Friday, August 30, 2013

Pushing Aside Certified, Committed Young Teachers for Teach for America Wannabees

Two weeks ago I posted a blog entry asking the question, Does Teacher Certification Matter? You can find that post here. Just as training and licensing matter for other professionals like doctors, nurses, lawyers and certified public accountants, it seems a no brainer that training and licensure matters for teachers. In case you think this is not a major issue, I would call your attention to this report from Jonathan Pelto on what is happening in Connecticut. Here is a piece of his report.

Last Monday night, Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s faux superintendent of schools, revealed that he had hired another 31 Teach for America recruits to staff Bridgeport’s schools this year.   Few, if any of the recruits come from Connecticut and none went to a Ccollege or university to become a teacher.

The TFA recruits come courtesy of a March 2013 deal between Vallas and Nate Snow, the Executive Director for the Connecticut Chapter of Teach for America.  Snow is also   the President of Excel Bridgeport, Inc. the corporate funded lobbying and advocacy group that has been Vallas’ strongest supporter…

Not only are TFA recruits paid at regular teacher salary levels, but in return for supplying the Teach for America recruits, Vallas committed the City of Bridgeport to pay TFA a “fee” of “$3,000 per year for the first two years a teacher is employed.  According to the contract, the annual fee goes up next year to $3,105 a year and then to $3,214 the year after that.

In total, the Vallas/TFA contract calls for the City to hire 125 TFA teachers.  That number would provide Nate Snow’s organization with a finder’s fee in excess of  $750,000.

Vallas you will remember is the same unqualified school leader who brought ruin to the Philadelphia schools, among other urban school districts. Please note that this is $750,000 dollars in finder’s fees for finding and providing 5 weeks of training to unqualified neophytes to man the challenging Bridgeport classrooms. Could you think of other ways to spend that money? Perhaps reducing class size? Repairing crumbling infrastructure? Providing important professional development for current Bridgeport teachers? Hiring a real superintendent?

Pelto rightly points out that these TFA positions deny jobs to fully certified, committed graduates of Connecticut universities who have trained to be teachers. Wouldn’t the Bridgeport schools want to hire some of these folks? We cannot know because these positions were never even advertised to education graduates. The jobs were simply given to Teach for America wannabees.

It is a cautionary tale for all members of a profession under siege. We must all be sure to support the hiring and continued professional development of certified teachers who have shown a commitment to teaching and will not be moving on to an executive position with some hedge fund in two years.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Happy New School Year

With schools opening around the country over the next two weeks, I thought I would share a poem that I hope is a reminder of why we teach and why parents depend so much on the teacher. This one is written from a parent’s point of view and is a reminder of our sacred trust. I hope you have a good start to your new year.

The First Day of School
by Russ Walsh

Today, dear teacher, I deliver to you
            my heart, my life, my son.
He’s not perfect:
One day he’s noisy,
Next day he’s careless,
Next day he’s both.
            Treat him kindly;
            Guide his growth.

I assure you, dear teacher,
            you’ll learn his name quickly.
He has his opinions.
He speaks them loudly,
Displays them proudly,
So sure he’s right.
            Respect his feelings:
            Harsh words can bite.

I should warn you dear teacher,
            he has no patience for seatwork.
But he’s not lazy,
Just likes to ponder,
And let his mind wander
In every which way direction.
            Value his thinking;
            Allow reflection.

Today dear teacher, I deliver to you
            my heart, my life, my son.
I ask that you listen.
I ask that you watch.
I ask that you care.
            And give him a hug,
            When I’m not there.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bathing in the Language of Shakespeare

This past week I had the unique opportunity to see four Shakespearean plays in three days. The occasion was our annual visit to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. This remarkable theater festival offers a variety of plays from musicals like Fiddler on the Roof to Noel Coward chestnuts like Blithe Spirit, but my wife and I go mostly for the Shakespeare that is featured each year. This year we saw truly memorable productions of Othello and The Merchant of Venice and very good productions of Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet.

Upon returning home, we went to see my granddaughters where I delivered the obligatory t-shirts, this time emblazoned with Romeo and Juliet on the front. I told the thirteen-year-old I had just seen a production of the show and thought I would bring her a t-shirt to commemorate it. She admired the shirt for a moment and then said, “Oh, Romeo and Juliet! Did you have trouble following the play because of the way he writes?”

