Based on length, I am now separating my TFA posts into three parts. As a result of a conversation I’m having on another blog, I’ve decided to address something in the interest of transparency. Class and ideological assumptions about who participates in TFA and why is a prickly thing for me. Once people hear that I’m a TFA alumna, many will start talking to me as if they know what type of family I grew up in, what schools I went to or what I think politically. So you don’t have to make any assumptions, here is what you need to know: I grew up in a working class family in a Massachusetts fishing town and graduated from a high school that lost its accreditation because our building didn’t have a proper gym or library, among other reasons. Both the valedictorian and I (3rd in my class) were lucky enough to go to Syracuse University based on generous scholarships. I’ll never be a graduate of an Ivy League school and after interviewing several of them for jobs over the years, I’ve become okay with that. Politically, I am all over the map, depending on the issue.
These next reflections on the Summit focus on what I’ve called Sticky Concerns because I think if they’re not addressed, they’re going to “stick” to Teach for America’s work to meet its goal that all children will have an excellent education. Ruben Brosbe on Gotham Schools also blogged about this yesterday. Everything that follows is based on my observations, and not any conversations I’ve had with people at TFA, official or unofficial.
So my Sticky Concerns…
Our Egypt Moment, Ed Reform Assumptions, and Unions
At the Summit, there was a theme that education should become our country’s “Egypt moment.” At first, I was taken aback by the connotations of that statement, but as I’ve reflected on it, I think it’s appropriate. Schools in all types of communities are struggling and something significant and urgent needs to happen. Like most taxpayers and Americans, I have become increasingly impatient.
I think that Teach for America has the right to assume that if you chose to attend the Summit, (1) you have bought into their vision that all students deserve and MUST have the opportunity to achieve academically (and economically as adults), and (2) that collectively, we can make a difference. However, I think it’s a big leap to believe we are all in agreement on what that path looks like and this is not an insignificant assumption to make. For that reason, I had issues with the morning panel on education reform. There were people on the panel that I respect individually, but I think that featuring them together collectively was a mistake for Teach for America, especially with no alternative perspectives in the group. The fact that 80% of the panel either lead non-unionized charter schools or recently led the only two major districts that didn’t participate in the US DOE’s federal conference on Advancing Student Achievement through Labor Management Collaboration sends a message about what you need to believe if you want to participate in this Egypt moment. Having Randi Weingarten on a panel by herself at the same time that Malcolm Gladwell and Gloria Steinem are speaking doesn’t cut it as portraying that your organization is open to multiple opinions.
Personally, my opinion on labor unions has always been complicated. Here is why:
• All four of my grandparents were union members. The three that worked for the federal and state government made important contributions to society, experienced great working conditions and retired with good pensions. My other grandmother worked her butt off for 40 years in sweatshop conditions as a member of the Ladies Garment Workers union (I speak about her on a video on my Facebook page) and died almost penniless because of a worthless pension.
• My dad has been a union member his entire life, mostly as shop steward, and is still active as a leader. I walked my first picket line at eight years old and helped mimeograph (yes, mimeograph) materials at the union hall for my dad’s meetings. I saw first hand how my dad helped countless people who were really screwed over due to no fault of their own.
• When I was a member of the UFT, my chapter leaders (I had three in two years) were so far up the principal or central UFT’s ass, they couldn’t be bothered with any new teacher concerns. I spent two years calling and writing letters about per-session work for which I was never compensated. I only got paid when after telling him I was giving up, my dad (unbeknownst to me) found the phone number of a high-ranking official at the UFT online and left a message for him using an AFSCME Executive Board title (a volunteer position). His message was returned in 24 hours and I had my check within ten days.
• As a manager for over ten years, I saw the UFT defend people who they knew didn’t deserve to be teaching. I saw them ignore the concerns of a new teacher (with high student test scores) who was run out out of her school by an incompetent principal. I’ve also seen them help good teachers who were really concerned about kids, but were terrorized by poor managers.
I bring all of those experiences with me and I can’t just let them go based on a fiery speech.
One of the speakers on the morning panel spoke about how policies like LIFO (laying off teachers in seniority order) treat teachers as if they were widgets. I agree, but that’s identifying a problem, and I want to hear a good solution. There is a vague proposal that principals should make layoff decisions because they know teachers better. I’ve worked with principals in NYC for years and have seen MANY of them do wacky things when it comes to hiring and working with teachers- not here and there, but as a matter of practice. Waiting for Superman didn’t talk about how principals impact our educational problems and it was a major omission.
I don’t support LIFO. But not being in favor of an existing law is not a policy solution. If we get rid of something, what are we substituting it with? For me, accepting that there will be some collateral damage for teachers and kids if principals don’t get layoffs right is a struggle I’m having a hard time overcoming. I know too many good new teachers who I personally recruited and think it would be a travesty if their students lost them, and I can’t stop thinking of a friend and good veteran teacher who had an extremely hard time transferring because countless principals balked at her salary. I am begging for someone to show me a real plan that will be fair to teachers and provide the best results for students. My concern is that we have too many people with opinions on both sides who turn passive-aggressive when it’s time to hammer out the details of how we’re really going to help kids and the people closest to them. This is not easy at all.
Finally, I am also worried about how this rhetoric plays with our current college students. The last few years, I ran a successful intern program at the NYCDOE. It was my great pride that almost every intern was inspired by his/her experience in public education and applied to Teach for America (most were accepted). This year, not one applied. When I asked them why, they said that they don’t want to join a profession that’s so “unstable.” I felt utterly startled by that statement because all we hear is how teachers have the most secure job in the world. But it’s not only my former interns. The National Association of College and Employers interviewed some of the best and brightest college students across majors about what they’re looking for in their first job and their priority is security. If the rhetoric about education continues this way, I’m afraid it’s going to be a distraction and prevent the smartest young people we graduate from considering teaching. That will have a very real impact on students.
Is there a middle road here or am I being delusional? What do you think we should do in the name of change that works?
As a PS, one of the best classes I ever took was The History of the Teaching Profession at New York University under Lynn Gordon. If you want to know more about why our teaching corps looks like it does and how unions have been innovative and improved educational outcomes, not just working conditions, I have a great reading list. I was annoyed by Waiting for Superman’s underwhelming summary of how teachers’ unions were started because the history is so rich. If you’re interested in this, email me.