Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 26 2012

#57: Castling

In my last post, I explained that I no longer believe TFA to be improving the educational landscape of my city for the better.  My chief complaint is the organization’s courtship of private philanthropists whose primary objective is to weaken public schools and strengthen charter schools.

A huge part of what rankles me about TFA nationally is my feeling that the organization is castling in a fight against public education.  If you will forgive a chess metaphor, castling is a move in chess which shelters the king in a corner of the board, typically behind a row of pawns, and frees the rook to attack.  I see TFA as the rook in this game, affording the king (corporate reformers writ large) some cover to advance their agenda on more favorable terms(1).

I had no reason to believe that our local group was making any inroads of this sort if only because Texas is already an at-will, right-to-work state, so it’s not like we could have made things any worse for teachers’ rights(2).  But then I came across the news that the George W. Brackenridge Foundation is trying to fund-raise $50 million to increase the number of students enrolled in a charter school by 80,000 by adding 145 new charter schools.  To give you some perspective, if we were to treat the students enrolled in charter schools as a single district, they would be the second largest school district in Bexar County to Northside ISD(3).

The George W. Brackenridge Foundation, like many big-money education philanthropists, is a benefactor of Teach for America.  The board of the George W. Brackenridge: chairwoman Victoria Rico also serves on the boards of IDEA and BASIS Texas charter schools(4); trustee Randy Boatwright “is the founder and owner of Boatright Oil & Gas Properties”; trustee David H.O. Roth(5) “is a Shareholder at Cox Smith Attorneys where he heads the firm’s Energy Industry Taskforce.”  Not exactly the first three people I’d choose to be at the forefront of transformative educational change.

I have made an about-face on charters.  Before I began teaching, I admired what schools like KIPP were advertising: take the “same kids” as low-performing urban public schools and get better results.  The extended school day/week/year, the 24-hour availability of the teachers by phone, the well-developed culture of discipline; all of this sounded like what kids need to overcome an achievement gap.

Then I started teaching in a traditional public school.  I was faced with the intense rigor and commitment of the job and came to appreciate the healthy balance I could achieve by keeping work and home comfortably at arm’s length.  I felt the drain of a 7 AM to 6 PM work schedule, not because my school asked me to work those hours, but because I wanted to do everything within my power to do better for my students.  I could not imagine this daily schedule being a mandate and not a choice.

I am dismayed that charters have become the raison d’être of education reformers in San Antonio, though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as it’s quite clear this is trend throughout the country.

I do not think KIPP or IDEA are “bad” schools.  I think they do right by some of their kids.  The problems I have with charters, “high-performing” or otherwise, are:

