Tag Archives: Teach For America

The Education War – Who is winning?

TrenchThe word “quagmire” gets thrown around pretty casually these days.

Civil unrest.  “Nation building.” Revolutions. Economic crisis. Natural disasters.  The Q-word has been used repeatedly for so many of the dangerous, sticky situations we find ourselves as a society.

Yet does the education war—the clash of “reformers” that has stretched over a decade—deserve the dreaded label?

It depends on what you hear.

Many news outlets, in print and online, picture the education reform movement as clearly on the defensive.  Attacks on charter schools have increased as never before, viewed as undemocratic, tyrannical and ultimately ineffective.  The latest report on how Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy charter schools were caught on record attempting to push out a special-needs student is particularly galling.

New tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards showed massive drops in scores, giving a giant raspberry to all earlier reform attempts.  Companies cashing in on the testing craze—Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.—are under the microscope for botched questions and poor scoring in state after state.  The Common Core itself is under attack, as state after state elects to opt out of the supposedly nationwide initiative—regardless of the DOE carrot-and-stick policy about Common Core adoption.

Even reform stalwarts like Teach for America, Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation find themselves under siege as critics wail on their status and perceived impact on public education.

Yet if you look at actual policy, it paints a very different picture.

Education reformers, backed bipartisanly, have pushed standardized testing into almost every classroom in America.  Teacher evaluation systems across the country are aligning teacher effectiveness with student scores on state tests, with unions knuckling under in the process.  The Common Core, though embattled, is now the rule in reform strongholds like New York, California and Massachusetts.  Governors from both parties are backing more draconian measures to shut down failing schools.

Even worse, the media machine of education reform has recently launched a counter-offensive.  Long criticized for not developing effective veteran teachers, TFA and other reform movements are now saying it is BETTER to have short-term teachers who won’t become veterans because their enthusiasm, their innate intelligence and God’s good graces are enough to provide a quality education for children.

This conflict looks like it qualifies as a quagmire… and part of fault lies with the opposition.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests, TFA, charters, etc.  Most readers here already know that.  However, I am a very big fan of improving teacher selection and preparation, which is high on the education reform agenda.   I don’t like that it’s relatively easy access into our profession, and it hurts our reputation in the process.

I have feet in two very different parts of the swamp.  They shouldn’t be.  Both sides should be having real, meaningful policymaking sessions by now.  Why aren’t they?

The education reform movement does not take the opposition seriously.

This is a similar problem with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  It was a grassroots movement, to be sure, but there was no definition of victory: no goals, no leadership, no direction.  It “started a dialogue”, and you know how much J.P. Morgan and the like shake in their wingtips over that.

Occupy Wall Street failed because Wall Street itself never saw them as a threat.  They didn’t become an electoral force, backing candidates allied to them for Congress and Senate.  They didn’t become a fundraising power, soliciting funds so that candidates from both parties kowtow to them in alternating order.  They didn’t become a lobby, oiling and adjusting the rusty gears of the filthy gearbox called legislative politics.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, though still disorganized nationally, managed to become a force because it knew how to monopolize the conversation and the ballot box.  It wasn’t just Koch Brothers money that put the Tea Party boot on the throat of the Republican Party.  The Tea Party quickly moved from “starting a dialogue” to “kicking the shit out of anyone in their way.” Moderate republicans fell like dominoes.  Their candidates, whether they won or lost, made sure the Tea Party was firmly at the big boys table in the RNC.

The Tea Party became a threat.  They became feared.  Occupy Wall Street didn’t…and the education reform opposition isn’t much of a fear either.

As much as the opposition boasts numerous media outlets, a lightning-rod leader in Diane Ravitch, and numerous movements like Save Our Schools, etc., there is little to show for their efforts other than scathing editorials, page after page of incendiary blogs, reams of online petitions and packed comments on Facebook pages.

Victory is not “opening a dialogue.”  It is when the policies of the state and nation are changed.  That does not happen with a spirited debate.

If the opposition wants a seat at the education table, rightly placed across from the reformers, it has to fight for it.

Like Wall Street, the only thing many of these reformers will listen to is their wallet and the ballot box.  The opposition needs to attack both, ferociously and brutally.

It must out-Koch the Koch brothers and out-Gates the Gates Foundation.  It must attain its own billionaire allies to fund PACs, lobbies, and candidates to state and national office.  It must push their agenda by any means necessary.

It has to turn the media conversation forcefully, repeatedly and effectively to counter the sound-bites of the reformers.   The phrase “for the children”, co-opted by both sides, is both tired and unrealistic.  It ceased to be about children a long time ago, unfortunately.  This fight is about the adults, and hopefully the policies will serve children best.  But to say that each side is exclusively serving the children is to be in an extreme state of delusion.

More than anything, however, the opposition needs to get its hands dirty with the business of politics.  I know many in the opposition, and they are smart, savvy, earnest people who genuinely want to make a difference.  They want to “maintain the moral high ground” and not stoop to the level of the Broads, Kochs, Gates and the rest.  Their methods, frankly, will do nothing but create coffee-house chatter.

To change policy is a filthy, brutal, demoralizing and demeaning business.  Only by beating the reformers at their own game can the opposition sit with them and negotiate as rivals to pound out the policies that best serve everyone.

As for maintaining the moral high ground…that only works when your opponent has morals to maintain.

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David Letterman – Top Ten Reasons I’ve Decided to Become a Teacher

I’m knee deep in LearnZillion work as I came back from my long break.

The Gilder Lehrman conference at USC was great–wonderful professors, cool colleagues, and a special shout out to the folks at Tiki Ti’s for making things just a little bit better on Wednesday night.

My stopover in Colorado was even better.  So much fun to be with my western kin.  It was a blast, and the mile-high altitude didn’t faze me one bit.

I saw this video of David Letterman’s Top Ten List on my Facebook feed and wanted to share it for two reasons:

A. the satirical reasons Letterman comes up with may be fresh and new to his juvenile audience, but we teachers have heard enough of it.

B. Isn’t it a tad insulting when TFAers, especially those who HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED THEIR TERM YET, are brought out for this little stunt?  If Letterman really wanted to thank teachers he would’ve included some veterans who know there way around the classroom.

Personally, I want to see those ten kids in two years…all glassy eyed, strung out and ready for their Morgan Stanley/McKinsey/CitiGroup/PWC/etc. job they really wanted in the first place.

Comments are always welcome.

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Calling out all Teachers “converted” by Public Education!

Like St. Paul on the way to Damascus, many of us undergo a “conversion” experience.

We enter the world full of lofty goals, high-minded principles and some complex vocabulary. Sometimes, we even attempt to make those goals real, entering the “real world” to “inspire young minds” and “do some good in the world.”

Yet when the cold backhand of reality comes crashing across our faces, the sting often exposes a greater truth—a truth often masked behind the rhetoric.

I am not immune to this. When I began as a teacher, visions of gleaming charter schools and smiling faces with vouchers to private academies danced in my head. I couldn’t sing the praises of privatization and Teach for America loud enough—as well as shout my disdain for veteran teachers “not doing their job.”

It didn’t take long into my first year for reality to sink in. The magic bullets, the fab theories and the rhetoric of the NCLB crowd were smoke-and-mirrors in the everyday grind of an inner city classroom. The handbooks—TFA, NYC Teaching Fellows, or otherwise—had no answer for the problems I faced each day in that place. The best help I got was from (Surprise, surprise!) veteran teachers who long ago discarded the guidebooks to best educate their students.

My mind changed when I encountered the realities of public education. And I am sure I’m not alone.

At the recent Save Our Schools Conference, I had spoken with fellow blogger James Boutin about our experiences, and we got to thinking about people like us—people who “crossed the floor” as it were on public education. One workshop we attended involved two Teach for America alums. They quit the organization over their tactics and approach in regards to teacher training.

