School Board Santa

It felt like Christmas came early last night for the education justice movement. The Pittsburgh school board, which includes four of nine newly elected members, presented students with two lovely gifts: instead of handing out turtledoves or partridges in pear trees (really impractical this time of year, if you think about it), the board voted to rescind a contract with Teach for America and to stop the process of closing Woolslair elementary.

The community had raised significant questions about the impact Teach for America (TFA) would have on students, teachers, and our schools. [See “Six Questions for Teach for America” and “Too Few Answers”] And the community also spoke out loud and clear about the damage caused by past school closures, with almost 1,000 people responding to a survey conducted by volunteers earlier this fall going door-to-door in neighborhoods all over the city. [See “What Pittsburghers are Really Saying About School Closures”]

Then over 1,400 people signed a petition last month asking the board to wait a few weeks until the new members were seated to make decisions about contracts and school closures that would affect the district for years to come. Despite this impressive showing of public interest – and passionate, evidence-filled testimony from parents, students, and teachers alike – the outgoing board went forward, splitting 6-3 in favor of both the TFA contract and closing Woolslair. Last night the new board reversed both decisions: this time 6 members voted to rescind the TFA contract (with two opposed and one abstention), and they voted 8-1 to halt the school closure hearing process for Woolslair.

That means there will not be any school closures in the 2014-15 academic year, though the district has already said it will soon be presenting a slate of 5-10 additional schools for the board to consider closing. While the city’s population has stabilized, and Kindergarten enrollment is way up this year, with a budget deficit looming the district is looking at school closures to stave off fiscal crisis. So we still have a lot of work to do together to find bigger solutions that help all students and all our communities. (That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to be working on Mayor-elect Peduto’s transition team, looking at collaboration between PPS and the city.)

And we still have real work to do to make all our schools supportive environments for master teachers, so they will stay with the students who need them most. I recently spoke with a former PPS high school math teacher who transferred to a K-8 this year to get away from the chaos caused by poor leadership and years of “transformation” plans – this is a very real problem. Yet in the past few weeks I’ve also heard from numerous teachers who would absolutely love to work in our “hard to staff” schools, including another former high school math teacher who was offered an early buy-out in the last round of cuts and now can’t work for the district.

Still another former (fully credentialed) PPS substitute teacher told me, “It’s indecent and disingenuous” that the district claims there are no willing and passionate teachers, when it’s not “plumbing each school’s killer subs for ‘hard to fill’ positions.” This teacher said, “Had a … position been offered to me at Westinghouse or some other school I would have got down on my knees and thanked God, crying, and accepted it with all the prodigious passion in my heart and soul.” Now those are the people we need to work at recruiting and retaining in our schools!

For now, let’s focus on the magic of the season. These two board decisions stand as real victories for our grassroots movement. In fact, TFA’s regional communications director said, “This is the first time a school board has reversed a decision to bring the program into a district.” [Post-Gazette, 12-18-13] Indeed, education historian Diane Ravitch noted that the Pittsburgh vote “was remarkable because it is one of the few times–maybe the first time–that a school board rejected a TFA contract and recognized how controversial it is to hire young inexperienced teachers for the neediest students.” [, 12-18-13]

Look at that, Pittsburgh. We did it.

With the board playing Santa last night, the gift it gave to children was the promise to fight for a great education for every student. And to the education justice movement, it gave the precious gift of hope. There’s hope for the future of Pittsburgh public education with students, parents, teachers, community members, board members, and our district education professionals working together. It’s hard to put wrapping paper on it, but this will be the one present everyone remembers this year.

Too Few Answers

Right now in the debate over whether Pittsburgh ought to sign a contract with Teach for America, “TFA” stands for Too Few Answers. Two weeks ago I posted six questions that our school board ought to be asking before it agrees to any deal with the organization. [See “Six Questions for Teach for America”] That piece generated considerable discussion and just got picked up nationally. [, 11-21-13]

The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition also launched a petition asking the school board to delay a vote on the Teach for America contract (and two other issues), until the four new board members are seated in three weeks. As that petition states, “This newly elected board represents the largest board turnover in over two decades, and the new board, duly elected by Pittsburgh voters, should have its say in these important issues.” Over 1,000 people have now signed the petition on-line and in hard-copy formats. (Please sign here and spread the word through your networks.) That is over one thousand Pittsburghers who are paying attention to this issue and have spoken up about a school board matter – that’s not something that happens everyday in this city.

