Future of Schools

Teach For America contract in Memphis area approved, despite concerns

Shelby County’s merged school board voted 5-2 to keep its contract with Teach For America at last night’s board meeting, despite concerns about the program’s recruitment fee.

The district will pay $1.9 million to Teach For America, or TFA, over the next two years to place a cohort of up to 125 teachers. That represents a $5,000 per teacher, per year fee to the organization, which goes to TFA, not to individual teachers recruited.

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II introduced the vote by saying that he was concerned about TFA teachers’ retention. He said that 21 percent of TFA teachers remain in the district after their second year, as compared to 71 percent of teachers recruited directly by the district. 

He told board members he still recommended voting for the contract because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, which gave the district a $90 million grant to support teacher effectiveness initiatives in the district, and because national studies suggest that TFA teachers are effective.

What makes me comfortable with the gap [in retention between TFA and regularly-recruited teachers] is that it’s being funded by Gates,” Hopson said. 

Board member David Pickler criticized that logic. “Is it your understanding that we’re required to have this under Gates?” Pickler asked. “If we’re not required, and the only reason you’re comfortable is because it’s funded by Gates…the mere fact that its paid for doesn’t mean that’s the highest and best use of funds.”

Pickler raised concerns about the financial sustainability of the program. “If, in fact, we’re bringing teachers in here for only two years, we’re in a situation where, when the Gates money is gone, we’re dealing with teachers that have to be replaced over and above normal recruiting,”

Board member David Reaves said that he did not question that alternate certification programs, which grant teaching licenses to teachers who have not completed traditional education programs, have value, “but when you go to an outsource model, you have two years, invest a lot, then there’s a brain drain.”

Pickler and Reaves also questioned the performance of TFA teachers in the district.

Hopson said that he had not specifically run data on the performance of TFA teachers in the Shelby County school system. District officials referred board members to a recent report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission suggesting that TFA teachers in the state help improve students’ test scores.

Laura Link, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching, learning, and professional development, said that the district did not receive enough certified applicants to fill spots in high-needs subjects. In math, she said, the district had 81 vacancies and 20 certified applicants. In middle school, there were 160 vacancies and 75 certified candidates in the pool. 

Board members raised the question of using pay to incentivize teachers to teach in high-needs schools. Board member Reaves asked if the district had tried using that $5,000 recruiting fee to offer signing bonuses to teachers. He was informed that the district had not.

He then asked if candidates to teach in the district’s Innovation Zone, a group of 13 low-performing schools that receive extra funds and certain school-level autonomies in an effort to help improve the schools, receive a financial incentive to teach in those schools. Bradley Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer, said that they do, though teachers might have varied motivations for working in those schools.

Superintendent Hopson said, “We will be asking the board to allow us to pay incentives to teach in places that are low-performing.” But he said that some teachers had informed him that “you couldn’t pay us enough to go” to some low-performing schools, due to safety concerns and working conditions.

Board members Teresa Jones said that focusing on teacher retention and satisfaction should be a priority. Five teachers in the Shelby County school system spoke earlier in the meeting about their dissatisfaction with several aspects of their working conditions, including a lack of raises, lack of pay for advanced education, and a feeling that their voices are not heard by policymakers.

“Are we making this is an attractive district over and above salary?” Jones asked. “If you address some of these complaints, retention won’t be an issue.”

Hopson said, “I have to say, if effective talent is leaving the district at a 70-something percent rate, we have to look at strategies we can use to retain talent.” 

The board approved Teach For America’s contract, with Reaves and Pickler voting against. Pickler raised similar concerns about TFA’s contract at a meeting last week.

 

School shootings

Parkland teacher to future Indiana educators: Don’t be afraid to become a teacher

PHOTO: Provided by Indiana University Communications
Indiana University alumna Katherine Posada, an English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks to IU School of Education students on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Posada survived a mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida school where 17 students and teachers were killed by a former student.

Anxious students about to embark on their teaching careers might be even more worried about life in the classroom after the recent shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

But after surviving last week’s attack that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, teacher Katherine Posada wanted to ease the fears of education students at her alma mater, Indiana University.

On Friday morning, she spoke to an auditorium of about 200 people in Bloomington about huddling with her 22 students while the school was on lockdown.

Posada acknowledged hard truths: that teachers can do their best to help struggling students, but there will be some — like alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from the school — who they won’t be able to save.

But her clear passion for teaching, and her hope for change for safer schools, rang through.

“Please don’t let this type of event discourage you or make you be afraid to become a teacher,” Posada said. “Because in this world, it is more important now than it ever has been to be able to give these messages to our students, and to be able to prepare them for the world they’re about to go into.”

Here are some excerpts from Posada’s talk:

On why she thinks arming teachers is a “terrible idea”:

“Teaching is about relationships, and it’s about respect. And if I am armed, and I have a weapon, my students no longer respect me. They respect my weapon. They fear my weapon. And I become a threat to them, or a potential threat to them.”

Posada said she supports safety measures such as requiring students to wear IDs and limiting access to schools by keeping entrances locked. But she said she believes it could have been dangerous for her to have a gun on the day of the shooting, particularly when law enforcement cleared the building.

“The first thing that we saw was the barrel of a rifle pointed at us,” she said. “I understand that they had to assess whether or not there was a threat in the room, but they’re pointing guns at us, and they’re shouting, and they’re saying, ‘Hands up! Get in the middle of the room!’

“If I’d had a gun at that moment, they would have shot me. Because they’re there to assess a threat. They’re not there to say, ‘Hmm, this person looks like a mild-mannered 10th-grade teacher who’s not a threat to me.’ … I don’t ever want them to wonder if I’m a threat to them.”

On Parkland students’ gun-control activism after the shooting:

“They are articulate and inspiring and educated. And they didn’t get there by accident.

“They got there because of people like you in this room. Because of their teachers. Because of people who have taught them to think critically about important issues. Because of people who have taught them how to formulate their words and given them the opportunity to practice those things, and educators who have told them they can change the world.”

On how teachers can prepare for school shootings:

“Many of you are wondering if you will ever be able to be prepared for a situation like a school shooting. Yes, you can be logistically prepared. You will do trainings, and you will do the drills, and you will talk to students, and you will know exactly what to do in those situations. But I will tell you, you can never be emotionally prepared for what that is like.”

But Posada said even if you’re in shock, your instincts will kick in.

“You do what you have to do to protect your kids. And that’s what they are: Every student who comes into your classroom, as an educator, is your kid. You form relationships with them, and you’ll do whatever it takes to protect them. You’ll know what to do.”

On what she really teaches in her 10th-grade English class:

“Empathy and the ability to relate to other people.

“Any time you pick up a book, you are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You are looking at the world from someone else’s perspective for that 300 pages, or whatever it is that you’re reading. That’s such an important thing to be able to do in this world where we are so polarized. It’s so ‘us versus them.’ ‘If you don’t agree with what I say, you must be a terrible, horrible person.’ I think we get caught up in that way of thinking far too often. … It’s OK to disagree with each other, you just have to do so respectfully.”

Posada said she teaches students to think critically by articulating their own arguments — and understanding other perspectives.

“I really try not to let my own personal views come across in the classroom. It’s not my job as an educator to tell my students what to think. It’s my job to teach them how to think for themselves.”

On how she plans to go back to school after the shooting:

“In many ways, I don’t think it will ever be the same.”

Posada expects students’ first days back will be devoted to talking about the shooting.

“I was in the middle of reading Macbeth when we left. How am I going to do that? How am I going to go back and read Macbeth to them at this point? Would anybody care? I don’t think so.”

She said she may shift her lesson plans to be more meaningful, to include a project for students to research and present on issues they feel passionately about.

“I don’t know that we’ll go back to Macbeth. I am going to teach the standards, maybe in just a little bit of a different way. .. I think it would be a disservice to the students to jump back into, let’s do some SAT prep.”

On being “more than just a deliverer of curriculum”:

“I feel like I’m their mom sometimes. I feel like I’m their parent. I think sometimes they’d rather I didn’t feel that way, because I expect a lot of my students, and sometimes I call them on stuff that they’d rather you let slide. … Some of them need an adult who can be a role model, or who can be someone they can talk to, because they don’t have that anywhere else. You feel like a therapist sometimes. So yeah, you’re definitely more than just a deliverer of curriculum. That would be easier, probably, less stressful, but you’re more than that.”

Her relationship with her students, Posada said, helps her see red flags in their behavior, in their writing, or from other students, in cases in which students may need counseling.

“Unfortunately, we can’t catch every single incident,” she said. “But you do the best you can.”

On whether there is “room in our hearts to love kids like Nikolas,” the alleged shooter:

“I think that the answer to things like this is more love, more understanding. More willingness to accept other people and their points of view and the way they might feel and the way they might think and to be open to everyone expressing themselves. So I think there’s room. It might take us awhile to get there, but I definitely think it’s possible.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.