  • Exclusivity – Charters do not have to keep all students.  What invariably happens as a result is that the least desirable students are weeded out of high-performing charter schools like KIPP and IDEA.  This includes students with severe to moderate disabilities and students who are Limited English Proficient.  The effect is known as “cream skimming” in which the students with the easiest to serve needs remain and the ones with the most challenging needs are sent back to their district schools or perhaps a “second-chance charter.”  This is in opposition to the philosophy of “One day, all children…” espoused by the TFA organization.  What this means in practical terms is that the students served by charters are not apples to be compared to the apples of traditional public schools given that their demographic make-up is decidedly less poor, less disabled, and less limited in English language skills.  This tells me the methods used by “high-performing” charter schools are not meeting the needs of our kids who have the most needs, most likely because they hire the least-experienced and least-equipped to handle these higher needs.
  • Unreasonable working conditions – The high-pressure, high-workload expectations of teachers at KIPP and other charter schools is not good for professional development, leads to high levels of attrition, and fosters an environment for teachers to burn out quickly.  Who would want to work for 20 years in a school which has them on call nearly all year at a job in which they are at school nearly all day?  When are teachers supposed to have families of their own?  Not to mention these teachers are working for salaries less than their public school peers are earning.  I fear this model is what corporate reformers truly desire: more work for less pay.  As long as charters cream skim, it will appear this model gets “better results” and this will build greater public support for charter school expansion, despite the long term perils of a teaching profession defined by a revolving door of energetic young people stopping in for a few years before moving onto a job with better pay and working conditions.  This leads to…
  • Deprofessionalizing of the teaching profession – If we continue forward in the expansion of charter school networks, professional educators, knowing their market value, will be less likely to serve students in low-income communities knowing that suburban school districts will provide better pay and working conditions.  This will leave the students served by the melange of charters to be taught by less-credentialed, less-experienced, and less-trained teachers, many of whom will no doubt be TFA corps members as they are today.  I imagine TFA’s San Antonio presence will be bolstered significantly by an expansion of charter networks founded by TFA alumni.  And they will teach for 2 or 3 years and then leave only to be replaced by another TFA corps member who will teach for 2 or 3 years and you get it.  All this despite years of research and evidence pointing to the increased effectiveness of veteran career teachers who get to year 5 or so.  Oh well, can’t let a little empiricism get in the way of change, I guess.
  • Segregation – How funny that the solution to the “civil rights issue of our time” is to put kids in schools with even greater racial segregation than their neighborhood schools.  But charters and privatization do exactly that.
  • Perverse incentives – Investors can make a mint off the construction of new charter schools.  The profit motive is an insufficient justification for the expansion of charter schools.
  • Charters represent an abandonment of the public sphere – There is something sacred to me about what public schools represent.  It is accountable to its community in a democratic way.  Its function is, at its heart, about producing tomorrow’s citizens.  The corporate reform movement is less interested in that.  It is myopically focused on a narrow vision of academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.  It is less interested in producing citizens and more so in producing good workers.  They’ll crow about decreased competitiveness with Asian tigers as they have done for decades despite no ill effects to American economic competitiveness from supposed Japanese/Singaporean/S. Korean et al. superiority in math testing(6).  And they will use this rationale to support policies which strip teachers of their voices, of their rights as stakeholders in the education of their students.  The school choice model means parents are customers who must air their grievances in the marketplace.   If a customer is dissatisfied, she takes her business elsewhere.  And if the market doesn’t meet your needs?  Well, there isn’t a big enough market for what you want to be cost-effective or profitable.  You’re a passive participant voting with the dollars your child nets the school where she attends.  You don’t vote for your school board members.  I think I am struggling to articulate why this bothers me as much as it does, but life is long and I’m sure I will talk about it again in the future.

As a direct supplier of teachers to charter schools and a direct beneficiary of the expansion of charter schools in San Antonio, TFA’s mission to improve public education in San Antonio is fatally compromised.  I do not believe that traditional public schools and charter schools will mutually benefit from the expansion of charters given the funding implications of student enrollment.

Again, I question neither the sincerity nor the talents of TFA as a whole, but at this juncture in the game, the very talented rooks are moving into position to protect the king and advance a privatization agenda that is not in the best interests of the students we serve.


(1) If you’d care to extend the metaphor, let’s call the pawns “school children in low-income neighborhoods” many of whom will be sacrificed in service of the king.

(2) Cue ominous music.

(3) Enrollment: ~97,000 and the district in which I was educated from K through 12.

(4) If you read the Texas Observer link in the second paragraph, you will see that these two charter networks are among the ones targeted to expand under the Brackenridge plan.

(5) What a total bummer this isn’t David Lee Roth, he could champion the death of public schools while doing acrobatic bicycle kicks in a lycra jumpsuit and I would totally be on board with it.

(6) And, in spite of our inferiority complex, East Asian countries are equally insecure about their capability to produce children who exhibit creativity and risk-taking the way we do.

8 Responses

  1. Meg

    I don’t want to get into your point about cream-skimming, though I think the evidence for that is a bit mixed. What I’d like to push back on a bit though are your comments about the working conditions at charter schools. You’re right that the hours are long, and they absolutely might not be ideal working conditions for YOU. I do, however, think its unfair for you to claim the working conditions are unreasonable just because they are not what you want. It’s not uncommon for many professions to require 10-12 hour workdays – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc. The majority of teachers I know working in charter schools are very happy. I personally work in a charter school and, while the days and year are long, would not trade my job for one in a district school, for two major reasons. (1) I know that I would be working similar hours even at a district school, just that it would be by “choice” rather than “requirement” (I use quotes because first, you have a choice at a charter school in that you’re choosing to work there, and second I think we both know that lesson planning and grading, even when done outside of regular school hours, are not exactly optional) and (2) the level of administrative support and professional development I have at my school far exceeds what is available to other teachers I know in traditional schools.