Surely, we thought, there are many others like them—and us—who also had an epiphany about education and the real problems in our public schools.

There’s a very public example of this “epiphany” in Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education and co-author of No Child Left Behind who saw the dangers of the monster she helped bring to life.

However, what could be even more powerful are the stories of everyday teachers—be it from TFA, Teaching Fellows, or anywhere else—who had once bought into the rhetoric of education “reform” and have been transformed by their experiences in today’s classrooms.

James and I are collecting stories of similar individuals, those with similar transformative experiences as us. If you have a story to share, please contact James or myself. Include your contact info, as we’re not sure how to best use your information, and we want to keep in touch with you.

Finally, please send this to anyone whose life was changed by teaching in a public school classroom. Your stories are important and incredibly valuable. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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Dear Secretary Duncan: Stop the Rape of Social Studies in America

Dear Secretary Duncan:

(We’re not that formal here in the Neighborhood…is Arne okay?)

You may not know us, Arne, but we do know you.

We know how your corporate mentality, go-get’em attitude and boardroom smile have wowed the spastic, slightly deranged menagerie known as the education establishment.

The goofy minions at Teach for America, the boys who started those KIPP academies, the slack-jawed tweed-types at Teachers’ College all fell for your spell. Lucy Calkins must’ve soiled herself at the sight of you.

We know how as Secretary of Education, you’ve basically continued the half-brained policies of a certain Gentlemen’s C student that we need not mention.  Never mind that those policies have little theoretical or analytical basis, are unrealistic and create a permanent underclass—you’ve got to follow through, just like your jump shots in the vaunted Australian basketball league.

We also know that you’ve got a real hard-on for charter schools (I’m sorry, this is an education blog, we mean “erection”).  We don’t blame you—with little oversight, little control over curriculum and pedagogy, no kids with “special needs”  and no pesky unions to push adequate wages and whatnot, it’s practically a CEO job.  Just give “empowering” goals and let the rest run itself.  That certainly has worked in the past, right?

And speaking of goals, we also know how much you love that buzzword of the moment, “accountability.”  In your world, Arne, that means standardized tests and oodles of data.  Charts now show trends for every stage in a child’s development, in any subject, at any time of day.  Have enough kids fart in the wind or give swirlies to a fat kid in the boys’ room, and you better believe there’ll be documentation on it.   Of course, the teacher’s always to blame.

Finally, we know all about the Race to the Top.  We have to admit, it’s one heck of a devious plot there, Arne.  Only the truly misanthropic and soulless would devise a remake of Glengarry Glen Ross (the movie, not the play) where everyone is Levene and Ricky Roma is already on the board of directors.   So who gets the steak knives?  Does Mississippi get fired?

Yes, Arne, we know a whole hell of a lot about you…but we’re not bastards.  We’re willing to forgive.

In fact, we’re willing to turn the other way on a lot of this, and believe me; it’ll take a lot of effort to do so.

Just as long as you can help us with one little problem.

Arne, stop the systematic rape and persecution of social studies in this country.

I’m guessing you’re like so many of the twits of our educational universe that see social studies—history, geography, government, economics—as subjects best left for secondary school, or best, college where kids with “special needs” won’t have to worry about it.

Social studies is usually the first to be cut, the least of resources, the most crunched in terms of time—and most importantly, the least assessed.

Bet that last one got your attention, Arne, didn’t it.

Yes, social studies does not get the rigorous attention the other “better” subjects get when it comes to the old #2 pencil and scan-tron sheet.  In New York, until recently, there’s only been one state test in 5th grade, then one in 8th grade.  Even these can’t adequately prepare students for the exams in high school.

Now, thanks to our unelected New York Board of Regents, we cannot even administer those last two tests, either.

The Board of Regents voted to cancel testing in social studies in grades 5 and 8 as a cost-saving measure.  We won’t go into the details (you’re a busy man, gutting our public schools and whatnot) except that they saw this as the only alternative to saving testing in the “better” subjects.  Similar votes are probably being conducted in other states as well.

Normally, this would be a state problem, and we wouldn’t be bothering you or cutting into your goofy smiling time.  Yet the Board’s recent action doesn’t jive with a certain application for Phase II funds from a certain contest you’re running.

According to page 106 of New York’s RTTT Phase II application submitted earlier this month, it states that

“New York collects yearly test records of individual students under section 1111(b) of the ESEA [20 U.S.C. 6311(b)] program in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, as well as scores obtained on New York’s secondary-level Regents examinations (see Appendix C_1_2).”

How on Earth does this fit into the Board of Regents’ recent actions?  There’s only one response—they lied to you, Arne.  Because of these cuts in testing, New York State is no longer compliant under the ESEA.  We brought this up in an e-mail to your man James Butler, who’s the point person for RTTT, yet it seems to fall on deaf ears.

Here’s where you can help.

New York was recently named a finalist for Race to the Top.  Great.  We know you also have a bit of a stiffie over New York’s largest city, also named New York.  You love our Oompa-Loompa-like mayor that acts without any thought of popular opinion, and our Nosferatu-esque schools chancellor that dutifully administers policy and takes blame for its failures.

You wouldn’t want them to cut “better” subjects to the kiddies due to lack of funds, would you, Arne?

We think you should really look over New York’s application in this final round.  If New York is to be awarded this grant, it should be on the condition that ALL testing in ALL subjects be restored as soon as possible, preferably by the next school year.  Remember, Arne, that New York is not compliant anymore—hold their ass to the fire because of it.

They lied to you, buddy.  Don’t take that crap lying down.

Besides, pushing for more testing is a win-win for everybody.  You get the data you need to show our kids “progressing”, based on whatever formula your cellar-dwellers devise.  Social studies gets a fair share of time and resources once the fear of assessment is brought back.  Students will learn about their country and its great history—even if it kills them.

Finally, Arne, this action will stop the progressive dumbing-down of our students in terms of their own history , geography and government.  Social studies needs a prominent place at the table of education; don’t relegate it to the kiddie table.

We’ll even sweeten the deal for you.  We’ll get you a cup of coffee—whatever size, whatever blend—on us.

But this comes only after you help restore social studies testing.  After all, coffee is for closers.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Mr. D and the rest of the folks at Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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Teachers are too valuable to be “Fair Game”: A Response to David Brooks

Cover of the Atlantic's 2010 "Ideas" Issue, from http://www.theatlantic.com

“Fair game – noun. Open to legitimate pursuit, attack or ridicule.” – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictonary

In 18th Century England, animals that were legal to hunt, either with shotgun or pack of rabid dogs, were considered “fair game.”

In the frontier wilderness of northern New York, American rangers harassed John Burgoyne’s British army by doing the unthinkable—hunting officers as if they were animals, or “fair game.”

In 1917, the German navy declared open season on all Atlantic shipping.  Unarmed ocean liners and cargo ships were considered “fair game.”

So in the 21st Century, according to David Brooks, author, New York Times columnist and contributor to the Atlantic, teachers are also to be subject to the hunting dogs and shotguns, as we are now “fair game.”

The recent “Ideas” edition of the Atlantic had an interesting—albeit provocative—piece by Brooks, a liberal-turned-conservative who has recently joined the education reform crusade.  He has penned column after column of Times opinions lambasting teacher unions, exalting charter schools and school choice, and glorifying the current trend towards “data-driven” instruction.

To wit, Brooks breaks no real new ground in his article “Teachers are Fair Game.” He also says little that is new in terms of the changing reaction to teacher unions: anti-union bias has usually stood ascendant in times of economic distress i.e. the 1930s, and the immediate postwar recession.

Yet what sets this piece apart is its tone: not of someone willing to work with others, but that of a hunter stalking its prey.

That prey is us.  We are that game.

His arguments are hardly original: improving teacher quality, the cessation of tenure and other teacher protections and the perceived intransigence of the education establishment.  That establishment, according to Brooks,

“is both softhearted and hardheaded.  They put big emphasis on the teaching relationship, but are absolutely Patton-esque [interesting adjective there] when it comes to dismantling anything that interferes with that relationship…union rules that protect bad and mediocre teachers, teacher contracts that prevent us from determining which educators are good and which need help, and state and federal alws that either impede reform or dump money into the ancien regime.”

Yet Brooks errs on two huge factors.  First, he sees the unions in it of themselves as a problem, without leaving any opening for those union leaders willing to work with administrators to find real solutions.  This is where Brooks the rabid union-hunter aims for his kill.  He remarks with unrestrained glee about the shift in opinion amongst the media and political leaders against perceived union abuses.  “The unions feel the sand eroding under their feet.”  Brooks states. “They sense their lack of legitimacy, especially within the media and the political class.  They still fight to preserve their interest but they’ve lost their moral authority…”

Tally ho! Let's hunt an algebra teacher, boys!

Moral authority?  The authority a union has is to its membership, and the use of morality has all too often been used by administrators to abuse and harass such members.  It does education reformers absolutely no good to attack a union per se.  Unions are here, and unions will stay into the foreseeable future.  Even the vaunted charter schools have unionized to some extent, by consent of their faculty.

There is room for reforms that benefit instruction, and there are unions and union leaders who are willing to work together with school districts to reform education.  Putting unions in a corner with attacks, however, is not only fruitless, but counterproductive.  By placing unions on the defensive, without reaching out an olive branch of cooperation, nothing will get done.  Cooperation will get results: not all the results you want, but that is life.  Something is better than nothing.

Brook’s second error involves his argument about teacher quality.  He correctly states that a core issue of education is the relationship between teacher and student.  Like Brooks, I too have issues with teacher quality, particularly in teacher training.  In a post last year, I lamented the ease with which I earned my masters degree in education, stating that for teachers to gain respect their education should be of a competitive caliber.  My guess is Brooks and I are in full agreement on this.

Yet his solution involves more than just tweaking graduate education.  As if he released a pack of rabid lions on Christian martyrs, Brooks exalts that “aided by the realization that teacher quality is what matters most, a new cadre of reformers have come to the scene, many of them bred within the ranks of Teach for America [oh brother].  These are stubborn, data-driven types with a low tolerance for bullshit.”

I will not rehash my feelings on Teach for America, the institution.  Let’s just say it’s less than positive.

That last sentence, however, bears the obvious taint of hypocrisy.  “Data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit.”  In the past few years, I have been knee-deep in the use of standardized tests to guide instruction.  You can even say I’m the poster boy for “data-driven” instruction.

In my experience, the entire exercise of using data, as it is now, is bullshit.

If you look at standard assessments and practice assessments in many school districts, you may see a disturbing pattern.  The state exams tend to be much easier than the practice tests.  The practice tests, for the most part, exhibit an eerie upward trajectory in scores as test time gets closer.

A more naïve soul, an earnest “no-bullshit” TFA-er, for example, would see this as proof of instruction driven by data from the previous assessment, thus an upward sloping path.

Your veteran teacher, however, isn’t fooled so easily.  When a rookie teacher sees achievement, a veteran sees manipulation.  What is to stop states, school districts—and the test-prep companies in their pocket—to engineer a series of tests so that it seems that students are doing better?

The federal contest for Race to the Top funds doesn’t help in this regard at all.  In fact, it allows for more manipulation and outright fraud in student data than ever before.  Because of the need for increased test scores, school districts are more open to the temptation of test-rigging—with the often-tacit approval of state education departments.  After all, doesn’t everyone win in this scenario: teachers “look good,” administrators “look good,” feds see that the kids are “doing better” and reward states that “sustain student achievement”?

The students don’t win: not by a long shot.  Sometimes when I assess them, their scores fall, often far below other previous tests.  This is natural: new material and new concepts often make this happen, as well as normal student jitters about tests.  To me, it does the student little use to give them a false sense of achievement.  They may have stumbled, but at least I can get an authentic view of what they know and don’t know—at least as authentic as possible using a test.

What does Brooks really want?  “No-bullshit” types that really use data in a fruitful way, regardless of the results?  Or does he want teachers that make sure students do “well” on tests at all costs?  Higher education, for example, is only “data-driven” in the case of admissions: the SAT and AP scores, etc.  Colleges and universities require thinking, reasoning, and research skills that often cannot be quantified.

If students are only taught “to tests”, doesn’t this give them a disadvantage in higher education?  Do education “reformers” really even care about disadvantaged students if their methods effectively bar them from higher education, leaving it to better prepared, richer and “whiter” students?

[Oh dear, did I let the cat out of the bag?  Did it slip out that the current craze of education reform is simply a ruse to create a permanent underclass that is educated just enough to show that disadvantaged students “can learn” and “make academic progress.” Aren’t these “data driven” students still woefully ill-prepared for much-needed college and university education?…that’s for another post.]

Brooks may have the best of intentions, but his methods and ideologies do nothing but entrench established interests on both sides.  The TFA, data-driven method is flawed—in some cases dreadfully so.  Attacking unions as the ultimate problem alienates and immobilizes those teachers (like me) who still feel educational reform can still happen with a strong union and administration in partnership.

Lastly, what better way to make teachers—among the hardest working Americans out there—feel like subhuman carrion than by labeling them as prey for the hunters.  If Mr. Brooks wants to play that game, here’s my announcement for my fellow teachers:

Those TFA “data-driven” types with a “low tolerance for bullshit”?  They’re “fair game.”  Unleash the hounds.

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Wendy Kopp, why is TFA abducting so many Hoyas?

This weekend is Mr. D’s 10-year college reunion.  It’s been a while since I visited old Georgetown University, and it’ll be good to catch up with my old gang.  We’re all older, fatter, balder, on more medication–but probably not wiser.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Reading a recent article in Education Week, it appears that the old alma mater is getting recognized in another category: recruiting for Teach for America. 

For my casual readers in the Neighborhood, let me just say that TFA and I have an understanding.  Ever since my last rant at the institution, it may be best that we stay out of each others way.  You wouldn’t want to see me at Wendy Kopp’s cocktail party, that’s for sure.  The johnny-come-latelys of the TFA crowd, who cry that I’m a tool of the unions and unsympathetic to the plight of children, can cram it, for all I care.

I don’t like holding a grudge, though.  First of all, TFA is too easy a punching bag.  Many of the blogs linked on my page and on others do a far better job of deflating the Kopp Reich than I.  Second, it does my readers little good to hear me complain about an institution with which I have little, if any, connection.  So I’m offering an olive branch to Wendy Kopp.  Let’s play nice, shall we?  We can have a drink, a few laughs…we can both torture kids with standardized tests.

I just have one condition.  Please stop taking so many students from Georgetown.

The sidebar of the Education Week article, which covers the record number of applications from college seniors for TFA, also gave some stats on the class of 2009.  4,100 young people will be invading classrooms next year–which is little assurance to me, as my school may lose a couple of positions.  Georgetown University’s class of 2009 had 11 percent of the seniors apply for TFA.  It is considered the largest employers of graduates on campus, joining the likes of Brown, Emory, the University of Chicago and the University of Connecticut.

Now I’m not against my fellow Hoyas pursuing a career in education.  I worry because I know my own classmates.  Whereas most are pretty decent people, I don’t see a lot of them with the stamina for a classroom in a high-needs area.  Sorry, Chip, but teaching Algebra I at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx is not like tutoring your 4th Form chums at Groton.  Also, a lot of my class was downright insufferable–the teachers’ pet type.  My kids would have a field day with these prizes.  It would be great to see that smarmy prick from my US Political Systems class get the heave-ho out a classroom window.

