Category Archives: classrooms

Advice For My Students: DON’T “Teach for America”

As Fall semester slides into exams, most of my senior students turn their attention to full time student teaching.  They also begin to think very seriously about how to enter the job market for new teachers beginning their careers in the Fall.  It can be a harrowing time.  In addition to being responsible for teaching a full load of students full time and engaging in deep capstone projects based on that teaching, they have to plan how they will seek out and apply for jobs.  Adulthood and difficult choices lie directly on the other side of the most challenging work they have ever done.  I certainly cannot find fault if any of them approach it all with at least some trepidation mingled with their excitement.

So it is unsurprising that I occasionally have students who apply for and are selected to join Teach For America.  Their reasons are varied.  TFA publicly espouses many values that are congruent with my students’ sense of vocationalism in service of their future students.  TFA offers to take the confusion out of the job application process by helping them find a classroom somewhere they may have never considered on their own.  TFA carries with it an aura of selectivity and prestige, and certainly by this point in its history, the organization has connections and influence among the powerful in education policy.

However, I have advice for my students regarding applying for or accepting a position with Teach For America: Don’t do it.

I don’t come to this advice lightly, and while I respect that my students might be excited to join an organization that says it is dedicated to getting young and talented people into classrooms with our most needy students, there is literally nothing positive that Teach For America offers my students that they cannot do for themselves.  And what they package with those positives is entirely negative for our profession.  There are a number of truths about TFA that my students should consider before seeking an application.

First, Teach For America needs you far more than you need them.  TFA may be influential, and the competitive nature of their system may seem prestigious, but my students do not need Teacher For America anywhere nearly as much as TFA needs them.  Anyone willing to join TFA is making two positive commitments: 1) I will go anywhere and 2) I will teach students from vulnerable families and communities.  Well, if you are willing to do that, and you hold a valid teaching certificate, there are precious few barriers keeping you from doing just that on your own.  Many states practice reciprocal certification with other states, and in other cases, fairly minor additional requirements are all that is necessary.  For already credentialed teachers, TFA is just a middleman that makes the process of finding a job in another state less stressful, but it is hardly necessary.  I know a great many of my students are deeply committed to working with students in poverty, and I applaud them for that.  They don’t need TFA.

On the other hand, TFA does need them, or, perhaps more accurately, TFA looks better every time a fully qualified, licensed teacher joins their corps.  My students who have joined TFA arrived vastly more prepared and ready to teach than most other corps members.  They have studied child psychology, education law, general methods of teaching and content specific methods, evaluation, classroom management, and they have completed full subject majors in the content they intend to teach.  Teachers who graduate from my program also have spent 100s of hours in experienced teachers’ classrooms where they have worked one on one with students, led classroom activities, shadowed teachers’ lesson plans, and planned and taught guest lessons – all before their full time student teaching began.  Our entire program is premised on the belief that learning to teach requires careful and thoughtful entry into the classroom using ideas and skills learned from both college faculty and from practicing teachers, and it is premised on thoughtfully planned experiences in classrooms that are crucial at every stage of learning to teach.  My graduates have also completed capstone projects working closely with our faculty examining the evidence of how their teaching has promoted student learning – and they have done so using substantive evidence rather than standardized test scores.  Further, they have passed difficult examinations of their content knowledge as required by the state of New Jersey, they have maintained GPAs well above their college peers, and all of their programs of study are subject to demanding accreditation requirements.

Compare that to Teach For America’s perspective that all new teachers really need is a great attitude and a summer training institute.  While all first year teachers, even those who are exceptionally well prepared, will find the experience more than the sum of their preparation, it is without question that TFA corps members who have actually studied to become teachers are vastly more ready than their counterparts who have not.