    Again, to each his/her own, and a charter school absolutely may not be a good fit for you, but I think it’s overgeneralizing to paint the working conditions in a charter school with such a negative broad brush.

    • mches

      Meg, thanks for your comment! I wanted to be sure and respond to you before I launched into another lengthy post on another topic.

      I think my concerns with the working conditions at charter schools are not that they are unreasonable for individuals who choose that path. And that includes teachers like you who have chosen to work in a school with such requirements and me because I often work those hours in a traditional school by choice.

      What’s unreasonable to me is establishing these hours as a professional standard. If the Brackenridge Foundation plan comes to total fruition and there are tens of thousands of kids in charter schools who were once in public schools, this represents a dramatic shift in the labor market for teachers, one which I think forebodes poorly for children in low-income neighborhoods.

      More than ever, it will become a choice of mandatory much-longer hours at school away from your family for less pay in a school with challenges you may feel ill-equipped to handle versus a less burdensome school schedule with better base pay, more opportunities for extra-curricular stipends, and a school with challenges you feel better prepared to handle since you likely attended a school like this one when you grew up. There are already intense market pressures at work which cause a boomerang effect of professionals away from low-income schools and into suburban, middle-class schools. This type of teacher attrition is one of the most pressing challenges urban and rural schools face. The more they try to keep up with pay schedules, the more that suburban school districts do to get a leg-up.

      So, it’s nice that you and I have chosen this line of work and chosen the neighborhoods that we have and that we choose to work ourselves half to death every day. But if this is what teaching in low-income schools becomes as a de jure reality, creating this standard will only exacerbate the problem of keeping quality teachers in our schools in the aggregate.

      I think the comparison to attorneys and physicians and business people is dubious, namely because these professions do not have government and corporate reformers telling them how they need to be working more and that it’s their fault the criminal justice system, the health care system, and the economy are wrecked. They are also on the whole vastly better compensated than we are. Perhaps most importantly, we ought not model our profession after theirs. Ours is a labor of care above all else, and turning teaching into a competitive rat race akin to Glengarry Glen Ross will do nothing but completely pervert our priorities and our obligations to our students.

    • Educator

      And your argument could be used for traditional schools also. They aren’t all necessarily easy places to work, where teachers have it easy and don’t work hard. It seems a lot of folks think that. So I’d like to see folks not generalize traditional schools as failing too.

  2. Educator

    mches I hope you’re reading Gary Rubinstein’s blog also right now. He’s writing open letters to reformers in a very analytical way. It has been interesting.

    • mches

      Gary is a fixture in my Google Reader and I’ve been reading the letter series with great interest. I know he has read this blog at least a couple of times.

      • Educator

        Nice. I’m so curious what his letter to Wendy Kopp will say. I like how Gary uses fair, well presented arguments in his letters. He doesn’t come off as a hot headed status quo teacher. I think a lot of reformers tend to dismiss some very good points made by those in the educational establishment. “They’re crazy! They’re protecting the status quo! They’re afraid of accountability! They’re scared of change!” You seem very articulate and well reasoned, so I hope you keep writing, and I hope Gary does too and I hope he gets more publicity and you too.

  3. It’s not just the kids charters take (or even just the ones they send back, although the ugly damage the expulsion/counseling out inflicts on children is often expressed at the public school receiving that child).

    Skimming the cream makes it harder on the public school left with the non-fat milk. It means that more of our students have extra needs – limited English proficiency, special academic needs, histories of trauma, truancy issues, etc. That puts an extra burden on the school community, and it’s rarely ameliorated effectively by any weighted student formula ADA plan (or private foundation grant). Moreover, if the public school ends up with a smaller (if harder to serve) population because of falling enrollment, the charter effectively leaves the public school with less money to spend on children who need more.

    I also really doubt that there are many teachers working 10-12 hour days (teaching, with homework help and lesson planning to be done later) with many years’ experience, both because those teachers generally don’t need to do that (at least not daily) and because we have different responsibilities and needs because we’re older.

    I don’t really think that a 60 hour work week is something anyone should be cheering, but I think it’s also worth noting that working those hours in financial services will earn you a paycheck enabling you to hire out things like housekeeping and child care (or to support a stay at home partner). Teachers don’t draw down the same kind of money, but our houses still need to be cleaned and our children cared for.

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