Posts tagged: TFA


By , July 4, 2011 1:52 pm

John Lee Hooker – Homework

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Back in the glory days of teaching (i.e. pre- July 1, 2011), an LAUSD teacher could use her best judgment to designate which portion of a student’s academic grade was represented of homework. For example, he might assign homework to be worth 25% of a students grade because he feels that a grade (which is looked at by colleges) should partially reflect the amount of hard work a student has put into a class. On the other hand, a teacher might choose her homework assignments to be worth a mere 5% of the grade, because she desires the vast majority (i.e. 95%) of it to be based on tests, quizzes, and projects, etc…

Those days are no longer.

The New Policy

Beginning on Friday, LAUSD has decreed that homework shall be weighted no more than 10% of a student’s grade. The two main reasons cited for this are (a) a desire to insure that an academic grade reflects academic knowledge learned, rather than mere compliance, and (b) a desire to not penalize students who may not have resources to adequately complete homework at home.

To be clear, what this new policy does not do is mandate the amount of homework teachers may assign. For example, a 7th grade student receiving 70 minutes of homework a night (“grade level x 10” is a generally agreed upon formula) is still likely to be assigned 70 minutes of homework a night. Yet what this policy does do is to explicitly state that that work may count for no more than 10% of the academic grade, hopefully resulting in a grade that is an accurate reflection of a student’s actual content learning.

The Reaction

Unsurprisingly, reaction to the new policy has been swift and varied, ranging from those who view it favorably to the extent that they think our Chief Academic Officer, Judy Elliot “should be put on a pedestal for getting such a policy through”, to those who decry the new policy and accuse LAUSD leadership of seeming to “think that lowering expectations for children is the way to go.” [Quotes chosen (very selectively) from the comment section of the L.A. Times, a section which tends to find far too few reasoned voices in a sea of unmitigated yelling].

Conducting a bit of Facebook research on my own, I posed the question as to whether this new policy is a good idea or a bad one, with the following choices and results:


On the whole, a majority (54%) of respondents seem to resonate with the concern that the policy will reduce an incentive to practice academics at home.

What was fairly interesting to me is that I had a small number (n=11) of former students weigh in as well, and likewise, 54% (i.e. 6) of them seemed to have concern with the potentially unintended consequence of de-weighting homework for students.

The coolest part of this unscientific polling was that many respondents left excellent comments after they had voted, some of which detailed their own past policies as teachers, or their thoughts on the long-term implications of a policy like this (including the potential financial implications, which I’d not heard brought to this discussion). These are definitely worth a read.

My Frustration

So my two cents? While I do think grades ought to be based on learning, rather than compliance, I very much resonated with the majority of responding teachers surveyed here. Also having just finished reading Wendy Kopp’s A Chance to Make History, one of the strongest factors she cites as elements that successful schools have emphasized is more time engaging the curriculum. And while this 10% homework weighting policy doesn’t reduce the amount of homework (a.k.a. time engaging the curriculum), it does reduce the connection between the “hard work” students put forth and the results that they see. If we’re not just teaching percentages, but also perseverance; if we’re not just teaching decimals, but also dedication; if we’re not just teaching fractions, but also fortitude; and if we’re serious about all kids being able to make it to college, then we’ve got to be serious about the kinds of academic habits it’s going to take to get them there. We must raise the bar, and unfortunately, this new policy may lower it.

My frustration with this district was only furthered as I tried to reach out in an attempt to serve my math department. Knowing that many teachers might have the same questions and concerns as I did, I emailed the district’s math person with the following two questions:

  • What are some strategies that math teachers can use to continue to instill in their students the importance and value of excellent home study habits, especially now that students will not see a direct connection between any effort they put into continuing academic practice at home and their academic grade?
  • What are some strategies math teachers can use to communicate this policy effectively to parents, many of which may see homework as a primary method to encourage their children’s academics and now must face the paradigm shift that the influence of homework is now merely indirect?

