Friday, May 13, 2011

Responding to The New York Times and Corporate Reform Bias

Tuesday, The New York Times published an article about a teacher named Samantha Sherwood. Ms. Sherwood entered teaching through Teach for America and is currently in her third year of teaching middle school science in the South Bronx. Unfortunately, as a result of Bloomberg's budget cuts, she may lose her job this year.

The author of the Times article, Fernanda Santos, takes quite the liking to Sherwood. We're informed that Sherwood's idealism and commitment are exemplary. She works on Saturdays, has taken the lead in revamping the school's science curriculum, and has received nothing but satisfactory reviews. Her teaching style involves a "mix of drilled discipline and freedom to be creative." Sherwood makes impressive pledges to her students, and presumably follows through with them. Most impressively, Sherwood has the capacity to say really indie-educator type things that fit nicely into inspirational teacher articles: "We have to let children explore the beauty of what they're learning, not spoon-feed knowledge they're supposed to memorize." We're left with little doubt that Sherwood is indeed the kind of teacher any parent would want in front of their student.

Despite Sherwood's talent in the classroom, the relative short amount of time she's been employed as a teacher in New York City may mean her position will be among those lost to layoffs, a practice pejoratively referred to as "last in, first out," or LIFO. Sherwood thinks this practice is unfair. She believes many experienced teachers "just got settled in and aren't doing their jobs," and therefore deserve to be let go before her. Consequently, Sherwood has joined E4E, an organization with funding from the Gates foundation that advocates for merit pay and the use of a more robust evaluation system as a tool to determine which teachers should lose their jobs in the event of budget cuts.

Santos's article has frustrated many in the New York City education community.  On her education listserv, Leonie Haimson, a NYC parent activist, referred to it as "an undisguised puffpiece, extolling a TFAer facing layoffs." Norm Scott reacted by suggesting Sherwood joined in E4E "not because she is idealistic but because she wants to save her ass from being laid off." Bronx Teacher feels no sorrow for Sherwood because, "Samantha, if needed, can always return to the bucolic family home whilst mumsy and daddy await her next culture to lord over."

As a teacher in a nearly identical situation to Samantha Sherwood (I'm in my fifth-year teaching, first year in New York City, and although I didn't enter the profession through TFA, I was equally as idealistic about my capacity to effect change as an educator in impoverished communities), I initially rolled my eyes in reaction to Santos's piece. It is overly simplistic in its portrayal of the act of teaching and of the qualities required of an excellent teacher (as are so many teacher articles). In this sense, I would agree that, in many ways, this article is little more than a puffpiece. Although, to be fair, Santos is a journalist, not an educator, and is likely capable of only a limited appreciation of all of the complexities and contradictions that come with teaching in the South Bronx. She is equally limited by her word count. Even so, the article leaves little room to conclude that its purpose is anything other than to persuade the reader that seniority rights are an anachronism.

Although I've come to the conclusion in the past two years that, given our current system, seniority rights are still the fairest method of "deslecting" teachers in the event of layoffs (I wrote more extensively about that in my open letter to Jonathan Alter), I didn't come to that conclusion lightly, or with a superficial understanding of the forces impacting education policy, and I can see why people like Santos and Sherwood might think differently. Indeed, I can see why the corporate reform movement in education is so successful. Many of their talking points are spot on, getting rid of bad teachers being their battle cry. It is because of this that I would advise Leonie and Norm and particularly Bronx Teacher against such vitriolic responses. While I agree that this article, on the front of The New York Times, does serve as an attack against the teaching profession, I believe that many people like Sherwood, Santos, and probably most members of E4E agree with it not because they're evil union busters out to destroy public education, but because it makes sense to them. Because it does make sense.

One of the reasons I think the corporate reform movement has been so successful, in addition to having a ton of money (which they've used to purchase the terms of the national educational debate and ironically wrap their side in the rhetoric of civil rights), is that their talking points are excellent. "We should fire bad teachers." If you disagree with that, you immediately sound like an idiot, an asshole, or a public sector leech. "Teachers should be held accountable." Uhhhhh, I mean...yea...right? "We should deselect teachers based on their ability rather than time in the system." Also difficult to argue with unless you have an audience willing to listen to and appreciate nuance, although less so than the first two.

