Monday, July 27, 2009

A story from the trenches -- send me more!

If you read anything I send out this year, let this be it.  One of my friends responded to the survey I sent around a couple of weeks ago by emailing me this story of his experience as a TFA teacher in the South Bronx a decade ago (though he's no longer there, he is still (thankfully) very much involved with educating disadvantaged kids).  It is one of the most powerful, heart-breaking, enraging things I have ever read -- and perfectly captures what this education reform struggle is all about.  Stories like this about what REALLY goes on in our failing public schools need to be told and publicized, so please share yours with me.


Thanks so much for putting this survey together. It brought back some memories well beyond the few questions about what it was like to teach in the South Bronx with TFA back in the late nineties. I want to emphasize here that I no longer teach in the Bronx, so I have little idea how things have changed and have seen the current Administration take a number of important steps that may be making a great impact. I'm not close enough to the ground to know, but my guess is that there are still plenty of schools in the Bronx and in every other low-income community in the country that reflect some of the miserable stuff I saw in my school. You should really start collecting a book of stories like these. Among all the people I know who've done TFA, these stories are just a few among many sad ones.

As I filled out the survey, I was first reminded of the art teacher in our school. She was truly a caricature of bad teaching. Like something out of the movies. She spent almost every minute of every day screaming at the top of her lungs in the faces of 5-8 year olds who had done horrible things like coloring outside the lines. The ART teacher! Screaming so loud you could hear her 2-3 floors away in a decades old, solid brick building. When she heard I was looking for an apt, she sent me to an apt broker friend of hers. I told the friend I wanted to live in Washington Heights. "Your mother would be very upset with me if I let you go live with THOSE PEOPLE. We fought with bricks and bats and bottles to keep them out of our neighborhoods. Do you see what they have done to this place?" This same attitude could be heard in the art teacher's screams, the administration's ambivalence towards the kids we were supposed to be educating and the sometimes overt racism of the people in charge. The assistant principal (who could not, as far as I could tell, do 4th grade math, but offered me stop-in math professional development for a few minutes every few months with gems like "these numbers you see here to the left of the zero are negative numbers. Like when it is very cold outside.") once told me "I call them God's stupidest people" referring to a Puerto Rican woman who was blocking our way as we drove to another school. She also once told me I needed to put together a bulletin board in the hallway about Veteran's Day. I told her we were in the middle of assembling an Encyclopedia on great Dominican, Puerto Rican and Black leaders (all of my students were Dominican, Black or Puerto Rican). "Mr. ____, we had Cin-co de May-o, and Black History Month, and all that other stuff. It is time for the AMERICAN Americans."

Not everyone in the school was a racist. There were many hard working teachers of all ethnicities who did not reflect this attitude at all. But the fact that the leadership of the school and a number of the most senior teachers was either utterly disdainful of the students they taught, or has completely given up on the educability of the kids, had a terrible effect on overall staff motivation. And many of the well-meaning teachers were extremely poorly prepared to make a dent in the needs of the students even if they had been well led. The Principal told more than one teacher there that "as long as they are quiet and in their seats, I don't care what else you do." This was on the day this person was HIRED. This was their first and probably last instruction. He never gave me a single instruction. Ever. And I was a new teacher with nothing but TFA's Summer Institute under my belt. The Principal proceeded to get a law degree while sitting in his office ignoring the school. When we went to the Assistant Superintendent to report that the school was systematically cheating on the 3rd grade test (i.e., the third grade team met with the principal and APs, planned the cheating carefully, locked their doors and covered their windows and gave answers) she told the principal to watch his back. A few months later, inspectors came from the state. After observing our mostly horrible classes for a full day, they told us how wonderful we were doing and that they had just come down to see what they could replicate in other schools to produce scores like ours. And the list goes on and on.

Like when I asked the principal to bring in one of the district's special education specialists to assess two of my lowest readers, both of whom had fewer than 25 sight-words (words they could recognize on paper) in the 3rd grade, he did. She proceeded to hand one of the students a list of words that the child couldn't read and tell her to write them over again. Then she went to gossip with the Principal. After explaining to him in gory detail, IN FRONT OF THE STUDENT, that she had just been "dealing with a case where a father had jumped off a roof nearby and committed double-suicide with his 8 year old daughter in his arms", she collected the sheet with no words on it, patted the child on the head and left. No IEP was filed nor was I allowed to pursue further action through official channels (I lobbied the mother extensively on my own). I never asked for her to come back to assess the other student.

