Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Date with Teach for America

A couple of years ago, I went out on a date with a guy who worked for Teach for America.  At the time, I was a starry-eyed na├»ve little grad student getting my master’s in education with the dream of someday working in an urban school. 

We met at a quaint little wine bar on the north side of Chicago.  The guy explained how he had done his two years teaching in New York Public Schools and was now working for the Chicago TFA office.  We talked the night away over wine and cheese discussing the plight of education in America and just how crappy public schools were!  I’ll admit it, I fell in love a little bit.  Not with the guy, but with the TFA rhetoric. 

Now, however, after having actually worked in an inner-city public school, my thoughts on that night and on my attitude towards TFA in general have…well, let’s just say changed.  Dramatically.  Like, complete 180.  First of all…TWO YEARS?  After seeing how impossibly hard the job is, man do I respect those career teachers.  And how they can teach!  I can only hope I’ll be as powerful as those experienced teachers are in time.  Two years in the classroom is NOTHING!  And then I think about how I struggled my first year after getting a full Master’s degree which included going into dozens of schools, observing many teachers, planning and discussing lessons, studying curriculum, writing IEPs, practicing reading programs, and more.   I can’t even imagine being just thrown in after five weeks.  Why??  Why would anyone do that? 

But, as if teaching only a short time was bad enough, I remember the guy explaining that teaching was never the point of Teach for America (too lowly of a profession for the Harvard-types, right?).  He admitted they purposefully pick candidates who do not want to go into teaching ultimately.  TFA wants to expose bright young people to the horrors of our education system so they can fix it, or something along those lines.  (Does that mean heading a charter school franchise or becoming a billionaire themselves so they can decide personally which parts of education to “fix”?)  At the time, it somehow didn’t sound so absurd.  Maybe I’d had too much wine.

And it’s not that I didn’t like this guy or the people who chose to do Teach for America.   In fact, I think most of the TFA teachers are good, caring, hard-working people (this guy included).  It’s just that the idea of “volunteering” as a TEACHER (er, if getting paid a full teacher’s salary can even be called volunteering) makes no sense at all to me, now that I actually understand the job.  I’m still waiting for a “Doctor for America” or “Engineer for America” program to spring up.  If you really want to make an impact in the lives of children, then put the time in to learn the profession BEFORE you step into the classroom!  I kinda got it when the purpose of the program was to fill teacher shortages.  I mean, I’d rather have a well-vetted elite college grad in the classroom that Joe Schmoe off the street (Alternative Cert anyone?)  But times-they-have-achanged.  Certified teachers are being laid off due to budget cuts.  Why are we still saving slots for well-meaning unprepared newbies?

I wish I had asked that guy “Why not take all that passion and energy and put it to real use in the schools?”  What a difference those young people could make as an assistant teacher, supporting the certified teacher to provide even better instruction!  I did that job in Japan through the JET programme.  The Japanese (one of those high performing nations, ah-hem, ah-hem…) would never let some uncertified smart person lead a class!  It’s too important.  (And yeah I know, that would never happen…who would pay for that, right?  Well, the Japanese figured it out.)

I guess to me, TFA is a little like that date.  Everything seems great at first, but ultimately it just doesn’t work.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Miracle School? Ha!

During my time as a special education teacher in an inner-city Chicago Public School, I desperately sought out ways to improve the shamefully ineffective special education program I inherited.  My AP eventually allowed me to observe in a nearby school using the same curriculum program in order to see how they incorporated students with special needs.  (But mostly, I think he just wanted to finally shut me up.)

The school he sent me to was a charter school.  Many hailed it as a “school miracle” serving “the same population as the neighborhood school”.  What I found was a quiet, calm, and pleasant place where children peacefully walked down the halls or sat patiently on carpets eager to answer their teacher’s next question. (Quite a change from my school’s principal yelling down the hallways at students or even sometimes at teachers and the daily fights that broke out.) The teachers seemed relaxed and happy as I chatted with them while they enjoyed an hour lunch break together in the staff lounge.  (Not at all like my 20 minute lunch period where I had given up even trying to shove food down my throat during the school day. That was probably why every teacher joked about the "freshman fifteen".  Fifteen pounds lost, that is! )

As I observed class after class, more stark differences between my neighborhood public school and this school came to light.  Only twenty children in each class?  (What a change from the 32 or more students in my school’s classrooms!)  And each classroom had a FULL TIME AIDE!?!   Um, that’s a 10:1 adult to student ratio!  (We had only one aide for the entire K-8 school and she was used for paper work in the office most days.)  My jaw was already dropping.   To add to that, every teacher there had at least three years experience and most had at least five to ten years of work under their teacher belts.  (What I would have given to have more experienced teachers around me, especially in the special education department where we were all either first or second year teachers with one not even certified yet.)  And wait, are those full libraries in every classroom?!?  (What a joke the two garbage bags of old used readers seemed which constituted my classroom's full supply of books.  If only we had a school library, eh?)