My students also benefit TFA in another manner: they all intend to stay classroom teachers.  This isn’t something they suddenly decided to do.  This isn’t a means for them to “give back” on their way to something else.  This is a career they have been thinking about since they were much younger and to which they have dedicated their entire time in college to entering.  TFA likes to claim that a huge percentage of their corps members “stay in education,” but they use marketing language to paper over the issue.  Consider:

TFA claim 1

TFA also claims that “the most common profession for TFA alumni” is teaching.  These are cleverly stated, but hardly as impressive as TFA wants you to believe.  The first claim is worded to encourage you to believe that up to 80% of TFA alumni are working directly in schools, especially in low-income schools, but it obviously means no such thing and can mean something entirely unexpected if the definition of working “in education” is treated very loosely.  Finish TFA, go to law school, and end up working with education “foundations” or fake grassroots and advocacy organizations pushing various elements of today’s testocracy and that easily slots in with TFA’s claim.  Whether “the most common profession” of former corps members being teaching is impressive or not depends entirely on how many other professions are counted and how large a percentage stay in teaching as a career.  50% teaching out of 20 professions total would be far more impressive than, say, 15% of 20 professions.  The language TFA selects is precisely chosen to obfuscate those distinctions.

Survey research conducted with Dr. Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University has better news for TFA in this regard than many critics might expect, but hardly great news compared to traditionally prepared and hired teachers.  The study, conducted with TFA cohorts beginning  2000, 2001, and 2002 found that 60.5% taught in K-12 beyond their initial 2 year commitment, and 35.5% taught more than four years with 27.8% still teaching in their fifth year.  43.6% of TFA members continued teaching at their initial school past two years, but that number dropped to 14.8% at the end of four years.  Traditionally prepared education majors made up only 3.34% of corps members surveyed, but 71.3% of them taught longer than four years – well more than double of other corps members.

While not a significant portion of corps members, traditionally prepared teachers placed by TFA help bolster their image by being far more ready to teach than their modal corps members and by staying in teaching for far longer.  So when my students join TFA, they get help finding a job they could have found for themselves, and their preparation and career aspirations help TFA look better.

Second, Teach For America will challenge my students’ beliefs about quality education….but not in a good way.  Teach For America likes to claim that they do not favor charter schools over fully public schools in their placements:

TFA claim 2

This means that basically a third of corps members get placed in charter schools – which doesn’t sound like a preference until you look at the numbers.  There are just over 6000 charter schools in the country, enrolling roughly 2.3 million students.  That’s roughly 4.6% of the public schools in the country, and charter schools are only 10% or more of public schools in Arizona, Colorado, and the District of Columbia.  According to the Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools account for 30% or more of schools in only 12 districts nationwide, and there are 147 districts in the country where charter schools comprise 10% or more of the K-12 enrollment in the district.  There are over 14,000 public school districts in the United States.  The nation’s largest school district, New York City, only enrolls 7% of its students in charters while Los Angeles enrolls 21% and Chicago 14%.

So, sure, Teach For America does not favor charter schools – until you look at how its placements in charters vastly outstrips the percentage of schools that are charters nationwide or the percentage of students in our three largest cities who are enrolled in charters.

And the charter sector as a whole should give my students pause.  I always tell my students to look very closely at the schools that offer them jobs to see if the school climate and leadership align with their own values, and that goes double for charter schools which are privately managed, rarely unionized, and whose leadership remains opaque to any scrutiny.  With 6000 charter schools in the country, I will not categorically tell my students to never work in one, but they have to be on the lookout for schools engaging in outright financial fraud,  schools whose real estate and management arrangements actively harm/steal from the communities that host them, and school chains that boast high test scores but also engage in disciplinary practices that violate everything my students have learned about caring for all children.  In New York City, TFA has a strong relationship with Success Academy, a controversial “no excuses” charter chain that has extremely high test scores, but whose academic culture is high pressure to the point of demeaning children and whose disciplinary practices routinely result in suspension of Kindergarten children.

My students have been taught to fulfill a promise that all children deserve an equitable opportunity to learn, not that the only children who deserve to be in school are the ones who can quickly conform to an exercise in extreme behavior modification.  But TFA has a significant preference for working with schools that do just that and then brag that they are “closing the achievement gap.”  That should worry any professional educator’s sense of ethics.

