Significant Gains

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 25 2013

The Right to Serve

My first year teaching, I counted many more failures than successes. The one story I clung to was when I helped a student gain admission to a summer robotics program at the Cooper Union. He was interested in engineering and I knew full well that the science education I was giving him was poor preparation, so I guided him through applications for summer enrichment programs. The Cooper Union gave him a stipend, a MetroCard, and the chance to work with a research team at the school. It was the college’s model in miniature: providing high quality education to the city’s most determined and under served young people.

That was four years back. My former student is at Penn State now and has traded engineering for film studies, so perhaps my efforts were ineffectual. Meanwhile, Cooper Union, for the first time in its history, will be charging its undergraduates tuition. It’s a radical departure from Peter Cooper’s vision for the institution he founded. Rina Goldfield, who graduated from the School of Art in 2010, wrote this pretty heartbreaking piece about it all here. She connects the changes to the “bigger trend of transferring liability from those at the top to those at the bottom.”

What interests me, as a teacher, is the reciprocal of this transfer: the way in which ownership or influence within schools is being shifted from communities to individuals. While undergraduates at the Cooper Union are forced to make up losses to the school’s endowment, public schools across the city are adopting policies dictated by private philanthropists.

We were given incentives to do so. Indeed, when it came to the new teacher evaluations, we had no other option. In May of 2010, the state approved an amendment to Educational Law 3012-c, requiring 20-40% of the evaluation of teachers and principals to be based on assessments of students. In doing so, the state secured funds from Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. The amendment also required new teacher evaluations. Due to blocks by the UFT, New York City delayed the onset of a new evaluation system for about two years, but starting in June, schools will be using a new rubric: Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. You can see more about NYC’s transition here and read a letter from dissenting principals here.

In my experience, the Danielson Framework provides a helpful language and context for development. It’s expansive without being unwieldy, specific without being overly narrow. I think it misses many of the socio-emotional demands of our work, but summarizes pedagogical practices pretty well. I have some concerns about its use as an evaluative tool, fearing that administrators will become mired in defining terms rather than observing practice. What worries me more, however, is how the Danielson Framework so quickly became the rubric of choice: largely through the efforts of the Gates Foundation. It was one of the observation protocols used for the Gates Foundation-funded study, Measures of Effective Teaching, and has been adopted in 20 states.

How come I’m able to celebrate Peter Cooper but view Gates with such suspicion? Has philanthropy changed or have I? How does one earn the right to serve the public?

I read Rob Reich’s take on foundations and democracy, along with Diane Ravitch’s response, in the Boston Review last week. Reich cites concerns about accountability, but argues that foundations help to “diminish government orthodoxy” and, given their “longer time horizon,” allow for greater experimentation.

In her response, Ravitch mostly concerns herself with the lack of diversity among the big three educational foundations: Gates, Broad, Walton. Her critique deals with their policies more than the nature of foundations themselves, but I think she may have meant to challenge Reich’s point about innovation. Can it be called innovation if it’s all the same?

Where I’d have liked the discussion to go would have been a question about which public goods require the innovation of foundations and which ought to remain firmly within the public sphere. After all, Reich is a critic of corporate social responsibility programs partially for this reason. Do foundations really function independently of the market? Or is Reich arguing that we must assess foundations on whether they are able to do so?

One of Reich’s points speaks to my contrasting responses to Cooper and Gates: he writes that foundations are “well placed to fund public goods that are under-produced, or not produced at all, by the marketplace or the state.” In education, there are definitely some goods which are under-produced, or inaccessible. The Cooper Union, I think, attempts to provide something otherwise unavailable to those it serves: freedom from influence for its students and faculty. Without financial burdens dictating the direction of their education, they are free to study and explore what they wish.

Peter Cooper explained his original purpose by writing, “I formed a very resolute determination that if I could ever get the means, I would build an institution and throw its doors open at night so that the boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I had to enjoy means of information, would be enabled to improve and better their condition.”

Cooper’s institution, while it established a broad philosophy of education, maintained a well-defined scope and purpose. At a time when public education was not yet compulsory, the Cooper Union sought to educate and empower a particular disenfranchised segment of the city. Doing so was radical then and now. And while the narrative of Cooper Union resonates with the foundations of post-secondary public education throughout the U.S., it continued to exist and function separately.

The Gates Foundation, however, seeks to have much wider influence. Rather than designing and supporting closed, tightly-managed ventures to support particular goals, the Gates Foundation hopes to transform public education entirely. One can see this as a noble endeavor, but one must recognize it as dangerous.

And I know that I present a contradiction: I work at a school that exists in part because of the Gates Foundation, I place a priority on STEM education for my students as a means to meet the demands of the marketplace, and I support nationalized standards with some form of common assessment. But I also firmly believe in progressive community-led schools where the curriculum makes clear connections to its context. And I want teachers and administrators to work together to dismantle traditional hierarchical modes of organization.

If Bill Gates wants to give me money to do that, I’ll probably let him. But I won’t say I enjoyed it.

About this Blog

On teaching beyond two

New York
High School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)

Recent Comments