Take Aways from the Education Writers Association Seminar

I spent last Friday at the Carnegie Corporation of New York along with a handful of other teacher bloggers and a number of education journalists for an Education Writers Association seminar on “The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession.”  Stacey Snyder, Ken Bernstien, Mark AndersonMark Roberts, and Dan Brown have already offered full narrative accounts or sumaries of the conference, so I will yield to them (Ken’s take on things most matches my own). Instead, I offer three lessons-learned that are still with me a few days later:

  • There is no reason ever to have a panel on teaching without teachers on the panel. It’s simply inexcusable. The clearest moment where there was a need for teachers was during the third panel on Professional Development when the panelists were asked about the value of National Board Certification. All three panelists said they didn’t know much, but offered the limited anecdotal evidence they had to offer, and this is where the question died. Yet, there were multiple National Board Certified Teachers, myself included, in the room. Why not ask the teachers?
  • Luckily, whenever the journalists had the chance to talk to teachers, be it in the hallways, over lunch, or at the formal roundtables that ended the event, I found I was asked good, tough questions and I was genuinely listened to. I was extremely impressed with nearly every interaction I had with the press in the room, even those who I’m certain I disagree with on every educational issue. It is very easy to critique the “media” in the abstract, just as it’s easy to critique “teachers”. However, nearly every individual member of the media I talked to struck me as intelligent, thoughtful, and filled with a desire to do their job well. The only exception was a journalism student, a former Teach for America teacher who shockingly has left the classroom, who clearly had an agenda to root out and expose “bad” teachers. Don’t get me wrong, there are bad and lazy journalists out there, there are good journalists who sometimes write bad pieces, and there are those who, for whatever reason, don’t challenge established narratives, but my assumption is that, much like teaching, these are a very small number of professionals who get a disproportionate amount of attention and vitriol.
  • We don’t know what makes someone a good teacher before they’re in the classroom.. This was the consensus of both Vicki Bernstein, Executive Director of Teacher Recruitment and Quality for the NYC DOE, and Spencer Kympton, Vice President of Recruiting for Teach for America. I must admit, I was prepared to despise both these people. Both, however, were magnanimous in their willingness to talk more about what they don’t know than what they do know. This flew completely in the face of Talia Milgrom-Elcott, a program officer the Carnegie Corporation and previously a special assistant to Joel Klein, who began the day advocating for getting more people from the top 1/3 of college classes into the teaching profession. The bottom line is there is evidence that this will not improve student performance, which the much referenced McKinsey Report that makes the same conclusion fully acknowledges. If people from the DOE and TfA publically agree on this point, it’s time for McKinsey and the Carnegie Corporation to move on to finding better solutions.

My Previous Posts on EWA:

Other’s Story Ideas for Journalists from teachers at EWA:


3 thoughts on “Take Aways from the Education Writers Association Seminar

  1. Much of the discussion around your third bullet depends on distinguishing “teacher quality” from “quality teaching,” two very different things. And, of course, the individual perspectives of the “journalist.” If you went to an Ivy League school and all your friends went to prestigious colleges, and you “won” in a highly publicized competition (TFA), it’s hard to see someone who graduated from Local U (after spending four years slogging away at a community college while working full-time) as “quality.” Even someone trained as a journalist brings these subtle biases to their writing. There is a long list of biased journalists working in all the major ed pub outlets, secure and confident that they know better than teachers who are actually doing the work they’re writing about. Don’t get me started.

    Re: Bullet #1– I once appeared on the opening plenary panel at a 7-state conference on “Teacher Quality.” I was the third presenter, after an Undersecretary at the USDOE and a researcher from Rand, both of who presented several data-clogged slides about how statewide testing numbers proved, pretty much, that teacher quality only existed in certain advantaged pockets. When my 12 minutes came up, I asked how many in the audience were practicing teachers (about 5, out of 500). Imagine, I said. A conference on Teacher Quality and there are no teachers present. There was a beat of silence, then a wry chuckling across the audience.

    At that very same conference, Tom Kane (Harvard) presented on National Board Certification. He’d just completed a study where his findings included a near-perfect correlation between final certification scores of NBCTs and the student achievement data of their students. So–the NB process works, right? No. In Kane’s opinion, the cut score for certification ought to be raised to 300, which would effectively lower the number of NBCTs to a tiny fraction of what it was then. Then, he noted, NBCTs would truly represent the elite teachers in the country. He made a number of additional errors in describing the NB process, its purpose and outcomes. I argued with him, publicly (which seemed to be a novelty for him): NB Certification was not designed to identify an elite teaching force, you only looked at generalist data–the numbers are different for secondary content-based certificates, etc. I asked to see his data, and he said it was not yet released, so he couldn’t share it. Then he left the room in a hurry, saying he needed to catch a flight and couldn’t take any more questions.

    At lunch, there were no NBCTs to talk to, but everyone was excited that Tom Kane–whose research was deeply admired–had been able to make an appearance. And so it goes.


  2. Nancy – thanks so much for that thoughtful and thorough comment. I’m mentally working out a post that will touch on much of what you raised in your first paragraph that I hope to write in the next week about what “top 1/3” really means.


Comments are closed.