My hope is that someday I will work for a district that will support teachers and department chairs who take the initiative to reach out for it, rather than receive 17-word non-answers in response. (“The training suggestions and strategies could be found on the resources outlined in the memo.”) That was literally the response I got. If the “resources outlined” actually referred to some web links that were instantly viewable and addressed the questions I asked, the response would be alright. Unfortunately, the 3 resources cited are books, which do not host their content online, which leaves me with the options of leaving my questions unanswered as I try to serve my department, or go out and spend $87 on purchasing the resources the district is apparently supporting us with pointing us to.



By , March 24, 2011 4:55 pm

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I first heard Wendy Kopp speak nearly seven years ago in a crowded Long Beach convention center at the dawn of my career with Teach For America; a ceremony in which the phrase “…and that’s why I teach for America” was first christened as it began its steady overuse into new levels of hilarity (in the same way that Steve Carell’s “that’s what she said” has).

Last evening, seven years later, I got to hear Wendy speak again, only this time to a much smaller crowd filled with a few corps members, a few TFA alumni, an incoming superintendent, and a professional philanthropist whose building we were borrowing for the event. Interviewed by the golden voiced Warren Olney, Wendy expounded on her new book, but mostly advocated for continued TFA’s influence and development as a “leadership pipeline”, citing her (somewhat seemingly “new-ish”) epiphany that making transformation in students lives can only sustainably occur through “transformational schools”, i.e. schools with an amazing leader.

And while I am certain that Wendy and I would not see exactly eye to I on a number of pragmatic issues, I absolutely agree with her fundamental premise: school leadership matters. I’ve been lucky in the past seven years to work at a school where we have very competent leadership that has often times not only allowed, but encouraged teachers to “think outside the box” when it comes to working with and advocating our students here at Cochran. Yet, I think of my countless former TFA colleagues who worked at other schools who reported horror stories of incompetent principals, disorganized schools, and mismanaged communities and eventually left the classroom. Yikes. We clearly need good leadership in schools.

So how does one get this to happen? Let the debate begin.

Why Spring Training is like Markham Middle School

By , February 26, 2011 11:21 am

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It rained in Los Angeles last night, but as the sun came out this morning, it was clear that a new season has freshly landed upon us. My spirit soars on this Saturday as I watch my beloved Mets take on the hated rival Atlanta Braves in the first game of Spring Training.

And while I hope the Mets do well in this game (they’re already down one game to nothing), part of my is equally hoping that they’ll get all their early season jitters and hiccups out of the way right now before the season actually begins come April.

In some ways, I view baseball’s spring training as an opportunity to work out the kinks, that is, to figure out what you’re doing wrong, and to fix it before the year actually begins.

For me, the summer of 2004 provided an excellent opportunity at “Spring Training teaching” for me. As a newbie Teach For America corps member, fresh off the boat of college graduation, I was assigned to teach 1 month of summer school in the notoriously difficult Markham Middle School, located in neighborhood of Watts prior to beginning my full time teaching position at Cochran Middle School later that fall. Like the other 99 members of our TFA cohort, I had had zero teaching experience prior to my walking in to that 7th grade Pre-Algebra summer school class on that first day of teaching at “Institute”.

So how did I do as a teaching that summer of 2004 at Markham? Let me sum up my accomplishments thusly: I sucked.

Kids up and out of their chairs, constant daydreaming, me having to raise my voice on a number of occasions, lesson plans that flopped, lesson activities that flopped even harder, and me going crazy staying up late hours of the night trying to figure out what in the world to do with these kids the next day. In short, I was a terrible teacher during my spring training at Markham.

Yet, I consider that month perhaps to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. Why? By failing so badly that summer, I learned what not to do. And so in the month after my experience at Markham ended (but before I taught a whole year of students at Cochran), I reflected, I revamped, I retooled, and as a result, I had a very good first year of teaching at Cochran. By failing, I learned what exact things I needed to address (for me, it was setting and maintaining student behavior expectations), and I actually had a chance to do it. To this day, I’m so thankful of that experience at Markham.

So much so do I value the act of learning from “falling on your face”, one of my first questions I’d ask new Cochran TFAers in subsequent years was “How was your summer school teaching?” I would cringe with fear when some of these newbie teachers would say “my summer teaching was great”, and find those fears later validated when these teachers, who’d never had the experience of failing in a training, failed in their classrooms. Conversely, when an incoming Cochran TFAer would tell me “my summer was soooooooo hard”, I would think and often say to them, “you’ll do great here!”

