Thursday, January 27, 2011

E4E: Educators Sans Context

In March of last year, two Teach for America alumni began Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), an organization whose "mission is to unite the education community around a shared set of goals, principles, beliefs, and actions, which place student achievement first." Evan Stone, 25, and Sydney Morris, 24 (ages as of April 8, 2010), claim they each left their full time teaching jobs because they were not being pushed to become better teachers. They started E4E (and recently received money from the Gates Foundation) because they want to help fix education's problems, or maybe because they see it as the beginning of long careers in ed policy that might result in a high-profile job, as Michelle Rhee did with The New Teacher Project (which E4E cites) after her TFA stint in a for-profit school in Baltimore.

In addition to a picture of Evan with some minority children he apparently took to the Grand Canyon, you can also find a pretty comprehensive overview of what E4E stands for on its website. Naturally, as young educators in a harsh fiscal environment, they'd like to end the policy of "Last In, First Out," which "punishes our teachers and students." They advocate making tenure more difficult and applaud Colorado for having done so. They believe teacher review should be tied to test scores, and that teachers whose students earn the highest test scores should make more money. E4E supports school choice and the charter movement, as well as employing business managers as heads of large school districts (e.g. Cathie Black). Importantly, at E4E, they "know there is no factor more important to student success than the quality of our instruction," which is interesting considering that research doesn't confirm that (see here, here, and here). There seems to be only one detail separating E4E's agenda from those of Michelle Rhee (whom they admire, but actually has a way cooler website of her own), Michael Petrilli, Whitney Tilson, or Eli Broad: E4E would like higher starting salaries for teachers. The discrepancy is important.

Almost anytime there is a strong push from the federal government toward reform in any policy arena, you can bet monied interests have something to gain from it. The policies advocated by the corporate reform movement (the same echoed on E4E's website, minus the higher starting salaries) are driven by a much larger movement whose primary aim is to turn public dollars into private dollars. The impetus is both financial and ideological. There is a belief among many of the most powerful people in our country and our world that private property is at the heart of an efficiently functioning society. Advocates are extremely distrustful of the state's ability to accomplish anything. Democracy is understood as far more of a burden than a support in moving society forward. Taken to its extreme, this neoliberal policy agenda would advocate a system in which everything could be bought and sold, in which government serves merely to facilitate private industry. This, neoliberals would say, allows society to function most efficiently, thereby generating the most productivity. However, the concentration of what would otherwise be community capital into the hands of a few is often its consequence.

In public education, the corporate reform movement's (CRM) aim of turning public dollars into private dollars manifests itself in two ways. On one hand, there are the "philanthropic" efforts of the Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations (in addition to a number of others). Their aim is to reconstitue public education in order to better serve the needs of the business community, in effect, using public dollars as private investment. They believe the most effective way of doing that is by applying principles of private business to public school children. Through their lens, education is understood as valuable only insofar as students are made capable of serving their future employers. While participation in the economy is, of course, a legitimate purpose of education, it's extraordinarily dangerous for our society when it's considered education's sole purpose. On the other hand, CRM's goal of transferring public dollars into private hands also manifests itself in for-profit testing companies, charter school operators, school support businesses, professional development and tutoring entrepreneurs, and any number of other snake oil salesmen.

With the exception of raising teacher starting salaries, the reforms E4E supports are not only not proven to improve student achievement, they also make it significantly easier for the CRM to decrease the number of public dollars going to public employees. Here's why that's true for each of E4E's advocated policies:

1) Charter schools (while originally a noble idea) have largely been hijacked by hedge-fund managers and for-profit charter operators, the vast majority of whom have little or no experience educating the kinds of children that end up in charter schools. It also seems odd that teachers wouldn't be wary of charters when those that are touted as most successful have higher rates of teacher turnover, employ unqualified teachers, allow for little public scrutiny (their financial actions are not public knowledge), seem more often to turn children into robots than engage them in critical thinking, and sometimes throw entire cohorts of students out of their schools when they don't perform.

