In a new interview at the TeachersCount website, TLN blogger and teacher-author Dan Brown tells of his early teaching experiences in inner-city New York, his decision to write a well-received book about his first year, and his eventual move to the District of Columbia, where he teaches English/LA at SEED, a public residential charter school with open enrollment. Here are several excerpts:
On charter schools:
Every public charter, by definition, is its own little bubble universe. Of course, all publicly funded schools share state standards and the state exams, but otherwise I see charters as individual, self-contained environments. This can be wonderful or terrible. For example, some charters are started up by people in over their heads, and you’ve got bedlam. It’s unbelievably hard to build a successful school. Other charters are great ideas when conceived, but they can’t draw students or a workable site.
I love my charter school, because I see the school environment as liberating and an improvement over the DCPS norm. My classes range in size from 11 to 15 students; that alone is a ringing endorsement. I also get a lot of autonomy in shaping my curriculum. My colleagues are great and the atmosphere of the school is generally positive. However, despite my positive experience, I don’t see charters as a panacea for education reform; they’re an alternative option for some parents. Across the country, the regular public school system still serves the overwhelming majority of students and that’s not going to change.
On writing a book about his first year:
At first, I wrote for the eyes of my compatriots. I felt like we had been through something dramatic and important together, and I had the tools and the time now to set it down on paper and tell the tale. I banged out 60 or 70 pages in less than a week. My fellow Fellows were so positive about it that I convinced myself that this story could find a readership. For one thing, it had all the ingredients of gripping high drama and it was all real. Also, I could find very few teacher memoirs in the bookstores. There are very few book-length unfiltered accounts out there of what it’s really like to teach.
On the challenges disadvantaged students face:
When students start the race several years behind, frustration follows. That frustration can manifest in oppositional behavior (“I don’t care about school!”), fear of failure and lack of trying, and low self-esteem. Then the students can’t catch up because they’re really down on themselves and on school in general. Even if they were fired up, they may also have lousy access to the resources needed to make such an intense academic leap
Of course, this is not at all the case for all students, but I think the large-scale effect of unequal access (based on income) to academically supportive environments for young people foments an opportunity gap.
On improving teacher and teaching quality:
I’m worried that policy-makers are out of touch with the realities of classroom life. If you don’t spend time in classrooms with students and teachers, it’s too easy to push an ideology of more and more high-stakes testing, which is what’s happening. It’s gotten to the point where “test scores” and “student performance” are used interchangeably.
Teachers ought to have more of a voice in crafting accountability tools. Unfortunately, our culture does not respect teachers enough to demand that they receive this seat at the table…. It takes a village to truly boost student achievement, and teachers have a major role to play in that, and they should be held accountable for their work. Regrettably, it’s not so easily quantifiable to measure short- or long-term teacher effectiveness once accepting the truth that test scores only don’t equal the sum total of student achievement. We’re nowhere near figuring out that kind of authentic measurement.