Finding a Lifeline for Teachers in Trouble
April 8, 2003
by Jay Mathews
Three months ago I asked for a response to the story of a young teacher in trouble. It was Josh Kaplowitz, whose City Journal article "How I Joined Teach for America -- and Got Sued for $20 Million" stunned many readers and produced several intriguing suggestions for improving inner city schools.
I waited to share the messages sent to me because I knew that Post Metro page columnist Marc Fisher was doing his own investigation of the Kaplowitz story. Now that Fisher's article, Pass/Fail, has been published in the April 6 Washington Post Magazine, adding depth and context, I can tell you what I learned from the Kaplowitz disaster at a D.C. elementary school.
Kaplowitz is the son of two Richmond area physicians. He graduated from Yale with a political science degree in 2000 and joined Teach For America. That 11-year-old organization, conceived by a Princeton undergraduate, sends young but high-achieving college graduates to schools that are desperate enough to take raw recruits with only a summer of teacher training.
Teach for America members often do terribly their first year, but that has not stopped the program because nearly ALL teachers, including those with masters degrees in education, fail initially with kids from impoverished homes. The second year is often better. Many Teach for America recruits have stayed in the classroom, and some have made remarkable progress.
But Kaplowitz's first -- and final -- year was much, much worse than anything I had ever heard of. He was assigned to a fifth-grade class at Emery Elementary School in Northeast Washington, one of four white Teach for America members recruited by an interim principal who could not be there to help when things went bad. Almost all the students and other teachers were African American. The kids gave Kaplowitz the usual hazing, including some anti-white and anti-Semitic insults.
Many experts think classroom management is best learned on the job, just as Kaplowitz tried to do, but there was no experienced educator at Emery with the time and inclination to help him. The principal, who should have been doing it, was a severe disappointment.
Her name was Lisa Savoy. She had apparently never been a principal before and at every juncture, intentionally or not, aggravated the ill effects of Kaplowitz's inexperience. When he tried to break up fights between his students, she declared such interventions violated district rules against touching students. Fisher said she took the extraordinary step of announcing this on the loudspeaker, which allowed the most recalcitrant children, who tend to be among the brightest, to know there was one more weapon to use against any teacher that got in their way.
Kaplowitz tried to win over parents by visiting them at home to talk about their children's progress. But when one mother told Savoy she considered this harassment, he was not encouraged to do any more visiting.
When Kaplowitz persisted in trying to stop student violence, there were complaints, and like many D.C. teachers he was investigated by the private security firm hired for this chore. The security officers interviewed all the student witnesses, investing them with even more power.
Granted, there have been real cases of abusive teachers in the District and other school systems. But Kaplowitz's story suggests the procedures for dealing with incidents of physical contact have gotten out of hand. In June, just as school was ending, a parent called the police after he touched a 7-year-old. Kaplowitz said he did no more than put his hand on the child's back to guide him out the door, but the mother found a lawyer who specialized in such cases and filed a misdemeanor assault charge as well as a $20 million civil suit. A judge cleared Kaplowitz of the criminal charge, but the school district settled with the parent for $90,000, motivating the lawyer to seek more such clients.
Fisher tried valiantly to get the mother's side of the story. He left 30 telephone messages for her over a two-month period, none of which she answered, Fisher said. Savoy left Emery after just one year and now is an administrator at a special education school. She declined to speak to Fisher, and D.C. officials had little to say about the way they handled the situation.
Kaplowitz, now writing a book about his experience, admits he was poorly prepared for teaching. Fisher found one teacher who said he had seen Kaplowitz twice lose his temper, but all the other available witnesses say most of the blame should not fall on a 22-year-old who was just trying to help poor kids.
Readers said the story confirmed their view of what a mess we have created in our poorest schools by not giving teachers sufficient support. Sheila Huff, lecturer in the sociology department at Southern Illinois University, said that "until federal mandates provide teachers, principals, and school districts real assistance in controlling students who are out of control, children will be left behind, teachers will continue to flee the profession, lawyers will continue to stalk well-meaning individuals, much-needed funds will continue to be siphoned from the classrooms, and U.S. public education will become the domain of miscreants."
Marie Anderson said "as an African American, I am appalled at the blatant and accepted racism Mr. Kaplowitz suffered. Why he didn't have the Anti-Defamation League sue the ... the D.C. school system and the D.C. government and the parents is beyond me." She also wondered: "How do administrators like Savoy manage to remain in schools for an entire year without a 360-degree review by the school system?"