2) The use of the value-added model (VAM) of teacher assessment is the most popular method today for using tests to evaluate teachers. Presumably, this will help districts make better hiring decisions and pay good teachers more money. However, this method, promoted by E4E member, Grace Snodgrass, is far more likely to narrow the curriculum and get rid of quality teachers (unless, of course, this is what we want our classrooms to look like - I particularly like at 3:45 when the teacher clearly ignores the girl shaking her head). Snodgrass's argument seems woefully underinformed about the deficiencies associated with the VAM method. She argues that VAM can account for many things a teacher cannot control in the face of research (and common sense) that strongly suggests otherwise (here, here, here, and here). She doesn't seem to be aware that many TDRs assigned students' math scores to English teachers' results. She ignores that VAM's principle architect, William Sanders, promoted its use for profit. She doesn't mention that despite VAM's rigorous method, it deals merely with data and says nothing of the quality of tests being given. She seems ignorant of the logical fallacy inherent in VAM measurements: effective teachers raise test scores and raising test scores makes you an effective teacher. She neglects to mention that VAM would require vertically scaled tests, which New York does not have, to be considered effective. Nothing is mentioned of the summer learning loss experienced by underprivileged students or its effects on tests. She ignores the harm that the reality from which so many students (especially in NYC) enter school has on high stakes test scores - i.e. while a teacher may make three years of progress with students six years below grade level, a test measuring grade-level improvement is likely to detect virtually no improvement at all. Snodgrass seems unaware that data from VAM has been used to demonstrate the effects of students' fifth-grade teachers on their fourth-grade learning experience, thereby demonstrating serious limitations in its model. While I could go on, I'll only mention finally that I find it particularly ironic that after touting VAM as a means by which teachers can effectively improve on their practice, Snodgrass then says that teacher evaluations should provide a "full picture of a teacher's ability to help students gain knowledge." While she writes this in the context of arguing that more than just test scores should be required in a teacher's evaluation, she seems to underestimate the degree of harm quantitative, high-stakes measures have on the public's perception, especially when tests measure so few of the things a teacher should be doing in the classroom.

3) E4E's desire to eliminate "last in, first out," which would be appropriate if valid measures of agreed-upon teacher evaluation existed (and I hope my previous paragraph explained well enough why I don't believe they currently exist), will only serve as a means by which districts may shed more expensive and experienced teachers. I explored this issue in much further depth in my letter to Jonathan Alter.

4) The implementation of performance pay, which is occurring primarily in high-needs districts, is quietly being tied to an elimination of the due process rights in places like Washington, DC. Because of the unreliability of the standardized test scores (research by Schochet and Chiang suggests they misidentify effective teachers twenty-five per cent of the time given three years of data - and I suspect that rate increases in schools with higher rates of poverty), and the staggering challenges faced by teachers and students in high-needs environments, I'm afraid our current efforts at performance pay are going to see "highly effective" teachers make lots of money one year and be fired a few years later. Whether that's the intent is debatable, but research on performance pay hasn't exactly proved it's a panacea.

5) The use of corporate managers as educational leaders is disparaging, not because business has no legitimate advice to offer public education, but because these managers often focus on making schools appear like they're improving rather than actually improving them. They treat test scores like profit and close schools that "fail." Principals are told that scores will rise or they'll lose their jobs. A laser-like focus is put on testing, administrators with little to no experience in the classroom focus their teacher evaluations on the details of appropriate classroom script (and ignore many of the much more important things a teacher does), schools are made into educational factories, TFA recruits fill the hallways, and very little valuable education takes place. It's hard to understand the negative consequences of those things if you've never been in the classroom. In the minds of Broad-trained corporate education managers, pushing schools to get test scores up and closing them when they fail is much less expensive than investing in school security (so fourth-graders don't have to watch prostitutes have sex on their way to school), well-trained and well-educated teachers and administrators, and the development of a rigorous and relevant curriculum.

The CRM talking points parroted by E4E all sound very good when they're decontextualized. It's why they win the media so easily. Few people want to sit down and really consider the complicated mess that is public education. I imagine that's why many educators with so little experience buy into the talking points so readily - that and TFA's five weeks of brainwashing. What illuminates E4E's ignorance so acutely, however, is their call for higher teacher starting salaries. To be sure, advocates of the CRM are not a monolith. But at its heart, from the place where it derives its funding and power, the CRM is about spending less on public education, not more. As new shills for the Gates Foundation, E4E is understandably confused about its place, but I have no doubt that they'll either change their stance on starting salaries or come to see this mess for what it is, and reexamine the way in which they're contributing to it.

If E4E is really about putting the kids first (haven't heard that before), and not prepping their futures for educational rock stardom, they need to learn to differentiate between the two debates we're having over ed policy. In one debate, the debate over what could happen in a perfect world, there are no boundaries. You can say whatever you want about how to change schools for the better. You can forget that there are systems and people already in place that make those changes treacherous. You can throw out any idea you want for the sake of advancing an understanding about your own opinions. That's the theory side, the fantasy land. The other debate has boundaries. It respects the limitations of reality and is careful about its proposals, because in this debate, advocating positions that have not been fully thought through can be dangerous. You can end up playing into the hands of people who are working against your interests, have been playing the game for a lot longer time, and are a lot better at it than you are. I'm afraid E4E thinks it's throwing ideas into the former debate when it's actually participating in the latter.

Whatever the case may be, E4E fails to demonstrate an appreciation for the many nuances intertwined with the policies they're advocating. I'm not sure which would be more disconcerting: they do understand them or they don't.


  1. That's pretty much my reaction -- if their policies were implemented and they worked, we'd have to spend a lot more on education, which is not the plan of their allies.

    Also these kids don't understand that in the real world, after you collaborate with administration over a period of several years on some kind of cool evaluation system or something, what happens next is that a new administration comes in and imposes whatever the education flavor of the month is and might just send you to Siberia for perpetuating the status quo if you insist on advocating for the cool evaluation system you helped cook up.

  2. TFA people shouldn't even be called teachers. They should be called education temps.

  3. I don't assume good faith. This project is TfA initiated, and TfAers leave in 2 or 3 years anyhow.

    There's no immediate self-interest from these former teachers, or from most of the members. They are in it for the policy war. They are ideologically committed. And they are using their temporary teaching careers as a credential.


  4. What I don't get is why these people didn't stay teachers if they wanted to make a difference in education so badly. It's always those who are NOT teachers calling for all this stuff. As you said "snake oil salesmen".

  5. Thank you for this post. It should be required reading for all teachers. I’m afraid that many teachers are too busy working very very hard (you know educating kids!) and do not understand the organized, well funded, and media savvy assault that is now being waged against public education. Every day as I enter my school I pass a big banner that congratulates the school for some award from the Broad Foundation. When that sign went up a few years ago, I had never heard of the Broad Foundation. I had no idea that this foundation was actively seeking to apply neo-liberal market-based approaches to the education system in the US. I had no idea that this foundation was part of the corporate reformers that are out to distroy public education.

    I think it is time for us to come together, educate our fellow teachers, and push back. I don’t think that the UFT is doing this so I think it is time for our own new organization. We, of course, will not have the deep pockets that the E4E guys enjoy, but we could have real educators who could explain to people what is happening and the damage that these educational entrepreneurs will have on public education. I am looking to join up with like-minded teachers who are interested in countering the CRM’s attack.

    As far as the E4E guys go, well they are careerish. I was a Teaching Fellow so you know I was in *business* before I became a teacher. I’m all hip and stuff too. I understand where these guys are coming from. They were in a classroom in NYC and now they are gonna (leverage) use their experience and make it big. They missed the dot com bubble and the housing bubble so you can’t blame them for getting in on the education bubble. We all know that bubbles don’t last and we all know that the investors, foundations, corporate board memberships, book deals and oh… maybe a movie (think that facebook movie but with the two E4E guys) well they all go away when the bubble bursts.

