Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hey Charters and TFA, You Want Me to Join With You? Then Change.

Some argue that we should work together with charter schools and organizations like Teach for America. Recently, a little twitter debate emerged with one charter school teacher arguing (From Ms. Katie Bordner’s blog ):

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?

(Part of the crowd protesting the plan to do a so-called "turnaround" at Herzl Elementary School on January 16, 2012. Substance photo by Jean Schwab.)


  1. Hi Katie, (amazing name, by the way!)

    Thanks for taking the time to respond and clearly state your position. I appreciate your passion.

    I believe this debate does not have to be so polarizing. We all want the same thing, for every student to have a quality education. I love the idea of TFA (or CTF for that matter) becoming assistant teachers. However, many of the things you mention about charters are not necessarily true for the one I work for.

    I believe TFA and Charters began as attempts to solve problems to very complex issues. I can see how, over time they have created their own systems, and how a few people spend their time and energy preserving the existence of them for the adults. However, the vast majority of people involved in these institutions truly care about the students they serve.

    Your lumping TFA and charters and say we are doing harm to children. Some say the same about the union. We need to keep reminding ourselves that most of us in education are trying to help students be successful.

    We have have different experiences that shape our perspectives. For example, I know a TFA special education teacher who is at a charter school who blogs with her students about the books they read, it’s amazing. I know a charter special ed teacher who takes his students on the weekends to open land to find rocks, lizards and snakes. And then there’s the many times I saw specialed co-teacher in the neighborhood school I taught at spend her class time designated for science class reading magazines in the teachers lounge. So, naturally, these experiences bend me toward the belief that TFA and charter school special education teachers are better. But of course, I would never make that blanket assumption because, even though I haven’t met many of them, I’m believe there are tons of amazing, public school sped teachers.

    And Katie, I’m sorry you got the wrong impression I want you to “join” our side. I see that we are on the same side in many aspects of this complex issue. I invite you to visit my school. See how we don’t use scripted curriculum, we’re actually re-writing and integrating across subjects. See how we focus more on critical thinking skills instead of testing. See the multiple supports we try to put in place to keep our neediest students because we recognize they were put in our hands to be successful, and we want to them be successful with us. Come see the partnerships we have in the community, our student political action committee, and our focus on restorative justice practices. Maybe we haven’t met because I’ve been busy working with my students on many of these aspects. It’s a shame you’ve never seen this. Come check it out, I’d be so happy to show you. I’m not asking you to join, I’m asking you to visit.

    Again, I’m not saying I think charter schools or TFA teachers are better than their counterparts. I know some aren’t. You address this post to institutions, not people. I am a person who cares about helping students in under-served communities have a quality education. When I am frustrated about all the issues, I don’t remind myself I’m an alternative certified teacher nor a charter school teacher. I remember that I choose to be where I am because I want to help kids.

    By stating I’m “part of something immoral” you don’t make me want to “join” you. I appreciate your passion, I find your tone to be aggressive and off putting. I am a professional educator. We are on the same side. I would love to help make schools better. I believe I am. When you use this tone against me, you don’t “win” me to your way of thinking.

    In using the language of Kingian Nonviolence, we have a pathway conflict, meaning we want the same thing we are just going about it differently. If we are to make progress we must first suspend our judgment and seek to understand.

    So, can you please come to visit?

  2. I agree with Miss Senorita B that it's important not to lump all charter schools in the same category. I'd be all in favor of charter schools if we could ensure regulations that required them to treat staff members appropriately, be run by qualified individuals, accept the same demographics of students that the traditional public schools in the area accept, and had to work together with other schools and the district to improve education rather than compete with one another for children.

    I'd also be in favor of TFA is they used their growing resources to recruit teachers who wanted to stay in the classroom, increased their training time from 5 weeks to one year, and increased the REQUIRED placement time from two years to five years. I think those things would go a long way toward showing those of us in this field for real that the really want to improve educational equity.

    As I just wrote on Positivity = Productivity, the grievance so many of us have with school choice and TFA is that we don't believe their goals are the same as ours. We want a public education system that strives for true educational equity in action (not talking points for the media) and is committed to the advancement of our democracy. It seems clear to me that TFA and school choice as it's currently being enacted are antithetical to those aims.

  3. Thank you for the invitation. I'd actually love to visit your school as I love to observe new techniques to use in my classroom whenever possible. But I've been to good charter schools. See my post here: I went to one that was created by a group of Golden Apple Teachers and I thought they were doing very good things. But their success should be every school's success. The neighborhood school I taught at simply could not replicate their model, we didn't have nearly enough resources or staff to do what they did. And we had far more kids with far greater needs.

    And then to be compared to schools like that one, it was just a slap in the face. Our teachers were just as dedicated, hard-working, and caring. But the more I looked into the mechanisms outside the classroom, the politics of it all, the more I saw how my and my colleagues' hands were tied. And I learned that there are people in power who want the charter to succeed, while we fail.

    I believe you when you say that your school is doing good things for those kids. I'm glad. But when I hear stories of success from the good charter schools, I always worry, will Rahm use that success to push his agenda? Will more neighborhood schools be closed to make way for his buddies to make a few extra dollars? I trust your motives, but I don't trust his.

