Thursday, March 22, 2012

Teach for America: This is not a movie

I can’t stand to watch those inner city teacher movies. I’ll admit to having goose bumps after watching Blackboard Jungle for the first time. It’s the granddaddy of them all from the 50’s.

There’s a long list: Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, The Ron Clark Story, Music of the Heart, The Principal, The Substitute, Substitute 2 and Substitute 3. For the sake of argument I’ll throw in Blindside as another example of white folks saving poor, low performing black kids from their troubled lives.

That’s how I feel about Teach for America. It all feels like a plan to institutionalize the sentiment of those movies. After creating a culture that tags teachers as incompetent and lazy, a scheme was created to address the dysfunction within the American education system. The movie “Waiting for Superman” is promoted as an example of how teacher unions and a lack of accountability severely impact public education. Movies are molding America’s view related to the state of public education.

I yelled at my newspaper when I read the story of June Atkinson, State Superintendent of Public Schools of North Carolina, spending a day at Durham’s Neal Middle School due to the 11 Teach for America members placed there. Should I conclude all is well at Neal due to the presence of the good folks who have come to rescue students from the bungling teachers at the school?

“TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality,” says Andre Hartman in a blog posted in the Washington Post. “At worst, it’s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education reform movement.” (

Hartman, author of Education and the Cold War: the Battle for the American School, provides a serious critique of Teach for America. “TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teachers unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced,” he says.

The evidence regarding Teach for America effectiveness found they tend to perform equal to teachers in similar situations. They do as well as new teachers lacking formal training assigned to impoverished schools. Sometimes they do better in math. The students of Teach for America teachers perform significantly less wells than those of credentialed beginning teachers. “It seems clear that TFA’s vaunted thirty-day summer institute – TFA ‘boot camp’ – is no replacement for the preparation given future teachers at traditional colleges of education,” Hartman says.

“Putting TFA forward to solve the problems of the teaching profession has turned out poorly. But the third premise for Kopp’s national teacher corps — that it would “create a leadership force for long-term change” in how the nation’s least privileged students are schooled — has been the most destructive. Such destructiveness is directly related to Kopp’s success in attaching TFA to the education reform movement.

Hartman argues that crushing teacher unions is the motivation behind the push for charter schools and Teach for America. He lashes out at the budding industry that profits from student testing . “The multi-billion dollar testing industry — dominated by a few large corporations that specialize in the making and scoring of standardized tests — has become an entrenched interest, a powerful component of a growing education-industrial complex.”

Teach for America supports standardized testing because it provides evidence that their efforts work. “In emphasizing testing, though, reformers tend to overlook the obvious incentives that ambitious educators have to manipulate statistics,” Hartman says. “President Bush appointed Houston Superintendent of Schools Rod Paige as Secretary of Education in 2001 because Paige’s reform measures seemingly led to skyrocketing graduation rates. Not surprisingly, this so-called “Texas miracle,” predicated on falsified numbers, was too good to be true”.

Hartman discusses the rise of cheating scandals in districts were Teach for America has taken hold. In Atlanta, dozens of principals and hundreds of teachers , including Teach for America members, were caught in a cheating scandal “so brazen in Atlanta that principals hosted pizza parties where teachers and administrators systematically corrected student exams.” Scandals were confirmed in New York City, Philadelphia, Balimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, Dayton and Memphis – all districts with Teach for America.

“By attaching their incentives agenda to standardized testing, the reform movement has induced cheating on a never-before-seen scale, proving the maxim known as Campbell’s Law:“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In sum, the TFA insurgency’s singular success has been to empower those best at gaming the system,” Hartman writes.

“Kopp [founder of Teach for America] shows some awareness of the absurdities of her own experiences — including a “fundraising schedule [that] shuttled me between two strikingly different economic spheres: our undersourced classrooms and the plush world of American philanthropy” — but she fails to grasp that this very gap is what makes her stated goal of equality unachievable. In short, Kopp, like education reformers more generally, is an innocent when it comes to political economy. She spouts platitudes about justice for American children, but rarely pauses to ask whether rapidly growing inequality might be a barrier to such justice. She celebrates 20 years of reform movement success, but never tempers such self-congratulatory narcissism with unpleasant questions about why those who have no interest in disrupting the American class structure — such as Bill Gates and the heirs to Sam Walton’s fortunes, by far the most generous education reform philanthropists — are so keen to support the TFA insurgency. Kopp is a parody of the liberal do-gooder.”

Hartman’s critique defies the assumption that privilege is a patent solution when it comes to youth grappling to overcome poor conditions. This is not a movie, and we should take a chill pill before pouring more money into measuring those claims.

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