ways I mentioned above) that the trip is itself another bad thing.

This point may seem like hair-splitting to you. But once again let me pose the question to you directly. Was the trip good or bad? If all other things at KIPP were to remain equal would you prefer that the teachers have this trip or not? If your answer is that the trip is bad, and it would be better for them not to have taken it, I have to disagree strongly.

I fear though that, you will avoid directly addressing my question (which is a question of values), because you would prefer to frame the issue in terms of alternative uses of the money (a question of priorities). I would really appreciate if you would indulge me by answering the direct question regarding values, because I think it is hard to talk about priorities if there is not mutual understanding of values. For me, all other things being equal I would prefer for those teachers to have a trip to the Bahamas. Is the same true for you?

If the answer is "Yes" (and I really hope it is), then our real disagreement is one of priorities i.e. tradeoffs. I would argue that your post characterizes it otherwise, but how the post came off is really water under the bridge if we actually agree about the values question.

Then we can discuss, what I believe is a more serious (and probably more important) disagreement between you and I regarding priorities. In short, I think spending money on perks instead of across the board salary increases is often a better way to increase a teacher's sense of job satisfaction. I think this is because, perks (much like Christmas gifts) convey a sentiment of appreciation in a way that across the board raises do not. This opinion is not the perspective of some money-hungry executive, focused only on the bottom line. I work at a non-profit and I teach, and I will likely be doing one of those two things for most of the rest of my life. But I would prefer to discuss the issue of trade-offs with you only after we have clarified whether you think such perks are good or bad in the first place. If we don't agree on that then there is little room for discussion in the first place.


P.S. I wasn’t being sarcastic when I suggested you send me your school's info and a mailing address. You can e-mail them to If you’ve helped children as much as you implied, I would geniunely happy to send you a Christmas gift.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Explaining My Absence...

Dear friends,

It's been almost a month since my last post and that time has given me a little room for reflection. It started with a conversation with a good friend of mine, who also happens to be my former teacher and someone who has spent 30+ years in the classroom. When we got to talking about her experience of No Child Left Behind I was smacked in the face with two huge failings in this forum, which almost led me to abandon it.

One was the unique blend of arrogance and ignorance which is oh-so-DC. I was mouthing off quite loudly and taking pot-shots at people I didn't know, because I was convinced that I knew what was best. In particular I had an immature attitude towards people like blogger Dan Brown, who despite supporting policies I believe to be counterproductive, has something I don't: he is in the classroom working with disadvantaged students. In particular I would like to have a more respectful attitude toward the teachers of America, without compromising my ability to speak unpleasant truths. It is much easier to snipe from the sidelines than to do. In an effort to have more humility and civility I have changed some of the link titles on my Blogroll. "Dan Brown's misguided blog" will know be linked with "Dan Brown's blog, with which I strongly disagree. Similarly "You know who I hate? Gerald Bracey." will now be titled "You know with whom I strongly disagree? Gerald Bracey."

Besides arrogance, the other failing I became aware of was my irrelevance. My first post is still my best, largely because it was longer and provided substantive analysis backed up by research and data. But soon after posting it to widespread approval, I discovered that I could not post articles of that length and depth with anything approaching the speed and regularity of most blogs. I quickly transitioned to the newsreel/op-ed approach to blogging , simply so that I would have a regular stream of posts. But I began to despair of the dumbing down that this fast-paced approach brought with it. Does the world really need another vaguely opinionated webpage forwarding service? Of course it does not.

But I think it does need more substantive analysis that is created in dialogue rather than in academic isolation. And my feeling that this is something I can offer is what has brought me back to the blogosphere. I will still throw up some interesting news if I think it's not getting mentioned elsewhere. But I've decided that his blog will be fundamentally about more lengthy and meaty analysis, even if that means I will never gain a wide readership. I would rather provide a forum for thoughtful dialogue with a few interested readers than an endless stream of not particularly useful sound-bites. So if you'd like to be a regular reader of this blog I suggest you check it about once a week, rather than at typical blog-rate i.e. whenver you are bored at work. At least once weekly I hope to be able to put out something original, insightful, and substantive. And if you are the kind of reader who finds that more valuable than typical opinion and news on the run, than I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

One last note: the tags on this blog are no longer organized according to topic, but instead according to type of post, so that different readers can go to the kind of info they find useful. "News" is primarily events in education worth knowing about in 1 line to 1 paragraph; "Opinion" is me mouthing off in about op-ed length pieces; "Research" is the insightful and relevant studies from academia or the organization world, sometimes just linked to and sometimes digested into more user-friendly bullet-points; and finally "Analysis" will be the hallmark pieces of the blog, my attempts to go deeper than most of what is out here on the blogosphere and come up with something truly original; these pieces may be several pages long if the subject matter merits it.

I hope my new approach to blogging will be a useful contribution for those types of readers with a little more patience who are looking for something more substantive. And as always I am grateful to Monique Enos, my teacher, my friend, an inspiring example, and often a useful reality check.

Best wishes to you all.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Education on the Agenda

Check out the new Strong American Schools website. This group is pushing for a substantive education debate in the '08 presidential race as opposed to the usual vague generalities. Amen to that! An unusual idea, it's like a presidential campaign, but the candidate is education. And with the help of Roy Romer's prestige and big money from places like Broad and Gates, it looks like it's going to make some waves in '08.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Must Read Drop-Out Study

Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) yesterday introduced the Graduation Promise Act (GPA), which is being promoted by a coalition including the Center for American Progress, Jobs For the Future, Alliance for Excellent Education and The National Council of La Raza.