Teach For America’s own record of helping its own corps members is open to question as well.  A growing number of TFA “alumni” are publicly sharing their stories of how the organization failed them and their students. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of California State Sacramento shares the story of his former student who, against his advice, joined Teach For America and was placed in a “Knowledge is Power Program” (KIPP) charter school:

I never thought I would feel so alone in a organization like TFA. I imagined being a part of the Corps would provide me with the support I needed, even though I would be an inexperienced first year teacher. During my first semester, I was visited two times by my TFA manager.  Afterward, we met for coffee, and he would ask questions about my vision for my students, but never offered the type of resources and support that I needed to make my teaching life more bearable. Looking back, I’m not even sure what a two-time visitor could have offered that would have really helped me….
Shame has a terrible place in this organization.  I never believed that shame would become a motivator in my Teach for America experience, but shame holds onto the necks of many Corps members.  Placing young college graduates in some of the toughest teaching situations with 5 weeks of training has negative repercussions on the mind, body, and soul of Corps members.  The message is “If only I were stronger, smarter and more capable, I could handle this. I would be able to save my students.”  Unfortunately, TFA intentionally or unintentionally preys on this shame to push Corps members to their limits to create “incredible” classrooms and “transformative” lesson plans. Would these things be good for our students? Of course.  Is shame a sustainable method for creating and keeping good teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. It is defeating and draining.

My students understand that having a robust support and collegial system is crucial for good teaching, both for novices and experienced teachers, and this is validated by research demonstrating that schools with “integrated” professional cultures do the best at serving the needs of teachers at all experience levels.  It is unconscionable that TFA would take college graduates with no training in education and leave them with both minimal preparation and entirely inadequate support systems.  Worse, many former corps members explain that TFA substitutes what amounts to a cartoonish version of “grit” for actual professional learning, support, and development.

TFA appears frighteningly unconcerned with the school conditions and philosophies where they place corps members, plainly favoring working with schools engaged in practices that do not affirm educational equity.  Further, TFA fails to provide what is critical for the development of good teaching and expert teachers, preferring shallow mantras over the complex and uncertain work of professional learning.  My students are vastly more qualified than most corps members, but they should know that TFA will not help them grow further in any careful or deliberate manner.

Third, Teach For America denigrates our profession, ultimately harming children in the process.  Recently, the Center For American Progress announced its campaign called “Teach Strong” based on nine principles that are supposed to “modernize and elevate” the profession of teaching.  The campaign so far has some very strange bedfellows.  Both national teacher unions have signed on as well the as the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, an organization of the nation’s  accredited university-based teacher preparation programs.  Teach for America is also a partner as well as the fairly odious “National Council of Teacher Quality,” a self-appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” whose signature “study” of teacher preparation quality was conducted by reading online course catalog materials.  Seated at the table with some allies but also with organizations long connected to the research on learning to teach and tasked with helping to improve and “elevate” teaching as a profession, one might think that TFA would take a good hard look at their own contribution.  Having signed on to a program whose stated principles include “reimagine teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates” and “provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed, including through planning, collaboration, and development” one might assume that Teacher For America would be willing to reconceptualize their own “preparation” of corps members with nothing more than summer training institute and demonstrably uneven and inadequate support systems once they enter the classroom.

You would think that, but you’d be wrong.

In fact, TFA’s CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, told The Washington Post that they see no need to change their training program, saying, “We do great, very rigorous pre-training work.”

It has been clear for some time that TFA is on the side of teacher professionalism that honestly does not care if teaching is a lifelong profession.  Consider their obvious favoritism for urban charter schools, which frequently welcome unlicensed, short term, teachers who are easily molded into the school’s way of operating without any pesky baggage like existing pedagogical knowledge or classroom experience.  TFA’s perspective on this is well summed up by their founder, Wendy Kopp, who opined, “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers….The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

