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Seattle's Education Reform Hypocrisy

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The doublespeak of ed reformers who repeatedly declare that the key to a successful education is to put an "excellent" teacher in every classroom, and then turn around and promote young, Teach for America recruits -- with only five weeks' training, no in-class experience, and only a two-year commitment to the profession -- as the answer, has come into sharp focus at the University of Washington in Seattle these past two weeks.

On May 11, the University of Washington's College of Education announced it would sponsor Teach for America at its teaching college, providing the missing component to the deal that TFA, Inc. struck with the Seattle School District last fall.

Last November, Seattle's school board approved a (troubling and one-sided) contract to allow TFA, a short-term alternative teacher credentialing program, into Seattle's hiring pool for the first time. TFA, Inc. also demands a financial and university sponsor in order to brings its program to a new location, and charges school districts an extra $4,000 or more per year for each trainee, in "recruitment, placement and training" fees. (Apparently the millions of dollars from private investors and $50 million recently granted to TFA, Inc. by the federal government isn't enough to cover expenses.) Those in the parent ed advocacy community guessed that ed reform sugardaddy Bill Gates would pony up at some point. And he did -- his Washington STEM organization will pay the $4,000 annual fee for the science and math TFAers, which would otherwise be billed to our cash-strapped district. But who would be the university sponsor? We waited for an announcement.

There were rumors that the University of Washington was going to take this on. After all, the new Dean of Education, Tom Stritikus, is a former TFAer himself, and he coincidentally wrote an op-ed about the values of "alternative" teacher preparation programs in the Seattle Times, just a few weeks before then School Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson out of the blue proposed bringing TFA to our already teacher-filled, recession-struck district.

The University of Washington already has a well-regarded M.A. teacher ed program (ranked ninth in nation by U.S. News & World Report in 2011). It takes two years and requires a year of student teaching in an actual classroom.

Then the announcement finally came two weeks ago. From the U.W. press release:

Teach For America negotiated directly with Seattle and Federal Way school districts to allow their corps members to interview alongside other candidates for open teaching positions in those districts. Corps members who are hired complete an intensive summer training institute before becoming U-ACT students and begining (sic) full-time teaching.

Those hired will enroll as graduate students in the College of Education. They will earn teacher certification through U-ACT and, in subsequent years, a master's degree through one of the college's existing programs -- in Curriculum & Instruction, Special Education, Leadership & Policy Studies or Educational Psychology.

In this new arrangement, the students in the TFA special program will be housed alongside the full program students, but would only be required to take a five-week course, after which they would be deemed immediately eligible to apply for a full-time, full-salaried teaching position, while still learning on the job. The full-term U.W. students, meanwhile, won't be certified and able to enter the workforce until they have completed the first year of their program.

Not surprisingly, this announcement was not well received by Dean Stritkus' current M.A. teaching students. Outrage, dismay and confusion soon followed. One student referred to the UW-TFA deal as a "slap in the face." You can't blame them for feeling betrayed by Stritikus and the university.

Here they have been spending two years following the rigorous standards the dean ostensibly believes in, diligently studying the art and science of teaching, paying their own way for a $23,000 ($50,000 nonresident) masters degree at what they thought was a reputable teaching institution. They are spending hours of in-class time in actual public school classrooms getting invaluable experience, all in the hopes of applying for one of the rare teaching positions in the fall. Now they are being told that a stream of fresh grads will be brought in alongside them at U.W., given a special, condensed education, will do little to no student teaching, but will compete against them for the same jobs.

It must feel like running a 10-mile race, only to have the judges allow a group of new runners join in the last 100 yards and race you to the finish -- on skateboards.

To have these two programs side by side at U.W. will send a pretty schizophrenic message to the students there. After all, here is Stritikus, essentially telling one group of his students that it takes two full years of dedicated study towards an education degree to be fully qualified and ready to be a solid teacher, while telling another group, a five-week "accelerated" course is all you need. It's clearly inconsistent -- and defies common sense. It's also a recipe for huge resentment.

The University of Washington has a credibility problem on its hands -- and reputation.

How could anyone find this double-standard even remotely fair? It isn't. Furthermore, how can Stritikus, a TFA alum and loyal supporter of the enterprise, not show favoritism towards the TFA-ers? So there's a potential conflict of interest problem as well.

This hypocrisy was highlighted at a tense and emotional meeting last week between Dean Stritikus and his M.A. students, which was covered by the local news. Understandably, Stritikus' current students had a lot of questions.

Why is Stritikus and U.W. bending over backward to accommodate TFA? Here are a couple of clues. Stritikus himself is a TFA alum with very little primary and secondary teaching experience. So he comes into the equation with a potential bias and perhaps limited understanding of the true demands of the field. He became dean only last September, coincidentally right before Seattle's school superintendent introduced a proposal to bring Teach for America to Seattle. Then-Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson was trained by the pro-privatizing Broad Foundation which has vowed to help institutionalize Teach for America in the nation's public schools system, and until recently, was a member of its board of directors -- alongside Wendy Kopp, CEO of TFA.