It must be a dismal economy that so many of my fellow Hoyas are opting for the TFA experience.  This, also, is a problem.  The economy is driving lots of people to service, but for the wrong reasons.  The teacher you want to keep is not the accounting major who’s waiting to ride out the unemployment numbers before landing the next seat at Goldman Sachs.  It’s the student who has the choice of any corporate cush-job in America, yet CHOOSES to join the noble profession of teaching. 

So Wendy, I have to ask: What’s with so many Hoyas?  Is the economy really that bad?  Or did Duke and Harvard send you to steal away talent so that their schools can get the plush jobs?  Is this payback for us taking John Thompson III away from Princeton?  Were you a Villanova fan in a past life?

I don’t know if we can ever have the answer.  Maybe it’s too complex for my union-addled mind.  What I do know is that the high rate of Hoya participation makes us look bad.  It makes us look like do-gooders and missionary-pariahs.  Its bad enough Georgetown alums are in positions at every level of government and business–positions that allow us to fuck things up in spectacular ways.  Now they’re marshalled into classrooms to teach children badly until the economy improves.  If societal destruction is your aim, we can do more damage in other sectors of society, like the White House.   

If you let in any more Hoyas, Wendy, make sure they really want to make a difference.  Otherwise, these kids will be wasting my kids’ valuable time–time they should be spending on their projects on the civil rights movement.

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The Smart Kid’s Burden: The “Raj” of Teach for America

“Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.” – “White Man’s Burden”, 1st Stanza, Rudyard Kipling

Inner city children of America, “half-devil and half-child,” fear no more.  Dr. Livingston is here and he’s got a protractor.

The good folks at Teach for America are here to give you the education only privileged children can obtain.  Why, in only two years, your little urchin can rise to drink gin fizzes at the Porcellian Club at Harvard, hobnob at the eating clubs of Princeton, or stand around Yale looking morose.  All he/she needs to do is sit up straight, throw his/her cultural identity out the window and do exactly what these fresh-faced go-getters tell you to do.

Why does it work?  Because even though they have no certification, no teaching degree and a grand total of five weeks of training, they are better than your teacher.  They are better than your principal.  They are better than you–because their bachelor’s degree has more Latin scribble on it than other people.   

Utter nonsense.

I have had a huge stick in my craw about TFA for quite a while.  When I was undergoing summer training as a New York City Teaching Fellow, I’d run into these guys every once in a while.  They were all glassy-eyed and full of chants and whistles and sunbeams–as if Cat Stevens taught freshman English.  Many of them looked down on us because we were pursuing teaching seriously, as a profession, while they were enjoying their two-year safari among the natives teaching them stuff without making sure the kids are actually learning something. 

I often ran into these folks later in the year, at seminars and such.  They all have that look like Michael Caine at the end of Zulu.  One more massive attack by the Zulus and they’d be sprawling on the floor with spears in their bellies.  The look of horror in their eyes–I felt bad for them, but also kind of pleased.  Those preppie punks had it coming.

The Boston teacher’s union agrees.  Today’s Boston Globe has a story about a letter sent to TFA from the union in Boston, urging them to not send recruits into their school system, citing that their personnel unfairly take positions away from tenured faculty who have been excessed due to the financial situation.  Boston schools will have anywhere from 100-200 openings due to retirement and resignation, yet there is still the threat of layoffs because of the numbers of “surplus” faculty available.  According to the union, TFA would only make matters worse.

Many critics of the union say that this is simply a tactic to keep unqualified, failing teachers on the payroll and maintain union membership.  They also cite studies showing gains in performance in schools that hire TFA personnel.  The program got a huge boost from President Obama’s call for public service, as applications to the program rose 42%  this year.

Let me be clear: I am not in the business of defending the union blindly.  If the teachers proved to be substandard, or “failing”, then they probably should go, provided all avenues have been exhausted.  Even among veteran faculty, there are those who have survived in the system by doing just enough to not get hassled.  Obviously, these people do the profession no service.

However, if enhanced teacher quality and teacher retention are the goal, then Teach for America is the wrong way to go.  President Obama, I admire your zeal for improving education, but TFA is an antiquated “colonialist” relic.  It is simply a stopgap measure to fill vacancies where more qualified people do not want to go.  It is not designed to produce highly skilled or effective teachers, but rather intellectual missionaries sent to preach to the unwashed masses and hand out Norton’s Anthology of English Literature before going to an investment banking  job readying the next recession.

Teach For America is inherently flawed for a number of reasons.  Let’s begin with recruitment.  While the program attracts the best and brightest college seniors, it does not necessarily choose people who will be good teachers.  Education is not solely about knowing the material in a textbook–otherwise, we would just have students in massive rooms with headphones listening to James Earl Jones reading a trigonometry book (wouldn’t his voice lend weight to Pythagora’s theorem?).  Teachers wear many hats: lecturer, facilitator, disciplinarian, actor, storyteller, etc.  A good teacher understands his/her class and adapts to meet the needs of the students.  Not every brainiac or J. Crew-wearing co-ed can do this.

The two-year commitment is a joke.  I have been teaching for five years, and am considered a “master” teacher, according to the education establishment.  Yet I’m still clueless about lots of aspects of this vocation.  Ask me to schedule a field trip…I’ll guarantee something will go wrong.  And this after FIVE years of study and on-the-job experience.  These TFA guys are out the door before they even begin to realize what they entered in the first place.

Another fault lies in training.  TFA recruits go through an “intensive” program for five weeks in the summer.  This will prepare them for decorating their room, writing in their plan book, taking attendance and getting kids to and from lunch.  It does not prepare them for teaching.  Teaching is a craft that takes years of study and apprenticeship to master: you cannot take a crash course for this.  Not only will it make the TFA-er look like a fool, but it hurts the students by depriving them of quality teaching.

Many deride the program as “Teach for a While” for good reason.  There is no incentive to retain teachers in TFA after their commitment is done.  I’m lucky in that I entered a program where the city payed for my Masters Degree–a huge incentive to stay in education, plus a requirement of a certified teacher.  Furthermore, I’ve met people in different aspects of education that have helped foster lasting connections to improve instruction and programs for children.  The TFA’ers have no such thing to keep them here, hence their reputation as hired mercenaries who enter corporate America after their stint.  If the President was serious about education, he should be invested in programs that not only train teachers efficiently, but also provide benefits to stay in the profession.

Yet, the last is probably the worst flaw of all–and President Obama should be ashamed to back TFA because of it.  Harkening back to Kipling and the rest of the pith-helmet crowd, TFA is often a divisive influence in education because of its very culture.   For many years, Teach for America has instilled in recruits the sense that they are better than the teachers in their schools, who often have years of experience, simply because of their educational background.   If George W. Bush is any indicator, an Ivy League education can be obtained by both brainiacs and boneheads–depending on the trust fund.

This attitude trickles down to the students, as TFA recruits lord their knowledge over underprivileged students who couldn’t care less.  Why won’t Jose read the material?  Why can’t Johnny solve a simple algebra problem?  The answer is simple: TFA’s chauvinist mentality places an extreme disconnect between teacher and student.  These run-and-gun intellectual missionaries never bother to get to know the areas or the students they encounter every day.  Why should they?  They’ll be making six figures at Swindle & Embezzle, LLC or some other bloated bank soon, so why bother making sure these “savages” learn?

I’ve learned one immutable fact in my years in the classroom: You learn just as much from your students as they learn from you.  If you just listen to your kids, look at what they do and see what they see, they will tell you what they need to know.  Not only that, listening to students will tell you HOW to teach them–and not to lord over their ignorance. 

Lastly, this is like being a priest or a cop.  Teaching is a vocation–if you’re in it, you better be in it for the long haul.  If not, you’re of no use to anyone. If TFA’ers cannot make the commitment, they are no help. 

Maybe they should actually do something more constructive, like killing lions in Kenya wearing a monocle.

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