Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Quit Teach for America

Five weeks of training was not enough to prepare me for a room of 20 unruly elementary-schoolers

During my training, I taught a group of nine well-behaved third-graders who had failed the state reading test and hoped to make it to fourth grade. Working with three other corps members, which created a generous teacher-student ratio, I had ample time for one-on-one instruction.

That classroom training was completely unlike the situation I now faced in Atlanta: teaching math and science to two 20-person groups of rotating, difficult fifth-graders—fifth-graders so difficult that multiple substitute teachers would vow never to teach fifth grade at our school again.

I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings. Or when a student told me that his habit of doing nothing during class stemmed from his (admittedly sound) logic that "I did the same thing last year and I passed." The Institute’s training curriculum was far too broad to help me navigate these situations. Because many corps members do not receive their specific teaching assignments until after training has ended, the same training is given to future kindergarten teachers in Atlanta, charter-school teachers in New Orleans, and high-school physics teachers in Memphis.

I was not alone in my trouble with student behavior. Gary Rubinstein, a 1991 TFA alum and an outspoken critic of the organization, believes the training sets teachers up for failure: TFA teachers “don’t know how to deal with discipline problems, because they’ve never dealt with a class with more than 10 kids—there’s no way to deal with so many potential problems when they’ve never been practiced.”

Jessica Smith, a corps member I recently called up, agrees. “I’ve struggled with behavior management,” she admits. (As with all the names of teachers I spoke to for this article, “Jessica” is a pseudonym.) Though training includes some instruction in student discipline, “I didn’t really have the training to know how to give consequences consistently,” Jessica said.

I asked if she reached out for support. “I think I talked to every person I knew to talk to, even our region’s executive director,” Jessica recalled. Although TFA ultimately did send in a behavior-management expert, “The person who finally came in to help me came at the end of February for a 20-minute session.” Is this a representative experience? It’s hard to say. “We provide training in behavior-management techniques,” a TFA spokesperson said when asked about Jessica, “but corps members are expected to adapt their training to their unique school culture. We also provide continuing support for corps members who have trouble fitting in.”

Jessica has decided not to return to TFA for a second year. She said she was so unsupported that she felt justified reneging on her two-year commitment. “Yes a commitment matters,” she wrote, “but staying isn’t necessarily helpful to your kids or anybody.” Jessica said that after she notified local TFA leadership of her decision, the reaction was severe. “They chewed out my character and made personal allegations,” she said. She was told, she recalls, that she would “personally have to deal with remorse and regret.”

On its website, TFA makes a bold claim that “By the end of Institute, corps members have developed a foundation of knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to be effective beginning teachers.” Training is supposed to include teaching “for an average of two hours each day … observed by experienced teachers,” “extensive lesson planning instruction,” and constant opportunities for feedback. Personally, I taught two 90-minute classes per week, a far cry from the 10 hours per week described in the publicity materials—and “experienced teachers” usually meant new TFA alumni with two years of classroom experience.

Compared with the experiences of other Teach for America teachers, though, my placement and training were actually fairly lucky. I know more than one Religious Studies major who arrived in Atlanta ready to teach elementary school, only to be told that she was being reassigned to teach high-school mathematics.

I am standing, arms crossed, back hunched, whispering with Ms. Jones, as we sort supplies our students will need for the Criterion Referenced Competency Test. In the last few free minutes before testing begins, Ms. Jones is sharing her candid, and often hilarious, views on first-year teaching. “It’s wrong!” she whispers passionately, her eyebrows shoot up far into her forehead. Ms. Jones is known as a no-nonsense veteran teacher, and I had found her quite intimidating before I realized she is incredibly kind. “It’s wrong to put teachers in the classroom with no experience, Ms. Blanchard. I went through a teaching program, and I taught in four different classrooms before I ever had these kids on my own.” Looking at Ms. Jones’ perfectly behaved, high-achieving third-graders and comparing them with my own unruly students, I can see her point. The intercom buzzes to announce a five-minute warning before testing will begin, and that reminds Ms. Jones of the labyrinthine set of test procedures to come. “Make sure they have their pencils, Ms. Blanchard, we can’t have any testing irregularities. You know we have to cover ourselves. Everyone’s watching this building, and I don’t know about you, but Ms. Jones is not fixing to be on Channel 2 tonight.”

