Teach For America’s Biggest Cheerleader Speaks

Wardynski

In a move that is somewhat out of character, Dr. Wardynski offered an interview to the editor of Rocket City Mom yesterday in the third article of a series concerning the reasons for and role that Teach for America will play in Huntsville City Schools beginning later this year. If you haven’t already read the article, please take a few moments to go read the entire series.

The discussion began with a posting by Dr. Jason O’Brien on January 17th entitled, “Teach For America Explained.” Dr. O’Brien is a teacher and the father of five kids in Huntsville City Schools. He makes an effective argument that TFA is based upon a fallacious argument that “anyone can teach.”

Such a suggestion is as wrong as it is offensive. Just as some individuals are particularly gifted writers, artists, designers, doctors, lawyers, military leaders and ministers, some individuals are particularly gifted teachers.

The central issue facing student achievement is not that they don’t have the right technology, home life, or even clothes (as much as my daughter would disagree), the central issue facing achievement is student motivation.

Good students are motivated students. Weak students aren’t.

And time and again, we have learned that the single best way to improve student motivation is through direct, personal interaction with a teacher who is committed to connecting to a child and pulling them, kicking and screaming if necessary, into a world that stimulates and captures their interest. In short, a child who wants to learn will do so regardless of the obstacles that stand in that child’s way. A child who doesn’t can rarely be taught anything regardless of how excellent their technology or building is. (An excellent technology blogger, Bob Cringely, is writing about this very point in connection to technology right now. Go take a look at his argument.)

And so finding, keeping and rewarding teachers who have the experience to understand that finding a way to motivate a child to learn is the first and most difficult step of education is central to improving student achievement.

But as any parent, and in particular a SPED parent can tell you, motivating students to learn is often the single most difficult job on the planet. The fact that anyone manages to consistently find ways to motivate and encourage curiosity is clearly miraculous, and it should be celebrated as such. Finding, developing and implementing motivational techniques requires time and experience.

Dr. Wardynski ignores this truth in his support of hiring TFA in the article entitled, “TFA: Dr. Wardynski Responds.”

Since he was kind enough to offer his responses to the Editor’s questions, I would also like to offer a rebuttal to some of his more egregious claims.

Dr. Wardynski wrote:

We will be using Teach for America to address the problem of persistent low performance in several schools with high rates of poverty. Within the Huntsville system we have such schools that have been in school improvement for up to seven years. Traditional approaches to raising achievement in these schools have not worked and other approaches are required. In addition to low performance, these schools are characterized by high teacher turnover.

It certainly appears to be true that there is an “achievement gap” in Huntsville City Schools and that gap absolutely must be addressed, but once again, Dr. Wardynski is laying out ideas, hinting at reports and statistics without offering any direct evidence. Were he a student in my English 101 class, I would send his argument back to him with the suggestion that he offer specific evidence. Show us, Dr. Wardynski, exactly how bad the “persistent low performance” is and has been. Perhaps he was referring to a 2010 report in the Huntsville Timesthat stated that thirteen Huntsville schools were “persistently low-achieving.”

But who knows.

He offers no evidence supporting his claim that “traditional approaches to raising achievement in these schools have not worked” either. What does he consider a “traditional approach?” When were these approaches tried? How effective were these approaches? If they failed, why did they fail? All of these are questions that should be considered and answered before making a decision to move in a radical new direction, shouldn’t they? Especially if the goal is indeed to address the achievement gap?

It’s hard to make informed decisions when the top educator of the city refuses to take opportunities to teach and support his case. (Refusing to support your claims with data is however a common characteristic of the Broad Foundation’s disciples.)

But setting that aside for a moment, let’s consider his claim that using untrained, uncertified, TFAers (80% of whom will be gone after the third year, I doubt that these “persistent[ly] low performing” have a turnover rate that high), will actually close the achievement gap. Somehow that seems to shout in the face of logic, doesn’t it? What it really means is that Huntsville City Schools will spend at least 1.9 million dollars over the next five years to help an organization whose own tax returns from 2010 show that they have over $309,115,182.00 in NET assets.

Perhaps instead of sending $1.9 million out of city and state, we would be better served using some of these funds to address the “high teacher turnover” rate at these schools?

I’m certain that we will find that the “traditional approaches” he claims have failed do not include offering a financial incentive, or additional costly professional development to the teachers who are already teaching at these “persistent[ly] low performing” schools. Anyone willing to offer me odds on that one?

Last year Teach for America received over 48,000 applications for 5,200 teaching positions. This level of selectivity is without peer and brings unparalleled levels of talent to schools for which we have traditionally seen very few applications.

Once again, our top educator has failed to offer any evidence supporting his claim that the “persistent[ly] low performing” schools do indeed receive “very few applications.”

Where’s the evidence of this? I know that it’s considered to be conventional wisdom that this is true, but we’re dealing with our students’ lives here. Give us something to base these decisions on other than conventional wisdom. Show us the actual numbers. Show us the “traditional approaches” that have failed. Surely this information is sitting in a folder on Dr. Wardynski’s desk. Publish it. Prove it to us.

