Wednesday, July 14, 2010

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

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.


Guy Incognito said...

Well, TFA generates strong feelings on both sides (and it serves, much more than the Kagan hearings, as a focal point for everybody's favorite topic: social and academic class).

At the very least, this conversation has resolved me to take the following action: since I don't know anyone who is currently a TFA teacher (I know many people who applied, one or two that were accepted, and a handful that are alumni doing other things) and since TFA is coming to my city this year, I want to make friends with some of these people to see what motivates them and what kind of people they are.

I tend to agree with the arguments TR has presented, but I'll reserve final judgment about the nature of the TFA corps until I have a few drinks with one of these people!

Susan said...

TR -- thank you for raising the funding of education. No number of bright, committed, and imaginative teachers from TFA can change class size, or crumbling buildings, or whatever. Each time I hear a politician say "we can't solve the problems of education by throwing money at it", I want to ask what the per pupil expenditure was at their child's school, and whether they would be content with sending their children to a school that had maybe 1/3 as much per student.

It's not that TFA teachers are bad, it's that they can't solve the problems of education without money.

Janine Giordano said...

I'm wondering what you think of some prominent journalists' suggestion that we use Teach for America as a model for building/rebuilding a better infrastructure of journalism in poorer communities. I think their idea is that if we can get the "creme de la creme" of young journalists writing in underrepresented beats, eventually the value of their work will become apparent, and the infrastructure for upholding that work will follow. The book describing this is here:

Anonymous said...

It would be really helpful if the people who are so hellbent on criticising TFA would criticise them based on their actual mission and actual facts rather than on some insecure condemnation of so-called elitism. Perhaps this article can help give you a better idea of what TFA is all about.

Tenured Radical said...

Here's the link referred to above at: David Gergen's Blog.

Interestingly, the article doesn't contradict what was said here on this blog -- the author of this piece, a Board Member of TFA, so hardly a disinterested observer -- thinks corporate models for education are good and I don't.

I also think the narrative at the beginning is interesting: Wendy Kopp wanted to teach, but she would have had to have a degree in education or earn a teaching certificate, so she went to work for Morgan Stanley instead.

In other words, if you go to an elite school, you shouldn't have to get down there with the plebes and get certified to teach, because it's -- what? Discouraging and boring?

Anonymous said...

If TFA really wanted to help, they would work on spreading low-income housing throughout the whole city. Then students of all races and SES would have the same educational opportunities and equal amounts of good role models. The problem is no one wants to volunteer to have low income housing next to their mansion.

WRS said...

Thank you for your initial post and for your follow-up. It nudged me out of long-time lurker status into posting. I wholeheartedly agree that if TFA is the best model of school reform we can come up with, we're in a whole lot of trouble (and, on the whole, I'm a supporter). And congrats on the page hits that going viral brings!

I agree with your neo-liberal analysis of schooling and particularly education funding, but as a Canadian would tend to think that universities should all be public too. (Zenith=Edison schools?) Also, the Coalition of Essential Schools is great. Everyone should support it and the broader small-schools movement. Thanks for drawing attention to their important work. Finally, to anonymous above, plenty of TFA alums are working on exactly those questions that entail systematic reform that is broader than schools. But it does seem a little extreme to criticize TFA for not ending poverty in America...

Katrina said...

My assumption about the program was that it was an attempt to lure into teaching some of the best and brightest, who would not otherwise have considered it as a career. The idea being that some of them might stick with it.

Your comment about being teacher certified with the plebes kind of sums up the problem. Teaching is a low-prestige occupation. That this should be the case is unfortunate, but it is the way things are right now. It suffers from the same issues as nursing - another traditionally female occupation - that when other professions started opening up to women, the cream of their recruitment pool went elsewhere (smart, capable women who 40 years ago would have become nurses, now become doctors).

Before I get flamed for this, obviously some bright and motivated people go into both teaching and nursing. But the public perception is that these are not careers pursued by those smart enough to go to law school, or (to use your example), work at Morgan Stanley.

Anonymous said...

I do not hold TFA responsible for ending poverty. This is obviously a much bigger problem. I am just explaining that there are other ways to help that do not include taking hard-working teachers’ jobs.

Anonymous said...

Great posts. Let's note as well that the corporate/TFA plan is also about attacking school teacher unions. While Wall Street gets a bailout, unionized workers are demonized for making America uncompetitive and unionized public employees are blamed for the failure of schools, state budget gaps, and just about everything else.

Knitting Clio said...

In reply to this:

"In other words, if you go to an elite school, you shouldn't have to get down there with the plebes and get certified to teach, because it's -- what? Discouraging and boring?"

It's also a lot harder than they realize (because, hey, it's only the "dumb" kids from my high school who went to state schools). Then they come to our university to get certified post B.A. and realize that they actually have to do the same work that our undergraduates did for their B.S. degrees. Now, who's the stupid one?

What annoys me the most is that OUR hard working and bright students are unemployed because no one can hire anyone. Meanwhile, elite college graduates get a free ride with TFA. Where's the economic justice in that?

p said...

Thanks for linking to the Coalition of Essential Schools. I attended one from 8th- 12th grade and went on to attend Wesleyan. It was those years at a Coalition school that really helped me figure out how I thought about the world-- notions that served me well at Wes and now in my doctoral work in sociology.

Historiann said...

I admire Guy Incognito's open-mindedness, but it doesn't really matter whether the individuals teaching through TFA are earnest and hardworking, or if they're mercenaries just buffing their resumes before sending out their B-school apps. Tenured Radical's critique is about the system that TFA creates and the habits of thinking about education in this country that makes TFA seem like a reasonable plan for ed reform.

I like Susan's point. Politicians "throw money" all the time at problems like broken bridges, ailing infrastructure, and other key government fuctions as well as pet projects. Money solves a lot of problems in life. But somehow, we don't think we need to pay for (or "throw money" at) education.

Frederika said...

Please note that several responders supporting TFA comment that many or a certain percentage of corps members actually stay "in education." I have seen that language used again and again in TFA literature. To be "in edcuation" does not mean that one is TEACHING.

To teach in public school is to be in the classroom every day--to be in daily instructional contact with students. I do believe that many TFA folks maintain their connections to "education" by movin' on up to the big time: to administration, to Departments of Education jobs, to educational leadership roles, to education consultancies, to urban policy and public policy jobs tied to education, etc. Oh, and plenty of them end up working for TFA directly, which they see as an "in education" job.

I am a career classroom TEACHER. I value both teaching as a profession and the choice I made a long time ago to stay in that profession.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It would be about the creation of curricula that privileged critical thought rather than memorization of fact.

What makes you think that the purpose of public education is teach children to actually think? It is perfectly sensible that corporations take over education for the masses, since its purpose is to train the masses to work for corporations.

In my opinion, this totally sucks, but it is the case.

Jess said...

Great articles. Former TFA-er here, and think you're pretty spot-on. Just wanted to pipe up and say that, at least when I was being trained by TFA, they spouted the '65% stay in education' number... of course, going to graduate school, business school, med school, and law school all counted as 'staying in education'. As Frederika says, 'staying in education' doesn't necessarily mean teaching.