Positivity = Productivity
On the suggestion of @urbanteachersed , I’ll share something I’ve been thinking about for awhile regarding the national conversation about education reform.
TFA and charters are not the enemy. In my experience, the people who work in these organizations are incredibly motivated, hard working people with huge hearts who want to improve the lives of students.
I say they are not the enemy because I am them. I was a Chicago Teaching Fellow, which is the Chicago-based alternative certification program. I taught two years at a neighborhood school on the south side, and I’m currently teaching my 4th year in a charter school on the West Side.
Everybody wants to see themselves as part of the solution, and when you pick fights against us instead of work with us, it creates a polarized, fragmented mess. It’s really easy to point out the flaws of TFA, charters, standardized testing, unions, and everything else. There are many. I propose, however, we focus on what we can agree on and start there.
I just finished reading How to Win Friends and Influence People, and a few things relate to this ongoing debate. The more antagonistic and bitter you are the harder it will be for people to want to side with you. I struggle with this as well, because when you’re passionate about something it’s really easy to loose sight of common ground.
I’m not saying TFA or charters are the answer. I’m saying they’re just trying to do what they think is best, like everyone else, and we should really be more positive.
I appreciate the desire for dialogue. But I feel this call to “dialogue” often asks the people who strongly believe that charters and TFA are doing real damage to children to simply put those feelings to the side while the charter and TFA-proponents need not veer at all in their trajectory. This is why I won’t do that:
Hey charter schools, you want me to work with you? Stop selling out kids to the gods of profit and power! Tell your CEOs to stop stealing 400 plus grand of public money per year. Stop worshipping tests scores and going to any lengths necessary to raise those scores, like pushing out students with special needs. Stop abusing non-unionized teachers by purposefully overworking them and guaranteeing that teaching will only be a short-term career stop for young people without families. Stop trying to save a buck on your labor force by actually hoping that your teachers burn out thus saving on those pesky pensions or other rightful worker rights. Teaching is already stressful enough: longer hours, less pay, and no job protections make it nearly impossible to do long-term. There are reasons why unions past fought for these rights.
And speaking of testing worship, stop relying on scripted curricula or data walls as if they were somehow innovative. Start using the lack of red-tape to try REAL innovation. Figure out new ways to help the hardest to educate students like you were originally intended to. And no, this is not a call to “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” discipline policies. Those policies push kids (purposefully) out of your schools. Start teaching those kids instead of kicking them out! You are NOT magnet schools! You are NOT selective enrollment schools! You are supposed to teach any child who walks through your doors. Make learning more fun, more relevant to those at-risk students who are struggling. Experiment with class size, learning environments, technology, hands-on learning, staffing ratios, mentoring, etc. Figure out something different that all schools can try.
And to h*ll with the test scores! If a strategy helps a child stay in the school instead of leaving it, then it is a success. Measure your success by qualitative stories of hope and excitement around learning rather than some silly bubbles on a page.
And for god’s sake, STOP this silly competition myth! You were supposed to work WITH neighborhood schools, to supplement and support. So why do you advertise “choice” saying you are better than other schools when all you do is teach (sometimes poorly) easier-to-educate black and brown children? Cut it out.
Charter schools, you have forgotten the very point of your existence and instead have reinforced the status quo of racially and SES segregated schools, skimmed money away from neighborhood schools which desperately need it, and cooked the numbers to “sell” a product rather than serve children and communities.
And you teachers in the charter schools, I understand you needed a job. I myself even interviewed and was offered a position at a charter high school here in Chicago when I was looking for work. But stop putting your heads in the sand and buying the line that charters are somehow better. I just don’t see enough of you out on the streets advocating for your students or their communities. You seem to hide behind the moneyed, politically-influential Michelle Rhee types. While maybe deep down you acknowledge the need for more equitable funding systems, the need for extra support for struggling schools instead of closure, the importance of veteran teachers in a school community, and the true detrimental effects of poverty on students' lives, I just have not met you out there on the front lines. If you are there, please start speaking up! Make your voices heard. I get that you do not have a union to protect you (kinda the point of the charters) but that is no excuse to not fight for what is right. If you are living in fear, if you are too overwhelmed with the workload, that is no excuse, that is the REASON to fight back.