What Ms. Kopp is describing is not teacher growth and development as familiar to those who have dedicated their lives to teaching children, and I doubt that even former corps members who remained teachers would agree with her.  She is describing school models that have such narrow behavioral expectations for both students and teachers that “development” is a matter of drilling people into a single, precise, way of going about business, and the preference for barely trained TFA recruits makes absolute sense because they are more easily molded.  This is closely tied to TFA’s continued insistence that its training model is up to the task of preparing young people with no teaching experience and no undergraduate teacher training for work in schools with our nation’s most vulnerable children.  The model is painfully inadequate as career teacher and former TFA corps member Gary Rubinstein has repeatedly noted in his blogging.  More recently, the Network for Public Education has hosted stories from TFA alumni highlighting their lack of preparation for the often complex classroom situations into which they were placed and the lack of continued support needed to help them and their students thrive.  Nothing about the stories host there or in the “preparation” paradigm practiced by TFA does much of anything to “elevate” our profession.

TFA likes to boast about their alumni who are leaders in education, and to be sure, there’s a long list of such alumni who have occupied influential and highly visible positions from which they have wielded power over our public schools.  Sadly, as Gary Rubinstein also observed, a great deal of that influence has been entirely negative:

….these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools….

….TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

TFA’s brand of education “leaders” are at the forefront of closing neighborhood schools in favor of opaque charters, using test scores to evaluate teachers, and breaking teacher unions.  In this school of thought, there are no problems in education of vulnerable children that require increased resources and the dedication of experienced professionals.  Rather, all that are needed are energetic but easily replaceable novices, a “no excuses” attitude, and school management that is relieved of any open and democratic accountability.  This runs counter to everything we know about our most successful schools.  Experienced teachers are more effective than novicesMoney and resources matter in educational opportunity and outcomes.  Wealthier districts have greater rates of teacher retention, significant levels of parental and community involvement and oversight – and higher test scores.  If TFA and its alumni leaders truly cared about righting the inequities in our public education system, they would demand that teachers and students in high poverty districts have equitable situations with their peers in wealthy districts.  Instead of denigrating teachers for failing to be comic book heroes, they could shine a clear light on the insanity of calling on teachers to fix some of the greatest injustices in our society armed with nothing more than youthful energy and attitude.

However, there is no sign that TFA or its enablers in board rooms, school districts, and legislative bodies across the country have the least interest in doing so.  It is past time for young people to stop lining up to “Teach For America,” and there is no reason that my students – who have earned the title of professional teacher through years of hard work – should ever join them.  I work with amazing and talented young people, many of whom are passionate about working with our schools’ most at risk children.  They can do that brilliantly, and more effectively, without Teach For America.

 

6 Comments

Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Funding, politics, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

Eva Moskowitz Cannot Help Herself

My grandfather had many folk wisdom expressions, but one that sticks with me is “When you are sitting 100 feet in the air, sawing furiously at the branch you are on, be sure to sit on the the TREE side of the cut.”  The meaning here is simple enough: perilous situations demand caution, and it is probably a good idea to check and double check what you are doing lest you end up like these guys:

giphy

I don’t think anyone has shared this advice with Eva Moskowitz.

The Success Academy charter school CEO just had a truly horrible October, in which her suspension policies were put into an uncomfortable spotlight, she retaliated by publishing the disciplinary records of a former student who is only ten years old and by demanding an apology from PBS, a complaint about Moskowitz’s violation of privacy laws was filed with federal DOE, and The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on how one of Moskowitz’s principals kept a “got to go” list of students who he deliberately pushed out of his Success Academy, confirming what data already shows: Success Academy uses a combination of excessive punishment and direct pressure to remove students who win lottery seats at the school.

Under normal circumstances, a polarizing figure like Moskowitz might consider staying out of the spotlight for a time, let coverage find different stories, and work with her powerful backers behind the scenes.  Such thinking does not appear to be in Moskowitz’s DNA, for she took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal on November 12th to explain what Success Academy discipline is based upon.  According to Moskowitz’s telling of the story, when she founded the original school as Harlem Success Academy, she had no specific pedagogy or theory of discipline in mind, but it was the work one inspirational veteran teacher who converted her and her teachers to his particular brand of magic:

I wish I could claim that I’ve developed some revolutionary pedagogical approach at Success, but the humbling truth is this: Most of what I know about teaching I learned from one person, an educator named Paul Fucaloro who taught in New York City district schools for four decades…

…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.