But before anybody moves on graduation rate policy everyone ought to all read this AMAZING! literature review on reducing drop-outs (with at a glance summary here), just published online by the Center for Public Education, and authored by education consultant Craig Jerald, who, if you don't know his work, is a man to watch in ed policy.

Though it was released completely without fanfare, the review shows that there is a lot more knowledge (including rigorous experimental studies) on preventing drop-outs than most people think. Jerald must have a vault of research studies in his basement because I've never seen a bibliography so diverse or comprehensive. From it he draws valuable and myth-busting insights like:

1) What schools do matters, even for the most at-risk students- in a randomized study using Check and Connect in Philadelphia, schools cut 4 year drop-out rates for high-risk students (low-income African-American males with disabilities and single-parent families) by 1/3rd and 5 year rates by 1/2.

2) Decreasing drop-out rates does not automatically increase graduation rates; in one Check & Connect study 4 year drop-out rates fell from 58 to 39 percent, while 4 year grad rates were up only 1 point (30% vs. 29%). To be effective programs have to address both monitoring/counseling and instruction.

3) Easy = boring - several studies found that making classes more challenging classes helped kids graduate and similarly unchallenging classes led to higher drop-out rates.

4) For programs to work they have to be intensive - low intensity, counseling, tutoring, or self-esteem workshops all had no effect on drop-out rates; successful programs essentially involved a caring, committed adult monitoring student attendance and grades almost daily, coaching students in academic and life skills, and intervening immediately if they start to fall off; as you can expect this kind of intensive approach can be expensive.

This is just the tip of the useful-info-iceberg and I highly encourage you to invest the time to read the full lit review and not just the at-a-glance summary. Coming soon, what I think this all means for grad rate improvement policy...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

On the subject of support among teachers...

This news from MoJo should be a wake up call to those who think NCLB will implement itself. NCLB will do little to improve education if teachers don't believe in or support it.

The Angel in the Details - Performance Pay that Works

Though everyone's sure to be blogging about this one, I couldn't help but jump on the bandwagon to mention something so worthy of enthusiasm. The Center for Teacher Quality has just come out with a report on teacher pay, which among other things advocates a salary range from $30K - $130K for teachers, incentives to work in high-poverty schools, performance pay for individual teachers and small groups of teachers who work collaboratively, and creating a career ladder with novice, professional, and expert designations for teachers----with corresponding levels of pay, responsibility, and authority. The study was led by an diverse group of 18 effective teachers, giving its conclusions that much more legitimacy.

What's great about this study is not just that it advocates things like performance pay and challenge pay--which are easy to advocate, but harder to implement--but that it puts enough nuance into its formulation of these ideas to offer some usable solutions. For example, one of the most frequent criticisms of performance pay is that it sets teachers in competition with each other and undermines the collaboration and teamwork necessary to good teaching. Though this argument can be overblown, some common, but ill-conceived formulations of performance pay, such as Florida's recent attempts, do produce irrational results. Florida offered performance bonuses to the top 25% of teachers in every school. Certainly this does de-incentivize the sharing of instructional know-how that would help fellow teachers advance to top performance, because if you help others rise they might surpass you and jeopardize your bonus. Likewise the Florida plan simultaneously rewards tons of bad teachers--even if every teacher is terrible in a school someone is definitionally going to be in the top 25%--and neglects very good teachers who teach in schools full of very good and some truly outstanding teachers.

And regardless of whether these problems turn out to be big or small, the perception among teachers that performance pay is against, not for, them is as much of problem as are the purported consequences of such programs on teacher collaboration and the inaccurracy of the program in recognizing success. The point of performance bonuses is to motivate teachers to perform better, recognize teachers who do, and retain quality teachers in the school system. In other words we want happy, hard-working teachers. If even great teachers distrust performance pay because of the way its designed, the program will be fail to motivate or retain. And if the average teacher, who is neither amazing nor incompetent, is pissed off about it you are not helping motivation or retention among the vast majority of teachers.

A typical approach some have proposed to these problems is school-wide bonuses for student achievement. But this idea just sets up a typical prisoner's dilemma system of incentives. If I work hard and no one else does I get no bonus. If everyone else works hard and I don't I still get a reward. So what incentive (other than the intrinsic ones, which existed prior to the peformanc pay program) would motivate me to work any harder? Collective accountability rarely produces incentives for individuals. Also, schoolwide bonuses often include all staff, administrators, secretaries, janitors etc. While I have any objection to paying the lunch lady well, but no amount you put in her pocket is going to raise student achievement.

But the CTQ recommendation heads objections off at the pass. By allowing all teachers to be eligible to receive bonuses based on absolute not relative performance it undercuts the harmful competition argument. And by offering bonuses for collaborative teams of teachers based on the performance of the students they teach together, it actually incentivizes the sharing of best practices and mutual support that opponents say peformance pay undermines. And pay for small teams minimizes if not eliminates the collective action problems associated with school-wide programs. As astute students of collective action know small groups create a regularized flow of communication about participation in group activities and relationship-based accountability for group success. Lastly, small-groups provide opportunities for leadership among a much broader range of school staff, and most importantly among staff who are still anchored in the classroom unlike most school administrators.

A combination of universal eligibility-bonuses for individuals and small, collaborative groups is simple elegant solution to one element of the problem of building teacher buy-in for performance pay. Read the full report for a treasure trove of such ideas. Kudos.