More recently, a trove of hundreds of documents and e-mails between Stritikus and Teach for America has emerged, revealed by the public disclosure requests of two parent activists, one a local education blogger, the other the public schools parent of a child with special needs, one of the categories of children TFA plans to focus on in Seattle. These reveal that Stritikus, had plans dating back from at least since his appointment last fall, to facilitate the introduction of TFA to Seattle using his new position at U.W. to do so.

Reports Melissa Westbrook on the Save Seattle Schools Community Blog:

• The day before his appointment was even announced (August 18th), he contacted Wendy Kopp, the head of TFA. He asks her if she wants to build an on-line endorsement program for TFA with UW and to do press for him. She replies, "As you say, this is a terrific moment in the history of TFA and hopefully is a just a harbinger of all that's to come in terms of the influence of alumni on teacher education."

• Further on in the e-mail, she says, "Let's absolutely see what we can cook up in terms of ways of working together..."

• Just one week later, he is tries to get together with TFA staff in Washington, D.C. He says, "I would love to be able to get a set of possible ideas for collaboration on the table and identify priorities."

• Also that week, he says, "I offered to help Janis in anyway she needed." Janis is Janis Ortega, the TFA director for Puget Sound.

• In an e-mail on Sep 13, 2010, again just weeks after he became Dean, Stritikus writes to a TFA official and says, "By that time (9/29-10/1), I will have talked to key faculty, developed a sketch plan for the master's degree, and gotten a handle on the certification issues."

It would seem that Stritikus has a severe case of divided loyalties.

Given the fact that students in the U.W. MA teaching program are likely paying their own way (or into debt), while the TFA-ers get their training funded by TFA, Inc. ($50 million of it coming from taxpayers) and local school districts, which have to pony up an extra fee for each TFA-er they hire, and you've got economic inequality in the mix as well.

The public disclosure documents also indicate that Stritikus is trying to arrange special funding for the TFA-ers that the other students will ostensibly not be eligible for.

Indeed, an announcement for a Teach for America general recruiting "info session" that was held on the U.W. campus last October 14 explains these benefits in more detail:

Benefits include:

•Full salary and benefits ranging from $27,000-$50,500 (depending on region/cost of living) •Two year deferral/forbearance on loans •AmeriCorps Education Award of $10,700 over two years •Graduate school and employer partnerships •For ALL academic backgrounds and majors

In the latest development in this story, the College of Education has just announced a new summer school option for existing M.A. students to graduate early. This appears to be a response to the obvious inconsistency inherent in sponsoring the TFA program. But, in this apparent effort to quiet controversy and level the playing field, rather than demanding equal rigor, investment of time and money from the TFA students, the U.W. College of Education is potentially lowering the bar and diluting its rigor to match the standards of TFA.

It has never been clear why TFA should be brought to the Puget Sound area in the first place. There is no teacher shortage here. In fact, the Seattle School District recently announced it would lay off 30 teachers this year. Have low-income parents or those with special needs children (both targeted communities for Seattle's TFAers) been demanding short-term, fast-tracked young temps in their kids' classrooms? No. Or are major ed reform funders like the Gates Foundation, and others who would like to bring privatization to Seattle's public schools, trying to create a spigot of young, impressionable, non-union teaching staff for future charter schools? (Charters are currently illegal in Washington State, but there are forces here trying to change that.) Or do they want teaching staff or future "leaders of education" who will absorb and perpetuate their brand of top-down, test-heavy, approach to teaching? These are some of the theories swirling about.

Dean Stritikus, the University of Washington and Teach for America can try to spin this problematic arrangement all they want. They can even give the special program a different name to disguise its connection to TFA (U.W. has christened the TFA path "UW Accelerated Certification for Teachers, or U-ACT" - not to be confused with "U-ACT," the anti-human-trafficking organization). But it doesn't matter. This dual-track teaching certification plan is patently unfair and inconsistent. It's rigged in favor of the TFA-ers.

The Seattle School District has signed a (biased, liability-heavy) contract with TFA all but assuring it will hired 25-35 TFAers in the fall -- Wendy Kopp confidently stated as much on local radio recently. (It's not lost on district observers that this number almost exactly matches the number of teacher layoffs just announced by the Seattle School District. Meanwhile enrollment is growing district-wide and classrooms are overcrowded. Parents fully expect that the district will need to rehire for those positions in the fall. The question is, who will it choose to fill them?)

The TFA students will be given every unfair advantage. And in the end, as many as 80 percent of them won't even remain in the profession past their third year. How is this worth the investment of time, money and now, resentment?

This controversy has prompted letters to Stritikus and U.W. like this one, from a U.W. alum (commenting as "MapleLeafer"): "Your obvious willingness to appease the forces in our society aligned against public education has angered me, your obvious willingness to sell out the integrity of my alma mater has made me mortified and your obvious willingness to do virtually anything to support an organization like the T.F.A. has made me incensed. Shame on you and the whole U.W. College of Education - you should know better."

According to the Seattle Times, "UW's planning for the [U-ACT] program is well under way, and the program is awaiting final approval from the state's Professional Educator Standards Board." Perhaps the Educator Standards Board will see through this contradiction and unfairness and not approve it.

In the meantime, however, the blatant hypocrisy, political maneuvering and self-interest of ed reformers doesn't come much more clearly illustrated than this.

(A version of this article first appeared on the Parents Across America blog.)