First Person

“Sharp Focus” On Teacher Prep Programs Falls Flat

Last week, the New York City Department of Education issued its first-ever Teacher Preparation Program Reports. The department was judicious in not describing the reports as an evaluation of the quality or effectiveness of the dozen teacher-preparation programs in the New York City area that collectively produce more than 50 percent of the 10,000 traditional-pathway teachers hired by the city over the past five years.

Others were not so careful. Writing in The New York Times, Javier Hernandez described the PowerPoint slides comparing the 12 programs as “scorecards,” and stated that these ed schools were being “evaluated,” a term repeated in his article’s headline. Politico also used the term “scorecard.” The Wall Street Journal described the data as “rankings,” although teacher-preparation programs were not ranked. The Associated Press described the data as “grading” the colleges and universities, and looked for “winners or losers.” The New York Post and the New York Daily News both referred to “grading” the programs. Even my own institution, Teachers College, which appears in the data, fell into this trap: the headline on the college’s webpage reads, “TC Rated in City Evaluation of Teacher Prep Programs.”

What’s the big deal? Report, description, analysis, comparison, ratings, rankings, evaluation — aren’t these all pretty much the same thing?

No, they are not, for several reasons.

First of all, we cannot view the descriptive information about New York City teachers emerging from each program as an evaluation of the program, because we have no idea if the teachers who start their careers in the Big Apple are typical or representative of all of the new teachers produced by each program. Do NYC schools attract the best or the worst of each program’s graduates? We have no idea.

Michael Jordan (Photo courtesy of Steve Lipofski,

If you will forgive a sports analogy  —drawn from basketball, in honor of our Hoopster-in-Chief, Arne Duncan — consider the players from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who’ve entered the National Basketball Association over the past three decades. Would it be fair to evaluate UNC’s performance as a training-ground for the NBA based only on how its players perform for the Los Angeles Lakers? What about that Michael Jordan fellow, who played only for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards? Should his performance be ignored? When a preparation program sends its graduates to many different destinations, we cannot evaluate its quality based on how those graduates perform in just a single destination.

Now, when Michael Jordan entered the NBA, he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls — after the Houston Rockets picked Hakeem Olajuwon and the Portland Trail Blazers chose Sam Bowie. The nature of the NBA draft is that these teams had exclusive rights to these players, who couldn’t choose to sign with any NBA team, even if they thought that other teams had more talented players, or had a better coach, or would pay them more money. Does playing on a stable team with experienced teammates and an excellent coach improve a player’s performance? It’s hard to know, for most of the time we only see how a player performs with the team that drafted him.

Public education doesn’t use a “draft” to match new teachers with schools, but in both teaching and basketball, there’s a labor market with a supply of, and demand for, new talent. Where teachers wind up and how they perform on the job aren’t entirely up to them; a teacher with specialized training and credentials may only be interviewed and hired by a school seeking a teacher with such specialized expertise. Conversely, one can scarcely fault a teacher for choosing among multiple job offers on the basis of the one that pays the best, or that has the best facilities, or that is in a desirable location. As Kata Mihaly and her colleagues and Bruce Baker of Rutgers have demonstrated, when labor markets result in a non-random distribution of teachers across schools and districts, it’s very difficult to disentangle the effects of the teacher-preparation program on teaching outcomes from the effects of school context.

For this reason, the descriptions of how the graduates of the dozen metro-area teacher-preparation programs are distributed throughout the system are hard to interpret. It’s interesting to see that the graduates of a particular program are more likely to teach in what the Department of Education refers to as highest-need schools, or that the teachers from a particular program are more likely to leave the district than those from other programs, but what do such things mean?

In fact, the comparisons across programs revealed far more similarities than differences, which very likely is reassuring to the education department, which inevitably must rely on diverse providers to supply the teachers it hires each year.

The data receiving the most attention were the ratings that graduates of the 12 programs received via the New York Student Growth Percentiles methodology developed by the State Education Department for the Annual Professional Performance Reviews. The 2011-12 methodology unfairly penalized some teachers and rewarded others, in my professional opinion, and the ratings were only assigned to the 15 percent of educators teaching either English Language Arts or mathematics in grades four through eight — scarcely a representative subset of the teachers prepared in any of the dozen programs. (And then there’s the pesky question of whether the state’s tests in 2011 and 2012 were good indicators of the most important things we want students to learn.) But some observers continue to view them as the most “objective” sources of information about teacher performance. Duncan, for example, said that the project “puts the record of preparation programs — including their impact on student learning — into sharp focus.”

The distribution of performance among teachers in New York City looks a lot like that across the state: 7 percent of teachers rated highly effective, and 6 percent rated ineffective, with the vast majority rated effective, based on the Student Growth Percentiles. And, although the Department of Education didn’t come out and say this, the distributions look very similar across the 12 teacher-preparation programs as well. A simple measure of association known as the chi-square test indicates that we cannot rule out the possibility that the teacher ratings are the same from one program to the next.

If the numbers in these Teacher Preparation Program Reports lead to deeper inquiries into what the data mean, and constructive conversations among the Department of Education and the leadership of the teacher-preparation programs, I’ll be pleased.

But let’s not mistake this for an evaluation. Or sharp focus.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.