Didymath

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 21 2013

#80: Fight the real enemy

Mrs. Villanueva-Beard,

I’ve been reading your speech to TFA alumni in Detroit. I found the title of your speech compelling: “Fighting the Wrong Enemy”(1). Once I was able to get past the more boilerplate aspects of the speech, I dug into the core of your message. I know one of the things you and Matt Kramer want to do is be more open to criticism. I am hopeful that you see more than fire and brimstone in this post.

In your speech, you have identified the enemy as the status quo, the way things are now. Whosoever believes that our educational system is acceptable in its current form is therefore the enemy. My first question is: who supports the status quo?

I pulled up some polling data from Gallup on education related topics. Maybe the American people had become complacent with education, prioritizing other policy issues instead. Here’s a summary of what I think is relevant to the idea of support for the status quo:

  • With one hiccup, the American public is mostly dissatisfied with the quality of K-12 education in the US.
  • 32% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools as an institution. This number has been below 40% since 2005. When this question was first asked in the 1970′s, a majority of Americans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools. The first major dip occurred in the early 1980′s. The nadir of the 1980′s was 39% in in 1983, the same year A Nation at Risk was released.
  • Since 2001, a majority of Americans says it is dissatisfied with the quality of public education in this country.
  • Since 2000, a minority of Americans believe the federal government should be less involved in education, with a plurality believing it should be more involved.
  • Asked to grade five different forms of schools, public schools finished dead last.
  • When asked what can be done to improve K-12 education in America, the top 5 reasons given in two different polls are:
    1. Quality teachers/better educated/more involvement/caring
    2. Back to the basic curriculum (reading writing, arithmetic)
    3. Improve school funding
    4. Reduce number of children in the classroom
    5. Better pay for the teachers

The way I interpret this data is that a majority of Americans believe that the current education system is not working well and that they want the federal government to play a more active role or continue playing the same active role as it has. They believe traditional public schools are the worst option available. It doesn’t seem like the average American citizen is in favor of the status quo. So who is? Who is actively advocating that we do nothing?  You identified four examples you claim are not enemies to ending educational inequality: TFA, Bill Gates, standardized testing(2), and the charter movement. So who’s left? If I’m being uncharitable, I would interpret this as an accusation by omission. Not once did you in your speech mention teacher’s unions or experienced educators other than your sisters who get non-enemy status because they support TFA.

I’m going to assume, though, that you would never publicly denounce unions and career teachers as the cause of our educational ills. This leaves us with no human actors save that minority of American citizens who doesn’t believe there’s a problem. The status quo has no figurehead and seems to have no human agency behind it. It is this ephemeral quality that wafts through our politics and causes educational inequity.

I am the great and powerful Status Quo! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

***

TFA knows better than anyone that the cause of this status quo is political and that politics is the struggle to decide who gets what. It’s why you all are so committed to getting more alumni in politics and into elected office. Ms. Villanueva-Beard, you believe that TFA’s collective dedication and belief in its power to transform communities immunizes the organization from villainy. But few of TFA’s critics doubt that those in the TFA orbit are as committed and sincere in their work as anyone else. Certainly not I nor Gary Rubinstein nor Anthony Britt nor any other alumni critics. But, villains in politics rarely believe themselves to be villainous. The nobility of your intent will not protect you from doing harm.

I’m sure you’ve seen the news that Chicago Public Schools is laying off hundreds of teachers as TFA is placing hundreds more at the same time. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you care: when you place corps members in cities like Chicago or Philadelphia where veteran teachers are losing their jobs and schools are being closed down, this is us doing harm. TFA is complicit in this damage and it is villainous.

When TFA partners with groups like the Walton Family Foundation who are explicit in their contempt for traditional public schools and for organized labor of any kind, we are partners in their agenda to destroy public schools(3).

When so much of the TFA universe is enmeshed with the charter school movement, and when charters can cream-skim and counsel out, when they serve a proportionally less disabled population, when they can afford greater per-pupil expenditure because of outside philanthropist cash, when they profiteer off tax benefit loopholes, and when TFA partners with any charter chain which commits any or all of these offenses, we are complicit in this damage.

When TFA stresses the use of high-stakes summative assessment data as the measure of its teachers’ impact, we are complicit in the accountability system which victimizes low-income communities more than any others.

You can’t play it both ways. You can’t spout progressive values out of one side of your mouth and whisper meritocratic, neoliberal ones out of the other and expect willing cooperation from your critics. You can’t band together with the powerful who have sought more power for the future-elite whom TFA heavily courts and call yourself grassroots or community-oriented.

