Sunday, March 28, 2010

Teach for America tells us about great teachers

Right on Left Coast (blogroll) posted a very interesting article from the Atlantic regarding a recent study conducted by Teach for America (TFA), an organization that attempts to take high ranking college graduates and place them in rough classrooms.  I've had my issues with how elements within society view Teach for America, namely the ideas around "Ivy League" schools = better teachers, and the lack of acknowledgement regarding the fairly horrid retention rates for teachers within the program. 

However, the TFA study on teachers (or the Atlantic's take on it) is a pretty darn cool analysis on the profession, dead on in some places, yet painfully naive in others.  I'm going to copy some of Darren's (Right on Left) info, since he's already done some of the leg work for me.

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness.

This is an interesting statement coming from a society that is constantly against teachers setting big goals for their students.  While one side of their mouth demands more teacher accountability, the other side gripes about why teachers won't accommodate their trips to Costa Rica for three weeks.  I created my AP Comp Gov class with the intent to push kids in the realm of Political Science.  The class went from 18 to 24 to 70 in terms of attendance over three years.  I ran the class without an entrance exam, but with prerequisite of good U.S. History grades, good English grades, or a teacher recommendation.  What I've found is that there are not 70 Advanced Placement students in my Advanced Placement class.  That lofty goal of getting lots of students into the mode of college poli-sci has been thrown against obstacles that I really can't control.  Students missing three weeks of class, students refusing to read 25 pages in a week, students turning in sub-par work......we can demand big goals, but are we prepared to tell Seniors in high school that they are failing to meet them that they can't graduate?  What happens when teachers set big goals, say "I refuse to let you fail", and then the student pulls Senioritis?  Remember that society at one time held students accountable for lofty goals?  Let's bring that back.  As to effectiveness, that's just good teaching.  Being more effective not only helps kids, it prevents one from burnout. 

  Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process... 

See above. 

they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning

Of course, although what works and by what method is debatable.  Telling a student to prepare for a meaningless STAR test doesn't contribute to student learning since there is no incentive for the student to do the test. 

they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome

Prepare, prepare, prepare.  I just can't tell new teachers enough that you can never over-prepare, and the more prepared that you are, the smoother the lesson will go. And while creating those hideous detailed lesson plans in the Credential Program is unrealistic, you better have a written account of what you did every day so you can prepare better next time.

and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

This is so painfully naive and stereotypical that it is frightening.  I guess all you need is for Michelle Pfeiffer and Edward James Olmos to sit in a dirty classroom and talk at students about life experiences, and that will make them learn.  Look, if you really want students to learn then you will change the system.  A teacher can work their ass off, but a student that has not had breakfast is not going to focus.  On top of that, the teacher will not be able to work their ass off because they are too busy filling out stupid paperwork for BITSA (an idiot teacher training program for rookies), or fending off parent calls that administrators can't deflect (Thank God for my admin early on).  And on top of that, the teacher won't even want to come to class that day if the working conditions are hellish, with a lack for employee safety, unsanitary conditions, horrid morale, and a constant fear that March 15 will be the day of the Reduction in Force notice (your pink slip).  The entire system should be refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls, not just teachers.

 Asking “Does anyone have any questions?” does not work, and it’s a classic rookie mistake. Students are not always the best judges of their own learning. They might understand a line read aloud from a Shakespeare play, but have no idea what happened in the last act. 

Meh, it's only a rookie mistake if you leave it at "Does anyone have any questions?".  The first step of empowering a student is giving them the opportunity to do it themselves, then you start prodding those that need the extra kick. 

“We see routines so strong that they run virtually without any involvement from the teacher. In fact, for many highly effective teachers, the measure of a well-executed routine is that it continues in the teacher’s absence.”

My lights dim, the news comes on, and I hardly have to tell kids to quiet down, and we are talking Seniors in high school.  Some kind of visual or audio clip greets the students next, then the lesson, then a little check for understanding, clarify homework, then gonzo.  Routines are a very good thing and students become very familiar with good routines and irritated when you break them.  If I used to forget my Newshour tape at home, I would hear a chorus of "What?  No Jim?".  Now the Internet let's me forget the tape and I can stream it.

The first week of class, Mr. Taylor calls all his students’ parents and gives them his cell-phone number.

Yeah, I won't be giving my students' parents my cell phone number and I shouldn't have to.  They have my e-mail, the will soon have total access to the student's attendance and grades online, and they have my full attention while at school.  I give a huge, mammoth chuck of my life for my students.  Sorry, but my wife and my own personal needs get time away from school as well.  Want to know why 3/4 of TFA teachers aren't at their original teaching assignments after five years?  Or why KIPP teacher turnover at the higher levels is significant?  It's because there is an attitude among educrats that the best teacher is the one that completely gives their lives to their students.  That's not efficient at all and leads to teacher burn-out.  Private lives are important to teachers.  You don't need to be constantly plugged into the school.

Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. 

Makes sense.  Teaching is all about perseverance and also bringing some of that perseverance over to your students. 

Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues.

You're kidding?  Hmmmm, and let's see.  The number one reason that teachers quit the profession is a feeling of lack of support from administrators or an overall negative feeling about the profession.  And the current legislation going through the state and federal governments actually takes authority away from teachers and into the hands of parents, or in the hands of children who decide to screw over a test.  Very interesting.

 Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

Ugh, that's because Master's in Education are for Deans and Admin, not classroom teachers.  And by the way, I eventually want to go back in get my Master's, but never in Education.  Are you kidding me? 

But if school systems hired, trained, and rewarded teachers according to the principles Teach for America has identified, then teachers would not need to work so hard. They would be operating in a system designed in a radically different way—designed, that is, for success.

That's a matter of opinion.  In the very next paragraph, the author then stated that a teacher was being evaluated half by five principal observation and half by student improvement from standardized testing.  50% of this man's job is based on elementary kids taking a test?  On one day of the year?  And the fact that the students are ELL, or that some go to Mexico for a month, or that some are constantly suspended because of drug possession, or some just don't see the value in the test isn't taken into account?  Sorry, I can work and live at that school, but even a doctor can't make a patient take their medications.

Teach For America probably has some very good potential teacher candidates that will eventually become fantastic teachers.  But here's a news flash, so does Sacramento State, or Western Oregon University, or a number of other colleges that don't have "Ivy" associated with them, or "Stanford", or "University of California at....".  And once again, check the numbers.  Eight of ten Teach for America educators are out of their classroom within three years.  That's a bit worse than the average, and TFA teachers usually are in districts that need to retain those teachers for the benefit of the students.  It doesn't seem to be happening. 

Great teachers are necessary for great education.  But the news media and society needs to get away from this new message that Teach For America has a magic potion, because they really don't. 

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