So as Spring Training begins for my Mets in Port St. Lucie, Florida, I wish them the best at winning, but dare I say it, Go Braves?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?


Neiliyo – Springtime

Celebrating 20 Years by…Golfing

By , February 12, 2011 4:57 pm

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Well, it’s definitely no Pebble Beach, but the views from Scholl Canyon Golf Course, a deceptively tricky par-60 course in the nearby suburb of Glendale provided two P.E. teachers, an English teacher, and this Math teacher with quite an enjoyable Saturday morning.

I almost didn’t stay in Los Angeles this weekend as my initial placement organization, Teach For America, is currently having their 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington D.C. this weekend. I considered going, but the idea of rubbing shoulders with educational innovators, entrepreneurs, and other big wigs, simply did not compare to a round of 18. Oh yeah, and plane tickets are expensive.

Christopher O’Riley – Motion Picture Soundtrack (Radiohead cover)

As if the education debates needed any more heat…

By , February 10, 2011 12:02 am

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It’s only Wednesday, and there are already two major “journalistic” education wars that have begun in the last two days. On the positive side, these media wars evidence how important educational issues have become in major policies today. On the negative side, both of these spats are framed in the typical polarizing “either/or” manner, leaving very little room for reasonable and rational discussion.

Battle #1: L.A. Times v. National Education Policy Center (NAEP).

Background: In August of last year, the L.A. Times published a controversial series of articles (which I blogged a response to) which both evaluated thousands of district elementary teachers and then published their names in a searchable online database, galvanizing both sides of the “teacher effectiveness” debate, and winning the L.A. Times a journalist award.

The current issue: Everybody hold the phone. A University of Colorado researcher, affiliated with the NAEP just published a study which calls into question the validity of the L.A. Times’ choice of data variables to consider in their study. Basically, they say that by considering different variables in the teacher effectiveness study, one arrives at different results, which honestly, is not that revolutionary an idea (especially for anyone who’s ever taken an Algebra 1 or a Logic course).

The roof got blown off Monday when the L.A. Times picked up on this newly published study questioning their results, and reported on it as though it largely confirmed their results, namely, under the headline Separate study confirms many Los Angeles Times findings on teacher effectiveness. Naturally, the study’s authors felt this was a gross misinterpretation of their results so they published a line-by-line critique of Monday’s L.A. Times article. It’s absolutely scathing. Definitely worth a read just to see how journalists and researchers can get into cat fights.

Who wins this battle? Unfortunately, nobody, because the main point at hand, namely the fact that which variables are taken into account in teacher evaluations is an extremely important decision, is a point that is now lost in this back and forth game of journalistic mudslinging. The NAEP got it right, but it really didn’t take rocket science to figure it out. Rather than misguiding their readers with the ridiculous headline, the Times would have been better to simply come out and justify the reason they chose the variables they went with. Then we could actually have a meaningful conversation.

Battle #2: Michelle Rhee (former D.C. Chancellor of education) v. G.F. Brandenburg (blogger).

Background: Michelle Rhee, a former Teach For America corps member, went on to become a very powerful, yet very controversial Chancellor of the D.C. public schools. She has recently founded StudentsFirst, an organization which is essentially a lobbying group for certain educational policies among state legislators. Needless to say, some people love her policies, some people hate them.

The current issue: A week ago, blogger G.F. Brandenburg dug up some data which suggests that Rhee’s claim of huge gains in test scores when she was a classroom teacher were not as huge as reported.

The Michelle Rhee camp responded, of course, with an attempt to decry the blogger’s data.

Of course, there’s no way either Michelle Rhee or G.F. Brandenburg will admit to data analysis error, and thusly, the war escalates (as of this writing, Brandenburg has had the last word).

Who wins this battle? Again, nobody, but hey, it’s certainly enough entertainment to get one through a long week.