  6. Jonathan: I have to respectfully disagree. At 24 and 25 I think it's very easy to misinterpret what's happening with public schools and logical solutions to our problems. The tragedy will be that these kids leave the classroom having not seen any other environments and hold onto their misinformed interpretations for the remainder of their careers outside the classroom. I think it's important to engage people like this openly and honestly. If you go to far and refuse to consider what they have to say, they'll do the same to you. There's a good chance they'll remember those experiences and use them to easily write off people who speak from reality's perspective in the future.

    I, and so many other young educators, believed exactly what they believed when I started out. I moved to different systems, tried new things, took a semester off to research ed policy, and I've finally come to a very different conclusion than when I started. Had I not done that, I may very well be a member of E4E today. I will grant that truth may not be their priority, but I think it's worth having the conversation just in case it is.

  7. Brilliant Analysis R.E.

  8. I agree with Jonathan: you give these people far too much slack, and assume good faith where little or none exists.

    Look at their pedigree: they're both TFA, which is one of the points of the spear of privatizing the schools. Look at their program: it's lifted directly from the ed deformer playbook. Look at their funding (which they are cagey about admitting to): aside from Gates money, they've received financial assistance from hedge fund interests affiliated with Eva Moskowitz's Harlem Success Academy, which has been most aggressively colonizing public resources and real estate in that rapidly gentrifying community (gentrification in which charter schools are having an increasing and unacknowledged part).

    While some of the teachers affiliating with this group may simply be naive and approaching these issues in good faith, I don't believe the same thing can be said about its founders.

    Anyway, don't you find that there is a Stepford Wives quality about so many of these TFAers? When listening to them discuss policy matters, there's a robotic quality; it's all talking points uttered in that supercilious, "But we love kids," tone (as if the rest of us who've actually committed our careers the the classroom don't).

    For these two, the cup of coffee they had in the classroom (not even staying long enough to gain the tenure they claim is too easy to get) is just a pretext intended to give them some credibility when proposing their funders agenda: a transient, powerless, at-will workforce that provides socialization and vocational training for the lower rungs of the service workforce.

  9. Credit is being given young, new teachers for being more effective, enthusiastic, smarter, more caring and concerned. The public has seen "Waiting for Superman" portraying public school teachers who have been in the system as being lazy and refusing to work. Hence, the image of the teacher with their feet up on the desk reading a newspaper while the kids had to fend for themselves. In 21 years of teaching in the South Bronx, special education from K-12, I have rarely seen a teacher who is not doing their best.

    Are they saying that the rigorous system of obtaining a license to teach in New York State is so meaningless that NYS is giving licenses to unqualified individuals? I guess that anyone who has taught more than five years is a dinosaur and needs to move on or out of the system.

    These new young teachers have no clue how to handle the issues these students in urban areas are dealing with. Coming from families outside of urban areas, most have had routines in place, expectations, and support. Drugs, gangs, teen pregnancies, violence, and death have an impact on the educational success of a student. Every student I have worked with has been negatively affected by most of these issues. Are situations taken into account in the analysis of data? Schools are being closed for failing and the students are shuffled off to another school until that one is deemed failing when the real issues are not being addressed. Who is working with the families helping them solve problems so that the kids who live in these homes can focus on their education? None of the real issues are being addressed and unfortunately, these young teachers don't even know what the real issues are. Education is never in isolation.

  10. It sounds like you are more concerned about the well-being of the heretofore public school system than the students. Not that this is the case, but that is how it sounds.

    You speak of dollars going to public employees - I personally don't care who pays the salary of teachers, as long as they do a decent job.

    You worry about unqualified teachers in charters (but not in other schools) while you pretty much admit that there isn't a good way to formally evaluate teachers. The statistics (test-based, of course) don't support the assertion that charters, as a whole, are any better or worse than their non-charter counterparts. The statistics supporting certification as beneficial are also very weak.