And what a wonderful curriculum!  They had obviously had time to fashion a truly exciting and fun curriculum for the students unlike my school where for most subjects we had NO CURRICULUM at all.  And where there was curriculum we never seemed to have time to collaborate or differentiate materials.  It was a constant game of last-minute meetings and morning melt-downs. The stress of desperately trying to fill up six hours a day from scratch was an overwhelming task, let me tell you!

Hold on, I thought with disbelief, your kids get recess and all kinds of music, art and gym EVERY DAY?  And your school hires other professionals so teachers can use the time to prep and collaborate?  (My school’s poor kids didn’t even get recess.  And music sure would’ve been nice…)

Hey Ms. Katie, aren’t you forgetting about the special education program you were sent there to observe?  Well, it’s kinda easy to forget.  Because there were SO FEW KIDS with IEPs!!!  In most of the classrooms I saw, there were only one or two kids with IEPs in the whole class.  And none of them appeared to have significant behavior problems.  (In my school, there were classes with more than the law’s 30% special education maximum.  Twelve kids with IEPs in a room with thirty-three adolescents and only one young teacher?  Yikes.   Recipe for disaster, you might say.  And disaster struck often.)  The special education teacher who was giving me the tour explained that she pulled kids out for extra reading or math practice individually or at most in groups of two or three for only twenty or thirty minutes at a time.  (Not at all like the dumping grounds my school had turned the resource room into where up to fifteen kids with significant learning and behavior problems were warehoused for most of the day.)
The teacher went on to explain that the school had begun with only a kindergarten and they had built the school culture year by year.  Even with all the advantages the school had, she admitted they struggled the few times a student transferred in from the neighborhood school. 

I left that day feeling dejected and hopeless.  While I loved the visit, I just did not see any way to recreate their successes in my classroom or in my school.  Isn’t that what charter schools were originally for, after all?  They innovate and the rest of us replicate, right?  (Oops, did I forget we’re all in competition now…)  I’d had the sinking feeling all year that what my students with special needs required was so much more than what I could do in my classroom and seeing this school confirmed it. 

That was a good charter school.  I applaud them for what they have accomplished.  (Unlike many charter school chains, this particular school was founded by a group of Golden Apple recipient veteran teachers.  They had the educational expertise to build a great school.)  But their success was built partially on having more control over the student body (the noted lack of students with significant special needs) and partially on having access to funds for better services for an overall better teaching environment.  (Money doesn’t matter, my #%!)

I wish my students could have had a school experience like that charter school.  (Oh wait, they have IEPs, that’s not going to happen, is it.)   But despite that, my school is being compared to that charter school as if we were on equal footing.  Apples and oranges, I say!  And am I a worse teacher simply based on where I work and because of an environment I have no control over?  How can anyone ever fairly compare teachers in such profoundly different circumstances?
Was that school a miracle?  Surprisingly, not according to their test scores.  (Of course, we know better than to rely solely on test scores.  There was definitely learning happening in those classrooms.  And if nothing else, there was JOY!)  But finding a neighborhood school that was funded and functioned like that charter school?  Now that would be a miracle…

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lay Off the Teachers, In Terms of Rhetoric That Is…

Education reform rhetoric is sweeping this nation.  The media hails work of tough change-agents like Michelle Rhee, who receive praise for actions such as closing down low-performing schools, firing teachers and principals, and taking on the “evil” teacher unions.  The case for education reform is well-documented and currently movies like Waiting for Superman and educational showcase events like that of Education Nation on NBC have highlighted the problems in public education today. 

Most people will agree that there are huge injustices in education and that too many children are not getting the education they deserve.   Everyone wants change.  But the recent wave of reforms has targeted “bad teachers” as the main problem, and colored the unions as supporting these awful people.  While anyone who talks about these “bad teachers” is quick to add, “but we want to reward good teachers”, there is still this idea that there are tons of these “lemons” sitting in their classrooms reading newspapers and willfully not teaching the youth under their care.

As a former public school teacher, I take offense.  I am offended not because these “lemons” do not exist (we all know they do), but because it ignores the horrible treatment and lack of support which turns once motivated and inspired beginning teachers into these non-performers.

To put it simply, public schools are too often horrible places to work.

Now, this is the place where the Michelle Rhees of the world would jump in and shout, “It’s not about the adults, it’s about the kids!”  So let me tell you a story. 

While putting myself through grad school for education, I worked at a children’s hospital in Chicago.  During the hospital orientation, I remember a fascinating description of how the administration turned around the company during the 90s into the world -class organization it is today.  At the time, the hospital was experiencing huge problems in patient care including frequent medical mistakes and poor patient-hospital staff relations as well as difficulties in staff retention.  The patients suffered because of frequent staff changes and the low performance of the staff. 

And so the hospital administration made a decision.  They decided to make that hospital the most pleasant place to work they could for their employees.  They created health programs and benefits as well as increased pay.   They provided more educational opportunities as well as adding all sorts of recreational events.  They lightened workloads when possible.  In all, they focused all their energy in investing in having a happy, healthy, and content staff.  

And that investment made a difference.  Right away, patient care improved.  Lives were literally saved as medical mistakes decreased.  There was better continuity of care as more staff chose to stay with the organization.  And the best people in their fields flocked to work at that hospital.

See, the hospital administration understood a simple fact.  The staff is the access to the patients. If you want to provide better care, they are the hands that do the work, they are the ones who directly make decisions and impact lives. So the administration decided to support the hell out of those critically important employees. 

It is no different in education.  The teachers are the access to the kids.  When you have a staff that is under-valued, under-paid, and over-worked, productivity is going to go down.  Now, just as no hospital staff would purposefully make a mistake that harmed a patient, no teacher would purposefully neglect a child.  But when you spend years in a horrible environment where every day is a struggle, morale is bound to go down.  Add onto that, the hurdles we know many inner-city teachers face such as lack of supplies, over-crowded classrooms, lack of support, and the threat of real violence towards themselves and the students.  And then, the hardliners like Rhee come in and start talking about accountability, threatening jobs, and firing seemingly at will.  Is it so hard to see how some teachers lose their spirit?  Also, the reality of education in a recession is that the jobs are hard to come by, meaning teachers cannot simply walk away from these hellholes.  They have to somehow survive. And unfortunately, sometimes that looks like the “lemons” reading their newspapers when it gets too hard.

Now, just to be clear, I don’t actually know any of these lemons. In my inner-city school, the teachers there worked their butts off night and day.  In fact, our workloads were so incredibly large that many teachers complained of staying up until 2 in the morning and working through the whole weekend.  And I mean every night and every weekend.  We had few books-including textbooks, no library, no support from our principal, and little help from the community.  Teachers literally had nervous breakdowns, marriages and relationships failed, and many tears were shed in every corner of the school.  Despite this treatment, teachers continued to do their best for the children in front of them.  They spent thousands, yes thousands!, of dollars from their own pockets in order to find books and other resources for their students.  They sacrificed their free time, their social lives, and sometimes even their mental health for those kids.  They weren’t working that hard for the principal or the CPS administration, not even for the paycheck.  They did it all for the children.  They are heroes.

And so when Michelle Rhee and Co. talk about teachers as if they are the problem, I absolutely take offense.  And when it comes to blaming the unions, I also take offense.  With administrators like my former bosses out there, who use fear, intimidation, and show little concern for the well-being of their employees, the union is the only protection. 

Stop the attack on the teachers.  Begin a system-wide commitment to support teachers in every way.  Give them a workplace where their creativity and passion can thrive, where the word “burn-out” becomes obsolete.  Create collaborative, supportive communities where people love to be, and so end the 50% attrition rate of new teachers within the first five years.  Compensate teachers well, without the stress of tying test scores into the equation.  Spend the time and money to train teachers, especially new teachers, instead of relying on the current “sink or swim” mentality.  Treat your teachers like what they are, the access to the children!   Everyone seems to agree that the quality of the teacher is the single greatest in-school factor for student achievement.  So let’s help teachers become the best they can be.  Of course get rid of the few truly negligent or incapable, but support the hell out of everyone else. 

