Education, Privatization, Uncategorized — January 4, 2017 at 2:39 pm

How the reformers devalue teaching experience: Forbes edition


A recent article from unveiled the newly-enshrined members of the Forbes “30 under 30 Education Leaders to Learn From” Class of 2017. While I tend to believe that most of this genre of rankings articles (Best Colleges, Best Places to Live, Best Chicken Wings–spoiler alert: they’re from Buffalo!) aren’t worth the paper they are printed on–or the bytes they occupy in cyber-space, as the case may be–there are a couple of very informative bits of information in this article; tidbits that betray the ed reform community’s basic and fundamental misunderstanding of the enterprise of education, and their deep distrust of anyone with a teaching degree or real classroom experience (and no: I do not consider Teach for America placements as “real classroom experience”–more on that below).

First, at the risk of offending any of my “under 30” former students or colleagues, the vast majority of persons under 30 who are involved in education in any meaningful way should be in the classroom, honing their skills, getting to know their students, and learning more about both the subject matter they are teaching and the ways that material can be taught most effectively and efficiently–not “leading” schools, or seeking education-related leadership posts. Becoming a teacher is a life-long journey, and while a great deal of the advancement in teaching practice occurs in the first 3-5 years of teaching, the longer a teacher stays in the classroom working on their craft, the better they get.

Speaking from my own experience as a person who entered the classroom as a 22 year old, fresh out of my undergraduate degree program in music education, and with a semester of student teaching experience under my belt, it took me most of the first 3 years of my career to “know what I didn’t know” about teaching. I was a decent musician, and reasonably intelligent, but no one is truly prepared for the reality of teaching. Every day was a process of screwing up, making huge mistakes, getting bailed out by my older, wiser colleagues, and figuring stuff out through trial and error. Year 1 was incredibly difficult, and I wanted to quit at Thanksgiving. Year 2 was better, but a blur. Year 3 was a breakthrough in terms of understanding my role in the classroom and gaining confidence in my abilities.

At 25, I was just beginning to feel and think like a teacher. As I tell my own student teachers now, most of these early teaching experiences are baby steps in the process of moving to “the other side of the desk.” Of making the move from learner to teacher. Of realizing that you are the “adult in the room.” Of understanding that you are not a teacher of music, or science, or math…but a teacher of persons, and your subject area is merely the vehicle for that privilege.

Does this mean that young teachers should be excluded from leadership positions in schools? Of course not. Teachers under 30 have a great deal to offer the profession; they bring new ideas, teaching strategies and approaches, and large reserves of enthusiasm and passion for kids and teaching to the classroom–and they deserve to be listened to, and their voices welcomed into school and district-level conversations.

But a perusal of the Forbes list shows that none of these 30 “leaders” is currently working as a classroom teacher, and that the defining characteristic linking these persons is their status as “founders” of some sort of edu-preneurial organization or business. While this is perhaps not so surprising coming from Forbes, whose focus is, after all, business, it’s deeply disturbing to see a supposed list of young educational leaders with none of the members still actively engaged as classroom teachers.

Forbes acknowledges this criterion in the selection process, but apparently the editors don’t see it as a flaw:

Having experience in the classroom wasn’t a prerequisite to make the Forbes list, but several honorees this year do. And although no current classroom teachers are included this year, 2017 brought with it another batch of former Teach for America (TFA) educators.

Which brings us to the issue of Teach for America, and its influence on the ed reform agenda.

Think about this: How can a person graduate from college without ever studying teaching, and without an education degree, then get placed through TFA in a school for 2 or 3 years, and already be out of the classroom and have founded some sort of education organization or business, all before the age of 30? What sort of experience base do these “education leaders” have to draw upon? With only 5 weeks of summer “training” from TFA, from where do their educational philosophies and belief systems come? Exactly what are these novices offering the profession they have explicitly chosen not to join?

Funny you should ask. The Forbes list is populated with charter school and TFA alums who seem to see the “education space” (my early frontrunner for most obnoxious piece of ed-related jargon for 2017) as nothing more than a business opportunity, prime for the taking:

  • Jeremy Fiance, 25, founded a venture capital firm in Berkeley, to take advantage of the vast numbers of “start up” incubators
  • Joe Vasquez, 27, is helping fund new education endeavors with his “social impact accelerator program”
  • Mendell Grinter, 25, started an organization to expand “high-quality” education options (aka: school choice and vouchers) across Tennessee

One other hallmark of those who made the list is the incorporation of technology. Virtually every start-up on the list uses some sort of technology to provide their offerings faster, better, and easier. It’s also where much of the funding for these start up ventures comes from–the deep pockets of Silicon Valley and the education-obsessed tech giants, like Bill Gates.

Another clue as to the make-up of this list can be found in who served as the “judges”. The 44 “leaders” included on the “30 under 30” list (perhaps math skills were not a prerequisite for the judges?) were…

Selected by Stacey Childress (CEO NewSchools Venture Fund), Arne Duncan (Managing Partner at Emerson Collective and former U.S. Secretary of Education), Wendy Kopp (Cofounder of Teach for All) and Marcus Noel (Founder of Heart of Man Ventures).

Most of these names are familiar to those who have followed the “education wars” of the last decade or so: Arne Duncan served as President Obama’s Secretary of Education, in spite of not holding any degrees in education or ever having taught in a school; Wendy Kopp founded Teach for America as her senior thesis at Princeton, which may explain the high number of TFA alums on the list; Stacey Childress is another non-teacher who now runs a venture capital group dedicated to funding school choice and voucher programs.

Marcus Noel, however, may be a new name for many readers. Mr. Noel, a former “30 under 30” recipient himself, somehow managed to become a national leader in education without ever actually…um…uh…er…teaching.

Like his fellow judges, and most of his fellow “30 under 30 education leader” honorees, Mr. Noel skipped right over all those messy education courses and degrees, student teaching placements, lesson plans, classroom management techniques, parent phone calls, report card grading sessions, faculty meetings, weekend professional development workshops, parent-teacher conferences, open houses, zoo and museum field trips, “potty” and detention duties, holiday concerts and assemblies, and IEP meetings. Nope, Mr. Noel started out at the top: as a “leader.”

Now, I’m sure his 3 years of experience as a financial analyst at JP Morgan and as a supply chain manager at McMaster-Carr would have come in very handy wrangling a class of 100 kindergarten students in a Detroit elementary school, or conducting a middle school chorus in New York City, or organizing chemistry experiments in a Nebraska high school, but I guess we’ll never know.

Instead, Mr. Noel has chosen to use his talents to…

…prepare the next generation of creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs. We offer digital, design, business, and STEAM skills to middle and high school students so they can not only compete in the 21st century, but also set a new standard for excellence.

Never mind that Mr. Noel has never actually taught any actual students these creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial skills himself. Or that his undergraduate degree was in finance, not science, technology, engineering, arts, or math (the STEAM disciplines). All it takes to be an education leader in 2017 is the financial backing and business connections to hang up your own shingle, and start up your own “consulting business”, charging big bucks to struggling, under-funded schools for tech-infused, education-flavored innovations that haven’t been field-tested and that they can’t use.

My point here is not to disparage all of the persons on the Forbes list, many of whom are doing admirable work in important areas–providing relief for children in conflict areas, working for education equity for girls and young women, and trying to improve the diversity of the teaching force in America’s schools. Nor am I trying to insist that only career teachers should be allowed “in” to the world of education policy–there is always room for a chorus of diverse voices in any discussion of the issues surrounding public education.

But anyone who has spent more than an hour as a certified, qualified public school teacher also knows that no “under 30” person without an education degree and real school teaching experience has any business being anointed as a “leader” in education. To do so devalues our profession, diminishes the work of teachers, and sets us on a slippery slope in terms of education policy and practice.

If Forbes really wants to bring some badly needed and deserved attention and recognition to the young people in our country that are driving education forward, they should focus on the “under 30″s who have actually earned degrees in education, become certified to teach, and are practicing their profession in any of our nation’s roughly 93,000 public schools. These young “leaders” have joined their more experienced colleagues in doing nothing less than heroic work under extraordinarily difficult conditions, helping children from all ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds to find their voices and their passions. And they do this work while enduring withering attacks from the press and the public, based on misinformation and politically-motivated rhetoric.

You want to see some real “under 30 education leaders”? Just go to your local public school. You’ll find them wiping a 6 year old’s nose on the playground, volunteering to serve as 7th grade class adviser, and coaching the JV girl’s basketball team every day after school in the gym/cafeteria/auditorium.

You know where you won’t find them? Cutting venture capital deals, or investing in education start up companies.

The education reform community, and Forbes, should know better, and do better.

Teachers already do, and are.