“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
— President Barack Obama
President Obama is doing his best to make purple Washington’s new favorite color. This “purple” would move us beyond the “stale political arguments” of (blue) liberals and (red) conservatives and lead us to a common ground, a shared commitment to doing “whatever works.” This idea is exciting to me because it is familiar.
Since graduating from Yale in 2003, I have spent five years immersed in the world of education reform, and I have seen the commitment to doing “whatever works” allow some to do what others thought impossible.
The context in which I have most recently observed the power of this “do what works” mindset is the Teach For America summer institute. Each summer, Teach For America trains several thousand recent college graduates to become new teachers in high-poverty communities across the country.
The summer institute lasts five weeks. New teachers spend part of their days taking courses and part of their days student teaching. The idea, I admit, is a radical one. People ask, incredulously, “You’re going to train people with little teaching experience to go into the toughest classrooms in the country in just five weeks?” But the organization’s unflinching commitment to doing “whatever works” has helped it create a training program that can hold its own against any teacher-training program in the country.
The courses we offer are “purple” ones. Teach For America has almost twenty years of experience supporting teachers in the most challenging classrooms in the country, and what we teach at the institute is what we have seen our most successful teachers do. Our new teachers learn to create rigorous assessments and detailed lesson plans; they learn to manage student behavior and present content in engaging ways; and they learn to build a classroom culture where students value hard work and support each other. They learn these things not because we think they ought to work; they learn these things because we have seen them work, and each year we revamp the curriculum to include new lessons learned in the field. At every step, we teach our corps members only what we have already seen work.
The goal of the student teaching component is to produce “purple” teachers. For “do what works” to have any meaning in the classroom, we need a way of measuring how effective our teaching is: Something “works” better than something else if it moves students closer to a measurable goal.
With this in mind, our new teachers set a measurable, individualized goal for where each student should be at the end of the five weeks, and they assess their students each day to make sure they are moving closer to those goals. We work closely with our new teachers to make sure that they are doing everything they can to get their students there: We review every lesson plan before it is taught; we have our new teachers rehearse their lesson plans before they execute them; we observe our new teachers while they teach; and we provide them with feedback afterwards.
At each stage in the process, we help our new teachers isolate the ways in which their actions as teachers can push their students forward. By the end of the summer, our teachers have embraced the following maxim: “If what you’re doing in the classroom doesn’t measurably make students smarter, then it doesn’t count.”
This commitment to “purple” teaching leads to interesting places. The best teachers I know sometimes look very liberal: They insist that — even in a math class — lessons on minority history and cultural tolerance are essential. The same teachers also look very conservative: They are exceedingly strict, they embrace accountability and character education and they question the idea that lack of funding is what holds schools back.
A friend of mine from TFA is a self-described Texas Republican, and he once said to me, “Lindy, I love seeing you sensitive liberals get into the classroom and become such ‘tough love’ disciplinarians.” I replied, “And I love seeing a Republican embrace the idea that a public institution can solve serious social problems.” This sharing of values is certainly inspiring, but it is even more important because it has helped TFA produce an externally recognized impact on student achievement: Recent empirical studies from the Urban Institute and a recent New York Times editorial have all endorsed the effectiveness of TFA in raising student achievement.
Whether or not the country can find purple territory in the economy, in foreign policy, or in healthcare, the past five years have led me to believe that in the world of school reform, exciting and hopeful things are happening and that in their core, these things are purple.
Ben Lindy is a 2003 graduate of Ezra Stiles College and a second-year student at Yale Law School. He has taught with Teach For America and the Knowledge Is Power Program, and he is currently working with the Education Adequacy Project at the Law School.