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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 02/ 5/2011

What football can teach school reformers

By Valerie Strauss

Super Bowl weekend seems like an appropriate time to look at the football-school reform connection. The man to do it isLarry Lee of Montgomery, Alabama, former executive director of the Covington County Economic Development Commission and the West Central Partnership of Alabama. This appeared in the Birmingham News.

By Larry Lee
The Birmingham school board plans to hire 60 Teach for America teachers over the next three years in an effort to bring more innovation to low-performing schools.

TFA is a privately run program that recruits recent college graduates, gives them five weeks of training in how to teach and sends them across the country for two years to work in largely under-performing schools.

In addition to paying their salaries, the Birmingham school system will also pay $5,000 per year per new hire to TFA for training.

On Jan. 15, I sat with my son, and 70,000 others, watching Auburn University celebrate winning the BCS national football championship because what my alma mater has just done could be a great example for Superintendent Witherspoon and members of the Birmingham school board.

In just two years, coach Gene Chizik took Auburn from a losing record to being the best team in the country—not so much by bringing in new players—but by changing how the players he inherited were coached.

Yes, Chizik did recruit Cam Newton, the nation’s top quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner. But when Newton ran the ball, four of the five linemen blocking for him were not recruited by Chizik. And when he threw a pass, his top receiver was Darvin Adams, who was on the Plains when the new coach got there.

The same was true on a defense lead by Lombardi Trophy winner Nick Fairly, linebacker Josh Bynes and safety Zac Etheridge. Ditto for kicker Wes Byrum whose last second field goal won the national title.

Coach Chizik has said repeatedly that the heart and soul of this team was its 24 seniors, none of whom he recruited.

Obviously when the new coaching staff assembled at Auburn two years ago, they didn’t throw up their hands and say, “We don’t have talent.” Instead, they determined they needed to roll up their sleeves and make the players they had better.

In a country that has grown accustomed to instant gratification, we too often go looking for band aides, rather than trying to find out why we’re bleeding. And Teach for America may well be much more of the former than the latter.

Two years ago I lead a study of 10 high-performing, high-poverty rural schools in Alabama that we called "Lessons Learned from Rural Schools." We learned that each of these schools has an outstanding principal and that each has created a culture of expectations.

And I have to wonder if a new teacher with just five weeks of training, regardless of how dedicated and motivated they may be, can really affect school and community culture in two short years.

I have to wonder about some other things as well. Like why the Texas legislature sought an evaluation of whether the $8 million it allocated to Teach for America over two years is a worthy expenditure of taxpayer money?

Like have Birmingham’s education leaders looked at a study by Stanford University, conducted over six years and including more than 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students, that concluded that “TFA recruits do not educate students as well as teachers who have received rigorous methodological instruction and practice?”

Spend more than a few minutes with any good principal or teacher these days and the subject soon turns to the ever-increasing emphasis on testing and the negative impact they see this having in classrooms today. Given this, I wonder at the statement by someone who spent two years as a TFA recruit when they say, “TFA often overemphasizes the importance of test scores, driving corps members to narrow the curriculum to what’s on the test to prove that they are effective teachers.”

I commend Dr. Witherspoon and the school board for seeking innovative ideas. To this end, let me offer some.

*Take the $5,000 you will pay Teach for America each year per teacher, find outstanding students from Birmingham who are studying education in college and pay their tuition in return for a commitment from them to teach in your system. After all, they are much more likely to “take root” in your community than someone who sees two years in Birmingham as their time on the mission field.

*At the end of the 2009 season Coach Chizik told his team they needed to go from “good” to “great.” Take the $5,000 and put it into a professional development program that will help make good teachers great teachers.

While you may have some outstanding teachers in a weak school, you can not have an outstanding school with a weak principal. Invest the $5,000 in professional development designed specifically for principals of high-poverty schools.

On Feb. 8, Wilkerson Middle School in the Smithfield section of Birmingham will be recognized in Montgomery as one of the state’s 11 Torchbearer Schools. This program recognizes outstanding achievement by high-poverty schools. This is the third such recognition for Wilkerson.

Spend lots and lots of time with principal Constance Burnes to learn from her and her staff.

*Load up the superintendent and all the members of the school board and head down Highway 280 to go see Coach Chizik.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2011; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Sports, Teachers  | Tags:  Gene Chizik, The Answer Sheet, auburn champions, auburn football, auburn university, birmingham school board, birmingham schools, cam newton, education, football, heisman trophy, professional development, schools, super bowl, teach for america, teacher development, teacher training, the answer sheet  
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Comments

This is the best common sense I have seen about improving schools. This article needs to be sent all over the nation. He is correct on every point.

There are no "band-aids" that work. The answer is common sense and hard work.

Thank you, Mr. Lee

Posted by: mmkm | February 5, 2011 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I think it is important to look back on the original intent for programs like Teach for America and Teaching Fellows. These programs WERE NEVER MEANT to replace traditional education programs and to replace career teachers. At one point, there simply were so so many teacher shortages at urban and rural schools nation-wide that something had to be done. Instead of having a revolving door of untrained substitute teachers filling these all-important classrooms, programs like TFA and Teaching Fellows etc were formed. The problem has occurred in that current "reformers" are really in the "BUSINESS" of education reform... THEY SMELL A PROFIT! TFA and Teaching Fellows are new to the system and are paid less in salaries. This equals huge savings to the "business of education" reformers. There is less of a pay out in salary and more of a pay out to the testing industry and publishing industry (built around testing) with every revolving door of alternative certified teachers hired in a school system. Having a few alternative certification teachers being mentored by seasoned teachers (who were in the majority) in any given pulbic school, was the original intent. I do think that TFA hires primarily recent college grads and most unfortunately encourages its members to use "teaching as a stepping-stone"! Other programs like the Teaching Fellows (which are in various urban areas around the country) try to attract candidates who want to be life-long teachers. EDUCATION REFORMERS SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO PERVERT THE ORIGINAL INTENTION OF MOST OF THE ALTERNATIVE CERTIFICATION PROGRAMS! THIS IS WHAT THEY ARE DOING IN THE NAME OF PROFIT! Seasoned teachers who are traditionally trained are the core of any school and should be respected for the knowledge that comes from "training plus time and experience".

Posted by: teachermd | February 5, 2011 10:50 AM | Report abuse

As I wrote in another forum, what is offered now is inches per hour. Our kids need miles per hour learning, not teaching, not talking, not pointing and not testing...LEARNING.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 5, 2011 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Excellent comments all around. The profession requires total dedication and hard work on so many levels (intellectual, emotional, etc). There are no simple solutions.

Teacher shortages reflect, in a large country like America where information is readily available, a high degree of labor mobility, and many employment choices, a failure of management to create positive working environments, sufficient paypackets, etc. that attract talented, educated people. TFA may have rightly responded to an acute labor shortage, and some of their critiques of the pervailing status quo have merit, but their performance in the policy field where the larger levers of power exist is bordering on malfeasance and incompetence. They overstate their positions with hyperbole and malign many that share their goals and objectives. They whoop their members up in cultish frenzy to address problems that require persistence, clear thinking and experience in the trenches. In my opinion, they are creating problems now, not helping to solve them. Jason Kamras, the so-called architect of reform in Washington DC (through IMPACT) stands in the way of the teaching corps. He and his group within DCPS are fixated on identifying "bad" teachers and dragging almost everyone else down as they do so. Incompetent "teacher capital" management is an understatement in Washington DC.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 5, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Great article!

However the cynic in me thinks the "reformers" are too closed-minded to be taught. (And/or they have other motives.)

Posted by: MisterRog | February 5, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

I absolutely LOVE Lee's suggestion that the school board take the $5,000 it would spend on TFAers and invest it in the futures of students interested in staying in the field. As an educator, I also wholeheartedly agree with him when he says you can't have a great school with a week principal (or weakness at any level of administration for that matter). For more on why that's true, see the following post by Frank Beard, a TFA alum of Kansas City.

http://www.anurbanteacherseducation.com/2011/02/tfa-alumnus-describes-barriers-to.html

Posted by: TheReflectiveEducator | February 5, 2011 2:19 PM | Report abuse

"Take the $5,000 and put it into a professional development program that will help make good teachers great teachers."