According to Moskowitz, Mr. Fucaloro’s technique was nothing more complicated than very high expectations and a strict insistence that students focus upon him or whoever else was talking with clear physical signs: hands clasped, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking, no fidgeting or other distractions:

Paul’s students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking (called “tracking”). They couldn’t stare off into space, play with objects, rest their head on their hands in boredom, or act like what Paul called “sourpusses” who brought an attitude of negativity or indifference to the classroom. Paul made students demonstrate to him that at every single moment they were focused on learning.

Readers are obviously supposed to infer that Mr. Fucaloro’s methods are so fool-proof that any sufficiently determined teacher can employ them with any group of students and achieve the same results which explains the sky high results on state examinations in her network of schools.  Moskowitz claims that she was essentially a pedagogical blank slate who was only convinced by Paul Fucaloro’s astonishing results and then perpetuated his methods so effectively that Success Academy schools can literally have almost any teacher command almost any class’ full attention all day.

wheels

This narrative is not believable on numerous fronts.  First, it is nearly impossible to believe that Eva Moskowitz went into the development of her charter school network a complete naif with no idea how she wanted the school to operate.   Whatever criticisms she has earned over the years, not knowing her mind is hardly typical.  Daniel Bergner of The New York Times published a hagiographic portrait of Moskowitz in the summer of 2014 in which the 1982 Stuyvesant graduate could not contain her contempt for what she saw as lax standards at New York City’s most selective high school.  As a member of the New York City Council, Moskowitz was known as tough, confrontational, and an expert on education issues while her demanding managerial style led to high levels of turn over among her staff.  Moskowitz’s own impatience with other people is even evident her only published work of scholarship following her doctoral degree in history.  The book, published in 2001, is titled In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession With Self-Fulfillment, claiming that Americans today turn to psychology and self-help experts for guidance and “excuses” as fervently as they used to seek religious guidance. Such negative assessments of most her fellow citizens’ needs probably explains why she reacted with overt derision when Mayor Bill De Blasio sought to implement restorative discipline strategies in city schools.

Suffice to say that I find it laughable that Eva Moskowitz had no idea how strict a discipline system she wished to implement from the beginning.

Another reason for doubting this narrative is that we know that Success Academy methods are hardly limited to what Moskowitz describes, and we know it from Mr. Fucaloro himself.  New York Magazine did an extensive story on the rapidly growing Success Academy chain  and Ms. Moskowitz herself in 2010, and Mr. Fucaloro is featured prominently boasting that his test preparation focus and extra work transforms children into “little test taking machines.”  Further, the type of extremely rigid behavior accepted at Success Academy is drilled early via Kindergarten “boot camps,” and Mr. Fucaloro makes what would be a shocking confession in a true public school:

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

Such attitudes appear foundational and durable at Success Academy given Kate Taylor’s report on the network’s “polarizing methods” for The New York Times earlier this year where public shaming of low performers is common enough that children have been known to wet themselves from the stress.  Mr. Fucaloro’s stance on disabilities is particularly shocking, however, and indicative that Success Academy’s Director of Instruction did far more than teach Moskowitz’s teachers to have high expectations for student behavior – and that his methods go far beyond anything he was allowed to do as a public school teacher.  Simply ignoring an IEP and subjecting students with disabilities to behavior modification is not an option for public school teachers (unless abetted by an unethical administration).  Nor is a Kindergarten “boot camp.”  Nor is out of school suspension for five year olds.  Nor is a 65 infraction long behavioral manual.  This list is lengthy, but the message is clear: far from simply being inspired by the high expectations Mr. Fucaloro and his singular attention to student focus, Success Academy teachers are trained in a program of extreme behavior modification backed by punitive consequences, options that are neither professionally nor morally available to truly public schools.