Furthermore, what exactly is the TFA measure of this “talent?” Is this based on GPA’s? Communication skills? Connectedness of their parents? Since TFA refuses to share their selection criteria with the public(gosh, I wonder where they learned that?learned that), it is impossible to assess or evaluate the actual level of this “unparalleled” talent by any objective standard.

How helpful are good grades in engineering classes when attempting to teach an unmotivated student to read? Last time I checked, the basic skills required to instruct and motivate a student to read were not standard curricula in those classes.

But, now we move on to a BIG claim.

Beyond being highly selective, Teach for America provides initial and ongoing professional development to new teachers focused upon the challenges of teaching in high poverty schools – a focus not found within traditional teacher preparation programs.

You’ll have to forgive Dr. Wardynski for this one. His lack of time in Alabama and lack of experience in education has meant that he likely is unaware that this statement just simply isn’t true. He claims that “traditional teacher preparation programs” don’t train their students for the challenges of teaching in high poverty schools.

The truth is that they certainly can, do and will if they are asked. You see, unlike TFA which charges extra for their “training,” traditional teacher preparation programs at the “teacher colleges” that Wardynski is so quick to dismiss actually provide the following Teacher Warranty:

Teacher warranty. According to regulations mandated by the Alabama State Board of Education, the College of Education ensures that “a candidate’s competency to begin his or her professional role in schools is assessed prior to completion of the program and/or recommendation for certification” and establishes, publishes, and implements “policies to guarantee the success of individuals who complete its approved programs and are employed in their area(s) of specialization.” The College of Education provides “remediation at no cost to such individuals who are recommended . . . and are deemed to be unsatisfactory based on performance evaluations established by the State Board of Education and within two years after program completion.” (University of Alabama 2010-2012 Undergraduate Catalog)

In other words, these “traditional teacher” colleges and universities actually provide a three year warranty for the teachers they produce. If within three years of graduation, a candidate’s competency to serve his or her school’s particular needs is questioned due to a need for additional training, such as how to teach in high poverty schools, the “traditional teacher” colleges and universities here in Alabama will provide that training “at no cost to such individuals who are recommended.”

Traditional teachers come with a warranty, cost less, and have full certification. And yet, Dr. Wardynski is unaware of this. Perhaps this will help him in the future.

He continues to press his point.

Within Alabama there are several routes to teacher certification ranging from traditional teacher preparation programs to the Troops to Teachers program. These alternatives are designed to bring talented individuals into K-12 education to meet the varied needs of students.

Under alternative certification programs, candidates are usually required to successfully complete a 16 week, split placement internship. Under the tutelage of experienced mentor teachers (and university supervisors who teach pedagogy), student teachers learn the “craft” of teaching. When newly hired teachers enter the classroom without this experience, they end up “learning on the job.” For a detailed description of this, please see Dr. Veltri’s book, “Learning On Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher” which details the struggles of TFA participants who consistently report feeling “overwhelmed” and “underprepared” for their initial classroom experiences.

As Dr. Veltri concludes:

I wondered, “Who’s America is Teach for America really teaching for? Why is it tolerable for education to be less than for other people’s kids? And, what are we, as a nation, really prepared to do about it?

I have asked Dr. Robinson for a specific detailed listing of which schools the TFAers are going to be placed. The contract calls for their placement to be restricted to schools where at least “70% of attending students are eligible for free or reduced lunch unless mutually agreed upon by School District and Teach for America,” but the discussion that Dr. Wardynski has had with Rocket City Mom implies that the placement of these teachers could be much broader than anticipated. Dr. Robinson, for example, told me November 3rd that all of the TFAers were going to be placed at “secondary schools.”

It seems that I must have misheard her because when I asked why TFA were now going to be placed at elementary schools she responded:

A small number of the TFA teachers will go in elementary schools. The vast majority will go to middle and high schools. That’s always been the plan. (February 2, 2012)

I apologize for my misunderstanding. I suppose that I merely assumed that when Dr. Robinson was critiquing the Heilig and Jez study as having focused on elementary eduction, and that our TFAers were going to be placed at the “secondary” level that she meant that there wouldn’t be any TFAers in the elementary schools.

Unfortunately, Dr. Robinson hasn’t responded yet to my request for a listing of the schools where TFAers will be used. Since these candidates are so excellent, I have to wonder why they aren’t being placed at every school in the system and why Dr. Robinson and Dr. Wardynski aren’t screaming from the rooftops the names of the lucky schools selected to participate.

Wardynski continues:

We will measure the results obtained by Teach for America teachers and teachers from traditional programs. We will make future teacher selections decisions with these results in view. We are not wedded to specific teacher programs or certification pathways.

This is excellent news. Well, except that Dr. Wardynski has demonstrated a stubborn refusal to actually produce one scintilla of actual evidence supporting his claims so far. I’m sure, however, that a Broad Foundation trained superintendent, evaluating a Broad Foundation teacher training program will be completely objective in his evaluation.

For example, many of our high poverty schools already see 200 to 300 percent higher turnover than other schools. By using our Teach for America teachers in teams and by supporting their development in the education profession we anticipate reducing turnover in our high poverty schools.

