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.