Q&A

Chalkbeat CEO and author Elizabeth Green on teaching, the Common Core, and more

PHOTO: Daniel Deitch

What makes a great teacher — and how do you make a teacher great?

Those twin questions would seem to get to the heart of improving the nation’s schools and yet, as Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green found as a schools reporter, they rarely are raised in today’s big education debates.

That paradox drove Elizabeth on a six-year reporting quest (while she was also busy co-founding Chalkbeat) that took her from lab schools in Michigan to math classrooms in Japan to the elementary school where she was once taught. The result is her new book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone),” which comes out today.

Chalkbeat recently sat down with Elizabeth to ask how the stories she tells in her book connect to ones we cover and what, exactly, made her fifth-grade teacher so great.

Continue the conversation by joining the Chalkbeat Book Club on Facebook, where we’ll be discussing “Building a Better Teacher” for the next month.

Your book makes clear that the new Common Core standards — an ambitious reform enacted with minimal support for teachers — continue a long tradition of similar education overhauls. Is there any reason to think the outcome this time will be different?

One thing I learned in reporting that I found really fascinating were the ideas of David Cohen, the education historian. He essentially studies attempts to change teaching, and that is the equivalent of studying failed attempts to change teaching in this country, unfortunately.

He also started to compare this country to other countries. He found that countries that successfully changed teaching had this one important ingredient in common, which was coherence. In the US, there are 17 different layers, if not more, of people telling teachers what to do and what supports to help teachers do them. It’s no surprise teachers feel confused often and even under assault because they are being asked to do so many different things, none of which are the same.

David Cohen calls this a blizzard, and the response that’s most rational to this blizzard of incoherence, as one educator in my book, Lovely Billups, says, is the motto, “This too shall pass.” The question about the Common Core is: Shall this too pass?

You write about visiting primary schools in Japan. What were the main differences from American schools that you saw?

I think there are two key things that are different: One is that there’s a totally different organization of work for the teachers. Whereas American teachers spend 1,000-plus hours per year teaching, Japanese teachers only spend 600 hours per year teaching. The other 400 hours they can spend learning from each other.

The other difference is that they have that coherent system of one common set of things that they’re all doing. They have common standards, so they can have a common curriculum, common assessments, so they have the tools they need to do something exciting.

There is growing consensus that traditional education schools have not done a great job preparing teachers. Have you seen any promising developments in the way teachers are trained?

One thing I found fascinating in my reporting was that we do have a tradition in this country of teacher education that is focused on teaching as a craft. And that is the history of “normal schools,” where teachers would learn from master teachers. They would go to class in a lecture, then the next minute they would be sitting watching a lesson in progress.

I think where we went wrong was when the university system took over teacher training from normal schools. Some of the early pioneers of education as a field of study had absolutely no interest in teaching.

What I think is promising is that there is a growing group of teacher educators at the university level and at institutions that are disconnected from higher education that are trying to resuscitate that normal-school tradition, sometimes in very parallel ways.

Most of the teachers we cover get evaluated in one way or another. Can teacher-accountability systems actually help teachers improve?

One of the inspirations of this huge focus on teacher evaluation is a set of assumptions we make about why high-performing charter schools have succeeded. We look at [the national charter-school network] KIPP and their test-score results and we assume that the kids are succeeding because the teachers operate outside of a traditional labor structure: There’s no labor union, so KIPP can hire or fire whomever they please.

But they spend proportionately less money, resources, and time, on evaluation than states currently do. They focus a lot more on giving teachers the time to learn, mentors to help them learn, materials from which they can learn, and good curriculums they can use.

We know teachers work in all kinds of schools, including ones where many students are far behind academically. Does good teaching look the same regardless of the school or students?

I think a surprisingly debated question, even among people who have dedicated their careers to working with high-poverty communities, is: Sure, you might be able to have this incredible dialogue about math or literature or science or history in your nice suburban school where you don’t face the challenges we face, but we can’t do that here, that’s not possible.

That is a debate that’s going on right now about what kind of learning level really is possible in each type of environment. Is there a need for more order and less student voice in some environments?

Personally, I don’t want to think it’s not possible for all kids, and I’ve definitely seen it happen for all kids, but I think it is a debate that’s going on.

You’ve covered education for several years now, but you’ve never been a teacher. What qualifies you to write about teaching?

I thought a lot about whether I had the right to write about teaching, given that I’ve never taught myself. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who’s a teacher that’s probably lasted seven years. Her argument to me was always that somebody’s job needs to be to record what’s happening [inside schools], since teachers don’t have time to do that, and make sense of the big picture.

