River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 11 2011

TFA’s Master Plan?

One day, all the children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” -Vision of Teach for America

Lately, I’ve been mired in thought, debating whether I want to teach beyond my two years as a corps member in my placement school. Inevitably, as I reflect on my role within Teach for America and by extension, the broader movement for education reform in America, I become increasingly aware of a fundamental disconnect between my vision of our nation and that of TFA’s. Based on what has been messaged to me, and from what I’ve seen, TFA is okay with the continued existence of economic inequality; I am not. These views are my own. Allow me to explain.

Teach For America’s mission is “to build the movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders in the effort.” I get that. I think this mission is admirable and it can also answer all critics’ questions about TFA’s stance on teaching, school choice, and poverty. The charter school movement, taken at face value, is exactly what TFA wants. If TFA seeks to give every child “the opportunity to receive an excellent education” then in many ways it has already fulfilled this goal by sparking the charter school movement. Am I right?

When I meet Wendy Kopp last month, she had a laser-like focus on charters, which makes sense considering she’s married to the CEO of KIPP. This marriage is a metaphor. Charter schools, such as KIPP, represent the “excellent education” part and as they proliferate coming to a lottery near you, every kid has the chance (read: opportunity) to attend a TFA/KIPP charter and therefore attain said excellence. Poverty need not apply. And, to be fair, while all charters are not successful, some, such as MATCH in Boston, KIPP, ASPIRE and Achievement First seem to be doing great work, especially in the areas of character education; an area most failing schools neglect in favor of test prep out of necessity.

Let’s assume for a second, I wanted to close the achievement gap while not directly confronting the problems of poverty. Here’s what I’d do in a nice, 15-Point Plan:

  1. Infiltrate the broken, public education system by placing CM’s in teaching jobs no one wants and districts struggle to fill.
  2. Use self-selected data and anecdotes to increase the size of the corps while using prestige and Wall Street recruitment strategies to entice undergraduate leaders to program, thereby further increasing prestige.
  3. Claim the system is tough even for the “best and the brightest,” so we need an alternative. Enter charter/privatization movement.
  4. Form partnership with leader of most prominent charter school network, founded by some of the 67% #alumni #marriage
  5. Groom TFA corps members to create new charter schools.
  6. Groom most ambitious CM’s to become policymakers to alter laws making lobbying and creation of charters easier.
  7. Continue to place CM’s in failing schools, while implicitly promoting public perception that schools fail because of horrible teachers, not poverty.
  8. Stay explicitly neutral as regular teachers are thrown under the proverbial school bus; meanwhile, continue development of TFA CM’s through book.
  9. Increase relative proportion of corps member hired in new, TFA-led charters vs. regular public schools.
  10. As teachers’ unions are increasingly attacked by corporate interests and friends of privatization/market reforms, TFA can come to the aid of said Teachers unions. Slowly ramp up rhetoric that maybe TFA was wrong in allowing the national debate to hate on teachers for so long.
  11. Meanwhile, charters continue to crop up everywhere being led and staffed exclusively by TFA CM’s who have two years of training in regular schools.
  12. TFA pledges to pull out of districts to allow regular teachers to have their jobs back. Randi Weingarten holds press conference applauding move. Diane Ravitch claims foul play, but union mob turns back on her.
  13. 99% of TFA corps of 2016 is placed in charter schools across the country. 1% of the corps is placed in a remote rural region because they came too close to figuring out the truth. ;-)
  14. TFA and KIPP announce company merger as Kopp and Barth renew wedding vows.
  15. Teach-For-A-KIPP announces IPO. Vision fulfilled. Billions are made; yet, poverty remains.

Now, I write all this neither to condemn TFA or KIPP nor to sabotage my potential for being hired by any partner organization… I say this because it needs to be put out there. A thoughtful, critical eye never hurt anyone truly looking to improve. In many ways I love TFA. I love its ideals and its mission resonates with me. It is due to this love of the organization that I want it to do better. TFA, please don’t sell yourself and, more importantly, your mission short. TFA was not meant to be an elaborate incubator for staffing charter schools. I think the work KIPP and other systems are doing in NOLA, Houston, DC, etc. is amazing, but we can and should expect more. Whatever happened to high expectations?

In the next year or two, I will seek to better understand charter schools and how to maximize their positive impact. At the same time, I believe the last thing our nation needs is ANOTHER semi-parallel system that privileges some while handicapping others. If TFA wants to promote best practices and truly work towards attacking root causes of education inequity, then sign me up for the long haul. I will put 110% into helping the organization achieving this goal. On the flip side, if TFA is in the business of turning public schools into alternative schools no one wants to teach at while incubating charters (ironically, reversing the aims of its original goal), I’m not so sure I want to be a part of that.

Let us check ourselves at the core (corps!), and ensure that our nation’s greatest education non-profits are not led astray by our greed and growth culture.

“Not all speed is movement.”  -Toni Cade Bambara

18 Responses

  1. aea107

    Love this. Thank you.

  2. MatherSCC

    I think you miss the mark here a little bit, Tony. It’s not that TFA finds poverty to be acceptable; instead, TFA has a different theory of change from you. You say, “Poverty –> bad schools,” and TFA says, “Bad schools –> poverty.” Their idea is that in order to FIX poverty, we have to take students in high-poverty areas and give them a good education, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty.

    In a sense, you’re both right; poverty and bad education reinforce each other in America’s most poisonous feedback loop. But I’m skeptical of the TFA-Charter-Movement cabal conspiracy theories, particularly as one of the many CMs placed in traditional public schools. Schools themselves have the authority to hire whomever they want, so if more non-charter schools didn’t hire CMs, it’s because they didn’t WANT to (or they wanted to and didn’t move fast enough, since in our region CMs take the first offer they get). And if more charters hired CMs, it’s because those charters were probably started by people with experiences similar to those of CMs; in other words, TFA CMs are a known quantity to charter administrators.

    (Note: I do not believe that TFA is the solution to the achievement gap, nor do I think it is the best thing for re-professionalizing the teaching force. But I do think it’s a net positive.)

    • You’re so right when you say our theories of change are different. I don’t disagree with TFA but I’m irked that it’s emphasis on “bad schools –> poverty” takes away from the known “poverty –> bad schools.” Of course, I don’t want to confuse correlation with causation, but even if my students are deemed “proficient” on some test, their communities will be still be segregated, there will still be a lack of opportunities, and the crushing oppression of poverty will still plagued their families. That’s what bothers me about TFA. I agree, it’s a net positive, but I’m impatient and want to see more done to break the cycle. I’m aware that my view is obviously skewed by being in the context of the MS Delta, which is why I’m open to exploring different strategies for reform in other regions, and I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this. Thanks man!

  3. parus

    I like you.

    • ;-) lol thank you

    • Good post, Crystal. One disagreement: I would diustpe that our public schools are failing the majority of our students. Our public schools are not succeeding in lifting, en masse, the most challenged, disadvantaged students to academic success; I’m just noting that those students aren’t the majority. (No other types of schools are succeeding en masse with the most challenged, disadvantaged students either; of course.)I’d certainly agree with you, Frank, that the selectivity is what makes Lowell what it is. Same with SOTA, only in the arts (I’m the parent of a SOTA student and a SOTA graduate). Some points on that selectivity issue: Yes, it’s what private school parents are paying for, and it certainly makes those schools’ teachers’ jobs easier. Some observers don’t get it and just claim private schools are better, without grasping that difference. Charter schools are also free to pick and choose if they want to; they get so little oversight that there’s nothing to stop them. In a twist on the situation with private schools, lots of observers also don’t get that. The twist is that selectivity is an inherent part of the private school process, while it’s covert with charter schools. And yet, despite that, charter schools are not overall more successful than public schools, as study after study has shown during the nearly 20 years charter schools have been in existence.

  4. jersey

    I think this is one of the most well thought out commentaries on TFA I have ever read, and that is saying a lot because I have researched them quite a bit. I completely agree with you that poverty -> bad schools, and that poverty and all of it’s associated risks are what truly hurt students. I’m not a huge fan of charter schools, I think that the country would be best served by focusing on policies and implementation that affects the entire public school system. Why work so hard on schools that will benefit a small number of students when so many more need help? I also agree with your views on TFA vs teacher unions. There may be a few bad teacher eggs out there, but I’ve still yet to come across a serious, peer reviewed article claiming that the achievement gap can be attributed to poor teaching. And I think TFA view on teachers (perceived or real) is what creates that sense of hostility between some corps members and other teachers. TFA needs to be embracing teachers that did not come up through the corps, and recruiting them as mentors and advisors and what not. Although what do I know, I have no experience yet! We’ll see if a year from now I still have the same opinions! Love this blog though!

    • ” TFA needs to be embracing teachers that did not come up through the corps, and recruiting them as mentors and advisors and what not”

      I love this idea. Why not acknowledge the successful, veteran teachers and work with them to implement a structured, effective mentoring program across TFA lines. Formalize mentorship through paying a small stipend. Often schools have programs for new teachers but it just means more paperwork and less free time. I’m sure TFA could develop an effective program.

    • Sam

      I love this comment, and I hope you continue blogging as you gain experience. I would love to read more from you.

      • Thanks for the encouragement!

        • Or perhaps rerdeas can sponsor some editing classes for would-be journalists? Please don’t by Khakis if you want to support teachers. By? Well-funded is hyphenated coincidentally. Holland, save your money on slacks and by Microsoft Word or take an ENG 101 course.Also, or until they burn-out from lack of preparation. I think you mean from lack of district/school support, which is the most oft-cited reason for any teacher departure.You’ve been edified.

      • Jill Tucker’s interview with Guggenheim in the Chronicle was quite ehapmtic (given Tucker’s professionally mild reporter’s voice) about the filmmaker’s absolute lack of actual contact with public school in his real life. He was private-schooled and so are his kids. I know that people who spend their lives in the private-school world sometimes come to fear and even demonize public education. It’s ironic that a film about education would essentially be based on proudly celebrating ignorance, though.A couple of other things: I’m not versed in the politics of the national teachers’ unions, but I know that Randi Weingarten has recently been coming down firmly on the side of what cynics call the education deformers. Recently, Bill Gates (a non-admired figure among education-reform skeptics) spoke at the national convention of her American Federation of Teachers. A small group of the teacher delegates protested his appearance by walking out, and Weingarten egged on the other delegates to taunt the protesters. (On a video I saw, the delegates doing the taunting were older women. Only a few days later, Gates made a speech calling for slashing pensions for retired teachers, which would likely hit those women pretty hard. Not very appreciative of him. But I digress.) Anyway, Weingarten seems to be in Guggenheim’s camp, so it’s hard to figure what his criticism is about. Also, by the way, in regard to the notion that teacher tenure is the tool of Satan that leads to low achievement: Actually, the states with right-to-work laws, meaning that teachers have no job security, are consistently the states with far lower academic achievement. That seems awfully definitive, so it’s hard to figure why so many opinion leaders don’t see it or at least pretend not to.

  5. Adrilicious

    like parus, i like you.

    i don’t like the “character education” piece, cause that sounds like teaching black and brown kids to be nice and act like middle class white kids, but i’m totally down with everything else you said!

    • Sam

      Granted, I do not know too much about how those Charter Schools do character ed. However, they do character ed in most really elite prep schools, so while I TOTALLY get your point about how “character ed” looks from the outside, I don’t think it has to be that way. At one of the schools I’ve worked with – where tuition is more than most colleges – character ed begins in lower school, with students having discussions and doing little skits and improv scenes *that they’ve created themselves* about what respect for others, or self-respect, or cooperation, means to them. It’s all very student driven, and thus it isn’t at all teaching the kids how to act; it’s getting them to reflect about what these aspects of “character” mean.

  6. Amy

    This is a very well thought-out criticism of TFA and I’ve passed it onto numerous colleagues. Thank you for your honesty!

    I currently work at a charter school in Baltimore and it’s sad to see the lottery system in effect. While I agree with the notion that we do NOT want to create another semi-paralleled system, it seems that my school was created because the zone schools were not providing adequate services to the special populations of the neighborhood (e.g. special education and ESL) What I’ve found in my school is that, because parents are required to complete 30 hours of service within the school and because my school has its own board of directors of business men and women, parents, and staff, communication is clear, allowing parents and staff to feel a sense of unity toward the progress of the school. Each person is invested at every level, allowing the charter school to function in ways that other public school simply can’t. Perhaps this ties in the issue of effective administration, but I’ve come to greatly appreciate my school for its flexibility to meet the needs of its students in ways that, once again, other public school cannot.

    In sum, I’m not sure what the solution is. I agree that we need to equalize schools, and I think that charter schools may be a quick fix rather than a sustainable one. Either way, we have a lot of work to do.

    • Thanks! I agree that charter schools are an important part of the solution but not the most sustainable remedy nor the end-all-be-all. Investment of the community is huge and charters may be better positioned to tailor themselves to the needs of the community than regular public schools. We need to get to the point where we are not making excuses for public schools not having things that charters emphasize such as parental training and involvement, clear communication, and a united culture.

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