And now to TFA, want me to work with you? Well start by actually training your recruits. Add at least a year or two on to the commitment and have these kids spend the first year as an intern working as an assistant in a veteran teacher’s classroom. Or if TWO is the magic number, as Wendy Kopp always stresses, then why put these poor young things in front of their own class? Why not let them be tutors, helpers, supporters of the hard work that is involved for professional teachers? You have a lot of money. Use it to supplement the corp members salaries as ASSISTANT TEACHERS, not full-time untrained lead teachers. Get rid of that silly Institute where you indoctrinate the young people, and have locally-based night and evening workshops and trainings. You talk all the time about the inequalities in our schools. So stop contributing to those inequalities by placing untrained teachers in high-needs classrooms!
Stop spreading the lie that your recruits are “better” than the veteran teachers they replace. (And yes, as education budgets shrink, these first and second year novices are taking jobs away from more experienced, better-trained career teachers. That is NOT ok.) Your recruits are not better, and you know it. Instead of admitting that truth, you manipulate data and misquote research to make it sound like they are in fact more effective. Stop it. Do not continue to give poor kids untrained young people on emergency certificates when you would not STAND to have those unprepared 20-somethings teach your own children.
And how dare you, how DARE you place many of your novices in special education positions! This is so wrong, I can barely type these words I am so livid. The children MOST in need of expert, highly-trained, specialized, professional teachers instead get some 22-yr old who doesn’t even know what IEP stands for. No. No…
Stop drinking your own Kool-aid. TFA’s ego has grown out of proportion. You do a disservice to children and their communities. So stop acting so smug. TFA serves itself and its members, NOT children. And just for the record, I personally don’t want some soon-to-be lawyer or politician teaching kids. A lot of you “go-getters” would make pretty lousy teachers, in my humble opinion. Start actually listening to the teachers and administrators who are pushing back on the organization. Teachers are generally pretty steady individuals, so if they are riled up about your org, pay attention!
All you current corp members and alums, you also need to pull your heads out of the sand. Look around and see the impact TFA has on the political landscape in education. See how a noble mission statement and idealistic young people are being used to bust unions, weaken tenure rights, deprofessionalize teaching, and save a buck on education budgets to the detriment of children. Acknowledge that you are not (yet) the great teachers TFA is selling. Be humble enough to recognize that the churn from frequent teacher-turnover your organization not only condones, but encourages, is bad for kids. Watch how districts and administrators abuse the enthusiasm of TFA recruits to displace older teachers. Read between the lines to see how people in power would prefer a compliant, short-term, cheap workforce, which TFA provides, while they can simultaneously pretend it's "all about the children". You don't have to look hard to see the truth.
But for both you charter school and Teach for America people out there, as long as your organizations do practices which I believe actively damage children, like deny education to fragile kids with special needs or give them a woefully underprepared novice in lieu of a professional educator, then I will never be on your side. Ever. As far as I am concerned, you are part of something immoral.
Regardless of the personal intentions of the people in the charters and TFA, the organizations you work for are being used as weapons against the public institution of education. They are being used to viciously close neighborhood schools and to break unions, in order to open the flood gates for privatization and profit off the "untapped marketplace" of education. No one should be getting rich off of kids. Education is a right for all. A pillar of democracy. And the manufactured education crisis is being used to tear down public education. And you wonder why teachers are upset? Why isn't EVERYONE upset?
So, hey you (young) charter school and/or TFA teachers, start speaking up. Do it even if it means getting kicked out of the organizations you are in. There are other options. As you begin to advocate for your students, maybe you will realize why union protections matter. You all need to join with veteran, union-teachers, community members, and parents in the fight for equitable funding, the ending of starving and closing schools for profit, and the ridiculous favoritism and cronyism happening among the elites in education politics.
So charter schools and TFA, no, I will not join with you on your misguided and harmful education paths. Why don’t YOU join with US in saving our nation’s schools?