Since I posted the original TFA piece two weeks ago, I have also heard from numerous teachers, teacher-educators, teachers in training, former TFA members, TFA employees, concerned parents, and more. I met with Nicole Brisbane, TFA’s New York-based managing director for new site development, who helped answer a number of my questions. But for every answer, I have heard many new questions, which I have tried to organize into themes below.

Here are four more questions (bringing our total to 10) that the school board needs to ask, followed by three letters to the editor that warrant serious attention. I respectfully urge our school board members to read these, numbered 7 – 10, and then consider all ten questions that the community has brought before it. This is what authentic community engagement looks like. And right now, we have Too Few Answers.

7.  What is a “qualified” teacher for our students? TFA managing director Ms. Brisbane told me that TFA recruits are required to earn their Master’s degree in the two years while they are teaching, so presumably after this point they would have the same certifications as our professional teachers. But Olivia Grace, a teacher-in-training at a local university, pointed out on the blog, “Even in an excellent program, I recognize my first year [teaching] will be my hardest, and that I won’t feel completely competent for at least 5 years.” What do we mean by “qualified”?

Superintendent Dr. Lane has said that it is “pretty hard for us to pull in effective and qualified candidates” in math and science. [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] But would TFA corps members actually be qualified in these fields? They are certainly not experts. Teach for America recruits college grads from many majors, such as history and literature: would the district be able to restrict its hiring to math and science majors? Dr. Lane also told the Post-Gazette, “We’ve got lots and lots of applications” for elementary teaching spots. Since these are presumably qualified teachers – they have teaching degrees, plan a career in teaching, and clearly want to teach in our district – could we not assign these folks to high school math and science classes? Wouldn’t they actually be more qualified than TFA recruits?

Dr. Lane explained that TFA candidates are attractive because of their “commitment to kids in impoverished neighborhoods, children of color” and she called that “powerful.” [Post-Gazette, 11-9-13] Would that not make certified teachers (even elementary level teachers) applying to work in our district even more attractive, as they plan to dedicate their careers to our children in Pittsburgh? Could we re-visit the grow-your-own concept with the proposed Teacher Academy?

Finally, parent Pam Harbin notes that Westinghouse and U.Prep are generally named as the particularly hard-to-staff high schools. But almost a quarter of their students (24% and 23% respectively) receive special education services – far above the district-wide total of 17%. Pam asks, “How much special ed training do TFA corps members get?” In other words, are TFA recruits qualified to teach our neediest students in our neediest schools?

8.  What is the relationship between the Gates grant and TFA? The motion before the Pittsburgh school board calls for spending $750,000 for a three-year contract with TFA, to be funded by our grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] Is this a requirement of our grant? Could we spend those funds on other teacher training programs, such as our former proposed Teachers Academy? Or other desperately needed student programs?

9.  What is the long-term plan for TFA in Pittsburgh?  Right now the district tells us that they plan to hire up to 30 recruits. Ms. Brisbane told me it will likely be 15-20 this year, but the contract will be written for 30 to cover the costs of hiring a local executive director. So is the school district covering additional program costs beyond the per-head finder’s fee? At $5,000 per head that TFA charges for each recruit, the proposed $750,000 three-year contract would yield 150 TFA corps members. That would be 50 recruits a year and no one has been talking about that many. If we are only hiring 20 recruits a year for three years, that should cost the district $300,000 – does that mean the additional $450,000 in this contract from our grant money is going to support the local TFA startup costs? What happens after the three-year contract is up – who pays to keep the program going at those rates? Pittsburgh high school teacher Jon Parker commented on the blog:

there is no way on earth that TFA is coming here for 15-30 positions. It may be that number of positions in year one, but when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2015, TFA will have its foot in the door and will not be settling for 30 positions. In Charlotte, NC, Clark County, NV, and Chicago TFA contracts have meant furloughs of experienced teachers who were replaced with TFAers. Ultimately, even with the finder’s fee, a first step TFA teacher will cost the district less money in the short term. Unfortunately this decision will most dramatically impact our students and their families negatively. Pittsburgh needs teachers who want a career in front of our students, not a 2 year commitment. If we are financially strapped, we should be investing our resources in lasting change not a short-sighted contract rushed through without time for public consideration and meaningful dialogue.

