I’ve been quiet for a while. Work has been crazy… and somewhat depressing, and life with a toddler keeps getting faster and wilder.
I am inspired again, though. I spent February 11-13 in the District of Columbia with an unprecedented number of folks who care about education reform. A fellow Atlantan in attendance described it as being like a Star Trek convention for school reformers.
My favorite quotation from last weekend’s Teach for America 20th Anniversary Alumni Summit was from Geoffrey Canada. Canada is the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone* and the sort-of hero of Waiting for Superman. During a panel discussion with Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, John Deasy and others at the opening plenary session, he said emphatically, “I used to think we would go down fighting for the cause… now I think we could really win!”
I felt so moved by Mr. Canada’s sentiment… and I haven’t been doing this nearly as long as he has. He started HCZ when I was in middle school. I entered the classroom in Atlanta more than 10 years ago, and I have been working since I left the classroom toward that one day when all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Maybe it was also the crowd. That does make a difference. The Blair Witch Project was 50 times scarier in a packed theater on opening weekend than it was on VHS. The whole weekend I was surrounded by young college graduates, new teachers. Kids a lot like I was 11 years ago, but probably a lot smarter. And there were lots of them. There were nearly 11,000 attendees at the summit (out of roughly 28,000 active corps members and alumni.) There are more current TFA corps members in classrooms across the country than there were in the first 10 corps combined. So, basically, I felt really old.
Last weekend, as I was packed like sardines next to these young, bushy-tailed folks, I also thought a lot about how ridiculous my 22-year-old self would have found the idea that I would be where I am now. And that anyone would have thought I would be an interesting participant on a panel at the summit! I thought all the other participants were pretty interesting, at least.
Not just my life and trajectory have changed, but the ground itself has really shifted. Just like Geoffrey Canada said. I think we could really win. Even though the memories of the community and media in Atlanta are short, the schools I enter today, in 2011, are different schools from the ones in Atlanta 10 years ago.
The schools in New York City and DC and New Orleans–the worst of the worst–are different today than they were 10 years ago. We still aren’t where we need to be by any means, and there are still lots of schools that probably need to be bulldozed and restarted from scratch. But it feels like we are looking at a map with 1,000 points of light… maybe even more… schools working to transform the outcomes for kids coming from challenging urban and rural environments.
Maybe it’s just the impact of the packed theater, but it feels like the switch is about to flip to turn the light bulb on for everybody.
I have a feeling, not just because I am an alumna, that TFAers will be a huge part of moving that switch. It was very clear at the Summit that in that room was the army we need to start fighting the revolution. I didn’t realize until I read Andy Rotherham’s recap that there were a lot more teachers at the TFA Summit than there were at the nation’s largest teacher’s union’s annual conference. I didn’t need that fact to know that it’s really stupid for folks to write off this active, energetic body of radicalized education reformers who are intelligent, proven leaders, well educated, and often well connected just because they don’t commit to teaching as a long-term career. Seriously, they made me tired just being around them.
Most Millenials/Gen Yers don’t commit to a long-term career anyway. My Gen-X compatriots generally don’t either. But that’s another topic for another day.
One of my big take-aways from the conference I already knew. Ultimately, Teach for America’s success will probably not be building the profession of education directly. It will be creating people like Michelle Rhee, Cami Anderson, Dave Levin, Michael Johnston, Andrew Broy, Sekou Biddle and other visionary leaders. Its brilliance will be radicalizing bright people by exposing them to the realities of poverty in our urban and rural centers and directing their careers toward improving public education. Many of them may not remain directly in the field. For example, Secretary Duncan noted at the summit that Doug Shulman, the Commissioner of the IRS, who recently helped streamline the federal financial aid process, dramatically increasing the number of students successfully applying, was a cofounder of TFA.
There are also so many of us that don’t make the papers every day… school leaders, central office administrators, non-profit leaders, data nerds, researchers, professors, attorneys, etc.
Awesome teachers, too. The organization will also have increasing success in producing extraordinary classroom teachers and convincing them to stay long term by producing extraordinary school and district leaders. Today’s teacher bootcamp training is light years ahead of what I received. And there are school leaders out there who are building cultures of achievement and support. I am envious, frankly.
So, other take-aways.
The other big one is that teachers’ unions do a really bad job of actually representing teachers. Teachers, for the most part… particularly younger teachers… care about kids a lot. They are highly ethical people, and they want to transform children’s lives. They dislike being bogged down with members of the profession who are not adding value to their schools. They are not people who would celebrate the forced rehiring of 75 crappy teachers in DC because of a procedural technicality.
Not only do we have the data point on the number of teachers present at the TFA Summit vs. the NEA Conference, but we also have evidence from the experiences of reformers…
1. The revolutionary contract that the union dragged their feet on for years for DCPS negotiated under the administration of Michelle Rhee passed with an overwhelming 80% majority.
2. Mike Johnston, when he was working on passing the groundbreaking Great Teachers, Great Leaders legislation in Colorado, had to personally invite teachers to testify regarding their support of the legislation that their union refused to support. The law requires common-sense measures such as requiring that teacher evaluations include a measure of student success and that tenure protections should only be awarded after several satisfactory evaluations and will be revoked after consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations.
3. The teacher’s union in Baltimore declared a victory when the union members initially rejected a controversial new agreement… because the union put the measure up to a vote just a couple of weeks after the negotiations were completed. On a second vote after members actually had an opportunity to read the agreement, it passed with flying colors.
I really think that this movement of educators, current and former, can reach the chain to turn on the lights. We’ve still got miles to go, but I think we could really win!
I just tossed this post out quickly, and I will probably have more to say, but I want to put it out there before the memory of the weekend fades.
* I think it’s important to know that Geoffrey Canada earns as much running his charter schools as the President of the United States does to be the leader of the free world. I’ll be the first to say that the President is drastically underpaid, but $400k a year still seems like a lot for being a charter school leader.
Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment