“Little Gels, You Are The Creme De La Creme:” Teach For America, Redux

July 14, 2010, 7:15 pm

It’s been a big week at Tenured Radical. For reasons we are not altogether clear about, our Monday post about Teach For America went viral. According to our sitemeter, Facebook had a lot to do with that, perhaps because people who had a positive or a negative interest in TFA reposted on their own FB pages. Tumblr played a minor role in the last 24 hours, and as I told our dog yesterday, at least four sites (including Google) listed the post as trending (“Trending?” she said to me condescendingly, “You may be a famous blogger and talking head, but speak English, please.”)

I must say, my readers deserve a lot of credit. The comments section represents one of the liveliest and most civil disagreements on this blog, ever. I deleted very few posts, and none for rudeness. You folks who are not very bloggy tended to repost the same comment, slightly edited, multiple times. In your case, I left the newest iteration up and deleted the early two or three. Work on that, ok?

I have intervened very little, in part because if I had kept up with this I would have gotten no other work done, but mostly because you all seemed happy talking to each other, and had very original things to say. But there are a few things to which I would like to respond.

First of all, there seems to be a lot of loyalty out there among TFA alumni/ae, which means that the organization is doing something right: it is fulfilling its promise to those people it recruits fairly well. Few people who have been in the program have much bad to say about it. Work hard, TFA promises, dedicate yourself, stick with the program and we will either turn you into a committed teacher or give you an experience of a lifetime — or both. Clearly many of these people stay in teaching, but here let me inject a word of caution: I realize that I started it by citing statistics for how many TFA recruits stay in teaching and/or education, but I don’t actually think anyone knows how many of these young people will remain in secondary teaching. There are many studies, many cite drastically different numbers. And the percentage being quoted in the comments need to have far better context to persuade me either that the studies I have looked at are drastically wrong, or that TFA is producing a significant corps of career teachers who are really turning education — or even individual schools — around. 65% still in teaching five years later? 65% of what? Those who started the program? Those who completed a year? Those who completed two years?

That said, I hope some people from TFA’s management get it that there is a lot of bitterness out there too about the program’s elitism, both from young people who have not gained the privileged (and free) access to a teaching certificate that it offers, and from career teachers (who are characterized as burned-out, unimaginative dinosaurs if they don’t love being told what to do be a 23 year-old with a year in the classroom.) As Miss Bee puts it,

I became a NYC teacher in the pre-TFA, pre- NYC Teaching Fellows years. I resented that these teachers came and went, tuition fully paid, while I had to pay my own way. It created a two tier system having nothing to do with age, and everything to do with how we perceived teaching. Eleven years later I am still there AND paying off my loans all the elite corps (TFA, Fellows) are long gone and debt-free!

I think there is no question that TFA has billed itself all along as an organization that puts grads from the top private schools into teaching, and that the elite academic credentials of its recruits are a big part of what it is selling. And no, saying that members of your cohort went to a public university like Berkeley, UNC, Ole Miss or the University of Michigan does not make for class diversity, I’m afraid. These may be public schools, but they are also very selective and expensive (which anyone who has applied to or attended one knows.) As”Susan” notes,

If you look at Wendy Kopp’s model and initial plan, it relied (and still relies) heavily on corporate sponsorship and sells itself as (among other things) a pathway to the elite world of business (TFA has agreements with several b-schools as well as other types of professional schools).

Does its elitism that make TFA uniquely evil, in a country where you have to be at the top nth percentile in one of about five laws schools to even interview to clerk for the Supreme Court? Not particularly. But — and this is an important but — it doesn’t make TFA school reform either, and it doesn’t make it’s agenda (privatization of teacher training) and its allies (those who seek to privatize public schools like Rhee) progressive. In fact, TFA has a highly traditional view of education, in which those who have the good fortune to have been born with, or acquired, elite culture (the bourgeoisie, or haute bourgeoisie) transmit it to the children of those who are perceived to be without culture (working class and poor people.)

Furthermore, what is neo-liberal (as opposed to conservative, and there is a real distinction) about this model is two fold. First, it assumes that public management of education has failed
permanently, and that the only hope of raising up poor people is for federal and foundation dollars to be funneled through a private philanthropy. Second, it assumes that what will fix education in the end is a market-based management model, in which those who will fix education will go from Harvard to the factory floor. I am grateful to
takingitoutside for framing this so beautifully: “To me,” s/he writes about the TFA volunteers’ time in the classroom,

it’s always been intended as a two-year commitment. One of the main benefits of it – to me, at least – is that it puts (often) privileged young people into poor, inner-city schools where they probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. I’ve thought of it as a way of teaching those young, privileged people just how hard educating people is, and what the obstacles are. Then, when they get older and have some pull in business/government/society, they will be more likely to support measures in favor of schools and vote for things that will really help schools.

Anonymous 5:38 also points out,

You misunderstand the TFA mission. The mission isn’t to arm schools with legions of high-producing teachers through the TFA program (although that would be great). The mission is to make education a primary concern of college-educated, success-driven Americans so that policy change can be gradually enacted on the local, state, and national levels.

Student benefit, though significant during the commitment period, is hardly the end goal of the program. TFA aims to improve education in America through policy.

My quibble with Anonymous 5:38 is that I don’t misunderstand this. I understand it, and I think it has nothing to do with school reform. Rather, it is a perfect recipe for funneling more public dollars into private hands: research, testing, bureaucratic overkill, private think tanks and the support of organizations like Teach for America. Unlike “Jane,” I don’t see how lengthening the school day and merit-based salaries constitutes a “revolution:” it sounds like speed-up to me, particularly when education has been de-funded to the extent that music, art, gym, and often school supplies themselves, have been removed from the school day

Real school reform would be organized around a social movement that is primarily focused on students, their families and their communities. It would link education to health care, housing and jobs in the community — not importing outsiders to take those jobs. It would be about the creation of curricula that privileged critical thought rather than memorization of fact. It would entail a project of systematic public commitment to the training, the re-training, and the retention of teachers who were recruited broadly across the class spectrum. It would also include a political movement that was dedicated to ensuring that the state met this obligation; to organizing poor people and students around their right to an education; to teaching critical thinking rather than raising test scores; and to thinking about education as a commitment to real children — not as a route to a policy or research career in education. JKD2 says it perfectly:

the students are NOT guinea pigs! They are not some ethnographic experiment for people who want to be policy makers to tinker around with for two years while they learn about the lives of people in poverty. Want to learn about people living in poverty, volunteer at a soup kitchen or a community organization.

Or get a job as a school janitor.

Sure there are people who shouldn’t be in the classroom any longer. But it isn’t an insoluble problem, and it isn’t something to which elite schools are immune. There are burnt-out, tired folks who should probably retire at Harvard, Zenith, Williams, the University of Chicago, Phillips Exeter — you name an elite school and I’ll find you some people who would be better off wearing pastels and walking a golf course. I think the real shuck that groups like TFA have sold to us, hand in hand with the free market worshippers in both political parties, is that only they can solve this problem! Only the best and the brightest can fix it! Just look at what well-intended, Ivy League genius policy-makers did for Viet Nam in the 1960s if you don’t believe me.

So what is it that TFA, the Gates Foundation, and other private philanthropies won’t tell you? That government has disinvested in education, and it has burdened school districts with endless unfunded mandates, constant testing, year after year of mindless budget-cutting, and testable curricula that asks students to memorize rather than think. Teach for America supports this system, and trains its teaching corps to succeed within it. So while TFA may be getting energetic young people into teaching, and in some cases persuading them to stay, it is on a continuum with for-profit educational management organizations (EMO’s), or corporate models like Mosaica Education and Edison Schools (which is egregiously ill managed and has wasted billions of public dollars), that view students as just another product that can be efficiently produced through education formulas.

Finally, there are not just two models — bad old public schools with burned out teachers and “21st century” market-based schools that outsource teacher recruitment and training to “imaginative” private foundations and non-profits like TFA. There are excellent public schools in this country (try, for example, Edina, Minnesota; Berkeley, California; District 2 in New York City; and anywhere in Iowa.) And if you want to see what real education reform looks like, go here to the Coalition of Essential Schools.
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