10.  Do we need a short-term solution?  The school board is feeling pressured to make a quick decision on the TFA contract “because of the lengthy recruiting and screening process done by Teach for America.” [Post-Gazette, 11-20-13] We’re told time is running out and we need a short-term solution. But Dr. Josh Slifkin, who teaches at both Allderdice and Chatham University (and is a Pittsburgh Public School parent), warns, “I can’t buy into the concept of TFA as a ‘short term solution.’ I’m tired of short-term solutions by organizations who claim to have the silver bullet that will save public schools.” Dr. Slifkin continues:

I have taught scores of graduate and undergraduate students, so many deserving a full-time teaching position in PPS, who remain on the sub list (I see former students all the time—in my school, at my children’s school), have waited so long that they have given up on teaching, or have (finally) found meaningful full-time teaching positions in other local districts. And some of these are those oh-so rare STEM teachers.

PPS needs to do a better job working with our local universities, actively recruiting the talent, and posting and hiring in a timely manner (i.e., before the 11th hour). There are ‘highly qualified’ teachers out there, at preK through secondary levels, who are willing to give a lifetime to teaching, not just a ‘short-term’ (2 year) commitment. … Also, my Chatham students won’t come with a ‘finder’s fee’ attached to their employment. Public education remains a civic duty and civic right, not a way for private institutions to profit. TFA is not and will never be the answer here.

In addition to these new questions, I urge the school board to consider the comments from these three letter writers.

City schools, avoid Teach for America
[Post-Gazette, 11-15-13]
Teach for America is wrong for Pittsburgh (“Pittsburgh Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). It is from personal experience that I come to this conclusion.

I was a 2010 TFA Philadelphia corps member. I am currently teaching at a charter school. Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane has stated she wants Teach for America for hard-to-fill positions where a diverse applicant pool is difficult to attract. If she is genuinely looking for a diverse applicant pool, then she should avoid the hype that is Teach for America.

With Teach for America, Pittsburgh is guaranteed a specific kind of teacher; one who is inexperienced, unqualified and poorly trained. Not only will the Pittsburgh district receive an influx of unqualified teachers, but a revolving door of inexperienced teachers working with the students who most need a highly qualified one will be opened. One must look no further than urban districts like Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore where TFA has set up shop to see that an invasion of bright, idealistic and hard-working 20-somethings do not have the answers our district is looking for.

My daughter started school this year in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I believe she deserves the very best and I have seen great potential in PPS. When poor decisions like this are being made by our leadership, one cannot help but question their motives. We can all be sure of one thing: Schools located in our wealthiest suburbs, like Upper St. Clair and Fox Chapel, continue to seek well-qualified career teachers for their already advantaged students.

Park Place

Teacher recruits
[Post-Gazette, 11-19-13]
I read with dismay the proposal by the Pittsburgh Public Schools to hire Teach for America (“City Schools May Hire From Teach for America,” Nov. 9). Any data-driven educator would shun TFA, given its poor outcomes and the rapidity with which its untrained “educators” leave the profession.

Furthermore, the stated rationale given by the Pittsburgh district for working with TFA is that there is a shortage of teachers for certain sciences, like biology and chemistry, in the district. Before working with TFA, the Pittsburgh district should be required to detail publicly its outreach efforts to recruit certified teachers from local universities. I can attest that there are numerous qualified, well-trained and certified science and math graduates in this region.

So, what really is the reason for bringing in Teach for America?

Point Breeze
The writer is a professor in the College of Education at Slippery Rock University.

Avoid TFA’s Trap
[Tribune Review, 11-25-13]
Last fall, I was accepted to Teach for America (TFA) in Philadelphia. This autumn, I urge Pittsburgh to reject falling in its trap. TFA is a temporary teacher program. Recent college grads receive five weeks training and commit to two years in the classroom.

After Philadelphia closed over 20 schools and laid off 1 in 5 veteran educators, it placed a cheaper bunch of more than 100 inexperienced TFA corps members in lead teaching positions. Art, music, libraries, counselors, and even nurses were deemed superfluous, leading to the recent tragic death of a 6th grade student.

The community here is outraged at these assaults and fighting back. Last spring, students organized the largest walkouts since 1967. Thousands took to the street to demand support for their teachers and their future.

When I echoed concerns I heard in the community about the role of TFA in harming the district’s schools, the organization told me to silence myself. When I refused, and continued to stand in solidarity with the Philadelphia community demanding support for their public schools, TFA kicked me out.

While TFA claims to provide teachers for hard-to-fill subjects, recruits will not be prepared for them. Last fall, the program encouraged me to join a conference call entitled “Being a great math or science teacher no matter your major.”