Smiling through your teeth

By , October 12, 2010 8:39 pm

Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees

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A green plastic watering can, a fake Chinese rubber band…”, he began singing to himself as he stepped outside into the cool night air. The silent swish of southbound Grand Avenue traffic soared past, and the buildings on the opposing side of the street framed one’s presence with both modern Angelino sensibilities and Eastern-bloc kitsch.

True story.

In 2004, I enrolled at the Loyola Marymount University School of Education, mostly because it was what all my Teach For America buddies were doing at the time, and like any good post-collegiate succumbing to educational and aspirational (spell check doesn’t seem to think “aspirational” is a word. Well, it is now) peer pressure. Two years later, in 2006, I emerged, generally unscathed yet not significantly better prepared to be teaching my inner city students mathematics (in spite of the framed piece of paper now hanging in my office classroom suggesting the contrary).

Yet for all its foibles, LMU succeeds in its scheduling of semi-annual “networking” events in which school of education alumni and “friends” (think donors or friendly board members of charter, and Catholic school organizations) come together and schmooze for a few hours at the L.A. City Club on Bunker Hill.

While inherently not so valuable, it is certainly interesting to see exactly who is attempting to shape the educational conversation that is happening in Los Angeles, particularly within the charter/TFA/Catholic movements inherent within the city. In addition to being solicited to application to the LMU doctoral program (thanks, but no thanks), at least three individuals were interested in getting a teacher’s take on the whole L.A. Times / value-added fiasco.

What is absolutely refreshing about rehashing this now-somewhat-oldish (two months is a lifetime in the L.A. news cycle) conversation is that it’s absolutely wonderful to talk to open-minded, level-headed folks, many of whom I would desperately disagree with. Yet, the opportunity to re-open dialogue where we can see past partisanship is really the key changing educational policy in this city and in this country. Coming to “networking” reminds me that that are others committed to improving education for our kids.

Plus, the open bar sure helps.

BBQ and TFA – only ONE is a TLA (“Three Letter Acronym”)

By , February 13, 2010 9:38 am

Henry Thomas – Texas Easy Street

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image Explore your city! Last evening, my friend Carl and I drove down to Compton to try this BBQ shack that we’d both heard about in a local paper.

While I would not normally drive 30 minutes for BBQ, I must say that this BBQ was simply sublime. Bludso’s is, in fact, perhaps the best barbecue I’ve tasted here in LA (even in the face of stiff competition from such notables as Tasty-Q, and Phillip’s).

Simply oozing with tenderness and Texas hot sauce, the ribs we enjoyed were exactly what one needs at the end of a long week!

In the dining area (imagine a 15’ x 5’ hallway with barstools), Carl (who is also a teacher, albeit at a different LA middle school) and I were talking about our respective kids and how they were doing. After about 5 minutes of conversation an African American woman, perhaps in her mid to late 30s, who had been sitting nearby leaned over and asked us if we worked for Compton Unified. No, we replied, we both worked for LA Unified, their larger, northern neighbor.

Then, perhaps wondering what in the world would bring to white boys down to the heart of Compton/LA, she abrasively asked us, “So, do you teach for America”?

It’s likely that only my TFA readers will completely understand and relate to the sarcasm inherent in that question. It turns out that this lady has been an elementary school teacher in Compton for the last 12 years and has likely seen her fair share of starry-eyed, slightly arrogant, savior-type, young “teachers” pass through the hallways of her Compton school, only to abruptly leave after a pair of short and dramatic years.

We assured her that yes, some TFA teachers do, in fact, stay at their schools or in education for the long-haul (we were both living proof), yet that did nothing to alleviate the frustration on her end of members of the cult organization that Carl and I have previously belonged to.

As she waited for her order to arrive, we eventually were able to have a pleasant conversation, about what elementary grades she likes teaching (3rd grade), what kids are like at that age (you can actually teach them content), and how good the barbeque was. Her order finally arrived, and she left, wishing us a great year, yet somehow seemingly, still doubtful of our intentions.

As Carl and I refocused our efforts on the mac & cheese now staring us in the face, we both reflected on the complexities of building trust in a school, and even in a city.

Do go out and explore new places of your city! Totally worth it!

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