River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 19 2012

First…Class!? (“You Can Pay For School But You Can’t Buy Class”)

It’s officially that time of year when flowers are starting to bloom and state test review is kicking into high gear. Coming off of Spring Break, I learned a lot about the players in the education reform debate as I travelled to New Orleans, Houston and San Antonio. I would love to expand upon the entrepreneurial spirit I witnessed in NOLA, but that will have to wait. While I should be lesson planning and grading, I wanted to take a moment to highlight the continuing dialogue I blogged about in my previous post: “Don’t Hate Me ‘Cause I’m TFA

As a big picture thinker, I enjoying engaging with people who have different perspectives about education reform. Currently, my browser keeps crashing under the combined weight of all the tabs I have in my reading queue. An intriguing debate I’ve followed is the back and forth between Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America, and Diane Ravitch, a prominent historian and prolific writer on education reform. Read their perspectives here:

Ravitch: “How and How Not To Improve Schools

Kopp Rebuttal: “In Defense of Optimism in Education

Ravitch Rebuttal: “In Defense of Facing Reality

Gary Rubinstein provides insightful commentary on the Kopp piece, but I will pick out one thing she wrote:

”Indeed, we yearn for a more collaborative effort and a more open public discussion about how to ensure that the children growing up facing the immense challenges of poverty gain the opportunities they deserve.”

Honestly, I enjoyed Wendy’s piece as I feel it is the most straightforward portrayal of TFA’s dual-pronged mission I’ve read so far. TFA gets hit from both sides often and is criticized for being about the long-term while at the same time being critiqued for emphasizing the value of classroom teachers’ impact on achievement. Why is that?

Diane Ravitch once famously switched her views and I think Wendy makes a case for her doing the same when she states that: Ending educational inequality is going to require systemic change and a long-term, sustained effort.”  Really though, this is not a shift in her vision, but rather a shift on what TFA emphasizes within its mission. As a corps member who will definitely leave the classroom (perhaps temporarily) within the next 0-3 years, I don’t think this is a problem at face value. I personally don’t hate my teachers nor do I think my colleagues are ignorant; I simply want to use my comparative advantage and skill set to support them and help them do their job in the greater context because doing so ultimately promotes student achievement while empowering teachers. We can’t have one without the other. Let me clarify, we can, but we shouldn’t.

At the same time, Ravitch makes a great point: “Kopp dismisses Finland as a model because less than 4 percent of its children are poor. But that’s part of the story of their success and should not be waved aside as unimportant. Teacher professionalism is also part of Finnish success.” Ultimately, I agree that we must hold two ideas in our heads at the same time: We must both reduce poverty and improve our schools. We cannot fix our schools without strengthening the teaching profession and addressing the social conditions that shape their outcomes.” Moreover, I don’t really think Wendy Kopp doesn’t agree, however, that’s not where she is currently focusing, which perhaps has allowed “corporate” reformers to siphon off some of TFA’s collective energy.

In the end, if Ravitch and Kopp become unlikely allies, then you heard it here first. I truly believe the root of their disagreement is more style than substance and we all want TFA to be all it can be, since it’s arguably selling it’s mission short at the moment in many people’s minds. When it comes to education reform, we need to keep in mind three kinds of class: effective instruction in the classroom, socioeconomic conditions in the street, and keeping debate relatively civil and progressing forward over the various forms of media… let’s keep it class-y! After all, “You Can Pay For School But You Can’t Buy Class.” #swagger

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