Teacher Quality and Leo Casey

February 3, 2007

Leo Casey, on EdWize, says my recent post regarding teacher quality shows that I have a “blindspot” on the question. Casey and I agree on many things. We agree on the importance of improving teacher quality. We agree that the Urban Academy program is a model of effective teacher mentoring and professional development. Casey takes me to task, however, for suggesting that the program will be hard to implement in the great number of schools that already face retention issues. In those schools, I suggest, existing resources will not allow for the Urban Academy-style investment in mentoring new teachers. To this, Casey responds:

It’s interesting that Forman, who on many counts is a radical critic of established power relations, accepts as fixed and given the very terms of the problem charter schools face in developing and retaining quality teaching. Teaching is an extraordinarily demanding craft. Under optimum conditions of solid preparation, quality mentoring, good professional development and an safe, secure school in which to learn, it takes a novice teacher a minimum of three years to master the fundamental skills of teaching. If a school is turning over its staff every three years, it simply can not develop a meaningful cohort of educational professionals who know their craft well. Accept that state of affairs, and you accept that the school will not have quality educators. Fixing the retention crisis is a pre-condition for the promotion of teacher quality. This axiom is true for district public schools, where one in every two new teachers is gone by the fifth year of teaching, and it is doubly true for charter schools, which have a much higher rate of turnover.

I accept this criticism. Casey is correct that I was too quick to accept the status quo as a given. My response came from the fact that I sit in two places at the same time. On the one hand, I teach education law and policy and write on education issues, and I try to see the world as it needs to be. On the other, I am a practitioner. I co-founded a charter school that recruits students who are years behind in school (including many from the juvenile justice system), and I work against great obstacles to prepare those schools for success in college, meaningful work, and life. When I am in that place, I often feel terribly constrained by existing resources and institutions. And I often feel compelled to try to make incremental change within a fundamentally unjust status quo. When I am in that place, facing resource constraints, hounded by day to day budget limitations, and trying to make the most of every penny, thinking of scaling the Urban Academy seems hopelessly utopian. But in the end, Casey, and Terry, are right. There is not really a choice. To accept the current state of teacher retention in many urban schools is to accept that we will never fix the schools. And my love for our kids and what they deserve means I cannot accept that.

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