That’s why I ultimately decided I have the right to do this and all of us at Chalkbeat do. We come from a place of respect for this work, we know what we don’t know, and we’re here to learn.

Your book makes the point that good teachers are not born, they’re made. Considering that, what is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning?

I went back and I interviewed a lot of my own teachers for this book. One of them I spent extra time with was Lesley Wagner, my fifth-grade math teacher. She is remembered among my friends from elementary school as one of the greatest, best teachers we ever had.

She uses her Smart Board in the most brilliant way I’ve ever seen. Her smart board is like a Japanese blackboard, but better. The point of the blackboard in Japanese classrooms is that we should be able to have a trajectory for each lesson of the ideas that we’ve gone through, so students can look at not only at the specific thing we’re talking about right now, but they can connect back to where we came from that day.

Ms. Wagner does that with her Smart Board, basically a screen per day. But because it’s a Smart Board, she also has access to every other day, so if somebody references another day in the past, she just uses her Smart Board to go backwards in time and see what they were doing that day. I’m sure other teachers use it for that reason too, but I was just blown away.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Readers: What is one thing your favorite teacher did that other educators could benefit from learning? Share in a comment or tweet with #BABT.

Inside Chalkbeat

‘If they know we regularly care’: Our New York bureau and its newest reporter are listening up

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high-fives students at P.S. 78 on Staten Island as they leave after the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

A new name has been popping up at Chalkbeat as our organization continues to grow, and the byline belongs to Reema Amin.

This latest addition to the New York reporting team, which I began overseeing as bureau chief in September, was off to attend her first press conference — held by the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers union chief — before her first day on the job had ended.

She was instrumental to our reporting on the teachers contract, announced last week, and has already visited Albany, where she will be reporting occasionally on state education policy. Like all members of the New York bureau, she contributed this week to our joint reporting project with ProPublica, exploring whether counselors in New York City schools can really meet students’ needs, especially as student homelessness has reached an all-time high.

Chalkbeat reporter Reema Amin

And most recently, she looked at how a proposed rule change by the Department of Homeland Security could, if adopted, discourage immigrant families from applying for benefits, such as Medicaid, which in turn could threaten the financial viability of the city’s school-based health clinics.  

Reema grew up in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, and has worked as a breaking-news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She most recently covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press, a newspaper serving communities in the southeastern corner of the state, and co-hosted a politics podcast for the paper.

In Virginia, Reema had just begun covering a rural county when she happened to attend a school board meeting and noticed a distraught mother, whom no one was listening to. Reema did listen. Jessica Leitch had been struggling to get her autistic son the special education services he needed — and qualified for.

Parents like Leitch, Reema said, “keep meticulous records” — they must to advocate for their children. Using this paper trail to start her own investigation, Reema sought out other parents and made public records requests and soon was combing through hundreds of pages of documents to uncover how the district led the region in special education complaints.

One of Reema’s key strategies as a reporter, she says, is to keep in touch with as many different people — parents, teachers, students, education officials and policymakers — as possible on a daily basis. “If they know we regularly care,” she says, “they’re more likely to share” their own experiences and concerns, a philosophy Chalkbeat also embraces.

Reema is joining a veteran Chalkbeat news team in New York.

Reporter Christina Veiga, who joined the bureau in 2016 from the Miami Herald, where she worked for more than a half-dozen years covering city government and later the Miami-Dade Schools, has kept Chalkbeat readers apprised of the latest news about the schools chancellor, the debate over the admissions process to the city’s specialized high schools, and the unfolding push for greater integration in districts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.

Alex Zimmerman, who has written for the Village Voice, the Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among other publications, also joined Chalkbeat in 2016. He has reported on the specialized high school debate, on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal and community schools program, the largest of its kind in the country, and whether heavy investments in wraparound social services in schools can really move the needle on students’ academic achievement. He has also provided occasional dispatches from the city’s charter-school sector and explored the challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Our story editor, Carrie Melago, works with me editing stories and helping guide coverage (as well as serving as story editor for our Indiana bureau). Carrie previously honed her sharp news instincts as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.

My own interest in education began in New York and later Newark, cities where I taught taught for seven years. (I’m also the story editor for Chalkbeat’s Newark bureau.)  Inequities I witnessed as a teacher inspired me to write about these experiences, which in time led to my reporting on education for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Over these same years, the city’s schools — and education nationally — have experienced seismic shifts. In my first classroom in the 1990s, teachers still wrote with chalk, there was no school email or classroom computers. Now teachers can plan lessons — or marches — on Facebook; parents can vent about busing woes on Twitter, and students are regularly part of the online discussion. And some things we really wish had changed haven’t: rates of childhood poverty, homelessness and segregation.