Telling a room full of alumni that TFA is not the enemy is an insult to our reading comprehension. We know what’s going on; we know what side of the bread is getting buttered. We’re very sorry to inconvenience you all by demanding some sort of explanation and change on the part of the organization. However, I don’t think I’ve made an error in judgment. TFA’s actions run counter to my values. “Enemy” was a word you chose, and I’d care not to define you that way. But TFA is certainly no hero.

***

You talked about five commitments you have made coming out of your listening tour.

One is “being open to challenge and criticism.” I’m pretty darn critical and I think I’ve made some challenging statements. I want you to read me not as a scorched-earth TFA hater, but an alumni who wants to be associated with a group doing real good in the world. I think it’s possible though unlikely that TFA makes some major changes to fit more closely with what I think is “good.” I’m not a transformational leader; I’m not going to run for office or work for a powerful senator or become CEO of anything. I’m a teacher who’s a stay-at-home dad during the summer. I think the only way I can contribute to this discussion is if I encourage more disillusioned alumni to become really obnoxious, throwing dignified temper tantrums in public so that maybe you will try something else besides too-short training for too short of a teaching commitment.

Second, you said some things about data and relationships. I’m not sure what you are committing to here, to be honest. It looks like a commitment to remind yourself of something that should have been obvious from your time in the classroom. I guess Kramer is going to have trouble with that one, then.

Third, you want to be better engaged with your communities. Idea! Recruit more members of said community instead of parachuting elite college graduates from across the country year after year.

Fourth, you warned against growth for growth’s sake. Then, stop growing. Your corps members are spread a mile wide and an inch deep and you are wading into regions that don’t want you (Seattle, Minnesota).

Last one:

Finally, we need to invest more in helping our corps members be even more effective.  Too often corps members say they do not get the support they need to ensure they can deliver on the well rounded world class education our students deserve and they want to provide.  We need to do better.

We’ve been saying this for a while. Make the pre-service training longer and more meaningful. It’s not a difficult solution, just a challenge to implement when you’re trying to sustain growth and stick by this ludicrously out of date idea from some undergrad’s thesis 25 years ago.

***

I’ll wrap this up on a conciliatory note: I have personally had a pretty good TFA experience! I have had great relationships with people in the regional office including the director and my MTLD. They have been very open to my criticism and have validated a lot of what I have said in person and on this blog. Nearly everyone tells me how awesome I am which is weird and feels wrong, but is nice anyway. The corps members I have met are gracious and hard-working and immensely talented and open-minded. I am dismayed that we encourage so many of them to pursue other fields(4) because it is quite clear that many are born teachers. I learned a couple of things in Institute that have been helpful in organizing a year-at-a-glance and units as I’m doing now. I’m anti-TFA insofar as I don’t support what you all do right now. But I’m not against what TFA has the potential to become.

I just want you all to do more than listen now. When you listen to Chicago teachers rage at your complicity in their colleagues’ firing, I want you to say something like, “Mea culpa. We’re giving back all that money we charged you(5). Let’s make sure those teachers have jobs.” And I want you to shutter that regional office until there are actual teaching vacancies(6). That would be incredibly bold and a show of faith with the educator community at-large. Show the kind of leadership that is truly heroic that will actually be of value to the communities you serve.

NOTES

(1) Almost to suggest that TFA is an enemy, just not the right one to fight.

(2) I presume Pearson and their ilk are included, as are any public figures who tout the necessity of high-stakes testing to ensure quality education.

(3) Your facile invocation of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. is all the more risible knowing that he was killed while advocating for striking sanitation workers’ rights in Memphis.

(4) Especially law and business, YUCK. That’s like telling Mariah Carey she should be an auctioneer.

(5) Seriously, what is this finder’s fee business? “Please give us five grand because we found you a Dartmouth grad who wants to be a physician.” Give that money back, that’s stealing.

(6) I am suffering under no delusions that you will do anything like this anytime soon.

5 Responses

  1. yoteach

    ” It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you care: when you place corps members in cities like Chicago or Philadelphia where veteran teachers are losing their jobs and schools are being closed down, this is us doing harm. ”

    I think this is the strongest critique of TFA, and will continue to grow in strength as TFA continues to expand despite teacher surpluses, budget cuts, and claims of wanting to eventually no longer be needed.

    However, a few thoughts of push back. I despise the Walton Foundation as much as any good liberal, but I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing that TFA is getting them to donate money to education (even if its a circuitous route) rather than, say, oil companies, “family” advocates, senate races, etc. I do get the guilt by association argument, but I’m not convinced by it. Nonprofits need money. Corporations and foundations have money. It’s a shitty game, but you have to play to stay alive. I would be more interested in evidence that the Walton is giving money conditionally, or pushing TFA to compromise on certain values.