If the Board signs a contract with Teach for America it pursues an illusion, not a solution. We must not let TFA do further harm in Pennsylvania. Our students deserve better.


Six Questions for Teach for America

Why would the Pittsburgh school board invite an organization into our schools that could potentially harm students and the district itself? I can’t answer that question, but it appears that is what they are about to do by signing a deal with Teach for America.

Teach for America (TFA) recruits bright young people, fresh from our top colleges, gives them five weeks of training, and sends them to work in mostly urban school districts. To understand the potential problems with TFA, you have to separate these young recruits from the program itself. Some of my own former students have gone into TFA, which is now widely considered an excellent resume builder and has become quite competitive on some college campuses. A couple years ago, a whopping 18% of Yale’s senior class applied to the program. [New York Times, 7-11-10]

While TFA may be a good thing for these young people who wish to experience “the real world” for two years before moving onto their “real careers,” the program is not necessarily helping students. In fact, it may be hurting them. And there are some very big concerns about the damage TFA is doing to public education more generally.

The Pittsburgh Public School board opened the door to TFA when it hired the outside consultants Bellwether and FSG at the beginning of this year to help close the district’s looming budget gap: their winning proposal promised to help the district recruit “high quality teachers” by “building a strong pipeline of talent through partnerships with local universities as well as with major alternative certification providers such as New Leaders, Teach for America, and the Urban Teacher Residency.” [Bellwether and FSG proposal, p. 12] At the time, the district’s director of strategic initiatives in charge of the Bellwether/FSG contract was Cate Reed, a TFA alumna who has since left to do development work for, yes, Teach for America. [Post-Gazette, 8-21-13] Meanwhile, TFA has set up shop in Pittsburgh and is now hiring a Founding Executive Director to plan their expansion into the city by next fall.

Here are six questions the Pittsburgh Public School board should ask before inking any deal with Teach for America:

1.  Will TFA help our students? Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig at the University of Texas Austin and his colleagues “have taken a look at every peer-reviewed research study that examines TFA and student achievement.” Their conclusion? “TFA is NOT a slam dunk.” Previously they found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.] A widely publicized recent Mathematica study suggested that TFA instructors are effective and give their students a 2.6 month boost in learning over traditionally trained teachers. [Dept. of Education, Sept. 2013]

This sounds good. However, in a technical review of that work, Dr. Vasquez Heilig points out that this number requires context, noting that “class size reduction has 286% more impact than TFA.” What’s more, a recent analysis demonstrates that early childhood education has “1214% more impact than the TFA effect reported by Mathematica.” [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] The bottom line? TFA doesn’t look like a silver bullet for our students and other initiatives such as class size reduction and early childhood education have an exponentially larger impact on student learning.

2.  Will TFA hurt our students? TFA corps members sign up for a two-year commitment and then most go on to other careers, contributing to the churn in the lives of students, many of whom are already facing great instabilities. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls TFA, “Teach for Awhile.” About 20-30% of TFA members stay in the classroom 3-5 years, and only 5% are still teaching in their initial placement by the seventh year. [Cloaking Inequality, 10-21-13] Many TFA alumni are now speaking out about their experiences working with some of our neediest students. With only five weeks of training, they say they were ill-prepared to work with troubled kids, could do little more than “teach to the test,” and worry that they really were harming children. [See for example Washington Post 2-28-13; John Bilby; Cloaking Inequality, 9-20-13 and 8-6-13] These are testimonies worth serious attention.

3.  Will TFA solve our staffing needs? Pittsburgh is apparently considering a deal with TFA because of a shortage of middle level and high school math and science teachers. The administration claims that TFA will help them get young people of color to fill these positions – a worthy goal, but at the last board meeting, TFA representatives said they could not guarantee that this would happen. If we truly have a staffing problem, why aren’t we working with local universities to place their recent graduates and “grow our own” regional talent? What happened to previous new-teacher programs in the district? I’ve also heard that our hiring cycle is quite late in the year, putting us at a disadvantage when it comes to making competitive offers: why don’t we address this simple calendar issue? I find it hard to believe that with at least seven teaching-degree-granting colleges and universities in Southwest PA, Pittsburgh can’t figure out a way to fill its ranks with highly qualified, trained teachers who want to make teaching their career, and perhaps even stay in their hometown.