Finally, we know that Moskowitz is being highly selective in her story because of the data.  Let’s take her at her word that Mr. Fucaloro was a demanding but highly effective and appreciated teacher in his public school career.  Not to take anything away from that, but he is hardly unique in that regard. There are countless public school teachers who work hard to effectively establish the learning environment for their students.  Lots of teachers set high expectations for both learning and behavior, so that is hardly unique either.  However, just demonstrating and proving tracking and other techniques, as Moskowitz claims, is hardly all that happened in the early days of Success Academy.  Consider the following table, compiled from NYSED data:

SA1 Data

Two items are of note here.  First, the pattern of student attrition is curious.  Success Academy has not backfilled vacated seats after third grade until this year and still only does so through fourth grade, claiming that admitting new students unused to Success Academy methods would be detrimental.  It is therefore not surprising to see how many of the cohorts in the chart show drop offs around third and fourth grades – any students who left the school were not replaced as is required policy for fully public schools.  This pattern repeats cohort after cohort with growth in early grades, followed by sharp winnowing accumulating over time.  The third Kindergarten cohort is especially noteworthy, growing from 130 students in 2008 to 136 by third grade before shrinking to 109 two years later in fifth grade, an almost 20% change.  Remember, every student who begins at a Success Academy represents a family that went out of its way to seek out that school.

The second item is the dramatic growth in out of school suspensions.  NYSED reports the percentage of students suspended in a given school year, which does not account for single students suspended multiple time nor does it account for in school discipline.  In its first two years, Success Academy 1 suspended 8% and 2% of its students respectively. Over the next five years, however, those numbers jumped to 12%, 15%, 22%, 27%, and 23%.  These figures are eye-watering, and to compare, we can look at the same data from PS149 Sojourner Truth, the zoned K-8 public school co-located with Success Academy 1 grades Kindergarten through 4th grade:

PS149 Data

Of course, cohorts in PS149 do experience attrition as well, sometimes significant attrition, but there is no specific pattern of when students leave the school or of when cohorts shrink or grow.  However, the most striking difference is the out of school suspension rates which top out at 9% and are as low as 3% for two successive years.  Whatever else is happening at PS 149, the school is not heavily wielding out of school suspension with its students.

What does this mean?  The most obvious inference is that even if Moskowitz is being truthful and that Mr. Fucaloro is an astonishing teacher who was quickly able to establish a well disciplined and effective classroom environment where others struggled, it was far harder to scale up that level of discipline and effectiveness without massively increasing punitive disciplinary consequences, including out of school suspension rates nine times higher than a co-located school in the 2011-2012 school year.  The “secret sauce” at Success Academy’s setting of behavior for its students is not duplicating “the most gifted educator” Moskowitz has ever met – it is sending very young children home from school, sometimes until their parents give up and go away.

By the way, the out of school suspension rate for 2011-2012 at Upper West Success, a school where 29% of students qualify for free lunch and 10% for reduced price lunch?  5%.   Apparently suspension rates in the high 20s are a necessity for schools where 78% of the students are in or near poverty.

None of this is really surprising to those who have been paying attention over the years, but what is surprising is Moskowitz’s inability to resist mythologizing herself and her schools — when the people she is telling myths about are on record with the press and when the school’s use of heavy handed suspensions is not in dispute.  Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising.  Moskowitz provides a big and likely inadvertent insight into her thought process:

Some critics find our approach rigid and overbearing. I’ve got two of these critics in my own home: my kids, who attend Success. They complain when they get into trouble for not tracking the speaker. They were listening, they protest. Maybe so. But sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility.

“Daydreaming….and we can’t allow that possibility.”  Nobody denies that a well managed environment where students are attentive is a big part of successful teaching.  Nobody even denies that some teachers have an incredible capability for that and others can learn from them.  But at the point when your desire for order and control cannot allow the “possibility” that a very young child might occasionally daydream during a long school day, you are no longer practicing classroom management.

You are engaging in a pathology.