Our Union Rep was said to have tried to push another teacher down a flight of stairs. The same Union Rep, while I was tutoring a child, cursed out a fellow teacher in the room next door at the top of her lungs so the child I was tutoring could hear every word. When I went to address her about it, the other teacher had to restrain the Rep as she threatened to physically attack me. And when the cheating allegations were finally take up by city investigators, the same Union Rep was sent to a cushy desk job in the district offices. I hear that most of the people I'm referencing here are long gone now, and some of them actually got pushed out of the system, but how rare can this story really be given the pitiful results we see from so many of our nation's poorest schools and how far the system goes to protect horrible teachers and administrators like the ones I worked with?

At the same time as all of this was happening, by the way, the few good teachers in the building often became beaten down and disillusioned. One of the best in my building was consistenly punished for trying to make her corner of the school a better place for learning. They put her in a basement corner with no ventilation, no windows and nothing but a 6-foot-high cubicle-style partition separating her from the other 5 classrooms in the basement. After fighting the good fight she went to teach in the suburbs. When I got a financial firm to donate 20 computers, the principal said he didn't have the resources to get them setup for use and refused to allow them into the school. When I had my students stage a writing campaign to get the vacant lot behind the building turned into a playground, the principal wanted me silenced.

The saddest thing about the whole damn mess was that our K-3 kids still REALLY WANTED TO LEARN. Every day they came eager for knowledge. And every day this cabal of cynicism, racism and laziness did everything within their powers to drain it out of them. It was unreal. Don't get me wrong. There were some good teachers there. And some well meaning, but poor teachers. But in many classrooms, the main lesson learned was that school became something to dread, many adults thought you were capable of very little, and some adults couldn't be bothered to lift a finger.

I hope if any of the good, hard-working teachers who fought so hard to rid the school of this mess read this, they'll know I'm not lumping them in with the rest. But the problem was, when I addressed the worst practices in the school at a staff meeting, the bad teachers laughed and the good teachers took it the hardest and thought I was criticizing them.

Thanks again for the survey. Let's make these stories known.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Democrats for Education Reform special email list

Forgive the corny analogy, but the 4th of July is a perfect day for an email about liberating the Democratic Party from the oppressive stranglehold of the teachers' unions...

If you care about education reform (which I hope is everyone receiving this email) and have the ability to write an occasional check to a Democratic politician who is supporting education reform legislation, I hope you'll join a special Democrats for Education Reform email list.  Even a monthly $10 check makes a difference!  Before I describe this list further (see below), allow me to give some background on why this is so important.

About five years ago, after many years of involvement with fantastic organizations like Teach for America and KIPP that are making a huge impact, I came to the horrifying realization that my party – the Democratic Party – was utterly screwing its most loyal (and vulnerable) supporters, low-income minority children and their families, in the single most important area for these families: schools.  My party had sunk to defending an indefensible status quo, often supporting legislation that would cripple organizations like TFA and KIPP. 

The reason was simple: the system – which has a total budget of over $600 BILLION annually, rivaling healthcare, Social Security and defense as the largest area of government expenditure – was working just fine for the adults, who, to advance their interests, had become well organized and politically powerful.

David Gergen highlighted what was going on a few years ago at TFA's 15th anniversary conference.  Looking out at a room filled with hundreds of TFA alums, many of whom were doing amazing things in the classroom, starting or working for organizations like KIPP, etc., he ended an hour of remarks and Q&A with the following caution:

"With all of your passion, energy and entrepreneurship, you will win many battles, but I worry that you'll lose the war because your enemies are fighting an entirely different battle."  (This is not word-for-word what he said; it's my best recollection.)

When I spoke with him afterward, he made it clear that he was talking about political battles. 

I see what he warned about every day: remarkable, inspirational education reformers and entrepreneurs are swamped with the overwhelming day-to-day work of launching and running amazing schools and school-reform organizations, while those who want to kill these schools are, with a horde of lobbyists, working the back rooms of Congress, state capitals and city halls, where deals are struck in the middle of the night...

After getting angrier and angrier about this state of affairs for a while, I decided to do something about it and, along with with a handful of other like-minded Democrats, founded DFER to engage in a political battle on behalf of millions of schoolchildren who are being poorly served by our educational system.  Our goal is to create a counterweight within the Democratic Party to the entrenched interests of the status quo.  (Below is our Statement of Principles.)

Given that we are outmanned and outspent 1,000:1, DFER has massively exceeded our modest expectations.  In short, it is going amazingly, unbelievably, shockingly well!  Thanks to a handful of courageous, visionary politicians (starting with President Obama) and the efforts of DFER and a handful of other individuals and organizations, the tide is shifting – so much so, in fact, that I'm convinced we're in the midst of a once-in-a-generation tectonic shift on this issue within the Democratic Party. 

I have never been involved with any organization that has had so much impact in so little time with so few resources (and I speak from experience: I'm currently on 11 nonprofit boards and have observed countless others over time).  DFER's Executive Director Joe Williams, a couple of invaluable staff people, and a few dozen supporters, with very little money, are running the table and ROCKING the Democratic Party and the educational establishment.  It's one of the most remarkable and exciting things I've ever seen, much less been involved with.

I'm in the investment business, so I spend my days looking for investments that, over time, might double or triple my money within a few years.  Now compare that to the political arena, in which I've seen a $3,500 investment result in a $1.5 million return within a matter of days – that’s a 429-bagger (I'm not making this up)!  The return on capital here is unbelievable – and best of all, the capital isn't being returned to me, but rather to benefit kids who just need a decent education to have a chance in life.

I'm asking for your support.  Here's what you can do to help:

1) Make a charitable donation to the 501c3 charitable organization associated with DFER, Education Reform Now.  Email Beverly Francis at for details on how; and

2) If you're willing to write checks to politicians, join our special email list to receive periodic emails (1-3 per month) from Joe asking for support for one or more Democratic politicians related to a particular education reform battle (a recent example was the successful fight in Rhode Island whereby the legislature voted to fund mayoral academies, charter schools run by suburban mayors). 

This is a private email list only for friends of DFER – in them, Joe shares confidential information about DFER's political strategies, etc.  Therefore, we must know who each person is before adding them to the list.  There are currently only a few dozen people on the list and we'd very much like to expand it.  If you'd like to join, please email Brienne Bellavita, at and include the following information:
- Your name and contact info

- Brief information on who you are and why you're interested in education reform

- Your best guess regarding the amount of political giving you might be able to do related to DFER.  Examples of possible replies: "an occasional $100 check", "Regular (monthly) $500-$1,000 checks", etc.  (This is important because certain events require a minimum donation.)
Thank you!


PS--While I am an active board member and supporter of DFER, I don’t run DFER; Joe Williams does.  Thus, the views I express in my emails are mine alone and don’t always reflect DFER’s (in fact, I’m sure Joe and my fellow DFER board members and supporters sometimes cringe when they read some of what I write).


Democrats for Education Reform
Statement of Principles
A first-rate system of public education is the cornerstone of a prosperous, free and just society, yet millions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color - are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children. This perverse hierarchy of priorities is political, and thus requires a political response.

Both political parties have failed to address the tragic decline of our system of public education, but it is the Democratic Party – our party – which must question how we allowed ourselves to drift so far from our mission. Fighting on behalf of our nation's most vulnerable individuals is what our party is supposed to stand for.
Democrats for Education Reform aims to return the Democratic Party to its rightful place as a champion of children, first and foremost, in America's public education systems.
We support leaders in our party who have the courage to challenge a failing status quo and who believe that the severity of our nation's educational crisis demands that we tackle this problem using every possible tool at our disposal.
We believe that reforming broken public school systems cannot be accomplished by tinkering at the margins, but rather through bold and revolutionary leadership.  This requires opening up the traditional top-down monopoly of most school systems and empowering all parents to access great schools for their children.
We know that decisive action today will benefit our children, our party and ultimately our nation.

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