I knew what she meant, of course; Shakespeare can be difficult to follow due to the sometimes archaic language, the flowery turns of phrase and the demands of the spoken poetry. I explained to her that I had read the play many times in and out of school and had seen perhaps a half dozen productions of it, so I could follow it pretty well, but yes, even now, I have trouble understanding some of the language.

The question got me thinking about teaching and learning. Do we give kids a chance to become familiar with any writer at a deep level? I had just spent three days immersed in the language of Shakespeare. Iambic pentameter rained down on me as if from a sustained summer shower. I came through the immersion better able to understand and appreciate the greatness of the writing. How often do we give kids the same chance?

Typically in school we deny kids immersion in one author. Instead we supply a smattering of many authors. A smattering of Hawthorne, a smattering of Melville, a smattering of Shakespeare, a smattering of Hemingway. If children do get the chance to become truly immersed in an author, it typically happens outside of school. I remember I fell in love with the writing of John Steinbeck in ninth grade. I read all the Steinbeck I could get my hands on for the next three years, but was never assigned any in school. Contemporary school children may get a similar experience through immersion in J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. This is all well and good, but can we do more?

Why not dedicate a school year or two school years to one great author? Why not immerse children deeply in one writer, so that they might truly come to know that writer under the guidance of a skilled teacher. Why not spend the time to truly look deeply into the writer’s themes, obsessions, tropes, ideas? Do we think that children really need a smattering more than they need close study of one writer? Is there anything we want to teach children about critical reading that we can’t teach through focused attention on one great author?

Who should be the focus of this type of instruction? The list of candidates is deep and diverse. For younger children it might include Arnold Lobel or Cynthia Rylant. For upper elementary children it might be E. B. White or Roald Dahl or Avi or Katherine Paterson. For middle school it might be Cynthia Voight or M.E.Kerr or Chris Crutcher or Robert Cormier. For high school it might be Shakespeare or Steinbeck or Hawthorne or Hemingway or Roth.

For years, teachers in the schools and critics outside of schools have described the American school curriculum as a mile wide and an inch deep. Why not try reversing that proportion?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Wendy Kopp Goes to the Doctor (or Does Certification Matter?)

I have a recurring dream. In my dream Wendy Kopp, founder and chair of the board for Teach for America (TFA), is visiting a remote part of the country preaching the TFA gospel, when she is stricken with a mysterious ailment causing severe headaches. Rushed to the nearest clinic, she is greeted by a young man who asks a few questions, takes her blood pressure, examines her eyes, ears and throat and declares that Wendy is suffering from a brain tumor and must schedule immediate surgery. Alarmed, Wendy asks the young man, “Are you a doctor?”

“Well, no, not technically, but I did graduate from an Ivy League school and I took a five week training course this past summer. One of the lectures was on brain tumors. I am here to make up for the doctor shortage in this rural area.”

The next scene shows Wendy running away screaming while googling “Board Certified Neurologist” on her smart phone.

In professional fields other than teaching, few would question the need for proper credentialing. In the profession of teaching, however, questions about the need for certified teachers in the classroom have been raised for the last two decades. If you read the research, as I have been doing for many years, and more intensively lately, you might get confused. Not surprisingly, the reform types have found lots of research that supports their concept that teaching preparation is not a predictor of teacher quality. Perhaps the most important of these was produced for the Abell Foundation by noted reformer Kate Walsh (no relation, thank goodness). Walsh concludes that the certification process is “neither an efficient nor an effective means by which to ensure a competent teaching force. Worse, it is often counterproductive.”(

Just as many, if not more, studies demonstrate that teacher certification does indeed matter. Here the most important voice has been Stanford professor, Linda Darling-Hammond. In her landmark 2002 study, she and her co-researchers posit that “teacher  effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching.”  (Darling-Hammond, L. et al. Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America and teacher effectiveness)

As a proud possessor of teaching certificates from two states, I would like to think that certification does matter. I know other things matter, too: intellectual ability, content knowledge, experience. But if I am hiring a new teacher, as I did in my last position as Director of Human Resources in a suburban school district, I am going to hire the certified candidate over the non-certified candidate every time. Why? Certainly not because I was required to in these days of alternate routes to teaching, but because I knew that I was reasonably sure of some critical qualifications when I hired a certified teacher. I was assured that the candidate had some understanding of child development, had the ability to translate content knowledge into lessons that would help children learn, and had the knowledge and ability to adapt instruction to different learners' needs. I also had some confidence that the candidate understood how to manage a classroom.