7 Comments

Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Data, teaching

Arming Teachers — Still a Bad Idea

It was never my intention to fold gun politics into this blog.  I prefer to keep my focus on issues directly related to schooling, school policy, and the politics of education.  Our nation’s seemingly intractable issue with gun violence in general and with mass shooting incidents in particular is an issue without direct connection to our schools except via tragedy.  The politics and policies involved with the issues are deeply complex with very hardline opponents on either side of the issue seemingly incapable to finding means of discussion with each other.  Pro-gun advocates in particular appear to have extremely well organized and highly influential lobbying groups that successfully prevent any action on new laws about guns, even ones that enjoy broad support among the American people, including gun owners.  To delve into the politics of guns in America would be to expand the scope and nature of my writing.

But then politicians seem intent to kick the issue right into my wheelhouse.

Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson responded to the recent mass shooting at an Oregon Community College by joining fellow front runner Donald Trump in saying teachers should be armed in our schools, even in Kindergarten.  Dr. Carson said, “If I had a little kid in kindergarten somewhere I would feel much more comfortable if I knew on that campus there was a police officer or somebody who was trained with a weapon.  If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t.”  Donald Trump also said, “Let me tell you, if you had a couple teachers with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.”  While Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump are regarded as buffoons by the media, they are not alone on this issue.  Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, spent a blessed few days after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut being quiet – before holding a press conference that called for more armed people within our schools.  Legislators across the nation have either proposed or passed laws allowing teachers with concealed or open carry permits to bring their guns with them to work, and by 2014, two dozen states had such laws, although it is currently impossible to know how many teachers are taking advantage of their legal ability to bring weapons with them.  The logic is that armed teachers will either deter violence or allow the school staff to stop a shooter themselves.

While I will concede that some states, especially our large, mostly rural, western states, have much deeper gun cultures than most and have an environment where the presence of weapons is normalized and largely safe, and while I will concede the emotional appeal of giving teachers options beyond lock down in an emergency, I also have to state that vastly increasing the number of armed people in our schools is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard.  I was tempted to post any number of comedic responses to Dr. Carson’s and Mr. Trump’s bloviations on the issue or any number of cartoons of Mr. LaPierre’s logical pretzel maneuvers.

But this isn’t funny.

While we do not apparently know how many teachers are going to school armed every day (and we can dismiss as logically fallacious the claims that Utah’s current lack of a mass school shooting recently is the result of the “bad guys” not knowing who is armed), we do know realities about schools, and some of those realities are not pretty.  I’m going to rely upon anecdote for this, but I believe it is illustrative – and important.

My 7th grade year was the year bullies ruled our junior high school.  It was the early 1980s, and, frankly, the teachers and administrators did a terrible job of taking control of our school’s culture back, and by “a terrible job” I mean they did practically nothing.  I was bullied pretty relentlessly that year, as were many others, but nobody was bullied as relentlessly and as brutally as one of our classmates who eventually took his own life – which, perversely, finally gave the bullies something to think about and finally led to at least some relief from the physical and emotional abuse.

Sadly, that did not apply to our teachers who were targeted by the school’s bullies as well.

My 7th grade social studies teacher was especially hard pressed.  He was not a bad person.  Under better circumstances, I believe he would have been a moderately forgettable teacher – not greatly skilled, but knowledgeable and able to create an organized curriculum.  But with my classmates, he was pushed to his limits.  The bullies in the class were resolutely non-cooperative and sought any available chance to interrupt him, mock him, or otherwise undermine him with the rest of the class.  They stole from his desk and briefcase.  He found rude messages on his chalkboard.  He persevered throughout the year, but he was simply pushed to his limits by students who did not care how many times they were sent to the office and who saw him as an easy victim to torment – even after that same behavior aimed at a classmate had resulted in tragedy.  Perhaps because he was an adult, they thought different rules applied to the lessons they supposedly had learned earlier.  At the end of the year, they pulled a serious prank in class — setting off a firecracker — and he lost his control.  A desk was flipped over and one of the bullies found himself violently pushed against the wall by our teacher.

I can think of no circumstance in which the presence of a gun would have made that day better — for either our teacher, the class as a whole, or the 13 year old bully who had finally gone too far.

