Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Teach for America: benefit for Rhode Island?

Earlier this week, the ProJo reported on Teach for America's Rhode Island debut, including 20 TFA-ers in the Providence Public Schools. Here's a link to Linda Borg's article, "R.I. Opens Doors to Teach for America," that includes a glamour shot of an incoming TFA-er. (Note to ProJo: make sure ongoing coverage of Rhode Island's teachers includes similar photography standards; not that our teachers are not beautiful and stunning on their own, but a little makeup and good lighting goes a long way after a long day in the classroom.)

Borg's article cites research demonstrating the effectiveness of TFA-trained teachers. True--and there's more to it. This Washington Post piece, also published this week, takes a more balanced approach, citing extensive reseach out of the University of Texas and California State University that finds that TFA teachers deliver mixed results for kids and create extra costs for districts. 

I am not here to bash TFA per se. However, I am here to ask questions about its benefits in our city's schools. As a Providence Public Schools parent, I'd like to see clear statements from the district and the Rhode Island Department of Education describing the anticipated impact of TFA on students' learning and well being. If we are using precious additional resources to establish a TFA presence here, why? What's the upside? The ProJo article emphasized what TFA can do for the young people enrolled in its program and about to be in front of our classrooms. Less clear are the ways our own, slightly younger, kids will benefit, and the ways our district--including those teachers who have been there before the TFA recruits arrived, who will be there long after they leave, and who will be spending time formally and informally mentoring the TFA-ers--will benefit. How does TFA fit into the overall strategic plan to deliver the best public education tp all students in all schools? How does this improve teaching and learning? Absent clear communication, I can imagine all kinds of ways TFA will bring sunshine, laughter, and learning to our students, and I can easily spin out a morass of gloomy scenarios. You can too--please have at it in the comments.

Bottom line: how will this addition help us? I'd like to understand the district and state's sense of how TFA helps our kids learn and thrive. I'd like to understand how TFA fits into plans for professional development and creating the best conditions for the kind of teaching that leads to professional satisfaction and student success.

A final note: the questions I ask about TFA don't apply solely to TFA. This is the shiny new object of the week (rather, it was, before the news of Rhode Island's Race to the Top award, which is indeed quite super-sparkly) about what's happening inside our kids' classrooms, so I'm paying attention, and asking questions on behalf of thousands of parents who want to know more about the adults our kids interact with every day at school, how those adults are helping our kids use their minds well. Clear communication and opportunties for understanding help us support our kids, and their educators.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Providence Public Schools: Jewish Holidays No More (for now)

Mario Hilario, the rhymingest reporter in Providence television news, recently reported this story on Providence Public Schools' discontinuation of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as school holidays (well, Rosh Hashana, anyway, as Yom Kippur doesn't begin until sundown on Friday, September 18). Here's the ProJo's take on the story, with some added perspective from Providence district staff; I'm happy to note that both versions feature our rabbi, Emanu-El's Wayne Franklin.

Providence Public Schools have been off for RH and YK for 30+ years; reasons why they won't be this year, according to the above reports, include the early dates for the holidays this year (RH is on 9/8, a week after school starts), the declining Jewish public school student and teacher population, the ongoing challenges of accommodating holidays observed by diverse religious groups. and the pressure not to lose any days for needed instructional time (I'd love to know more about the percentage of PPSD Jewish kids and teachers/staff, as well as the ways that other major religious are/aren't acknowledged in various ways in school, investigations that will need to wait for another day).

All valid, and I was glad to hear that this decision is a trial and may not be repeated next year (though I would not put any money on its reversal). Likely, this issue wouldn't even be on my mind if my own Jewish children weren't going to be missing school just as school gets rolling. Do I think they're going to miss key learning that will penalize them thereafter? No, not so much. Though I do hope, perversely, that they miss something meaningful--otherwise, what was the point of this calendar change? Do I think that they will become more conscious that, as Jews, they're different than many of their peers? Yes, I do. Whether that's good, bad, or indifferent, only time will tell.

I suspect, as well, that Jewish kids may feel evaluated in some real way by this change. Every other year, the major holidays of their religion were recognized by school--one of the other key institutions in their lives. Now, no, and I think they and other kids, Jewish and not, will take note of that change and perceive that what was important isn't anymore.

When I think broadly about what's best for all kids, keeping school open for the Jewish holidays makes sense. Here's hoping that PPSD does great things with the extra time. Still, I worry about the loss, both for actual Jewish children who miss learning and bonding with their peers so early in the school year, and for all of the kids, who get the message that what was important last year isn't anymore.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Recess Shunned in Favor of the Popular Kid, Physical Education

Today's ProJo reports that East Providence is banning recess, as defined by 10-15 minutes of aide-supervised post-lunch running around, in favor of optional in-class breaks and additional formal physical education opportunities. All well-intentioned, and now East Providence is now meeting Rhode Island's basic education plan requirements for physical education.  Kids have more time to eat lunch, too, which is all to the good in my book--if that time sitting were followed by time running (and yes, sometimes falling, an event that the head of the East Providence School Committee, paraphrased in the ProJo article) is eager for children to avoid, along with recess' potential for fights and hurt feelings).

But formal physical education is not the same as unstructured time, which children (and adults) need during the day. Increasing the opportunities for formal physical education means increasing opportunities to supervise, evaluate, and control kids. Eliminating time for kids simply to be and interact, without judgment or structure or expectations during an otherwise highly regulated school day means that the joys (and sorrows) of play are now subject to the inevitable angst of a grade. There may be good in what's being implemented in East Providence, but the costs are high.