Tag Archives: blue engine

Education reform and the college classroom

This article on Brooklyn-based education organization Blue Engine is worth a read. Blue Engine works with teachers to place recent college graduates as teaching assistants in high school classroom, lowering the teacher-student ration to 1-6. They also track a whole bunch of stuff about student learning, as is the trend right now.

I really like the idea of using high-achieving recent graduates as teaching assistants. It gets more folks in the classroom and avoids the sink-or-swim Teach for America approach, while giving grads the chance to find out if they like teaching in a lower-stakes environment:

One of the BETAs, Kym Scherbarth, is a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego. Scherbarth had considered going into teaching out of college, but she didn’t feel ready to lead a class. “I figured this was a good way to learn how to be an effective educator and decide if it was something I wanted to pursue,” she said.

I also like Blue Engine’s founder’s explicit acknowledgement that education reform doesn’t always work the way we think it will, and we can’t just dig in our heels in the face of disappointing evidence (cough, Michelle Rhee):

Blue Engine was born in the wake of a disappointing eight-year educational intervention led by its founder, Nick Ehrmann. And it shows. There is a refreshing humility baked into its model — particularly in the core idea that teachers need lots more support than they are given to do what they are expected to do. Ehrmann got his own start in education as a Teach For America corps member, teaching fourth and fifth grades at Emery Elementary School, in a tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He wanted his students in class 312 to make it through college, so working with the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” he raised over $1 million to provide them with tutoring, mentoring and scholarships over several years.

After he left teaching to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Princeton, Ehrmann’s Project 312 became the basis for his thesis. For years, he tracked the students’ progress against a comparison group from the same school. “I fully intended to arrogantly study what our nonprofit was getting right,” he recalled. “After six years, I found that our work had not had a shred of impact on academic achievement.”

Ehrmann focuses on increased rigor in high school classes to better prepare students for college work (he notes that there’s a difference between college-eligible and college-ready), as well as increased individualized support. From my position working with college freshmen and sophomores, these seem like essential and obvious elements in college preparation. One thing I wish my students were better trained to do is to use me as a resource–to work with me to improve their skills. All too often, when they do take advantage of my office hours, it’s to improve their grade–something that’s best addressed by focusing on skills and not treating the work in the class as a means to a grade. The added bonus is that an improvement in skills leads to an improvement in grades, but as a teacher, I don’t care about their grades, I care about their learning. The grades are just the carrot and the stick to get them to grow as readers and writers.

I have a hunch that if high school students had more opportunities to work closely with instructors whose sole purpose was to help them develop skills, and who could devote far more time an energy than an overwhelmed teacher of 30 students, they might arrive in my classroom better prepared to see me as a resource for their own learning and improvement, rather than as a giver of grades. A pipe dream, maybe, but I’m glad to see education reform that begins to address it.