Front-liner: My Life in Teach For America, KIPP, and Education Reform
As a teacher, it can be hard to have a conversation about “education reform” and everything associated with it: charter schools, ‘accountability’ measures, leadership, funding, space, etc. For a lot of people, it’s become yet another quasi-religious issue that defines whether you are one of the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys.’ It requires loads of guarded speech, full of qualifiers and reassurances, lest you get accused of being anti-kids, anti-teachers, anti-unions, anti-freedom, and so on. It’s infuriating.
I spent 8 years as what I like to think of as an education front-liner– teaching in high-poverty, difficult school districts with what I also like to think of as a mission-based mindset– a goal-focused determination to help the students in these districts measurably exceed the low levels of academic achievement typical in their environment. The first two years were in north Tulsa as an initiate in the notorious Teach For America, a group that takes college graduates with no education experience (or even coursework in most cases) and places them in high-needs classrooms around the country for 2 years. Afterwards, I stuck around in north Tulsa for a year before joining the (also notorious) KIPP charter network in east Austin, Texas.
It was a crazy 8 years with a career’s-worth of extraordinary experiences. I made loads of mistakes, hit important milestones, worked on my craft and achieved measurable victories in ways I had doubted were possible. As an intense dude who too often wears his heart right on his sleeve and too seldom considers the ramifications of his words, I forged deep and lasting relationships with students and colleagues; I also was occasionally a lightning rod for controversy and alienated people. Only now that I’ve moved to a much more low-key rural district in a public school have I truly begun to process my experiences and their lasting impact.
In short: I learned a lot. I think I’m going to occasionally begin using this space to think out loud about my experiences and what I’ve learned. It might be useful for some people because while I will never stop improving my craft, I got shit done in a real way. By my third year, my students were far outperforming district averages in reading comprehension growth, language usage, state test results– whatever marker you want to use. That never ceased. My students in Texas scored in the top ten percent of all Texas kids, irrespective of district, in three different subject areas over my five years as a KIPP teacher. I’m not one of those teachers who can be written off as a lazy coaster, a bitter failure, or someone who doesn’t have the success to back up their method. I feel like I learned real things about how to effectively run a tough classroom and (after a rough start) put those things into action.
I also stuck around long enough to see a lot: that counts for something. Most TFA and KIPP people don’t last in the classroom. 2 or 3 years and they’re off to law school, grad school, or a promotion up the administrative ladder. While I have PLENTY of thoughts on that, for now I’ll just say that 2-3 years in high-poverty classrooms is not a very long time in the game, especially if we want to start drawing big policy conclusions/coach people on teaching/run schools/generalize about students. Maybe I’ve got some observations that are at least worthy of debate.
I also don’t have a horse in the race, ideologically speaking. Although I love TFA for giving me the opportunity to teach that my local NJ schools would not, which in turn led to some definite positive impact on students, I’m not a TFA ambassador. The organization was not helpful to me in the slightest after my two years with it were finished and in some respects it was an active impediment to my continued teaching career. Neither am I one of those contemptible TFA quitters: people who broke their two-year commitment pledge and now justify their betrayal of their students with a blog trashing the organization.
I am also neither “pro” nor “anti” charter school as a matter of principle. Different districts need different things. The very nature of charter schools means that they will vary wildly in setup and execution, sometimes even within the same network. I do shake my head at a lot of the stuff people (especially anti-charter people) say about charter schools, the work they do, and the teachers they have. It’s stuff only an ignorant loudmouth who has never worked in a high-needs district would say. I achieved my greatest successes, met and learned from my best colleagues, and got my very best coaching as a KIPP teacher. At the same time, it took a lot out of me– more than it should have. My KIPP experience showed me just how much charters burn through people, often in the pursuit of what are really just yearly numbers on a balance sheet (test scores/suspension rates). In the pursuit of their goals, they will often thoughtlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) use people as cannon fodder.
I hope my writing is useful. Maybe it will make some people mad; maybe hardly anybody at all will read it. Who knows? I’d like to get some of my lessons learned out there before the acute memories start to fade, in the hopes that someone will get something out of it. If you’re interested, stay tuned.