First Person

Garrulous Mr. Gates

It’s been a busy week for Bill Gates. While the NEA featured brilliant Diane Ravitch as its most prominent guest, AFT President Randi Weingarten and company chose Gates, who’s done many remarkable things.

I’m not an education expert like Gates, so I’ll comment only on a TED talk he gave last year that’s available online. My experience is limited to teaching 25 years in New York City. Still, several of Gates’ comments did not sit well with me.

How does that [KIPP charter school] compare to a normal school? Well, in a normal school teachers aren’t told how good they are. The data isn’t gathered. In the teacher’s contract, it will limit the number of times the principal can come into the classroom — sometimes to once per year. And they need advanced notice to do that.

My principal can and does visit my classroom whenever he golly goshdarn feels like it. He offers no advanced notice, and walks around the building visiting my colleagues in exactly the same fashion. Gates’s version of what happens in a “normal school” sounds more like a crass stereotype than any contract I’ve ever heard of.

So imagine running a factory where you’ve got these workers, some of them just making crap and the management is told, “Hey, you can only come down here once a year, but you need to let us know, because we might actually fool you, and try and do a good job in that one brief moment.”

I’m having trouble imagining a teacher who lights up only once every year. If you can’t teach, you don’t give a sterling lesson on command. If you hate kids, you don’t instantly learn to love them when the principal walks in.

Gates claims a top quartile teacher will increase the test scores of students by over 10 percent in a single year. Thus, he reasons, if all students had this teacher, we’d be doing fabulously. I don’t know if I’m in the top quartile, but I raise scores when I have to. Yet when I do, I’m not as effective a teacher.

I try to inspire kids. I try to trick them, for example, into loving any book I teach, with high hopes they’ll love not only that book, but another, and then another. Will those kids get higher test scores? Maybe. But isn’t it possible a love of reading might pay off in some as-yet undetermined future? Isn’t it possible they might make career choices, pivotal decisions, based on something gleaned in my classroom?

Gates suggests teachers lack motivation, perhaps because we’re not getting merit pay, or because too few administrators tell us how wonderful we are. Why, then, do we write glowing recommendations for kids, pushing for them to be admitted to universities, special programs, or new careers?

Teachers have intrinsic motivation Gates can neither measure nor (apparently) conceive of.  I appreciate money, and I’ll say thanks to praise from almost anyone. But I especially treasure it from kids. Last month I told my class I’d miss them. They shouted, “We’ll miss you too!” They asked me if I’d teach them next year. I was honored, far more than by anything Gates could do or say.

But Gates proves things with charts, one of which says:

Once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not improve thereafter.

That’s preposterous. Many societies value wisdom and experience, but if they don’t drive test scores, Gates’s charts are unaffected.

But charts don’t face 34 teenagers at a time. I do. You never know what can, what will happen next. Live kids do unimaginable things, things that constantly perplexed me in year three. Even now, I steal any trick, any tip, anything from anyone if it sounds practical.  My bag of tricks is considerably larger now than it was 22 years ago, and I learn new things every day.

Says Gates’s chart:

A master’s degree doesn’t raise scores.

But if I hadn’t studied bilingualism, language acquisition, and the structures of English (that we all know instinctively but have likely as not never thought about), I’d be unqualified to teach ESL. I’d also never have passed the grueling Board of Examiners test the city required back in the day.

For my kid (and yours), I want a teacher with the deepest possible subject knowledge. Teachers compete with cell phones, iPods, and Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 (on which teenagers play some of the most sordid and vulgar war games I’ve ever seen), and need all the help they can get.

Maybe you don’t need a master’s to move kids from 55 on one test to 65 on the next test. A more worthy challenge is developing a kid who derives joy from class, one who eagerly participates and will continue studying it even when force is not involved. I will give that kid a better grade than test scores indicate, even if charts disapprove.

Anybody who has access to a DVD player could have the very best teachers.

