Significant Gains

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 05 2013


Today, I’m heading to the NYC Leadership Academy for a training about programming and scheduling. It’s good I’m going: I might be generating programs for 300 students next year and I’m certainly not prepared. It worries me, though. There’s a contradiction between my developing educational philosophy and my expected course of action. My school needs someone to do this job — and if it’s going to be me, I have to be trained and licensed for it. It’s part of why I’m applying for various administrative certification programs. But what does that say about how we’re addressing the problems of education? If I leave the classroom after only four years?

The term “principal” is meant to refer to the “principal teacher” — a master teacher with significant classroom experience, best able to support teachers and students to create successful classrooms of their own. In the post-NCLB, rapid-fire Race to the Top education reform climate of today, however, principals tend to be more like entrepreneurs: founding schools like businesses, encouraged to think of testing results as a product, competing with one another for funding and publicity.

What does this approach to education mean for students? How are they affected by having teachers and administrators of little experience and much ambition? While my school has had real success in terms of graduation rates and building a sustainable school culture, we’re still struggling to prepare students adequately for college. It’s reflected in their test scores and in the attrition rate: a number of students started college last fall, but aren’t going back this term.

I thought about that trend when I read the Schott Foundation’s report on education redlining in New York City from last April ( They frame their work with the idea of providing children with an “Opportunity to Learn”: ensuring equitable access to high-performance school environments, enrichment programs, etc. It’s desegregation 2.0.

In New York, the “Rotting Apple,” we’ve ended strictly zoning schools, but students still generally end up at schools close to where they live. The Schott report uses a data-based calculation to analyze accessibility to well-performing schools, based on an “Opportunity to Learn Index”:

“The Opportunity to Learn Index is calculated by sorting all New York City middle schools by their results on the New York State Grade 8 English Language Arts assessment. The schools are then divided into four groups by student scores, highest to lowest. The groups contain equal numbers of students. The percentage of students in the highest group in each Community School District tells us the opportunity that a student in that group has of studying in one of that district’s schools that rank among the city’s top quartile of schools.”

A number of districts (including 18, where our school is located) don’t have ANY such schools. Not a single school with test results ranking in the top quartile. Now, of course, there are many issues with testing in New York State, but as an indicator of an environment where the majority of students perform at or beyond grade level, it works. My students went to middle schools where the average performance on such assessments was consistently below grade level. Note: this does not mean my students are not at grade level. Instead, it means they were and are generally surrounded by students who are not. You can imagine what that might do to one’s ability to grow and develop. Or to a teacher’s approach to curriculum design and implementation. Education, in the form of collaborative classrooms, relies upon exchange and interaction with peers. We’re expecting students to learn from one another, but segregating them in ways that prevent them from experiencing a full spectrum of ideas, opinions, and experiences.

Teachers can and will secure results for students even in such an environment. But the teachers we expect to do this are overwhelmingly the least experienced and the most underpaid. This graphic was particularly telling:

In schools with the greatest percentage of students qualifying for Free & Reduced Lunch, teacher salaries are a lower percentage of the average across the city. In effect, there’s a disparity in per-student funding. According to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, there’s a difference of $8,222 in high school teacher salaries between schools with the highest and lowest Hispanic and African American enrollment in New York City. Our most experienced, best-paid educators congregate in schools with our whitest, richest population.

We have maybe five teachers on staff with more than five years of experience. Most entered teaching through non-traditional paths like Teach for America or Teaching Fellows. In New York State, alternative certification still requires a degree, but this means at least two years of teaching are spent while simultaneously training. No time is given to extensive student teaching under an experienced master teacher, instead we engage in on-the-job mentoring, which is often informal and sometimes non-existent.

Our students simply suffer through our growing pains. Will I be perpetuating this cycle if I make the leap to administrative work? Or do I accept that we have present, pressing needs that make my concerns about my own development irrelevant? My students deserve better than I can give them.

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