The problem anti-corporate reform people like myself have with organizations like Students First, is not that we think the talking points per se are wrong. The problem comes when you peak behind their curtain. These brief messages, accepted without question, serve as a Trojan Horse for defunding public education and deprofessionalizing teaching. Upon searching the belly of the horse, however, (a search that might require more time than most people vulnerable to its attack are willing to spend), a much more overtly political agenda is illuminated, an agenda significantly less benign than, "All children deserve an excellent teacher!" might lead one to believe.

Using performance as the deciding factor in who to lay-off would be ideal. Let's be honest, there are definitely experienced teachers in the DOE who we'd do well by students to replace (but, as Norm notes, it seems unlikely Sherwood has experience with any of them since the Times article tells us she works with a bunch of new teachers - which frankly makes me wonder how likely she really is to be laid off). But attempting to use performance as the deciding factor is currently fraught with complications. Although Sherwood might be currently be in favor of merit pay (despite study after study failing to find its utility) and a more robust system for evaluating teacher ability, I doubt she would be so optimistic about them if she was more acquainted with the pitfalls of the value-added model for teacher accountability or the numerous problems associated with standardized test scores. And while a more rigorous set of standards for teacher expectations might be welcome in some schools, I wonder if Sherwood would be as excited about that possibility were she to find herself in a school in which her administrator either disagreed with her style or had little to no background in teaching. Lastly, Santos and Sherwood seem not to think experience might be a factor to consider, nor do they recognize providing an incentive to attain it.

While I disagree with Santos and Sherwood because I think they're probably unaware of some very important details, their argument resonates with a lot of people. They do not make illogical points, and I'm afraid responding to them as if that were the case serves to isolate those of us fighting corporate reform. Observers look at those of us rolling our eyes at the Times article and conclude we're either incapable of being logical or fighting reform in the name of self-preservation. They look away, content their understanding is accurate (Santos and Sherwood want real change while Bronx Teacher is a crackpot), and move on to something else. All the while, we've lost an important opportunity to engage somebody who might otherwise have been willing to listen.

I am, however, capable of significantly greater cynicism. At the end of the article, after we learn Sherwood's relatives advised her at college graduation that she was "too smart" to teach, you almost get a sense of uncertainty in her last quote in reference to doctors and engineers: "Didn't they all need teachers to learn what they needed to do for their jobs?" It's as if Santos omitted Sherwood's actual last quote: "I mean, I'm right about that, aren't I?" Sherwood does not exactly sound like the kind of teacher who understands the profession as much more than a facilitator of employment readiness. She seems unsure of its importance, of its liberating capacity in impoverished communities, of its essential function in a healthy democracy.

I suppose it is appropriate, however, given Sherwood's relatives' disregard for the work of teachers, that she would, knowingly or unknowingly, participate in a Times article written by an author who, knowingly or unknowingly, is furthering the degradation of the teaching profession. I'm deeply afraid that it's our society's apathetic attitude toward that end that might, in the long run, relegate this fight over public education to a status all too familiar to recent struggles against the neoliberal ideology that bore it, that of lost cause.


  1. RE: I agree with you that the talking point of the anti-LIFO proponents sound good: "We should fire bad teachers." However, as you pointed out, it's more complicated than that. From my experience as a former teacher, I'd like to make the following observations:

    1. There is no guarantee that if you give principals the discretion to pick and choose which teachers will be dismissed in a layoff, that they will keep the 'best' teachers and get rid of the 'worst' teachers. They may keep the teachers they personally like and get rid of a teacher who they don't like, or one who openly challenges the principal.
    2. Principals can get rid of bad teachers through the normal evaluation process; Teachers can be fired in their first few years for any reason, and in later years they can be fired for cause (with appropriate documentation). There's no need to use layoffs to circumvent the evaluation system.
    3. It is very difficult to determine with any amount of precision (in the real world) which teachers are 'good' and which are 'bad.' Is a teacher struggling to teach low-income, remedial students a 'bad' teacher? Is the teacher with all honors students a 'good' teacher? What about the strict teacher no one likes but whose students score well on the exams? The nice but permissive teacher who only covers part of the material but gets the students excited about science?