That’s because he wants to film what he considers to be good teachers, and amass a video library. But doing that would mean only that anyone with a DVD player would be able to watch the best teachers.

There’d be no interaction, and certainly no assessment of the kid’s work by these best teachers. It’s not the same as having someone in your face. Gates seems to know that when it suits his purposes. When he describes his experiences at KIPP, he becomes giddy with excitement:

The teacher was running around, and the energy level is high … and the teacher was constantly scanning to see which kids weren’t paying attention, which kids were bored and calling on kids rapidly, putting things up on the board …

… keeping people engaged and setting the tone that everyone in the classroom needs to pay attention.

Here, I agree with Gates. But in my school, these things happen every day. And of course everyone needs to pay attention. Were someone to make a statement like that to my 14-year-old, it would merit an unhesitating, “Well, DUH!”

96 percent of KIPP’s high school graduates go to four year colleges.

That may be true. Or it may not. KIPP hasn’t been around that long, and mostly runs junior high schools, so KIPP students in college represent a very small sample. More to the point, the 96 percent figure, if true on any level, doesn’t include kids who don’t finish the program — which at some schools could run to more than half. Who teaches the kids who fail KIPP, and who does Gates blame for that? (I’m thinking me.)

Why not give the high schools the kids attend after KIPP some credit? Are they the “normal” public schools, the schools in which Gates claims administrators are contractually forbidden to observe teachers? Maybe Gates should sponsor that contract.

Charts don’t show underlying problems with poor performers. What if the kid has interrupted formal education, shuffled back and forth from one country to another, and by high school cannot read or write? What if there is abuse, neglect, or who knows what waiting for the kid at home? Gates seems to think if only we could raise that kid’s test score by 10 percent, all would be well.

Gates’s employees can’t be bothered with rudimentary fact-checking, nor can American print reporters. They’re all too busy fawning over him.

It broke my heart to see 3,400 teachers in Seattle doing precisely the same thing.

Thanks to Caroline Grannan for her sage counsel and invaluable advice.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.

First Person

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, 8 essays from educators who raised their voices this year

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

Teachers are often on the front lines of national conversations, kickstarting discussions that their students or communities need to have.

They also add their own voices to debates that would be less meaningful without them.

This year, as we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing some of the educator perspectives that we’ve published in our First Person section over the last year. Many thanks to the teachers who raised their voices in these essays. Want to help us elevate the voices of even more educators? Make a donation in support of our nonprofit journalism and you’ll have the option to honor an important educator in your life.

If you’d like to contribute your own personal essay to Chalkbeat, please email us at

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

After racial violence erupted in Virginia last year, New York City teacher Vivett Dukes called on teachers to engage students in honest conversations about racism.

“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away.”

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

Too often teachers are blamed for bad curriculum, writes Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. And that needs to stop.

“It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human, and teaching is both creative and artistic, would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power.”

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

Two of Ilona Nanay’s best students started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. But their educational careers came to an end after graduation because both were undocumented and couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.

“By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. In this essay she shares what it’s like knowing that you could be the only thing between a mass shooter and a group of students.

“The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills.”

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives.

Alex McNaughton teaches a human geography course in Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, he decided to move up a lesson about how urbanization can exacerbate flooding.

“Teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.”

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers. In this story, he shares how he got one of his favorite pranksters, Chris, to go through a day without interrupting class.

“Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, ‘I see you,’ ‘I care about you,’ ‘I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.’”

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

Being a black educator can be isolating, writes William Anderson, a Denver teacher. He argues that a more supportive environment for black educators could help cities like Denver improve the lives of black students.

“Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.”

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

For years, Memphis teacher Carl Schneider walked his students home to a nearby apartment complex. Then a photograph of him performing this daily ritual caught the attention of the national media. In this essay, Schneider reminds readers that he shouldn’t be the focus — the challenges his students face should. His call to action:

“Educate yourself about the ways systemic racism creates vastly different Americas.”


Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.