Significantly, Dr. Vasquez Heilig and his colleagues conclude that, “The evidence suggests that districts may benefit from using TFA personnel to fill teacher shortages when the available labor pool consists of temporary or substitute teachers or other novice alternatively and provisionally certified teachers likely to leave in a few years. Nevertheless, if educational leaders plan to use TFA teachers as a solution to the problem of shortages, they should be prepared for constant attrition and the associated costs of ongoing recruitment and training.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

4.  Will TFA address our racial achievement gap? TFA’s recent job announcement points to the low number of black men going to college saying, “We believe that Teach For America corps members can play a vital role in the fight for educational equity in Pittsburgh.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] The implication is that by placing TFA instructors in our neediest schools that somehow these bright-eyed 22 year olds will solve our racial achievement gap. Do we have any credible research showing that youth and enthusiasm are the keys to this complex, persistent problem? Dr. Vasquez Heilig’s analysis of TFA outcomes answers that question this way: “The lack of a consistent impact…should indicate to policymakers that TFA is likely not the panacea that will reduce disparities in educational outcomes.” [Vasquez Heilig, J. & Jez, S. (2010). Teach For America: A review of the evidence.]

5.  What will TFA cost us? TFA operates like a temp agency, tacking on a finder’s fee for its recruits. It charges districts $3,000 to $5,000 per instructor per year – and that’s on top of the regular entry level teacher’s salary each TFA recruit receives from the district. How is that saving us money in the middle of this budget deficit crisis that has already forced the district to furlough hundreds of our kids’ teachers? To makes matters worse, TFA seeks out grants from states where it is doing business (it has a plan to increase state collections to $350 million in 2015). That is more of our taxpayer money that ought to be going towards equitable funding of our public schools.

And it’s clear that TFA wants to tap into other local resources: its current job ad says that Pittsburgh’s Founding Executive Director will “Grow a sustainable, diversified local funding base that will include gifts from individuals, corporations, and foundations; district and local public funding; and possibly an annual benefit dinner.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] Our city is not a gravy train and those valuable resources ought to be going to support students in public schools, not TFA. Make no mistake, TFA is a huge organization with a $100 million endowment and annual revenues close to $300 million. [All figures from Politico, October 2013] If TFA really wants to help Pittsburgh students, it could help us with our $46 million budget gap.

6.  Does TFA support public education? Here’s where the school board really better sit up and take notice. TFA has become a political powerhouse with huge political clout. In the middle of our federal budget standoff last month, TFA managed to renew a provision that defines teachers-in-training (including TFA recruits) as “highly qualified” so they can continue to take charge of our children’s classrooms. [Washington Post, 10-16-13] Right now TFA has seven alumni working for senators, representatives and the House Education committee through its new Capitol Hill Fellows program, paid for by Arthur Rock. A wealthy venture capitalist from San Francisco, Rock sits on TFA’s board and according to Politico, “has become a leading financier of education reform. He has made sizable donations to legislative and school board candidates across the country who support expanding charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers. Until recently, Rock also sat on the board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which advocates public subsidies to send low-income children to private and parochial schools.” [Politico, October 2013]

Like Mr. Rock, TFA is funneling money into school board races all over the country where TFA alumns are running: this year a New Jersey teacher tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars channeled to candidates promoting corporate-style and privatization reforms. [Jersey Jazzman, 10-17-13] A Massachusetts teacher recently dug into the role of TFA in urban charter schools, and discovered why the program is expanding in districts where teachers are getting laid off: “In city after city, TFA has largely abandoned its earlier mission of staffing hard-to-fill positions in public schools, serving instead as a placement agency for urban charters. In Chicago, however, TFA’s role appears to go far beyond providing labor for the fast-growing charter sector.” She found documents indicating that TFA hoped to “dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the city,” with plans to support 52 new charters at the exact moment the district proposed closing more than 50 traditional public schools. [EduShyster, 9-9-13]

In Pittsburgh, TFA wants its new Executive Director to “Develop and evolve a strategy for maintaining and growing our public support, from district, local, and state sources,” and to “Establish relationships with school districts and charter management organizations to place corps members with an eye toward maximizing scale and sustainability.” [Linked In, posted October 2013] No doubt about it: they’re planning to stay. And grow. In a big way.

Is this the organization that we want to invite in Pittsburgh’s front door? I’m not convinced from the review of the evidence that Teach for America will help our students. And I am deeply concerned that it may directly harm students, while costing us resources we don’t have, and failing to address our actual staffing needs. Here’s one last question: Can we show TFA the back door and say, no thanks?