11 thoughts on “Why Teach For America Matters

  1. Jonathon

    As a Teach For America alum, I can honestly say that I probably never would never have considered joining the education community if not for the organization. My experience as a teacher in Oakland has opened my eyes to the many inadequacies of our educational system. Now I work outside of the classroom in the Oakland central ofice with many people that are passionate about educational equity – both TFA alums and non-TFA alums. We still have a long road ahead of us, but have made huge strides in providing a quality education system to every student in Oakland.

  2. Stoplight

    Wonderful article.

    I’m interested in joining TFA as part of my own educational career. You make strong arguments in defense of this organization, one that is actually “in the trenches” doing the serious work of improving education, one student at a time. Attacks on TFA seem to be from institutionalized entities such as teacher unions that have a stake in the status quo of education. TFA operates outside that structure, which may be scary to some but seems to be effective.

  3. Schoolhouse

    Teach For America is maligned in the political spectrum because of its inherent elitism-it is an exclusive club and this is the the essentially reaking problem-and may always be-Teacher’s Unions are historically working class and egalitarian. The elite TFA teachers come in and stick a thumb in the eye of the unions, and teaching colleges saying we can do what you do only better, is what happens.

  4. