Monday, July 4, 2016

What I learnt from George Joseph's "Feature Article" on TFI and Apoorv Shah's response to it

When I was in school, I was never told the difference between a 'feature article' and a 'news story'. It's only today that I cared enough to understand the difference between the two.

The purpose of a 'news story' is to relay only the facts about a particular incident through a particular style of writing. An author may paraphrase some lines from interviews that s/he conducts with people without changing the meaning. It seems to me that the author must practice Epistemic Responsibility while writing such an article - suspending all personal opinions and judgement for the purpose of the story.

On the other hand, the purpose of a 'feature article' is to bring out the human experience from a particular angle chosen by the author. The author is free to forgo his/her epistemic responsibility. In fact, while reading a feature article, a reader expects to glean an insight via the author's point of view, his beliefs and judgement about the situation at hand. Hence, it is obvious that in case of a feature article, each journalist has his/her own fan following of readers who have beliefs similar to his/hers. The author presents his viewpoints - the reader may choose to accept it or reject it. Accusing the author of holding certain beliefs and passing judgement is obviously invalid in this context.


That said, let's get to the main topic of this post.

The original article titled "Teach for America Has Gone Global, and Its Board Has Strange Ideas About What Poor Kids Need" was published on 1st July 2016 on The Nation's website. The author is George Joseph. Wikipedia says, 'The Nation is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States, and the most widely read weekly journal of progressive political and cultural news, opinion and analysis. It was founded on July 6, 1865.'

Apoorv Shah's, a TFI alum and staff member voiced his 'disapproval' via his blog: "How not to report a story".

Before I move further, please take time to read the original article and Apoorv Shah's response to it.

Some points I would like to reveal about myself.
  • I was a TFI fellow placed at Kilbil School, Pune from 2014 to 2016. Together with 2 other fellows, we taught 3 classes full of around 120 kids during their 7th and 8th grade. The school was towards the higher end of low-income schools: the annual school fees is Rs 14,000. 
  • This is the first article I have read of Mr George Joseph. I haven't read enough of his work to be his fan or detest him. I am aware that he has written another article on how he thinks TFA handles criticism which I have not yet read and analyzed fully.I personally have never interacted with Apoorv Shah
  • I have interacted with Alisa Currimjee on many occasions and find her to be a sharp, self-aware and dedicated individual. 
  • I have not yet read Shaheen's book: Redrawing India: The Teach for India Story 
  • I am 31 years old as of writing this article. I am based in Pune working to build a tech startup.
  • I am now a proud TFI alum.
  • I care more about my own 120 kids than the larger vision of TFI.
  • I am concerned about the culture within TFI and want to help ensure that TFIers are able to take criticisms well. It shouldn't matter how the criticism is presented to us, what matters is our ability to keep our immediate defensiveness at bay and take away the constructive parts from the criticisms to help improve our game.
  • My intention with the following analysis is not to be a Devil's Advocate or be the 10th man. I want to promote a culture of rational thinking in TFI. I want TFIers to be able to recognize when a rational debate is brought to the table and engage in it without invoking emotions
In the face of it, much of Apoorv Shah's accusing George Joseph of bad journalism is invalid because Apoorv failed to realize that this is a feature article and not a news story. This is evident from the title that he has chosen for his blog post. And when it comes to feature articles, I believe that its okay to have some dissenting voices - as an organization, it keeps us on our toes to keep improving.

George Joseph seems to have spent a substantial amount of time interacting with different people within and outside TFI. He has mostly limited himself to Mumbai but refers to his conversations with people outside this city. He has quoted stuff from Shaheen's book and reproduced figures from reports. His 'human experience' depends on the people he interacted with, reports and books that he read, classrooms/offices he stepped into and his own personal beliefs. The byline "In India, school funding is sorely lacking, but Teach for India just wants to transform attitudes." clearly states his angle - he is concerned about the educational funding and policies in India and wants to find out if TFI's faith in transforming people's attitude can sort of compensate for the lack of funding.

A large part of George's opinion about TFI is based on his visits to the school and the office. He reports what he saw on those days. He has no obligations to paint positive pictures of the people he interacts with. He can only base his opinions what the TFIers chose to tell him - the words they used to express their thoughts and emotions at that particular point in time. 

Apoorv Shah seems to have read between the lines and expresses his disapproval on what George "seems" to be insinuating. In his response, Apoorv has presented a list of things that he is not okay with, I have reproduced the same list with my thoughts on the same. Some of these thoughts are my way of extracting constructive criticism from the mishmash of opinions:

  • The start of the article paints a rather unattractive picture of a fellow's fellowship experience. I believe that Ms Alisa Currimjee might have wanted to say something about Ms Hemangi Joshi's opinion of her teaching technique. I also believe that even if Ms Hemangi's opinion was correct, it is unfair to judge a teacher based on one observation. I don't know how Ms Hemangi concluded that sticking to the textbook amounts to rote learning. The author writes about how the place where Ms Alisa is from stops her from being an effective teacher because she doesn't know the local language. How the author reached the conclusion about Ms Currimjee's competence in such a short span of time is something that surprises me. I believe that author should watch this video on the danger of a single story.
    Apoorv thinks that George has presented his conclusions about Alisa's competence, when clearly he has not. He has simple reported what he saw in the classroom and what Alisa and Hemangi said to him. Nothing more. What impression the reader forms of Alisa and Hemangi is completely upto the reader.
  • The author mentions that Teach for India is a sister organisation of Teach for America but fails to mention about Teach for All which is the main umbrella which coordinates between 40 odd such networks until later on in the article. The author fails to write about how 'Theory of Change' of different organisations are different based on their circumstances and ground realities. Just because there is similarity in the model, doesn't mean that they are 'one size fits all'. I would even go to the extent of saying that if a model works effectively in different countries, what's the harm in replicating?
    What the author talks about is clearly upto him. This is a "Feature Article". He has chosen his angle (In India, school funding is sorely lacking, but Teach for India just wants to transform attitudes.) and tries to stick to it.
  • The author's description of Ms Wendy Kopp's and Shaheen's education seems very sarcastic to me. In my opinion, the author is trying to hint, not so subtly, that Ms Kopp and Ms Shaheen went to elite schools and somehow that's a bad thing.
    Feature article. He is allowed to do that if in fact he is actually doing that.
  • The quotes are taken from Ms Shaheen's book and seem disjointed and out of context at best.
    Maybe - That's Apoorv's opinion of George's piece
  • The five line summary of 'why' Teach for India came into being does absolutely no justice to the effort and thought that so many people put in at the start of the organisation. If the author had read the book more thoroughly and interviewed people, he would have found out.
    George doesn't (and shouldn't) care about what went on into setting up TFI. He should and must care to present his angle and understanding. And that, only. 
  • "Despite this intensive work, however, the blueprint they came up with was almost identical to Teach for America's: Teach for India would recruit elite students, train them for five weeks, and then send them out to teach the urban poor." I believe the author's definition of 'almost identical' is very different from any dictionary definition. There are quite a few things similar between Teach for America's model and Teach for India's model but there are also a LOT of differences. Also, throughout the article, the author harps on the fact that the teachers get five weeks of training but fails to mention the ongoing training and support that fellows receive throughout the two years of the fellowship.
    Being a TFIer day in and day out, we know that there are a thousand minute differences between the models of organizations in various countries. For example. TFI limits itself to urban areas, where as Teach For China mostly serves rural areas. TFI fellows arrange for their own accommodations. Most TFC fellows live in schools that they teach in. But the basic idea of each organization is to recruit brilliant graduates, train them for 5 weeks and place them in low income schools or schools lacking good teachers and keep supporting them throughout their fellowship. Hence to an outsider, all the organizations would look similar. George has been careful to use the phrase "almost identical" and not just "identical"
  • "If deemed successful, this model will be poised to deliver large portions of India’s education system—and, indeed, others all over the world—into the control of the private sector on a for-profit basis." There is absolutely no evidence or data provided on how the author reached a conclusion that Teach for India is trying to privatize education or is even campaigning for a ‘for profit’ solution to the education crisis. The author does talk about Mr Ashish Dhawan funding organisations that are advocating for privatisation but there is no evidence provided to substantiate the author’s claim that Teach for India is trying to do it.
    Later on in the article, George mentions two things:
    "Despite these brutal reductions, Teach for India–affiliated groups like the Central Square Foundation and the Centre for Civil Society have hailed Modi’s education policies, satisfied with his willingness to slash regulations on private-school operators"
    and
    "TFA’s critics say that inexperienced teachers make educational inequality worse, and that the organization has become a Trojan horse for the private takeover of public-sector resources."
    So his opinion is based on the conversations that he might have had with people from said groups. Also "poised" means "seems ready to" and doesn't not necessarily mean "actually going to". Nuances of meaning.
  • The author’s description of Ms Meghna Rakshit is nauseating and unnecessary. I don’t know why the author needs to write about Ms Rakshit’s clothes and the way she speaks. I don’t know if the quotes in the article were all that Ms Rakshit had to say about the education crisis. I have a feeling they were not.
    Doesn't seem nauseating to me. I think George has painted a very vivid picture of his interaction with Meghna - that's what you are supposed to bring out in a Feature Article - The Human Experience.
  • "By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character.” I don’t know how the author concluded that Teach for India or Teach for All don’t consider material deficits as a problem. Yet another unsubstantiated claim.
    Maybe no one that he interacted with told him that we fellows hold collection drives to fund sporting gear for students, tech equipment and stationery for school/classroom etc. Note to self - if someone interviews you, remember to talk about this
  • The author then describes another teachers class whom the author addresses as Ms D. I don’t know why the author choose to use Ms Alisa Currimjee’s full name and even go into details of her native place. I hope that proper permissions were taken before using Ms Alisa’s name and other details.
    Not really sure if he really needs to take permission. He is a journalist. He asks you if he can interview you, you agree and go ahead. Permission to use your name is implicit. Ms D might have a difficult to remember name in the local language. So George might have forgotten it or might have chosen to not use it least it become distracting to the reader. Also I think he is protecting the identity of Ms. D because he says that she swats her students which is clearly a violation of law.
  • The author goes on to talk about how Narendra Modi government’s funding cuts have affected classrooms. There is also a line about how Teach for India’s patrons are friends with the Prime Minister. If this is the author’s attempt of giving this some political colour then I think the author should also have found out that Teach for India no political allegiances and that the organisation has an alum who works for the Congress party and also had Mr Arvind Kejriwal as a chief guest in one of its event a couple of years back. All this would have come out if the author had researched but it is not as easy as throwing allegations.
    George probably only talks about Narendra Modi because he is the one who pushed for funding cuts and he is the one who supports TFI - this may support his main "angle" - (In India, school funding is sorely lacking, but Teach for India just wants to transform attitudes.)
  • The author claims that only people who are ‘global citizens’ and don’t speak English in a ‘thick Indian accent’ are likely to become Teach for India fellows. I believe that the author again has no idea of the different places from where Teach for India recruits and has probably never interacted with more than a handful of fellows.
    Correct. That's the impression that George formed of TFI depending on the handful of fellows he interacted with. It is our responsibility to have helped expose him to all kids of fellows and staff members. He visited the office, that means he used official channels to access TFI's presence in Mumbai. We should have come up with a more diverse set of TFIers for him to have interacted with.
  • Also, ‘occasionally swatting’ students is illegal in the country. I am glad you did not mention Ms D’s real identity. I would urge you to talk to her about this ‘swatting’ and explain to her the mental trauma it causes students.
    Already covered above. Talking to Ms D is not his battle. He is a journalist.
  • Another sentence which shows the complete lack of research from the author’s part is the author’s belief that all Teach for India classrooms have a ‘Coteacher’ and that there are less than 40 students in Teach for India classrooms. The author himself, in the beginning of the article, talks about how student teacher ratio in the country is very extreme. Ms D or any other Teach for India classroom is no different. I think it would be a good idea to go visit some Teach for India classrooms to see the numbers.
    That's probably the impression that the TFIers that he interacted (and Ms D) with gave him. We should take a note and make sure that we expose a person wanting to know about TFI to a varied group of TFIers to ensure that we give them the correct picture. George seems to have gone through proper channels and seems to have reached a variety of people outside TFI as well. He seems to be a good researcher.
  • Ms D is not the only one doing three jobs. All fellows who work in government or private schools are required to do all that the other school teachers are required to do save election duty and census. So well, everyone is doing multiple jobs.
    Thanks for clarifying, he doesn't claim otherwise anyway.
  • Author claims that Teach for India often describes its movement as the second freedom struggle yet provides not even one instance where it has done so. If it happened so ‘often’, should a reporter share those instances?
    He doesn't need to produce instances - somebody from TFI or Ashish Dhawan seems to have used that line when talking about TFI. A quick google search, unearths to articles talking about "Second Freedom Struggle" in connection with TFI (Article 1 Article 2)
  • Author links budget cuts to economic liberalization. A link that has no logical connection. It is my opinion that the author does not understand economic liberalization. Moving the focus from inputs to student outcomes is a decision state government get to make independently. Neither the central government and definitely not Teach for India has any say in it. Right to Education gives the states the power to do this.
    I don't have a good handle on political spectrum and how it sways education and economic policies. So the only thing I understood while reading these lines is that maybe the government is trying to push for privatization of schools as well.
  • “Some teachers are trying to resist the relentless expansion of Teach for India and the education-reform movement in general…” First of all, Teach for India never has and can never force any school or teacher to do anything. Expansion happens when both parties are willing and see value in the relationship. Also, is the author trying to suggest that there are teachers who are trying to resist education reform movement? Wow.
    Here, George is not suggesting, he is reporting that Firoz Ahmed the primary school teacher feels this way. Maybe we as an organization need to work on our perception better. If Firoz Ahmad is afraid of TFI, we need to find out why and take corrective action in how we operate or clarify our stand and improve our relations with teachers in that area of Delhi.
  • “We are quite afraid they are going to use early screening and labeling to screen [students] into vocational courses… purely economic schooling. This is not just Modi, but they are obviously more aggressive. And this not just in India.” How is one person’s fear backed by no proff at all being considered as a threat? Just to clarify, Teach for India never labels children or screens them into vocational courses at any point of time. Maybe Mr Firoz Ahmed needs to talk to someone and find out more about what is really happening.
    Instead, TFI needs to look in to the matter and speak to Firoz. Maybe there is something going wrong in that region.
  • “It is unclear how much students will benefit from this handoff to the private sector” NO ONE IS HANDING OFF STUDENTS TO ANYONE!!!
    The sentence "It is unclear how much students will benefit from this handoff to the private sector, but the Teach for India program certainly strives to enhance its recruits’ future prospects beyond their brief careers in the classroom." does seem incoherent in referring to disjoint things. Not sure what George seems to be implying here. Not a good transition between paragraphs.
  • The author talks about how there are charts with dire consequences plans. It would be great if he would have mentioned one of them. Fellows are taught how to manage classroom behaviour in such a way that student dignity is maintained and still behaviour of the class is conducive to learning. This is done because traditionally, ‘swatting students’ like Ms D was the method used. Given Teach for India’s commitment towards Child Protection Policy, fellows are trained to use techniques which involve rewarding good behaviour with stars and tokens and there are consequences for bad behaviour which are generally taking away those stars and tokens. The most dire consequences are staying back for some time after school and having a conversation with the teacher so that the student understands the value of behaving in class and the importance of it in their education. Apparently trying to instil a work oriented culture is a crime. All this the author would have known if the author had not climbed the Ladder of Inference so fast.
    None of the words that the author has used shows that he is inferring anything. He is only making connections - he finds that these charts and rules are similar to those used by American Charter Schools.
  • The article ends with the author talking to three fellows about their community engagement techniques to which the fellows respond by saying that it is decided top down and that communities treat them as outsiders. [Update: fellows who are quoted in the article have informed others who reached out to them that they have been misquoted.] It is true that this happens when fellows aren’t able to build those relations with the community members. If the author had researched about the different community projects that fellows in Mumbai have undertaken, he would have gotten a second opinion. There are community centres which are started by fellows and are now run by community members. The trust that fellows share with the community is different for different fellows because the effort put in and the results achieved by different fellows are different. To judge an entire organisation’s community relations effort based on what 3 out of the 1000 fellows had to say is not right.
    I really believe that it was our duty to have presented an all encompassing view of TFI to George. Let this be a lesson to use. We should be frank enough to present our failures as well as successes to the world outside.
  • About the fellowship being marketable enough. I think the author would love to know that we maintain a 7-8% acceptance rate for fellows and an even lower rate for staff members. The organisation attracts top talent already and marketing is done to spread more awareness about the education equity gap more than anything else. There are reasons for why it is a two year fellowship. Also, there are fellows who are selected to do a third year of the fellowship and there are quite a few fellows who live in the community that they work in.
    Next time a journalist wants to know more about TFI, we would be sure to tell him/her all this.
I think that Apoorv is quite passionate about the work he does at TFI and it is only human to become defensive when the work that you do "SEEMS" to have been questioned. Apoorv and many other TFIers seem to have been quick to jump the gun in mounting a defensive response to the article when none was needed.

So here are a few things that I take away from the two articles:
  • It is essential to know the difference between feature article and news story
  • Its easy to get angered when someone accuses or "seems to accuse" you of the work that you are doing.
  • If a "feature article" provokes you, the thing to do is to read it again and try to empathize with the reader - try to understand his point of view, suspend your emotions and try to take away positive criticism from it. Not good to react to it immediately. One needs to sleep over it to understand what the author is getting at.
  • Being self-aware is important. If I think my reading comprehension skills aren't upto the mark, I would take the time to read the article to and fro a couple of time before deciding what to accept and what to reject. Good teachers/leaders need to work on developing good reading comprehension skills.
  • Don't read between the lines - you might think that the author is inferring something when he might simple be reporting facts or paraphrasing what some people have said to him.
  • When a person approaches your organization, it is our responsibility to makes sure that we present every facet of our collective to him/her.
  • We need to be able to recognize a rational debate when it comes our way and engage in it without invoking sentiments.
As I wrote this blog and re-read George's piece I realized that unlike many feature articles, in the one above, he has been careful from explicitly revealing his opinions on the matter. He seems to have arranged the facts in a particular sequence so as to lead the reader smoothly in on his angle. All the inferences that might seem to have been made on George's part actually turn out - on second or third reading - to be inferences made on part of the reader. I am actually awed by George's skill in molding public opinion of the not-so-careful reader. 

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