Thursday, June 23, 2011

Not Ready for College

recent article by the New York Times outlines how graduates of city schools, even those that have earned an A, enter CUNY schools in need of substantial remediation.  There's a fair amount of useful information in the article, including this:

"The combined remediation rate for the 50 high schools serving the highest-achieving students, based on middle-school test scores, was 21 percent. For the 50 schools serving the lowest-achieving students, the CUNY remediation rate was 77 percent."
It's clear that some schools do a far better job of preparing students for college work than others.  Because we know that students who need remediation are less likely to graduate from college, it's easy to sympathize with families whose children are in underperforming schools and are looking to move them into schools with a track record of success.  As the article notes, success in college can be tied to not only high school education but also middle school education.  I'll allow that there are likely several variables at play when comparing schools, but focusing on outcomes like this is a meaningful exercise.

Williamsburg Preparatory School is an interesting case study.  Per the Times, it earned an A on the three most recent progress reports and has an 88% graduation rate.  But three quarters of the students it sends to CUNY (who comprise 39% of a graduating class) fail CUNY's readiness tests.  The school's principal, Alyce Barr, counters by explaining that because the school focuses on writing skills (students don't take Regents due to a state waiver) her students will perform better than their CUNY test scores indicate.  Her analysis seems off, however, given that CUNY's remediation tests included writing tests, and that there's still the matter of math scores.

If students at a successful school are falling so far short of college success, how many students at other schools across the city are graduating without the skills to succeed in college?  In my experience, there's an unwillingness to be honest about the fact that by the time students enter high school - even by the time they enter 7th grade - students are several years behind where they should be.  The gap of skills is talked about in a big picture sense, but most schools teach what they think they need to until they get within shouting distance of the end of the year without any sense of where students should end up at the end of a course and what next steps will be for students who do or don't meet goals.

I don't know exactly how we close that gap.  Part of it rests on having the right teachers in the classroom under the leadership of capable administrators.  Maximizing student learning time and holding students accountable are key.  There are a number of schools that do a good job of identifying shortcomings, creating a plan to address deficiencies, executing their plan, and then reviewing their progress to make adjustments if needed.  Unfortunately, too few schools do that well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Institute is where incoming corps members are trained by experienced Teach For America teachers and staff members to become teachers.  Corps members will also work with non-Teach For America teachers, called faculty advisors, in their classrooms.  As a new teacher, institute can be tremendously overwhelming.  You're presented with an incredible amount of information with little context and can be given 15 things to work on without ever actually seeing how each one should be implemented.  Add in the stress of moving to a new city, working closely with strangers, and having too few hours in a day.  You're given so much more information than you can hope to process that institute has rightfully been compared to collecting water by holding a dixie cup under a waterfall.  It ain't easy.

When I was a corps member at institute I felt entirely overwhelmed.  I left institute thinking that I had processed some of the key information I needed and zoned out the rest because I knew what was important and what wasn't.  (Needless to say, I was not a rockstar corps member.)  When I returned as a staff member, it all came together for me.  Information I had previously disregarded made complete sense and matched what I had tried to do in my classroom as a teacher, and it all clicked.  The lesson here is twofold:  the things you will learn at institute are in fact important, and if you feel like you aren't processing everything being thrown at you, fear not - the exposure is a foundational step.

That said, here are a few things I'd advise corps members to keep in mind.

Advocate for yourself.  If you don't understand something, don't assume it will magically click at some point in the future.  Ask for clarification, a demonstration, and a follow-up.  Your staff is there to teach you, but they can't read your mind.  Ask for the things you need - for the sake of your development as a teacher and for your current and future students.  If you're uncomfortable, frame your question in a manner that focuses on your students.  It's better to be the one person who speaks up and then learns something than to be the other twenty who are afraid to speak up and then go home wondering about something all night because they thought someone would snicker at their question.

Be productive during the day.  Spend your down time at school (yes, there will likely be some) working on lesson plans.  Minimize the work you have to do at the end of the day.  And when school ends, start working immediately.  Work during dinner.  This will get you to bed at a reasonable hour, and sleep deprivation makes institute unbearable.  With a bit of work you can have your lights out by 10 o'clock.

Deadlines are not flexible.  Meet them.  If for some reason this will be a problem, talk to your CMA (or other staff member) immediately.  There are situations where it's better to ask forgiveness than permission.  Institute is not one of them.

Do not stress about your fall placement.  Maybe you're teaching something different than you teach at institute.  Maybe you don't have a placement.  Maybe you dislike your placement.  There isn't anything you can do about it.  Many people go through institute unplaced or with placements different from their institute placement.  Regardless of where you'll end up, you will be better off with a productive summer. Don't worry more than is necessary.

Do not despair.  If you don't click with your collaborative or some of your staff members, that's okay.  Institute can be a tough place to find your groove.  Almost 50,000 people applied to Teach For America, and you were one of the 5,000 or so people chosen.  You're here for a reason.  Nobody slips through the cracks - you were chosen.  Institute is not an attempt to weed out corps members - every bit of feedback you get (including any professionalism concerns documented by your CMA) is focused on your development.  Your school team and collaborative group members bring a lot to the table.  Leverage all of their experiences relentlessly.  It will pay off.

A beginning

I'm a frequent reader of Teach For Us, a blogging outlet for Teach For America corps members and alumni.  I find it to be both a useful tool to get a firsthand perspective on education in other cities across the country and also a helpful reflective device in evaluating my effectiveness as a teacher, a colleague, and an aspiring politico.  I'm also guilty of using it for my amusement.  No, not in a bad way!  Really!  I just enjoy reading about how the transformation from applicant to soon-to-be teacher to teacher plays out for my fellow vicenarians.  And in truth, I read because I sympathize with their musings and it's comforting to know that other people are having the same frustrations I had and continue to have.

I think a concern I have with blogging, especially with Teach For America bloggers, is that it seems like everyone writes as through they're an authority.  Applicants recently admitted to the program blog about how to get accepted to an organization they don't fully know, corps members at induction write (extensively) about their thoughts on education (often with marginal experience as an educator), and alumni write about the way Teach For America runs itself with having any recent, meaningful engagement with the program.

I mention my concern about the overabundance of experts because I don't want that to be me.  If it is, call me on it.  I'll be up front about my experience - I have fewer than four years in the classroom.  I have worked at institute.  I teach math.  I have had classrooms where student success was the rule and classrooms where student success was the exception.  I have learned tremendously from both experiences, and I'm a better teacher for it.  And I resisted the urge to blog on Teach For Us because I want to ensure I reach a diverse audience and in my experience, Teach For Us does not reach large numbers of non-Teach For America teachers.  But I hope that if you're reading this, you'll stick around by reading, commenting, or continuing to read in the future.