Let’s learn a lesson from a once struggling hospital, which choose to invest in its employees with incredible results.  There’s still time to turn these lemons into lemonade.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lean on Who, Exactly?

The other day I watched the movie Lean on Me, which I hadn't seen for years.  You’ll remember the story of the no-nonsense principal, Joe Lewis Clark, a.k.a. “Crazy Joe” played by Morgan Freeman, who comes into the failing Eastside High in New Jersey and miraculously turns the school around in less than a year.  The last time I saw it I was not a teacher, in fact, I was probably still a student myself watching from the comfortable suburbs, but I remember being inspired by Morgan Freeman’s character’s “tough love” and the message that it’s possible to turn around a failing school instantly.

This time around, I was not nearly as impressed.  I am now a certified special education teacher who has worked in inner city public schools and am currently working as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatric ward for children and adolescents.   The young people I work with often have significant behavior challenges and many of them have struggled for years in school.

I watched in horror as the principal in the movie immediately expeled over 300 of the school’s most disruptive students.  Mr. Clark also fired any teacher who disagreed with him.  He then focused all the remaining students on getting test scores up.  Whoa, suddenly this story started to sound all too familiar…

Many of the strands of the current discourse on education reform can be seen in this movie.  After all, all Eastside High needed was someone who wasn’t afraid to get tough, right? (The Michelle Rhee of the 1980s, perhaps?)  The act of kicking out all the troublemakers immediately reminded me of charter school’s ability to do just that.  It’s an easy way to control the learning environment, a luxury the neighborhood public school doesn’t have.  (Which is why in the movie the parents of the expelled students stand up to Mr. Clark.  Expelling all those kids is illegal, after all.) Also, it was all about the test scores.  In the movie, the whole school worked together to inch those scores closer and closer to the passing rate of 75%.  No one was talking about the actual LEARNING in the school, just that the test scores improved.  Lastly, the movie makes it look like it was the teachers accepting the “status quo” which caused that school to fail, like they let kids become drug dealers and violent offenders.  The audience sympathizes with the firing of those “bad teachers”, despite the fact that the teachers in question undoubtedly showed immense caring and courage to work in such a difficult environment.  (The opening scene of the movie shows a teacher getting badly beaten after trying to stop a student fight.)

As a special education teacher who works with the “drug dealer and gang banger” types portrayed so negatively in this movie, a new thought begins to form in my mind.  I wonder do we as a society really want to help THESE kids?  When you look at all the “success stories” in the news today, a la KIPP schools, these schools succeed partially because they get rid of the tough behavior kids.  They then claim that “poverty doesn’t matter” because the kids that are left are indeed poor and children from minority backgrounds.  But didn’t poverty contribute to the behaviors that made it so very hard to educate all those kids who got kicked out?  Isn’t gang violence and excessive drug abuse associated with poverty?   How many of those “bad kids” had been abused, malnourished, homeless, or bounced around foster care half their lives?  The movie makes it so easy to hate those kids.  But aren’t they still our children?

Are we not a society that believes in equal opportunity and equality?  Why haven’t charter schools with their better resources and extra philanthropic funding taken on educating the toughest to educate children?  (As a side note, would they have tried if the charter school movement hadn’t exploded alongside NCLB and accountability fever?)  Do we really want to educate ALL children or are we resigned to throwing the “bad kids” in jail once they become adults (and often times well before that)?

What happened to those 300 students in New Jersey?  Did some go to a hospital like mine or did most eventually end up in prison or even dead on the streets?  Many of the kids I work with are labeled “bad kids”.  They even call themselves that.   But under all the bravado and gang tattoos, they are amazing, loving, intelligent, and thoughtful children who have had really hard lives.  Are we going to continue to blame these kids for surviving their childhoods by becoming tough (on the outside, at least) and then throwing them away?  Can we truly call any school that refuses to even attempt to educate these young people a success?

I look at examples like Eastside High, and I see how the kids who wanted to learn were grateful for a better learning environment.   They do deserve that.  But what about the others?  When are we going to really talk about the problems that are associated with poverty and the impact that the poverty and violence of our cities has on the mental health of children?

I don’t have answers, but I hope that my students at the very least feel like they can lean on me.