Remembering James Foley

Teach for America is remembering corps member James Foley, Phoenix ’96. The freelance journalist, captured in Syria nearly two years ago, was murdered yesterday by Islamic State barbarians.

Elisa Villanueva Beard,co-CEO, recalls “his tenacity, his spirit, and his fierce dedication to give voice to the voiceless.”

Jim was an incredible teacher who was a model of love and excellence, and went on to be a journalist with the same passion, care, and integrity that he’d shown in the classroom.

“Here’s how I remember James Foley: hilarious, creative, laughing, learning,” writes Crystal Brakke. “Even as I sit here crying, I remember that James.”

The browning of Teach for America

Half of Teach for America‘s 5,300 new corps members are “people of color.” Nationwide, 50.2 percent of public school students — but only 20 percent of their teachers — are non-white.

Forty-seven percent of the new recruits received Pell Grants, a “reliable indicator of low-income background, writes Andre Perry. One-third are the first in their families to attend college.

Twenty-two percent identify as African American, 13 percent as Hispanic, 6 percent as Asian American or Pacific Islander, 1 percent identify as Native American, 10 percent as multiethnic/other and 48 percent as white.

Two-thirds joined straight from college. The rest have been working, in graduate school or serving in the military.

Jarrett McDonald, one of 100 veterans in the group, has experience setting goals, working under stress and taking on leadership roles. The Army is “built upon a shared mission of service,” he writes. So is teaching.

He wants to be what Teddy Roosevelt called “the man in the arena.”

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause…”

McDonald will be teaching in Jacksonville, Florida.

‘I came to the Delta to be a heroine’

When she came to Helena, Arkansas as a Teach for America recruit, April Bo Wang quickly learned her students’ poverty wasn’t romantic or literary, she writes in The Atlantic. Poverty in the Mississippi Delta was real and crippling.

My students came to 11th grade reading, on average, at a fourth grade level. Some were cycling back into school after a stint at the juvenile penitentiary. Some were regularly absent on days when their chronic diabetes was just too painful. Some were working night shifts at McDonalds to support a baby at home. Many of them should never have been allowed to graduate from middle school, much less reached the 11th grade.

Becoming an adequate teacher for my students became an all-consuming task. I had no energy to dream up anything but a better next lesson plan.

She’d thought of writing a novel. There was no time. She’d dreamed of being “a heroine.” But “social advocacy is all about the community—not about being at the center of one’s own story.”

She was able to make a difference for her students, but . . . “I was the best high school English teacher my students ever had simply because they’d had permanent substitutes for ninth and tenth grade English.”

Wang has founded a nonprofit called ThisLandSpeaks to fund journalists who will report on social issues and teach writing and journalism in rural communities, starting with the Mississippi Delta.

© The Norman Rockwell Estate; used with permission
Norman Rockwell’s Murder in Mississippi is on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. “The painting was a startling reminder that the cause we were celebrating had not been romantic,” writes Wang.

Waltons fund — surprise! — charter schools

The Walmart heirs have put a lot of their donations into charter schools for low-income students, reports the New York Times. The foundation also supports Teach for America.

It’s not exactly hot news. The Gates Foundation spends much more, focuses on changing education policy and is very, very influential.

The Times signals its left-wing bias, notes Ira Stoll on Reason. The Walton Foundation has “many tentacles” and funds “divisive” ideas, reports the Times. 

“Walton’s Mr. Sternberg, who started his career in Teach for America and founded the Bronx Lab School, a public school in New York City, does not apologize for Walton’s commitment to charter schools and vouchers.”

“Why would he apologize?” asks Stoll. He’s “helping to make schools better.”

The New York Times Company and its foundation support P.S. 111, the Adolph S. Ochs School in Manhattan, named after the family patriarch, reports Stoll. The school earned a grade of “D” for its school environment. A quality review observes “the principal acknowledges that teachers have not received written feedback this year.” Only 19 percent of the school’s sixth graders pass the state English test and only 24 percent of the school’s fifth graders pass the state math test.

A ‘teacher hater’ confesses

Conor Williams has a (sarcastic) “confession” to make on Talking Points Memo.

I am a “teacher hater.” I’m also bent on “undermining public education” in service of my “corporate overlords.”

Not really. But “that’s what my inbox tells me every time I write something about charter schools, Teach For America, or education politics in general.”

Williams writes about American public education for the New America Foundation. He “cares profoundly” about inequality and social mobility, he writes.

When people tell me that the “education reform” movement is a corporate enterprise run by wealthy adults who scorn teachers, I’m genuinely confused. I consider myself part of the education reform movement because I know the dire state of American public school instruction. I know the difference that great teaching can make—because it was so rare in my schooling. Those outstanding few were my heroes.

Inspired by “great educators,” he became a first-grade  teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Of course, I often hear that I am not REALLY a former teacher, since I entered the classroom through Teach For America. During a school visit recently, an administrator snapped that my “teaching as internship experience” gave me no right to call myself a former teacher.

Williams left after two years because he was mugged outside the school, leaving physical and psychological scars.

He and his wife are sending their son to their neighborhood D.C. public school in the fall.

“While I’m open to the possibility that some of the education reforms that make sense to me may not actually work as well I hope, I’m tired of being told that I have no standing in these debates, or that I hate teachers, Williams writes. “You want to have a debate on the merits? Fine. But don’t accuse me of being disingenuous.”