    You lament using student test scores as a criteria for teacher evaluation. I do too. But the entire teacher evaluation nightmare is (mostly) a result of the union protections, which may be valuable to employees, but they don't do much for students if they have a crappy teacher (by any measure).

    I'm not sure why anyone buys into the pay for performance thing. We're not picking grapefruit here.

    You complain of corporate managers, but it isn't the fact that they don't have classroom experience that you cite, it's that they are doing a crappy job. There are plenty of crappy managers who came up through the education ranks too. You know at least few, I'm sure.

    What comes across here is something like: let the educators take care of this and all you reformer-people go home. But you have to look at the perception of why the reform movement is necessary at all - that the "educators" have failed, so somebody else better come in and fix things. There is a legitimate concern here that needs to be taken into consideration. Too much blame is always placed on the schools and teachers (and credit in the case of some successes), but there certainly is room for improvement.

    Maybe Michelle Rhee is a pompous and egotistical manager, but she is perceived as having changed things that needed changing. If teachers want to be heard over the Ed-reformers, they have to admit that they have problems and come up with reasonable and feasible alternative plans to address them. They also need a cool website :)

  11. abellia - I think we can all agree that cool websites are a major part of the solution. Where we would probably disagree is over where the problems in the system are. It sounds like you understand education to exist in more of a vacuum than it does. A school's poor performance on a set of standardized test scores can be caused by an enormous number of factors, of which "educators" are merely one.

    I don't think lacking classroom experience would be as disastrous for an administrator if we didn't have the current fire-all-the-teachers climate that we do. The people going into administrative positions (especially in big cities) are often the kinds of people who will do anything to get ahead. They ride teachers about trendy ed jargon they heard at a conference they just went to, but have no idea how to implement in reality. They focus on test scores in a way that seriously harms education. They treat people like trash and cause high rates of teacher turnover. They think test scores can be treated like profit. They're wrong on all accounts, and the effects they have on schools are disastrous.

    Can you tell me why you think the teacher evaluation nightmare is mostly a result of the unions.

    And, I do care whether the money is public or private - but I think I explained why pretty well in my post.

    Glad to have you commenting.

  12. RE,

    Why does one need any kind of evaluation other than constructive criticism if not as a tool for firing? Perhaps I just see formal evaluations as a waste for all involved. The reason that districts seem to want to revamp evaluations, though, is to make it easier to dismiss teachers or as a basis for differentiated pay. Unions aren't doing their job if they don't oppose both of these items.

    As far as managers go, my original point stands - get rid of crappy managers and get good ones, regardless of their backgrounds.

    I shouldn't have used the word "private" when describing the money issue. I'm not at all a fan of for-profit schooling, but I don't mind charters if they work. In principle, a charter school could just mean a decentralization of the current system in larger districts. I'm afraid the snake-oil salesmen and for-profit support companies are already entrenched in public schools. (I'm not sure, though, that they work much more poorly or cost much less than some of the public support agencies, at least around my area.)

  13. These guys have an office!!!-Funded!!!-24 and 25 years old!!!!-taught for no more than 3 years!!!! Maybe the Gates foundation can fund me!!! Who do their fathers know??

  14. I just wanted to point out that one of the links you posted to refute the idea that "there is no factor more important to student success than the quality of our instruction" actually says that "Educational research continues to give us clear and convincing proof that the single most powerful in-school factor for student achievement gains is the quality of the teacher." Perhaps do a quick check before posting your links? ...

  15. Anon @ 355: Thanks so much for actually clicking on the links and reading them. I think that's rare.

    I guess I should have been more clear in my post. E4E's website says there is no factor more important to a student's education than the quality of teacher instruction. As you point out, all of the studies I linked say that teachers are the most important IN-SCHOOL factor. The "in-school" part is very important, and not included by coincidence or for aural aesthetics. It indicative of the reality that outside factors may have a larger role to play on student achievement than the teacher.

    Thanks again for reading and thinking.

  16. 2 years of teaching does not make you an expert in Teaching or the Educational Field. I can understand their viewpoint, but don't believe they are well informed or experienced, just like cathie black.

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