Ha, ha. What would that be, exactly?

Stop thinking we can educate substantially better than we're doing now (which isn't all that badly).

Start realizing we could do it cheaper. So save the $5K per teacher and put it towards the supply budget.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 5, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Cal, I can't realize that because its not true. Its being done "on the cheap" now and that is not working. Have you worked in an actual school?

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 5, 2011 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Ha, ha. Whatever our education is, it's not being done "on the cheap". How absurd.

We waste huge amounts of money all over the budget--and, mind you, we do it without particularly overpaying teachers. We shouldn't give them raises every year, and we should be able to fire bad ones, but that's about it. We waste money teaching subject matter to students incapable of learning it. We waste money pretending that training can improve instruction in any significant way. We waste money overpaying pensions and benefits. And that's just three ways.

Those are all assertions that anyone can make, whether or not he or she has "worked in an actual school". But if you want to look like a moron, go ahead and start making nonsensical claims about the certainty of the link between my opinions and my experience.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 5, 2011 7:32 PM | Report abuse

You're going to have to define "cheap" for us here, Cal. Quality education, especially in low-income communities is VERY expensive. Yes - we spend a lot of money in education, but not in relation to the amount the government spends on lots of other things.

One place I think we can agree is that lots of the money is not being spent effectively. Lots of it is being tangled up in red tape and siphoned off by snake oil salesmen passing themselves off as educators.

Posted by: TheReflectiveEducator | February 5, 2011 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Cal, your ignorance is laughable, and your descent into ad hominem attack is magnifying your ignorance. Good day, sir!

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 5, 2011 9:24 PM | Report abuse

Why do people continue believe the only good teachers come out of Ed schools? I please stop this. In TN which houses the supposed #1 Ed school in the country TFA grads do better than every Ed school graduate. Get over the traditional approach of training teachers. We need the best and brightest in our classrooms with true content knowledge and the desire to make a difference. Until Ed schools raise their entrance requirements, make content knowledge the academic major and education a minor, I hope more and more TFA teachers enter the classroom.

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | February 6, 2011 6:47 AM | Report abuse

Why do people continue believe the only good teachers come out of Ed schools? I please stop this. In TN which houses the supposed #1 Ed school in the country TFA grads do better than every Ed school graduate. Get over the traditional approach of training teachers. We need the best and brightest in our classrooms with true content knowledge and the desire to make a difference. Until Ed schools raise their entrance requirements, make content knowledge the academic major and education a minor, I hope more and more TFA teachers enter the classroom.

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | February 6, 2011 6:47 AM | Report abuse

States are in love with TFA because they know that they will never turn out to be long term employees. In fact, if they sign them on as private contractors, they don't have to pay their insurance or retirement. While the Chinese and Indians are investing Billions in education we are looking for ways to get it on the cheap. States like Florida and North Carolina are going to cut teacher pay by making them pay for a larger portion of their retirement. Education is under attack.

Posted by: occumsharpe | February 6, 2011 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss, your inconsistency never ceases to amaze me. Here you seem to support a position that advocates putting strong leadership in school, leadership which will set goals, demand improved performance, providing professional development to advance that growth. However, you constantly support those in education who want nothing more than to leave teachers alone in their rooms, perpetuating the status quo of resistance to professional improvement and performance assessment. Pick a pony!

Posted by: ErvAddison | February 6, 2011 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Erv, you must be referring to me. The institutionalized manner of professional development and assessment does not help me grow. In fact, it hamstrings and demotivates me. I can and do much better in collaboration with my colleagues and my own internal compass.

Your mistake (and I'd love to know which perspective you are entering this debate with)is to put confidence in bureaucratic approaches. By the time a good idea has gone through the various channels and levels, been marked up and packaged, it loses its vitality. The person in the classroom doesn't own it and its even incomprehensible.

You are one of many, especially in a town like Washington DC, that thinks top-down management works. You have little confidence in the teaching corps and think the challenge is essentially a management problem, much like the generals of World War I thought that personal valor no longer won wars (machines did). Fine, its your opinion. I couldn't disagree with you more.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 6, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

What football should teach reformers is that the "players" are given time during the week to prepare for the game.