And here’s the thing – there are tens of millions of students in this country, taught by millions of teachers in over 95,000 public schools across more than 16,000 school districts.  This is hard work, and despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers manage their classrooms very well, at any given time during the school year there are teachers who are being pushed to the limit of what they can manage. For some of them, that might be their daily reality, but for many of them it could simply be a matter of a very bad day or even a few student for whom they have not found a way to connect or who refuse to allow a connection.  Even if this problem only exists in one classroom every 1000 schools at any given moment, that leaves almost 100 classrooms across the country with an adult who is under serious duress.  Under normal circumstances, this can managed — perhaps some such teachers are not capable of classroom management and need to seek different work.  Perhaps some simply need a colleague to give them a 5 minute pause to regather themselves.  Perhaps some need better structural supports within their schools from colleagues, administrators, and families.  Perhaps the culture of the school needs adult and student leadership aimed at stopping bystander acquiescence in the presence of bullying.  There are many possible solutions and interventions.

A gun in the classroom is not one of them.  And although we do not know the number of teachers in the states that allow them to carry a gun to school do so routinely, if Mr LaPierre and certain legislators have their way, it is only a matter of time before a classroom gun tragedy does not come into school from the outside.  I do not mean that every teacher under extreme duress in the classroom is likely to turn into a shooter. But think about what we know about the presence of guns: more permissive gun laws are associated with higher per capita rates of deaths by guns; death by violence is more likely among adults who purchase guns; guns in the home are associated with a modestly increased risk of homicide and a greatly increased risk of suicide; the mere presence of a weapon can increase the aggressive behavior of others.  If we follow the advice of Mr. LaPierre and if we understand some of the high stress situations that are possible in school – well, it doesn’t take much imagination, does it?

Even in the hands of teachers who are in full control, the “more guns in school” argument is problematic.  We know that in active shooter situations, even highly trained police officers frequently have very high miss rates.  In 2005, New York City police officers were on target in 34% of all shootings — and in distances of zero to six feet, 43% of the time.  This isn’t because they are terrible shots, but because in a high stress situation, even highly trained people miss – a lot.

This is likely why the FBI provides advice for the general population on what to do in an “active shooter” situation, and the advice is to run, hide, and to fight as the absolutely last choice.  As both a father and as an educator, this is what I expect from my children’s teachers and from myself and my colleagues.  Tasked with caring for a classroom full of students, responsible action is to take them to safety or to make certain they are hidden from harm as best as possible.  Since teachers are in charge of many others and must keep control of them during an inherently chaotic and frightening situation, the chances of ever getting to the “fight” stage is likely vanishingly small. An adult with 25 Kindergarten kids under her protection has much more critical tasks in a crisis.

There are some extraordinary circumstances I am willing to entertain.  We have schools in rural areas that are very far from emergency help.  It could also be plausible for a weapon to be in school under extreme security that can only be accessed by a highly trained security officer.  But the immediate call for “more guns” in schools is a call for more problems and distracts us from debates we ought to be having.  We should discuss what levels of security are needed at school entrances and exits that still allow us to teach.  We should figure out the most effective actions school teachers and administrators can take in a crisis situation to protect the children in their care.

We also need to stop pivoting directly into the “mental illness is to blame” argument after every mass shooting event, and set aside the pipe dream that psychologists can easily sort out potential shooters from the population.  We need to have an honest conversation about the consequences of ready access to firearms, and what laws might be able to slow down or prevent some people’s ability to get a gun in the heat of anger.

And we need politics in this country that is not so craven as to actually ban the CDC from studying the causes and impacts of gun violence or to subsequently block legal funding for that purpose.  Gun violence and mass shooting events are problems that are almost unique to the United States compared to our peer democracies.  Suggesting that teachers should deter that violence from entering our schools by arming themselves and then doing what even trained police officers have trouble doing during shootings is not only absurd – it is abjectly dangerous.

4 Comments

Filed under classrooms, school violence, schools, teaching