    And yes my tone has gotten judgmental, but that has to do with my current job. As a teacher on an inpatient psych unit, I have worked with countless students who have been pushed out of these charter schools because of their behavior problems. I have worked directly with kids from all the major charter school operators in Chicago, even the highly-publicized ones. This is very real and personal to me.

    All teachers want the kind of learning environments where they can actually do the magic of teaching, exploring, experimenting, and laughing with their students. But there is a critical mass of need and charters have contributed to the concentrations of students with significant behavior problems and learning needs in schools less and less equipped to deal with them. As resources get diverted from the neighborhood schools to the charters, I am very frightened for my students. What choice will they have?

    Unfortunately, as James mentioned before, I believe the choice movement and TFA have very different motives than what they claim. The charter school movement, a really great idea, have been undermined and usurped by corporate greed and profit. I'm sure that's not what you want, but it is the new reality.

    I recognize that it is not the people in the classrooms who are doing this. I don't need you to join me. But please help to find a way to make charter schools be about what they are supposed to be about: helping all kids, especially the ones who are toughest to reach. Take away competition. Take away the profit motive. Take away tests and accountability. Take away the teacher-bashing and subsequent attack on their unions.

    I am overwhelmed with the problems and I don't see a way out. And I guess that makes me pretty angry.

  4. Either you support public schools, or you're part of the problem.

    Charters, the notion of them, not who works in them (sometimes), are anathema to a public education system.

    If you support vouchers, TFA, charters, Student First, you are the enemy of America's children. Period. Full stop. You suck and you may not even realize it. Surprise! then.

    If you drive a car, you're part of the energy problem. Just deal with reality. Eat genetically engineered food? Don't complain about new diseases. Ignore poverty? Don't complain about shitty schools (they're all impoverished. Every single one).

    Claim you want to help education? Identify the problem accurately--generational poverty. The do something about it.
    Charters don't. Charters re-segregate. Congrats, Senorita on re-segregating America's schools.

    Want teachers to like you? Quit fucking with us.

    Katie O, these charter folks care about themselves. Real fighters care about the fight.

    Senorita, you are a tool of the oligarchy. Either embrace it and own it, or quit. But we won't come to you. Ever.

    (My opinions are my own)

    1. Frustrated Teacher, could you, (politely, if possible,) guide me on what are some reasonable next steps for someone like myself?
      I answer many of Katie's questions here to help explain my experience/perspective.

  5. Dear group.

    I really am impressed with Katie O's patience with all of this! We are going though very similar stuff in Oakland (CA) actually & I am still wondering why it is that the charter (& to some degree the TFA) folks keep saying, like a mantra, that they "just don't have the freedom and the autonomy in the public schools" so that's why they leave. To this I say, "B.S." I have NEVER seen or heard any OEA, CTA, AFT or NEA representative or spokesperson tell ANY teacher how to teach or with whom to teach or with whom not to cooperate.

    As a matter of fact, I have actually heard nothing but encouragement from Union and Association presidents, representatives and members. For 20 years I have heard the Union and Associations fight for teachers' freedoms in the classrooms and fight particularly hard to retain less veteran teachers as well as more veteran teachers in schools so that the sites WILL stay more autonomous and vibrant. I mean, after all, a Union with a bunch of "old farts" sittin' around chattin' about the good old days isn't a very good Union, is it?

    The ONLY groups that I have EVER heard criticize teachers' academic freedoms publicly or justify getting rid of newer teachers who don't "fit in" are site administrators, school boards and superintendent's offices...and our "friends" in the mainstream media, of course. However THEY are seldom held accountable by people who have left or been pushed out of Public schools. When principals go to the school board with suggestions as to who not to re-elect into a teaching position the Union does all it can based on the contract rules, State codes & regulations of labor. The story is inevitably turned around to be the fault of those Unions who keep old, tired out crappy teachers at the expense of the new, dynamic ones....

    Then the anti-Union-teacher banner has been taken up by politicians and big business opportunists who have repeatedly used ( yes, USED) many well-meaning teaching groups, like charter companies, as "investment opportunities" thereby getting more tax payers' monies AND never having to pay out for their workers' rights. They have a win-win staring them straight in the face & we keep blaming ourselves for the plight of our poor students!

    Now, tell me please, why is it again that we are calling the Teachers' Unions and Associations to task for something which could easily rectify by working collaboratively????

    1. Hey CLW,

      I completely agree that working collaboratively would solve many issues. I felt the lack of it sent me down the path to charter schools. Something that really drew me to the school where I'm at now was the fact that I saw the President and the CFO teach classes (in my room) I saw them everyday! Now the President's office is across the hall and we often chit chat on edreform, our students, and successes/improvements at our school.

      It came down to a school culture issue for me. And for many reasons, few of them actual teachers fault, I just really saw a vast improvement in my charter school compared with the neighborhood school I was at. It's how the schools is structure that inherently gave me more freedom to do what I felt was necessary/worthwhile. For instance, effective communication via email and meetings, a very encouraging administration that doesn't tell you no to going on field trips (with our own school's bus/driver) making a yearbook, or posting videos on youtube.

      I am anti union? No. Are there great neighborhood schools for students and teachers? Yes. It's not usually the AFT or CTU, but the bureaucracy in the larger system in general and the lack of trust that lead me away.

      I, as a non-union charter school teacher, would LOVE to work COLLABORATIVELY to change the PR of teachers.