First Person

New York

Why I’m Starting a School: The Personal Answer

I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience.  All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. I gave the first answer, the particular one about why Harvest Collegiate High School now, in a post last month. The second answer is more personal. I hated high school. Like many adolescents, I thought I knew better than my teachers and the school. To take one example of my frequent critiques, as a senior I wrote an op-ed in the school newspaper, of which I was the editor-in-chief, criticizing the staff of the school for being distant from their students, only focusing on their content and not the human beings in front of them. I made the radical suggestion that teachers who so choose should be able to go by their first name to signal to students that they were interested in a two-way relationship rather than to simply deliver information to them. My then-English teacher, in whom to this day I find a model of how not to teach, wrote a letter to the editor calling my views “naïve and didactic.” (In hindsight, she might have been right on the latter point.) Two years later, I took a philosophy of education course during my sophomore year at Brown University. There, we read Ted Sizer’s "Horace’s Compromise," in which Sizer argued that American high schools and their students had entered into a tacit agreement to let students get away with not thinking as long as they behaved. Reading about the composite Franklin High School and its English teacher Horace felt familiar. For me, Franklin was my high school, and Horace my favorite teacher there (it would turn out that teacher was a huge fan of Sizer’s work, and tried, but failed, to bring it to my high school because it was blocked by my hated senior English teacher). Sizer captured everything that I saw wrong, and more. And he imagined something better, which his Coalition of Essential Schools helped to bring into fruition in many cases. Here I was, a 20-year-old smartass who finds that not only were my views potentially not naïve and didactic, but that the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education agreed with him and had a solution. I was in.
New York

Why I’m Starting a School: The Particular Answer

I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience. All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. The first story is the particular one. The personal one and the political one will follow.   I left Bronx Lab School at the end of the 2010-2011 school year. After 13 interviews, half of which led to offers, I joined the Academy for Young Writers, and two months into the year, I was the happiest I had been professionally for a long while. In October, our principal told us the school was offered the chance to move from our crumbling Williamsburg building, which would see a new school added to it the following year, to a brand-new, state-of-the-art building. Not only that, the school would expand to be a 6-12 school, something long hoped for. The rub: The new school would be in East New York. While this would improve the commute for most of our students, it meant my 20-minute bike ride would turn into more than an hour commuting by subway and bus. I told my principal that if the school moved, I wouldn’t actively seek out a new job for the fall, but if the right opportunity fell into my lap, I wouldn’t hesitate to move on. In early January, a friend told me she knew someone great who had just been approved by the Department of Education to open a new school. When I emailed Kate Burch to find more about her school, I was skeptical. Having joined Bronx Lab in its second year and experienced the challenges of growing and sustaining a school, I swore I would only join a school in its infancy if the conditions were otherwise perfect. Yet Kate’s plan for Harvest Collegiate High School was perfect — and perfect for me.
New York

New Teacher Evaluation Systems Are Not Trustworthy Without Better Assessments

It seems that the biggest issue these days in education “reform” is the attempt to change how teachers are evaluated. Locally in New York, the state legislature passed a new evaluation system last year and the Board of Regents more recently released its guidelines for the implementation of that law, though much of the details remain to be negotiated between local districts and unions. Nationally, the Gates Foundation-funded Measure of Effective Teaching Project is starting to share some conclusions from the first two years of their study, and a recent report from the Center for Teaching Quality's New Millenium Initiative by a group of Denver teachers has garnered some positive attention in the blogosphere from Renee Moore, Ariel Sachs, Dan Brown, and others. Like nearly all issues in education, this one is complex. I have gotten to see just how complex it is from two vantage points within the NYC discourse: I have been working for the past semester to support the social studies teachers in NYC’s transformation schools who were subject to the pilot of new assessments that are to be part of the new teacher evaluation system. I am also on the UFT negotiating committee for the new system. Unfortunately, I am under non-disclosure obligations for both sides and can’t yet write from those experiences. I did, however, have the luck to be invited last night to participate in a webinar through the Teacher Leadership Network with a researcher from the Gates MET study, so I will use that study as a jumping off point for some comments. There is tremendous reason to be skeptical, if not downright resistant, to Gates money being used to support this study, as Joanne Barkan so brilliantly documented in Dissent Magazine. I’m willing to put that aside for the minute, to assume the best intentions of the researchers who are working on this and other projects. The basic logic of the MET project, as well as all efforts to measure teacher effectiveness, seems to be as follows “if we can identify what goes into good teaching, then we can a) replicate it through better teacher education and development and b) remove ineffective teachers that will be replaced with the better developed teachers we will then be able to create.” The less benign version of this argument, which is motivating the politicized teacher evaluation laws passed around the country, is that “we need to identify bad teachers so we can fire them and replace them with good ones.” Again, I’m willing here to deal with the better intentions of former, despite all the others on the bandwagon. The billion dollar question then becomes, what is “good teaching”? And unfortunately, this is the question I have seen dealt with in far too simplistic ways, if at all.
New York