Most importantly, however, I knew that the certified candidate was likely to still be teaching in the district 3, 5 even 10 years from the hire date. Candidates who commit themselves to a teacher certification program have committed themselves to the profession. With experience and professional development, they will get better at what they do, and the district’s investment in them in recruiting, training and retention will be rewarded.

Are there outstanding teachers coming out of programs like Teach for America? Undoubtedly. Is every certified teacher coming out of a teacher training program destined to be an outstanding teacher? Of course not. But ultimately, our schools, our parents and our children are better off with a committed, well-prepared, professional educator in the classroom.

And Wendy Kopp is better off with a certified physician.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What is Good Teaching?

Google the question above and you will get thousands of hits. There is no shortage of opinion and no shortage of research into the topic. Most recently, the most comprehensive study of what makes for effective teaching was conducted by the Gates Foundation. Millions of dollars were spent to pin down the answer and the results were published in the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). The Gates Foundation claims to have figured out what makes a good teacher (Washington Post, January 8, 2013). It should surprise no one that, even with all that time, energy and money, the MET got it wrong. They made the classic researcher mistake; they went in with a presupposition and then they proved what they wanted to prove.

            While the MET project has brought unprecedented vigor to teacher evaluation research, its results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems. (Rothstein and Mathis retrieved from  

            Although we don’t question the utility of using evidence of student learning to inform teacher development we suggest that a better question would not assume that value- added scores are the only existing knowledge about effectiveness in teaching. Rather, a good question would build on existing research and investigate how to increase the amount and intensity of effective instruction. (Gabriel and Allington, Education Week, November 2012 | Volume 70 | Number 3)

            So, rather than having figured out what makes a good teacher, the Gates Foundation has learned very little in this project about effective teaching practices.  The project was an expensive flop.  Let’s not compound the error by adopting this expensive flop as the basis for centrally imposed, mechanistic teacher evaluation systems nationwide. (Greene, J. retrieved from    effective-teachers-project/)

So what is good teaching? As Jeffrey Mirel (2009) has said, “Teaching is an incredibly complex and difficult enterprise.” Establishing a universal set of criteria is extraordinarily difficult. Here is my list, open for debate, of course, but based on a reading of the research and 40 years of experience watching teachers teach.

·         Good teaching causes all children to learn
·         Good teaching helps all students to learn how to learn
·         Good teaching helps all students believe in themselves as learners
·         Good teaching is informed by deep content knowledge
·         Good teaching is informed by deep pedagogical knowledge
·         Good teaching is engaging
·         Good teaching is nurturing
·         Good teaching communicates a passion for learning
·         Good teaching communicates ideas clearly with relevant and memorable examples
·         Good teaching communicates high, but appropriate, expectations for learning
·         Good teaching happens in well-managed, orderly classrooms
·         Good teaching is well-planned
·         Good teaching provides on-going formative assessment of student learning
·         Good teaching provides occasional summative assessment of learning
·         Good teaching is made better through the  information gained from assessments
·         Good teaching is driven by skilled questioning
·         Good teaching is about caring for students as learners and as human beings
·         Good teaching is about attending the sporting events, concerts and activities of students
·         Good teaching is informed by good listening
·         Good teaching is about flexibility
·         Good teaching is about good humor
·         Good teaching is about sharing expertise with colleagues
·         Good teaching is about constantly improving teaching ability through reflection
·         Good teaching is about constantly improving teaching ability through professional development
·         Good teaching is about constantly looking for ways to improve
·         Good teaching is about including parents in the educational lives of their children
·         Good teaching requires training and experience

For anyone to think that this complex task can be reduced to a number that measures a person’s “value” as a teacher is absurd in the extreme.  I would like to see a measure of the “value added” of a caring teacher who attends her students sporting events, or the teacher who spends all weekend designing engaging lessons, or the teacher who provides a kind word to a child having a difficult day. These things are the “stuff” of teaching and they cannot be measured simplistically.

What do you think? I would love to hear what you would add to the list above.

In my next post, I will outline my thoughts on a teacher "valuation" approach that aims not only at assessing practice, but improving it. Yes teaching does matter and good teaching matters a great deal. Assessing it should be in the hands of people who know something about it.