Higher than average turnover in “persistent[ly] low performing” schools is a problem nationwide. It is still a problem in areas where TFAers have been placed because, as cited above, TFA does nothing but perpetuate the problem of rapid turnover.

Wardynski wraps up:

We seek to hire highly talented staff who can deliver results in the form of raising student achievement. Teach for America has a track record of delivering such teachers.

Actually, as has been demonstrated time after time after time, TFAers do not out perform traditionally trained teachers. They, in particular, cannot compete with experienced teachers in raising student achievement.

In conclusion, this push to replace traditionally trained teachers who are certified, warrantied, and experienced has little to nothing to do with a desire on Dr. Wardynski’s part to “raise student achievement.” It is, instead, a desire to control a school system from top to bottom and to remake it into the Broad Foundation’s image regardless of the studies that show it won’t work, regardless of the cries from teachers and administrators who have been begging for the resources and support to effect change at our struggling schools, and regardless of the parents who are concerned that their children are being used a pawns in a national game.

This is about control, pure and simple. And unfortunately for us, our elected representatives are falling over themselves to let him take over and take our limited funds out of our schools and into the coffers of a multi-million dollar corporation that has a history of ignoring the public’s calls for transparency.

Our city deserves better. Our schools, administrators, and teachers deserve better. And by god our kids absolutely do.

 
Russell
"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.

9 Comments

  1. So, let’s see.

    1. TFA receives “48,000 applications for 5,200 teaching positions.”
    What does this mean? Surely there are more than 5,200 open teaching positions in the US. The Bureau of Labor statistics are that there were 3,476,200 K-12 teachers in 2008 and projects there will be employment for 3,944,900 in 2018. So that must mean the 5,200 are what? — number of positions TFA has contracted to fill, I guess.

    2. TFA has “$309,115,182.00 in NET assets.” If TFA were dedicated to saving America’s youth through its program, maybe it could lower its contract price and train more teacher without its investors suffering too greatly. What I really don’t understand is how TFA can be an AmeriCorps program — a non-profit that also includes VISTA [historically the domestic version of the Peace Corps] — and charge what it does for placements and have the net assets it does.

    And those 48,000 applications? I always have to laugh when I see that. Of course they are flooded with applicants. But they aren’t engineering majors. They are liberal arts majors who borrowed tens of thousands of dollars, didn’t get a scholarship for graduate study or didn’t get into law or med school and can’t quite face borrowing still more money for another degree that still won’t get them a callback from any one of the zillions of places they’ve sent resumes. Duh.

  2. As usual you write better rebuttals than I could ever write. I’ve been working on one of my own. But let me make a few additional points if I may.

    Dr.W claims title one schools have “200 or 300 percent higher turn over than other schools.” This may be true. But as with all things, he needs to be a bit more transparent in how he arrived at these numbers. Does turn over include teachers who were fired, RIFed, or Otherwise left the system or school not by their own choice? Or does it include retirement, which may point to an older population at those schools. What exactly is the turnover from? If by turnover it is meant willingly leaving, then we may have an issue of small numbers working here. If most schools average one or two who leave, then four at a title one school is 200% more, but still not a huge problem. As you eloquently pointed out, he loves to throw something out without backing it up or explaining what it means.

    I’d also like to know what resources HCS provided current teachers in low performing schools. If turn over is such a problem, what has been done to mitigate it? What professional development has been arranged for existing teachers that is specifically targeted toward their under performing students? I happen to know that the current model of development is to send a single teacher off for training and have that teacher share the knowledge with teammates. You’d think Dr.W would be a big fan of this method, since he comes from a background of weekend seminars.

    He also mentioned in his interview that the state of Tennessee did a study and Teach for America – Memphis and Teach for America – Nashville both did very well. Of course he didn’t provide information about where that study actually might be found. I took the time to look and found the Tennessee Teaching Program Scorecard, and it paints a significantly less rosey picture than I expected from his words. While true that TFA-Memphis did well in some categories, they performed average in Math. But the far more telling figure was the turn over rate. I’ve seen the number of 80% in three years, but according to the score card the number coming back for their fourth year is truly awful, and the worst of any other program I could find. In four years, the return rate drops to under 9%. That just over 91% of TFA teachers will have to be replaced every four years.

    Why would Dr.W go for such a plan? Perhaps it is because of the over 95% return rate in year two. Of course the “teachers” have a serious financial motivation to return. So Dr.W gets to bolster the turn over rate for two years in these schools. And as we’ve seen in the past with other Broad Supers, he might not be here by the time these TFA people bail out on our kids.

    1. That brings up a really important question. Why are our economically disadvantaged students the ones we are experimenting on? Since hiring and placement are now in the hands of the district office, shouldn’t we transfer high performing teachers to low performing schools and put TFA teachers in successful schools? Then, if we see gains on those already succeeding, and no gains with high performing teachers in low performing schools, move the experimental, short term teachers to the low performing schools? It just doesn’t seem right to use the poor to experiment on.

  3. Fortunately charter schools are illegal in alabama. Unfortunately legislators are trying to change that.

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