    It's not as simple as the anti-LIFO supporters would like it to seem.

  2. I apologize to anyone who commented on this post prior to Blogger's technical difficulties. The comments seem to have been lost. I'm glad that at least the post got put back up, though.

  3. This is an excellent and insightful piece of writing...well done.

    The whole LIFO "controversy" reminds me of the debate pols have over term limits. I remember when Mark Souder (former R-IN) was running for office he went on and on about how we needed term limits and how we needed to send him to D.C. and he would take care of that. He then went on to run 7 more times and would still be there if his affair with a staffer hadn't cut his career short...

    It's the same thing...someone new, with no experience can do the job better so get rid of the elder.

    I'm not saying that someone young, energetic and dedicated can't do better than someone with experience...I taught kindergarten after having been away from it for 30 years...and got invaluable help from a young woman who I had previously known as a sixth grader. I learned much from her...

    ...but we need experienced people, too. The idea that "experience" doesn't matter (which is coming from, among other places, the US DOE and someone with NO teaching experience) is ridiculous. We need a balance.

    I'd like to see the energy spent on bashing teachers and unions directed towards improving teacher evaluation and professional development. However, I'm not sure that improving education is the goal of "reformers."

  4. Excellent points, Stu.

    The goal of corporate reforms seems to be higher test scores for less money.

  5. The fact that the author is a journalist does not mean she can't understand education - it is her job to do so. I've read stories that show a great understanding of education. It's just a matter of how well do you know the subject you're reporting about.

  6. Great point, Beatriz. I agree. Linda Perlstein, a journalist, is a person who I think understands education a hell of a lot better than a lot of teachers I've talked to. I do think, however, that it can be very difficult to acquire a real appreciation for what it really means to teach unless you spend a significant amount of time around teachers. And, from my perspective, Santos doesn't seem to have that appreciation.

  7. yes, I agree: it's very difficult. I've been trying for the last four years and I often ask myself if I know enough to write about it. It's important to have this kind of concern, though. It forces you to study more and more. And you're right: Linda does a great job!

  8. I understand your critique on the vitriol issue - part of my blogging style I guess. But in reality, I feel it important to engage people like E4E in discussion and in fact Sydney and Evan touched base at the rally. Since I met them a month ago we seem to have established a bit of a dialogue and that has been worthwhile, as I put up in a follow-up post today. We had a brief discussion at the rally, some of it joking around. They are not bubbleheads and they make their points. I have had discussions with some of the full-time E4E organizers and found them impressive too. So we can't take them lightly and just attack them personally. I don't dislike them, just their ideas. But they do tap into some issues we as anti-deformers need to address. We need to rebrand our response to ed deform. I Like Julie Cavangh's branding of LIFO as a way to allow teachers to advocate for the kids and parents.

  9. Thanks for weighing in, Norm. I really appreciate it.

    Do you think they've learned anything from you? You anything from them?

  10. I came across that article a few days ago and share your frustration and cynicism with the young, idealistic 'magic' teachers. I am currently a teacher's assistant so possess much of the same hopeful optimism teacher's like Sherwood have and somewhat agree with one of her points.

    It is possible that younger teachers have a tendency to be more creative than more seasoned teachers. This may be because younger teachers are still establishing themselves while trying to find out what works and what does not. More experienced teachers are likely to already have a set routine with methods they have perfected over time. This is why I believe it is healthy to have a nurturing environment for all teachers where there can be a free flowing exchange of ideas.

  11. Where you wrote: "Using performance as the deciding factor in who to lay-off would be ideal." -- I could not have disagreed with you more.

    When teachers are fired for incompetence, yes, their competence is at issue.

    But lay-offs are temporary measures due to budget difficulty, and when the budget is better, the teachers are called back. (IRL, some will already be employed elsewhere, have moved, have lost interest, etc, and won't return).

    Seniority is the only way with even a modicum of fairness to run layoffs.


  12. It is possible that younger teachers have a tendency to be more creative than more seasoned teachers.

    It is possible, but it's not necessarily true, and being a beginner is no guarantee of creativity...neither is experience. Are there any studies done on this? I'm not sure...it seems though, that many of the "reformers" believe it to be fact that beginners are somehow "better" than experienced teachers. I think it might have something to do with money.

    Yes, younger teachers don't have preconceived notions about what to try...and many are very creative in the activities they plan. However, the opposite is also true...a creativite activity may sound great, but sometimes it flops. The experienced veterans may not "try something new" because they have already tried it or they can see it's flaws...or they know their teaching style and their students learning styles and can predict that it wouldn't fit..

    I'm all for innovation, but trying something for the sake of being creative is not always the answer to a child's needs. The secret to a long career is to never give up learning yourself - whether the school provides inservice or not. It's our job as teachers to get as much experience as we can so that when it comes time to problem solve how to help a child we have more than one option.

    One thing I will freely admit...after going back to teach kindergarten at the age of 58...after a 30 year gap (in which I taught grades 1 through 6)...the younger (25 year old) teacher across the hall from me had a lot more energy at the end of the day. I learned a lot from watching her teach...but I hope she felt the same way about me. We each had something unique to share with our students...

    There's a book called "Beginner's Mind," by Shunryu Suzuki. In it he says, "In a beginner's mind there are many possibilities...in an expert's only one." A beginner is willing to try new things...learn from others...and learn on their own. The trick to being a good teacher for is to keep a beginner's mind...aka be a lifelong learner...no matter how long you teach.

  13. Santos chose Sherwood to interview because it was unusual to find a TfAer who wanted to be a career teacher (from an e-mail exchange). Yet she did not reveal that this made Sherwood unusual, and actually implied that she was typical.

    TfA works against unions, and ultimately against public education. Know any TfAers working as teachers in NY who are not E4E? (there must be some...) TfA is primarily an ideologically defined organization. (as far as the teachers, we should encourage them to break from TfA training, and to continue to teach. We should protect them both from TfA and the DoE, guard their rights, etc).

    You say you were similar to Sherwood, but you are not part of an organization whose core values are anti-union. You are not at all the same.

    Why would we treat these organizations (NYT and TfA and E4E) with deference, give them the benefit of the doubt, when they openly attack us? That's something to reflect on.

  14. Jonathan:

    To your first point regarding competence. Do you mean to say that all teachers are either competent or not competent? That there is no scale for competence, on which teachers might fall somewhere between highly competent and horribly incompetent?

    Why is it important for us to remember that lay-offs are temporary solutions to budget problems? How does that affect our conversation? Don't mean to be rude, I'm just not understanding why you brought that up.

    Regarding TFA - the reason I said I was like Sherwood is because I would have done TFA were I not accepted into my Master's program. I was fully unaware of the political role that TFA plays, and did not, at all, understand the ways it undermines the profession. I sincerely doubt that most TFA corps members enter the training with the same understanding about the organization that we share.

    I think the reason we should give MANY who give credence to the NYT, TFA, and E4E the benefit of the doubt is because many of them would likely be willing to have an honest dialogue with you about the situation. I think there's a lot to be said for changing people's minds with facts (and that seems to be entirely under-appreciated by our currently accepted form of public debate). Furthermore, if you want to change people's minds, you NEED to be willing to listen, consider, and appreciate their point of view. You can't go into this discussion with the presumption that your experience makes you right about all of your biases. People will respond much better to us when we show them why we believe what we believe and ask for reasons why they disagree with us. When I do this, it usually provides me with the opportunity to a) deepen my thinking, and b) point out why their understanding about why corporate reform is right is flawed. When they give me their reasons, I'm usually able to point out something they've overlooked. I think this is especially important with this argument in particular because corporate reform is winning it largely as a result of well-crafted propaganda and talking points. Beating that takes time, real dialogue, experience, logic, and facts.

  15. Self involved and self-important twaddle, as is all your writing. Public schools should be closed, period, and you and your fellow pretend teachers should be out of a job. The results that you and your pals have gotten are laying waste to our culture and civilization, and have done so for the past 100 years plus. Homeschooling is by far the better and more successful route. I'd trust a parent to educate their child any day over "trained" educators without names ("Relective Educator?"). At least a parent knows the name of the student without looking at a seating chart - as well as their own name. Do you know yours? Do the right and ethical thing - quit your highly overpaid and overprotected job, "educator". Reflect on that.

  16. You got me, Steve. My cover's blown. Thanks for telling it like it is.