And the consistent changing of the game plan with new plays and new coaches usually results in losses and low team morale.

That coaches don't, after a career as a defensive linebacker, expect the professional athelete to turn into a running back in 3 monthes and be picked for the pro bowl at the end of the season.

That each opposing "team" is different. Preparation for one team isn't the same as the preparation for the next team.

Even football players get high-fives, slaps on the back, after every good play.

The players work as a team. They understand the differences between each player's position and responsibility.

All the players must be on the field or its a penalty. One absent player creates a disadvantage for the team.

It's ok to question a call.

Good coaches trust and listen to their players.

The players are treated as the expensive assets that they are.

Even owners don't know everything.

Posted by: ilcn | February 6, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

one more....

The fans in the stands don't get to call the plays.

Posted by: ilcn | February 6, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

ilcn: good framework. I'll add a few things if you don't mind:

Good coaches don't ask the great players to change who they are to fit into their schemes. Good coaches work with the strengths and skills sets of the players.
Look at the trouble McNabb had in DC this year. Some of it is attributable to the Shanahan's not working to McNabb's strengths.

I'm fortunate in my school to be working with a principal who largely gets this and lets me be myself, although at times he does the adminstration's bidding as well. I'm awesome when I'm not excessively interfered with by people who do not have intimate knowledge of how I'm approaching my task, but think they know better.

What I don't need is a largely inflexible, standardized Teaching and Learning Framework and IMPACT evaluation rating system that isn't measuring all of what I bring to the table. These instruments, for some but not all, destroy the soul due to their bureaucratic nature. Those that thrive on such instruments should be able to use them for professional development, but, perhaps, those that do not opt-out of the evaluation system after going through a couple of years of the scrutiny they are intended to offer?

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 6, 2011 12:37 PM | Report abuse

ilcn: good framework. I'll add a few things if you don't mind:

Good coaches don't ask the great players to change who they are to fit into their schemes. Good coaches work with the strengths and skills sets of the players.
Look at the trouble McNabb had in DC this year. Some of it is attributable to the Shanahan's not working to McNabb's strengths.

I'm fortunate in my school to be working with a principal who largely gets this and lets me be myself, although at times he does the adminstration's bidding as well. I'm awesome when I'm not excessively interfered with by people who do not have intimate knowledge of how I'm approaching my task, but think they know better.

What I don't need is a largely inflexible, standardized Teaching and Learning Framework and IMPACT evaluation rating system that isn't measuring all of what I bring to the table. These instruments, for some but not all, destroy the soul due to their bureaucratic nature. Those that thrive on such instruments should be able to use them for professional development, but, perhaps, those that do not opt-out of the evaluation system after going through a couple of years of the scrutiny they are intended to offer? Why can't there be more stylized solutions and less standardization?

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 6, 2011 12:39 PM | Report abuse

dear knowelcomcastnet - please show evidence for your claim that "In TN which houses the supposed #1 Ed school in the country TFA grads do better than every Ed school graduate."


Also, define "true content knowledge"-- Does that include subject matter being taught and teaching techniques/classroom management or is it just subject matter?

Posted by: efavorite | February 6, 2011 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Knoxel: This is one of the valuable points the reformers make at times (for me) and I agree. It does seem that the traditionally trained teacher programs focus more on pedagogy than content. The students would benefit by being with teachers that have higher levels of attainment of mathematics, language and writing, history, economics, the physical sciences, etc. Pedagogy is really important, but does it have to dominate these programs and most PD sessions? It would an improvement if PD sessions focused on the actual concepts and not how to teach them (good teachers will find a way to transfer the knowledge).

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 6, 2011 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Two reactions:

1."Take the $5,000 and put it into a professional development program that will help make good teachers great teachers." First, though, define "good teacher" and "great teacher."

2. College football players have very little to do besides play football; they are excused from class, they have no tuition or book bills to pay, and their "tutors" help them catch up with their studies by doing the work for them and the colleges don't care much how many credits they have if they are good players. In fact, they don't even have to have decent grades in high school to get an athletic scholarship.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 6, 2011 8:30 PM | Report abuse

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