Saturday, July 05, 2008

Relentless Pursuit

Speaking of TFA, I just finished reading Relentless Pursuit ( and can't recommend it highly enough.  Here's one of my favorite excerpts (beginning on page 210), in which Chad, a 2nd-year TFAer at Locke High School in LA (among the city's worst) who was promoted to Vice Principal, has to figure out how to deal with the mid-year departure of a new TFA teacher.  Reading this makes my blood boil:
Who do you screw?  It was a question Chad asked himself nearly every day.  The other questions he couldn't get out of his head as he was making the tough calls were: Is this something I'd want for my kids?  Would I be OK with this?  The answer was almost always no.
After Dave Buerhle left, Chad had to figure out what to do with five orphaned classes of twelfth-graders.  Any way Chad looked at it, someone got screwed; the only thing to be determined was who and to what degree...
In the daily battle of who gets screwed at Locke, Buerhle's kids lost.  But they knew that the moment he told them he was quitting.  Their reaction to the news had been, "Why do all the good white teachers leave?"
If they had posted the question to Chad, his unspoken response would have been "Because the school doesn't work."  And though he took the position as VP because he thought he could change that, he had been sadly mistaken.  He had no power.  His job was only a balancing act -- between evils.  At least when he was a teacher, he had some fantastic days; in fact, most days were fantastic.  Now every time he walked through the door into his office he knew he was entering a no-win zone.
It was maddening to have to make these administrative Hobbesian choices.  Kids in suburban schools could live with a couple of duds for teachers, but not the kids at Locke, or any school that looked like Locke, or any school in which a TFA teacher worked.  Locke kids arrived with fifth-grade reading levels.  A good teacher could move them up one level.  A fantastic teacher -- a teacher making what TFA called significant gains -- could boost them two grades in a year.  At Locke, students couldn't afford to have just one or two good teachers.  They needed four fantastic ones.  And they weren't getting them.
One reason was because schools like Locke were safe havens for lousy teachers.  Dr. Wells [Locke's principal] reckoned that 35 percent of his teachers had no business being in a classroom.  But the powerful teachers union, the UTLA, protected tenured teachers regardless of their classroom performance.  There was a process at LAUSD to either get rid of bad teachers or make them better -- but it required administrators to jump through hoops.  Under the rules of the union contract, supervisors were bound to conduct and document repeated rounds of observations and evaluations carried out along a very specific time line, and to offer interventions and remediation through professional development where needed.  Even when a convincing case had been built against a teacher, a missed deadline could derail the entire process.  The teacher evaluations were divvied up among the administrators at Locke.  Dr. Wells took the toughest cases himself.  He tried mightily.  He had about twenty-two teachers in his sights, but the union contract made tenured teachers just about bullet-proof.  Chad didn't get it.  Why are we so concerned about protecting teachers and not kids?
It was hard to fire a bad teacher, but it did occasionally happen.  The terrible irony was that the alternative to a successful dismissal was often worse.  Good teachers weren't exactly lining up to teach at Locke, so often the only candidates sending in resumes were district castaways looking for a place to hole up...
Wells estimated that 40 percent of his staff were hardworking, committed educators.  And for a long time, Chad had believed that if Locke could get a critical mass of them to stick around, real change could take place.  But the dysfunction wore good teachers down and forced them out.  With up to thirty teachers leaving every year, some of them TFAers, there was no way to build an enduring culture of achievement.  Without that, Locke's numbers might trend up ever so slightly, but for all intents and purposes, the school would continue to flatline.
Locke was on every government education agency's watch list, but the consequences for failing to make the mandated improvements were never clear...

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