Why I’m Marching

At the end of this month, I’ll be joining thousands of other teachers for the Save Our Schools March in Washington. People will march for lots of reasons, and you can read some great ones here, here, and here. I am going to do something I don't usually do with this piece, and make a rather conservative argument: I’m marching because I don’t have the answer. I just finished up five and half years of teaching in the Bronx. I joined a school filled with some of the smartest and most thoughtful people I have encountered in the field of education. We were given a blank canvas on which to envision an ideal school. We did a lot of impressive sounding things, many of which worked, others of which failed miserably. Whether or not the school is a success or failure, of course, depends on one’s stance and perception. There were many teachers who felt like the early success of the school were ones only of appearances, where good press and high graduation rates hid a number of foundational problems. But for others (including myself for a long time, though less so recently) we were doing something wonderful in the service of our students. I may never relive the sense of possibility and efficacy I felt a few years ago, but it was recently captured perfectly by one of my colleagues. Both views are simultaneously true. Regardless of where one stands on the value of my former school, there is not one person who thought our work was done. I left a school with many problems, some of them structural, others created by the mismanagement of the NYC DOE; some of them created by decisions I made, and others from my colleagues and administrators. The problems, like every single one of the 474 students the school serves, are immensely complex. So too will be their solutions. And this is why I’ll join with thousands of others to march.
New York

Remembering Manning Marable

The scholarly world was shocked earlier this month by the death of Manning Marable, a mere three days before his life's work was to finally come out. Others have done a far better job than I ever could of explaining Dr. Marable's importance as a scholar, activist, and teacher. My hope here is to recount just a little bit of the effect he had on me as my teacher and mentor. More of these stories can be read here. There have been a number of times in my life where I felt like a fraud. Quite frequently, I wonder if everything that feels like success in my classroom are mere surface victories, hiding more fatal failures beneath them. But never have I felt like more of a fraud than when I began my master's degree studies at IRAAS: the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. There were maybe seven of us starting the program together in the fall of 2005 when all the professors came out to greet us at our first meeting. Each was introduced in turn by Dr. Steven Gregory, the graduate student adviser. The final introduction was of the man sitting in the corner. All the other students seemed star-struck by him, and I looked forward to finding out who he was. But Dr. Gregory merely pointed to him and said, "And of course, he needs no introduction." Too embarrassed to ask, I had to wait until I got home that night to find out that the man was Manning Marable, and that I had no idea who he was. Throughout the year, I would learn that I had been welcomed into the presence of one of the most important historians of the black experience in the United States, and undoubtedly one of the top three black historians in the country. But moreover, Dr. Marable was a man deeply rooted in the community and its history, counting amongst his friends not only scholars like Cornell West and Eric Foner, but also activists like Amiri Baraka and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers. I knew I was lucky to have ended up at IRAAS (and it would turn out to be one of the most important experiences in my life). But as a white boy from Ohio entering a Black Studies program in Harlem, I felt a tad out of place at first, and the fact that I didn't even know the giant of the field made me feel completely unworthy.
New York

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

This post is just one of many being published today as part of the #EDUSolidarity project, of which I am an organizer. After you have read this, please take some time to read the wide variety of posts that will be added during the day at EDUSolidarity.us. Right around the time I was elected as my school’s UFT Chapter Leader, my school hired a new principal.  He had taught history for 12 years and is married to an English teacher. He had spent the preceding year at my school as a principal intern, during which I came to know and respect him as a person and educator. When we sat down for our first formal meeting as principal and chapter leader-elects, the first thing he said was, “Steve, you’re a great teacher. So why would you want to be chapter leader?” I have heard this question too many times.  It assumes the stereotype of the teachers union as home to the despondent, bitter, lazy, kid-haters who teach to get summers off. And I must admit, I was guilty of holding this prejudice to some degree when I became chapter leader.  While I, of course, wanted to take on the role to ensure the fair treatment of teachers at my school, a large part of my motivation was to slowly work to gain a voice within the UFT, so that a good teacher like me could displace an old and bitter one, in the hope that others would follow.  However, what I have discovered in my interactions with people within the UFT and at the various meetings I attend is exactly what is true of teachers I have met in my career: The overwhelming majority of people who step foot into a classroom want nothing more than to do right by their kids. Now, there is certainly disagreement on how to do this. I know people who are great, award-winning teachers who have radically different pedagogical styles than I do. They might even do some things that I would counsel the teachers I mentor against doing. But different teaching styles are necessary, as they reach different students.  I would never want every teacher in the world to be exactly like me. The same is true when it comes to educational policy. I only agree with the educational policies of the UFT slightly more often than I agree with the policies of the New York City Department of Education. I wouldn’t trust either to run schools without the checks and balances the other provides. There are times when change is a good thing, and sometimes that needs to be enforced from on high. There are also times when these “new ideas” are ridiculous and need to be stopped. There is a need for meaningful accountability for teachers. There are also times when the system acts out of expediency rather than in the best interest of students, and the union needs to be there to speak up for our students. The area that the union is almost always right about, though, is insisting that teachers be treated as professionals.