In the New York bureau, we will be tackling some of these subjects anew or as part of our ongoing reporting. We will be making deliberate efforts to engage more with the communities we cover and to amplify their voices. Christina will be looking deeper into one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives — his push to rapidly expand early-childhood education. And building on Reema’s and Alex’s past reporting on students with disabilities, we will be taking a harder look at special education in the city. And as classrooms remain the heart of any school, we will be spending more time there. We want to hear from you –whether you are a teacher, a parent, a student, or those responsible for imagining and implementing education policy. Stay tuned for news of our first listening tour, where we come to you to hear your concerns and questions, so we can then go out and address them through our reporting.  

We welcome feedback — about the stories we’ve done, the stories we’re doing and those we’ve missed and should now pursue. You can always reach out to ny.tips@chalkbeat.org. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to one or all of our newsletters. We look forward to the continuing conversation.

Inside Chalkbeat

Meet the talented people who will help us push Chalkbeat into the future

As the new school year kicks off, we’re both looking forward and looking back.

This has been a significant year for us. We covered important stories, broke big news, and launched coverage in two new cities, Newark and Chicago. We also expanded our team. We’re now one of the country’s largest nonprofit newsrooms, and certainly one of the largest telling local stories — at a time when local coverage is shrinking across the country.

In the year ahead, we will continue to tell the story of education in America by investigating both local realities and the national trends that shape them. We kicked things off this summer with a listening tour (stay tuned for more of what we heard at those events). We’re also taking some big steps toward strengthening the other parts of our work. We’re going to further diversify our revenue so we can guarantee the very best and always entirely independent coverage of public schools for a long time to come. We’re going to invest in technology and design, to help us reach and engage more readers. And we’re going to chart a clear path for the significant growth we need to take on to step up to the challenges of the times.

To do that, we’ve brought on a new cohort of leaders in the news business. I am so thrilled to introduce Maria Archangelo, our new senior director of partnerships, who will lead the charge in diversifying and growing our revenue; Becca Aaronson, our new director of product, who will guide strategic investment in our core technology and internal capabilities; and Alison Go, who is working with us to design Chalkbeat’s growth plan.

We are also expanding our national team with the addition of Francisco Vara-Orta as a national reporter and data specialist for Chalkbeat. Francisco’s skills will give Chalkbeat the ability to more closely cover several organizations working to influence schools nationwide and enable us to better use data to find and tell stories in all of Chalkbeat’s bureaus.

 

Maria Archangelo

Photo: Alan Petersime

Maria comes to Chalkbeat after working as publisher and executive director of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a 24-year-old nonprofit education news organization. Most of her 30-year career has been spent in traditional media. She worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and an editor at the Sun’s community newspapers, and was editor of the daily newspaper in the capital of Vermont. Dismayed by the changes in the industry, Maria decided to devote herself to growing revenue for journalism and joined the business side. From 2006 to 2012 she served as publisher of the award-winning Stowe Reporter in Stowe, VT. She also helped lead an innovative international community magazine project and took a (brief) side trip into communications and marketing. She graduated from Temple University with bachelor of arts in journalism.

Becca Aaronson

Photo Alan Petersime

Before Chalkbeat, Becca spent nearly eight years at fellow nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune, where she was their first-ever product manager. She was responsible for creating and managing the Tribune’s product roadmap, leading their website redesign, conducting user research, and ensuring that technology products aligned with audience and brand strategy. Over the course of her Tribune tenure, she wore many hats, including softball coach of The Runoffs. She co-founded the Tribune’s data visuals team, where she designed, built, and managed several award-winning investigative projects. And while covering health care from 2012 to 2014, she gained 5,000 Twitter followers on the day she live-tweeted the Wendy Davis abortion filibuster. Becca has a bachelor’s degree in cultural theory from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif.

Alison Go

Alison is working on growth initiatives across various teams at Chalkbeat. Previously, she was a product manager at Facebook, Amazon (Audible), and Rent the Runway, and in a former life, she was a journalist at U.S. News & World Report (covering higher ed!), the Boston Globe, and the San Jose Mercury News. Alison received her MBA from Wharton and undergrad degree from the University of Michigan.

Francisco Vara-Orta

Francisco joins Chalkbeat in September as a national reporter and data specialist. He was previously at Education Week, where he covered philanthropy and parent engagement and managed data projects, and an open records researcher at Investigative Reporters and Editors. Before that, he reported for the San Antonio Express-News, Houston Chronicle, and the Austin Business Journal, among other news organizations. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in his hometown of San Antonio, and earned a master’s degree in data and investigative journalism from Mizzou as a Thurgood Marshall Fellow. Follow him @fvaraorta.