Survivor will be history teacher

Eight years ago, a Downtown College Prep senior named Luis Falcon was attacked by gang members in a San Jose park. Stabbed nine times, he lost a kidney and spent a week in a coma. He learned how to walk again. He will earn a degree in history from the University of California at Santa Cruz in May, reports the Santa Cruz Sentinel.  A Teach for America corps member, Falcon will return to his old neighborhood to teach history at DCP.

luis falcon

Lying in the hospital for a month after the attack, Falcon started to think about his neighborhood.”Something needed to change in my neighborhood and maybe I could be that little spark,” he said.

Undocumented and ineligible for college aid, he enrolled at San Jose City College but dropped out after one semester. “I was just paranoid I was going to get attacked.”

After working in a factory for two years, Falcon returned to community college. He also tutored at a charter middle school and worked in DCP’s summer bridge program. He legalized his status and earned a scholarship to UC-Santa Cruz.

Jennifer Andaluz, DCP’s executive director, has known Falcon since he was in ninth grade. He has the “grit” teachers need to succeed, she told the Sentinel.  “It’s about developing a mindset where you can actually grow in the areas where you currently struggle, and that growth is only going to come about as a result of hard work,” Andaluz said.

I write about Downtown College Prep’s early years in Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds.

Teach for America will try more training

Five weeks of training in the summer isn’t enough to prep college graduates for teaching, say some Teach for America veterans. Now TFA is launching a year-long training program for college students who want to teach, reports the Washington Post.

In addition to classroom experience, the pilot program will include classes in educational theory and pedagogy.

“With this extra pre-service year, we’ll give them more time to absorb the foundational knowledge all teachers need, more space to reflect on the role they are about to step into, and more time to directly practice the skills they’ll need as educators – skills like delivering a lesson or managing a classroom,” Matt Kramer, the co-CEO, told a TFA gathering in Nashville.

The five-week training program pumps up recruits’ egoes, but doesn’t prepare them to teach in high-need schools, wrote Olivia Blanchard in an Atlantic essay. A 2011 TFA recruit, Blanchard quit after a year at an Atlanta public school.

I was immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises.

. . . Typical instructional training included only the most basic framework; one guide to introducing new material told us to “emphasize key points, command student attention, actively involve students, and check for understanding.” We were told that “uncommon techniques” included “setting high academic expectations, structuring and delivering your lessons, engaging students in your lessons, communicating high behavioral expectations, and building character and trust.” Specific tips included “you provide the answer; the student repeats the answer”; “ask students to make an exact replica in their notes of what you write on the board”; and “respond quickly to misunderstandings.”

TFA will continue to ask recruits for a two-year commitment, but Kramer said corps members will be “encouraged” to stay in the classroom longer.

‘If I need geometry, I’ll learn it then’

Scott Hamilton is the Forrest Gump of education reform, although with a lot more IQ points and fewer chocolates, I write in an Education Next profile.

He worked for Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education and for Benno Schmidt at the Edison Project. He authorized charter schools in Massachusetts, co-founded the KIPP network, quadrupled the size of Teach For America (TFA), and introduced blended learning at urban Catholic schools. He’s been around.

Now 47, he’s started a new initiative called Circumventure, based in San Francisco. Through surveys, focus groups, field tests, and interviews, Circumventure is asking fundamental questions: Do people want what schools are offering? If not, what do they want? Can technology make it happen?

Being a “good learner” is valued by the students and parents he’s interviewed. Being “well educated” is not. “Young Millennials and their Generation Z siblings” believe they don’t need school to learn new things. They’ll do it all themselves—if and when they feel like it. “Teens think, ‘I’ll never use geometry. If I need it, I’ll learn it then’.”

TFA spinoff turns teachers into leaders

Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America alumni move into policy and advocacy roles, is expanding rapidly, reports Education Week.

Jennifer Aguirre, who teaches Spanish, won a LEE fellowship with a Baltimore community-organizing group run by a TFA alumnus. She’s now considering a public policy career.

“You have people who know something’s wrong,” she said, “but they need to be given the resources needed and encouragement to step out of their comfort zone and try to tackle a huge problem.”

LEE funds workshops with donations from Teach For America, private foundations and individual donors.

Electoral work amounts to less than a third of LEE’s budget, its officials say, but it has nevertheless fueled popular accounts of the organization, mostly critical. Such accounts accuse the group of supporting candidates who espouse a particular “corporate” brand of education policy focused on expanding charter schools and test-based accountability.

Bill Ferguson, a TFA alumni and LEE member, was elected to Maryland’s Senate, where he’s sponsored “parent trigger” legislation.

LEE officials say the group coaches candidates and reviews their campaign materials but doesn’t support particular policies.

Snowfall vs. the Grinch

A portrait of Mr. Noble by one of his students.

Arthur Noble II was in “full Grinch mode” on Dec. 23. A Head Start teacher with Teach for America in Chicago, he had to work through the holidays so parents could work. He missed his family. Determined not to teach, he turned on Dora the Explorer. Then it started to snow.

We watched the snowfall in silence until Ella, a precocious Ghanaian three-year-old, started telling a story about holidays at home: “We don’t have snow at Africa where my family is, but we all go to church and eat together.”

Two Mexican students chimed in excitedly about staying up late for church, and a Nigerian boy proudly broke out in a church processional.  A student from Spain bubbled over about her grandpa, who loved her all the way from his village, and showed me a letter full of hearts she had been working on intently during Dora.

Gianny said with a growing toothy grin, “Dude! My uncles are gonna watch football and take me fishing. I like fishing, and they always teach me how!”

Then Rihanna hugged my shin, “Don’t be sad Mr. Arthur. You can come to my house … my mom makes chocolate cake for my uncle when it snows. She is the best cook and you are just sweeter than piece of chocolate.”

His preschooler family “laughed and shared stories of love, family, and snow for the rest of the day.”