career change

City's top TFA official says he's resigning to return to teaching

TFA New York Executive Director Jeff Li, who is leaving TFA to return to the classroom

New York’s Teach for America executive director has taken the term “lead by example” very literally.

Jeff Li announced last week that he is resigning from his top post at Teach For America after less than two years on the job and returning to the classroom as a teacher. The announcement comes just days before his organization is set to announce a campaign meant to encourage alumni to stay in the teaching profession, rather than leave for other professions.

“A funny thing happened along the way as our team thought through this campaign,” Li wrote in an email to TFA alumni teachers on Thursday. “As I personally thought more about teaching beyond two years, and all that can be accomplished by doing so, I became truly re-inspired myself.”

The program that TFA is launching is called “Teach Beyond 2,” a not-so-subtle reminder for its alumni that even though their TFA commitment is technically only two years long, they should consider teaching to be a longer-term pursuit.

More than 40 percent of all TFA corps members in New York City stop teaching once their two-year requirement is fulfilled — a number that is consistent with nationwide TFA studies and only slightly higher than the 50 percent three-year departure rate for all teachers in urban schools. TFA’s critics say the high attrition shows that teaching is merely a resume-builder for some young college graduates before they move onto graduate school programs or higher-paying jobs.

Li’s career path has actually gone in the opposite direction. At 27, he was a highly paid consultant on track to making partner when he decided to enter teaching through TFA in 2003. In 2008, Li won the U.S. Department of Education’s American Star of Teaching award for the achievement gains his students made. He taught math for six years at P.S. 69 in the South Bronx and KIPP AMP, where he was principal when teachers voted to unionize. (A year later, the teachers voted to leave the union again.)

Returning to teaching entails a pay cut, but Li said he has never put compensation first. “I strive not to make too many decisions based on that,” he said.

Instead, he said a love of teaching compelled him back into the classroom.

“I think it was over the last several weeks where it became a real decision for me,” Li said. “This is where my heart is and I just think it’s hugely important work and felt personally fulfilled by the work.”

Li said he didn’t have a new job lined up for the 2012-2013 school year. But finding one shouldn’t be hard, according to his old boss.

“Jeff is one of the more remarkable teachers that I’ve ever met,” said David Levin, co-founder and superintendent of KIPP. “To have him return to the classroom is not only great for his students and their families, but for all the other teachers who will get to learn from him.”

A copy of the email he sent to TFA New York alumni is below.

Hello Alumni Teachers,

I am excited to write to you today about an exciting campaign that we are launching, called “Teach Beyond Two,” to inspire and empower our corps members to consider teaching beyond their two-year commitment, as well as celebrate and acknowledge the impact of each of you – our alumni teachers.

Our first event will be held on Tuesday, February 14th at 6:00pm at Barnes and Noble (86th and Lexington) to hear the story of one 1990 alumna, Denise Janssen, who has been in the classroom for the past two decades.  Regardless of the length of your time in the classroom, Denise’s story is simply worth hearing.  For more information and to register for this event, CLICK HERE.

We at Teach For America talk a lot about the second part of our theory of change – our alumni movement – and often highlight the incredible things our alumni do both within the education sector and beyond, whether that is being a principal, a policy leader, an elected official, a legal advocate for children, or so many other roles. And each of those roles is vitally important to us reaching our collective vision of educational equity for every child in this country.  But we also want to make sure that we always take time to value the “teach” in Teach For America – and realize that at our core, the one thing that binds all Teach For America alumni is the experience of teaching.  And that those who choose to teach beyond their two-year commitments – as I and so many other alumni have done – continue to have an incredible impact within our movement.

So this year, for the first time in the New York region’s history, we are going to launch a campaign that hopes to capture this spirit.  Called “Teach Beyond Two,” we will pilot a series of opportunities that will highlight the value of our alumni who stay in the classroom, as well as inspire and empower our corps members to consider teaching beyond the two-year commitment.  This is not to say that we do not value other paths besides teaching – and of course each of our corps members will decide for themselves what paths they will eventually take – but we also want to make the powerful statement that we absolutely do value those who choose to teach, and that we think it’s an incredibly important one for our collective movement.

A funny thing happened along the way as our team thought through this campaign.  As I personally thought more about teaching beyond two years, and all that can be accomplished by doing so, I became truly re-inspired myself.  I thought back to my 6 years in the classroom, and just felt like though I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent as Executive Director, there was so much more for me to do in the classroom.  There was so much more learning to be done, so many more kids and families to get to know, more lessons to write, more copies to make, more papers to grade, more bathroom breaks to run, more hooks to create, and ultimately, more moments of pure joy to be had on the way toward kids truly changing the trajectory of their lives.

And so I have recently made a personal decision – I will be returning to the classroom this fall, to be a teacher again, to continue teaching beyond two.  I could not be more excited and humbled to teach alongside each one of you in the fall.

I hope you join us for this event on February 14th, and other upcoming events that we’ll be piloting.

Thanks for all you do with our kids every day.

Happy teaching.

Jeff

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.