    Funny story about charter schools. A friend of mine (a parent of a Detroit student, a 7+ year teacher, and a total critic of TFA) is opening a charter school in Detroit that is hiring 0 TFA corps members and is hoping to bring (the only) public progressive school that is not a slave to data/tests/traditional instruction to Detroit. They recruit teachers and families disillusioned by the more run-of-the mill charter schools infiltrating the city. This is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, but charter schools are certainly not all homogeneous and all playing the numbers game like the most prominent ones we hear of. Charter school = school autonomy. It can be used for good or evil, but I don’t think your movement should mobilize around a distrust of all autonomous schools. That philosophy birthed NCLB.

    Finally, regarding charter schools having more money (I’m not quite as concerned about the other charter school practices mainly because I don’t think they are endemic to charter schools, but I have no good evidence to challenge you). Instead of complaining that this results in unfair competition, which it certainly does does, I would like critics to make an argument that has much more long-term promise: the success of some of these well-funded schools is only evidence that money DOES matter, so long as it is used well. Sure, this requires some admissions of (a few) charter success stories around a (perhaps limited) set of objectives, but I think that’s the best route to convincing politicians, policymakers, etc. that money does matter.

    Anyways, I enjoyed your post. Thanks.

    • mches

      Thanks for reading!

      On the Waltons issue, I don’t think this is TFA somehow getting one over on Wally World. The Waltons have donated tens of millions of dollars including a nearly $50 million prize a couple of years ago. Their big agenda is expanding school choice. They love TFA because as it grows, TFA can staff the growing network of charters they are also funding and fighting for. This is not some feel-good PR money they are throwing around.

      I lament that I paint charter schools in such broad strokes because their initial purpose was to serve as labs for the kind of progressive schooling your friend is starting up in Detroit. Sadly, the charters have been co-opted. Many of them are low-quality, run by hucksters looking to bilk the public for some nice salaries for top-level management while their teachers are paid the state minimum. The “high-quality” charters started by TFA alumni (KIPP, IDEA, Achievement First, etc) churn their teachers in and out and can generally credit their higher performance to cream skimming and the selection bias of parents who bother to enter the lottery.

      If autonomy is the true grail, why not give neighborhood schools more autonomy instead of designating charter schools as the bastion of such freedom?

      I think as far as money is concerned, policymakers will look at the argument as charters “beat” public schools instead of more money beats no more money. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m not hopeful.

      • yoteach

        All fair points. This made me think:

        “If autonomy is the true grail, why not give neighborhood schools more autonomy instead of designating charter schools as the bastion of such freedom?”

        Do you actually think school autonomy would be a step in the right direction, or was this more of a rhetorical flourish? Because I certainly would MUCH rather school autonomy be a reform idea (though obviously history shows it’s no panacea). It’s certainly better than practices/rules/norms spreading from researchers to politicians to federal policy to states to district superintendents to principals to administrators/lead teachers to teachers, right? But aren’t (at least in cities) large districts with centralized policies to some degree a result of union negotiations? This question is not really rhetorical, I don’t understand union politics well. But protecting teachers from local administrators means influencing policies at the city, rather than school level, resulting in district-wide practices. Is the solution school-based unions? They may be more effective at combating that idiosyncratic problems that plague many nightmarish administrations of both charter and district schools.

    • Ms. D

      I agree that TFA has a lot to work on, but I have a hard time saying that part of the problem (or one of the main problems) is that TFA keeps placing in cities that are laying off loads of teachers. CPS (Chicago) just laid off over 1000 teachers(according to news sources), but from what I understand the majority of those are either from special programs or due to the closing of elementary schools. At least in my region, DFW, TFA teachers were not placed in special programs and in DISD only about 30% (not an exact number) were placed in elementary schools. According to CPS’s website there are 52 openings for high school science teachers across the district including Lincoln Park High School which is a VERY good school. TFA tends to fill positions that otherwise wouldn’t be filled as was noted in my placement school when various teachers (non-TFA) left throughout the year and long-term subs sat in those rooms for months and months. So I understand that TFA needs to be careful where they place, but I also think that this issue is over exaggerated when you consider what type of teachers were laid off and what positions TFA is filling.

      • mches

        It’s a crowding out issue for me. CPS is crying that they don’t have the money to keep thee positions, but they’ve got $1.6 million lying around for TFA. You see this elsewhere in which budget cuts are made but TFA’s funds remain intact.

        Ms. D, do I understand that you teach elementary?

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