Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sink-or-swim model for teachers needs reform

Sink-or-swim model for teachers needs reform
Bruce Friedrich

Thursday, July 31, 2014, 1:08 AM

My two years teaching at an inner-city high school through Teach for America (TFA) left me wondering:

Do we have a problem of ineffective teachers, as is commonly claimed, or is there something rotten at the heart of the system, which sets new teachers up for likely failure?

I entered my new job with no illusions about the difficulties that awaited me. I had run a shelter for homeless families for six years in the 1990s; while there, I had visited multiple inner-city schools - so I knew how tough they could be.

Nevertheless, I was excited about my new task: improving 75 high school juniors' reading skills by teaching social justice issues.

Most of my students were thoughtful and creative. They were outraged by the death penalty and cocaine sentencing disparities. They engaged in lively debates about abortion and animal rights. They had much to say about issues of race and poverty in America.

The day-to-day experience was invigorating, but our school's results were deeply discouraging: Our average graduating senior read at the seventh-grade level. Every year, we gave high school diplomas to students who read at the second- or third-grade level.

From my first day at TFA's training workshop in Philadelphia, I felt that I understood at least one major problem of inner-city education in the United States, and it's one I have not seen discussed by either the teachers' unions or the education reformers.

Picture the scene: It's your first day on the job. Your employer gives you a pamphlet explaining your goals - in my case, improve student reading levels by 11/2 grade levels in a year - and says, "Good luck."

You ask your supervisor how the person who held your job previously succeeded, but there is no record of it. You ask for a guide of best practices, but that doesn't exist either.

You find that there are limitless resources online, but no quality control over any of it. So you're left guessing what might work, despite having never worked in the profession, and despite the fact that there have been thousands who succeeded in accomplishing your precise goals, for decades.

That is inner-city education in America.

I asked my supervisor about the total lack of exemplary resources for new teachers, which I found befuddling.

"Teachers want to create lesson plans themselves," she replied. "They see teaching as an art and don't want to feel constrained."

Maybe that's true for some teachers, but I can't imagine that many new teachers would turn down lesson plans and activities that have been used to achieve excellent student outcomes. How can it be that the system lacks tested plans and activities for knowledge and skills that have been taught tens of thousands of times before?
My experience appears to have been typical. A 2013 survey of 20,000 teachers conducted for Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, found that less than one-fifth of teachers believe that they are provided with the classroom resources they need for success.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, describes the situation as a "common rite of passage whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they [and their students] sink or swim."

This is not the best system for student achievement.

No successful corporation would simply give its new employees target outcomes and leave them to the scour the Internet for tools that might facilitate their success; that would be seen as madness, and the company would fail - quickly.

There is much talk about how every student deserves an excellent teacher. Of course they do. But can we really blame a teacher for her failure if she was not given even the most basic resources for success?

In my two years of inner-city teaching, I met many failing teachers who were bright, energetic, and committed. But they were overwhelmed with work, and they did not have the most basic thing imaginable: guidance on how to teach the material their students were expected to learn.

Designing, testing, and providing teachers with effective lessons and activities could be done right now. It's way past time for this most basic of reforms.
Bruce Friedrich taught for two years through Teach for America. He was named an "outstanding teacher" for his school during his second year.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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