Throwin’ Down on Teachers and School Models

Two interesting news items this morning, showing that what was once old may be new again.  The first the debate over traditional versus alternative teachers, the second on the role of small schools.

Issue One: Up in Boston, the Boston Teachers Union has firmly planted its flag in the sand, hoping to block an influx of new Teach for America educators this fall.  Citing planned cutbacks in the Boston Public Schools and a “surplus” of existing “good” teachers, the BTU is taking its fight to the streets, hoping to keep 20 new TFAers from arriving in Beantown this fall.  The full story is here, in the Boston Globe.
What’s interesting is that TFA seems to be taking the position that it is a public service organization, much along the lines of the Peace Corps or Americorps (something that Bostonians know a thing or two about).  Eduflack doesn’t doubt that many TFAers enroll in the program because they believe they are giving back to the community and performing a public service by going to into urban or rural schools that are having a dickens of a time staffing their classrooms.  But the BTU has a point here.  Is it really public service and volunteerism at its best when a TFA teacher in Boston is making the same starting salary as a beginning teacher in the district (about $46K)?  If Boston were paying TFAers the hourly wage that Americorps members are getting, we are having a different rhetorical fight.  But we are putting each pool of educators on equal footing, at least financially.
Seems to me that if Boston does indeed have this surplus of hundreds of good teachers without current jobs (not something I would be bragging about, but that’s just me) the focus then should be on quality and effectiveness.  Why bring in a TFAer for two years when you can tap the best of the current surplus pool, teachers who may already have a track record of delivering student achievement results in Boston and teachers who are prepared to make a commitment for more than two years?  Do we want surplus teachers or do we want proven-effective teachers who are prepared to make a long-term commitment to closing the achievement gap and boosting student performance?  When caged that way, the answer seems simple (particularly since we are waging this rhetorical war over 20 TFAers).  Part of TFA’s mission is staffing those hard-to-serve schools.  If we have qualified teachers lined up around Fenway Park to serve from Southie to the North End, seems they warrant an equal chance for those 20 available slots.
Issue Two: Back in America’s heartland, Chad Wick, the CEO of KnowledgeWorks Foundation, makes a strong case for the notion that small schools work.  His commentary can be found here at Education News.  This is a bold statement to make, particularly since so many people believe that the Gates Foundation disowned the notion of small schools this past fall.  But if you look at what Bill Gates said back in November, and you look at what Wick says today, they are marching in lockstep.  Those who think we are going to improve the schools simply by changing the structure and implementing a small school model are fooling themselves.  But changing the structure is an important first step to school improvement, particularly if you use the new model to create new learning opportunities for students, offer better supports and PD for teachers, and generally refuse to toe the status quo line.
Having worked with Wick and the good folks at KnowledgeWorks, they seem to know what they are talking about.  They can point to their efforts with the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative and Early College High Schools as examples where the small school structure opened the door to improvement.  They used the new structure to close the achievement gap and improve high school graduation rates.  Seems a model example of using the process (school structure) to actually generate some measurable results.  Isn’t that a novel concept, particularly in this era of innovation.

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