Many readers offered suggestions, while warning that nothing short of a massive infusion of money to reduce student-teacher ratios is likely to bring lasting change.
Former teacher and Bethesda resident Bob Dodds suggested video cameras in every classroom. "When 60 Minutes did a piece on the difference between school busses that had cameras and those that didn't, the difference was extraordinary," he said. "Without the cameras, the chaos was much like what was described in the article. With them, it was just a peaceful ride."
Christine Howlett said if a principal told her she could not touch a student, she would call the cops the next time a fight occurred. "The police officer is not responsible to the principal and will not be sued for touching a child," she said. "If the child [charged with assault] ends up in juvenile court, that may be the right place for someone who is trying to do serious injury to another human being."
Dick Reed, a PTA activist in Fairfax County, recommended time-out rooms and alternative schools like those in his very diverse suburban district. Kaplowitz had some success with the rest of his class when he sent his four worst offenders to the classroom of a friendly and more experienced teacher, but Savoy forbade that too. "It was a relatively small minority that disrupted the class for everyone," Reed said.
David L. Newquist, a retired English and journalism professor from Northern State College in Aberdeen, S.D., suggested a number of reforms, including more decision-making power for teachers and revival of laws against insult and abuse of teachers in their professional capacity. "The school and the classroom, like the U.S. Senate, require rules of debate and decorum to keep them focused on their educational purpose," he said.
Several readers said the Kaplowitz story illustrated why we need more choice for low-income parents. "It is the best argument for vouchers that I have seen to date," said Jeanine Martin, a very active parent in Fairfax County. "For half of what DC is spending per pupil, those kids who want to learn could be in school where they could learn." Thomas J. Grahame, who works for the U.S. Energy Department, said "keep steadily opening new charter schools, and keep the option of vouchers open, so that DC officials will have incentives not to bust charter schools."
I also thought about charter schools, particularly those created by two young Teach for America recruits, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, who started teaching in inner-city Houston 11 years ago when they were just as inexperienced as Kaplowitz. When they faced unruly students and suspicious parents, they broke down many barriers and found ways to classroom success by first visiting all of their students' homes.
They turned their experience into the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, that have set records for academic achievement in high-poverty neighborhoods. There are 15 of them now across the country, including one in Baltimore and one in the District, and more on the way. They depend on close contact with parents, who are invariably stunned and then flattered and ready to help teachers who put so much confidence in them. Levin and Feinberg never had a principal as clumsy as Savoy, but none of their principals were very helpful -- including one who fired Levin -- and the support from their parents often saved the day.
So the Emery principal's failure to encourage Kaplowitz get involved with families is at the top of my list of her many mistakes. Fisher described what happened when another Teach for America recruit at the school, Northwestern graduate Nick Ehrmann, was able to connect with his kids and their families by starting a photography project. It changed the atmosphere in his class and led him to become a full-time sponsor of such initiatives.
I wish D.C. and Teach for America officials had tried harder to answer Fisher's many good questions. Has anything been done to retrain Savoy? Does it make sense to turn every teacher-touching-child accusation into a major investigation? Why hasn't Teach for America prepared its recruits for such incidents? Why doesn't it insist on competent principals and make home visits a must for all its young members?
Abigail Smith, who was then vice president for training and support for Teach for America, said she did not think anyone in her organization complained about the principal but thought that D.C. officials already knew they had a problem. "There are lots of challenges in a school environment and one of them is sometimes the school leadership," she said.
Miwa M. Powell, executive director of Teach For America DC, said she could not comment on how the Emery situation was handled because she was not in charge then, but she said her organization's overall record is exemplary. She said 96 percent of principals surveyed rate Teach For America corps members good or excellent. She did not, however, have any data on the achievement gains of the students of first-year recruits and did not know how many visited all of their parents -- a method Teach for America encourages but does not require.
I am more hopeful about the future of inner-city schools than many of the people who wrote me. But the Kaplowitz case proves that they are right to be angry and frustrated. Marie Anderson said it better than I could:
"D.C. doesn't have to worry about being able to provide an able workforce -- it's doing a great job creating a permanent underclass destined to underperform and underearn because no one is brave enough to stop the insanity and violence and reintroduce education to the D.C. public schools."
©2003 The Washington Post