By the end of the school year, I felt like I would scream if I ever heard the phrase cover yourself again. Within Atlanta Public Schools, this phrase embodies a general spirit of fear and intimidation, not to mention sad tolerance for the fact that teachers are seen as little more than passive cogs in the wheel of the city's education machine.

Valuable minutes of classroom instruction time were lost to filling out accident reports when kids occasionally fell out of their chairs or poked each other with pencils. If two students began arguing and one child angrily vowed to “get” the other, I was always advised by fellow teachers to write up the incident on Atlanta Public Schools letterhead immediately, thereby “covering” the district if the threat materialized and parents were feeling litigious. What our students needed the most in these situations, it seemed, were conflict-management skills and character education, but unfortunately these interventions do not sufficiently “cover” the adult interests of the district. When I was once asked to fill in for an unexpectedly absent colleague, one of her second-graders chose to confide in me about his abysmal home life. He explained, with wide and trusting eyes, that his mother’s boyfriend enjoyed getting drunk, abusing the family, and sometimes shooting at the kids with a BB gun for fun. I immediately reported the incident to an administrator, who reacted with what appeared to be annoyance that one more paper had to be filed at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. This was an administrator who really does care about children and wants to improve their lives—but the all-important duty of covering the legal interests of the district can make crucial social work feel like just another rubber stamp.

I’d been at TFA training, about to head into this system, when the official report on the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools was released. My immediate reaction was shock that so many teachers could be complicit in something so outrageously dishonest. Midway through the school year, though, I came to understand exactly how it had happened. APS has some of the best teachers in the country, but surviving in the district means covering yourself, and during standardized testing this means ensuring objective success. In a top-down, ruthless bureaucracy like APS, teachers are front-line foot soldiers, not educators encouraged to pursue their calling.

Atlanta Public Schools teachers spend countless hours teaching to exhaustion, spending their own money on classroom supplies, and buying basic necessities for their poorest students, only to be reminded constantly that their job performance will be judged according to test answers bubbled in by wobbly little fingers barely able to hold a pencil upright. Teaching children is inherently much more intimate, messy, and personal than any office job could ever be. It's about guiding, pushing, and spending most of your waking hours with other people's children, whether they need a Band-Aid, a bear hug, or a fresh set of markers that their parents can't afford. Many teachers in schools like mine would agree that often the most-struggling students improve in ways that will not be reflected on the state test. They might learn to say please and thank you, or they might master a set of academic skills that still will not be enough to pass on-level, or they might gain a healthy dose of self-respect. After a year in this environment, I realized I could understand how, when the annual testing frenzy rolled around, a lot of teachers chose to put their heads down, tune out, and cover themselves.

Teach for America cited the Atlanta scandal as a sad example of what is wrong with education's status quo, one of the many reasons America's schools need even more reform and innovation. But what occurred to me, as I worked my way, ill-prepared, through Atlanta Public Schools, was that the two systems are not as far apart as either might like to suggest. TFA is at least as enamored of numerical "data points" of success as APS is. TFA strongly encourages its teachers to base their classes' "big goals" around standardized-test scores. Past and present corps members are asked to stand to thunderous applause if their students have achieved some objectively impressive measure of achievement, and everyone knows that the best way to work for and rise through TFA ranks is to have a great elevator pitch about how your students' scores improved by X percent.

Whether or not the numerical data is broadly accurate, I can attest to the pressure within TFA to produce proof of student gains without much oversight or guidance.

By the end of my time at TFA and Atlanta Public Schools, I came to feel that both organizations had a disconnect between their public ideals and their actual effectiveness. APS invests in beautiful new buildings and glossy public-relations messaging, only to pressure its teachers into pedagogical conformity that often prevents them from reaching the district’s most remedial students. Likewise, TFA promotes a public image of eager high achievers dedicated to one mission, reaching “Big Goals” that pull students out of the achievement gap, where non-TFA teachers have let them fall. But in my experience, many if not most corps members are confused about their purpose, uncertain of their skills, and struggling to learn the basics.


Education Dep't Strategy Is to Educate Adult Non-Citizens

The U.S. Education Department, anticipating an influx of foreigners in the years ahead under immigration reform, says it plans to create an "adult learning infrastructure" to meet demand for "high-quality English language" skills and other basics.

On page 10 of its draft strategic plan for Fiscal Years 2014-2018, the Education Department says it will work to "transform" the adult education system -- "and create an adult learning infrastructure that better meets the demand for high-quality English language, literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills. This infrastructure must accommodate the increased demand for skills from industry and business, as well as for services that may result from comprehensive immigration reform."

The word "immigration" appears only on page 10 of the 42-page report, which mainly focuses on improving the administration's "cradle-to-career education strategy."

In the paragraph dealing with adult education, the department says it is concerned about the number of adults who lack "foundational" literacy and numerical skills:

"Because of this, too many adults cannot enter or complete a post-secondary education or training program," the report says. "Data on educational attainment and skills show that there are at least 30 million Americans without basic literacy skills in need of educational credentials for work. The social and economic consequences are severe for these adults and their families, as well as for their communities, where large numbers of low-skilled adults can limit economic development. The current adult education system is not equipped to handle this challenge, serving less than 3 percent of the need."

The draft strategic plan, released last week, does not say how the Education Department will "transform" the adult learning infrastructure, but it does say that post-secondary institutions "must increase their capacity to serve the growing number of Americans who require education and/or training beyond high school to compete in the workplace, particularly the tens of millions of Americans who have basic literacy and workforce training needs."

A 2012 report --"Improving Adult Literacy Instruction" -- says major employers, existing training and education organizations, faith-based groups, and other community groups should be enlisted to help in the effort.

The Education Department's Division of Adult Education and Literacy provides funds to states for adult education and literacy programs. The amount each state receives is based on a formula established by Congress.

In Fiscal Year 2013, the division allocated $553,990,840 to the states for adult education programs and English literacy/civics education for immigrants. The states, in turn, distribute the taxpayer money to local entities to provide adult education and literacy services.


British schools told to run parenting classes and measure happiness

Schools are being told to organise parenting classes for the pupils’ parents to ensure teenagers have a stable home life under official health guidelines published today.

They are also being advised that they should “systematically measure” children’s happiness levels to stop them going off the rails.

And, as well as carrying out health and safety risk assessments for school trips and other activities they should also assess how extra curricular activities affect children’s “emotional well-being”.

The instructions are contained in a raft of new public health advice for councils issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the body which decides which drugs the NHS should prescribe.

Nice has been issuing wide-ranging guidance to local authorities since they took over new responsibilities for maintaining public health earlier this year.

The latest batch of guidance ranges from practical advice to local authorities on minimising the spread of tuberculosis among homeless people to a section making a financial case for funding antismoking campaigns.

But it also includes a 14-page briefing for councils on improving the “social and emotional well-being” of children and young people with instructions for midwives, health visitors and schools.

The paper advises anyone working with children to be on the lookout for evidence they are living in squalor, that their parents have mental health problems or that they are abusing drugs or alcohol.

It argues that stepping in early can prevent children repeating the problems of their parents and says that “happy and confident” children are less likely to go on to have mental health or behavioural problems in later life.

“Negative parenting and poor quality family or school relationships place children at risk of poor mental health,” it explains.

Then, offering advice to secondary schools, it continued: “Schools should systematically measure and assess young people’s social and emotional well-being.

“They should use the outcomes to plan activities and evaluate their impact.”

It adds: “Schools should reinforce young people’s learning from the curriculum, by helping parents and carers develop their parenting skills.

“This may involve providing information or offering small, group-based programmes run by appropriately trained health or education practitioners.”

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said it was “ludicrous” to ask teachers to measure happiness or teach parents as well as pupils.

“I have to wonder how we have survived from the Stone Age without all of this guidance from Nice,” he said.

“The nanny state is growing and needs have its powers reduced, schools have got more than enough to do to teach their children.

“If you teach people to read and write and play sport and music, that’s what makes them happy – what makes people unhappy is being deskilled, too many schools are focusing on social care.

“Teachers are fed up to the back teeth with all of this – it is non-stop. All the time they are being asked to solve all the problems of society rather than focusing on solving the thing they good at solving: ignorance.”

A spokeswoman for the Depatrment for Education said: "The decision on whether to run these classes, or any activities for families, is a matter for schools and councils.”


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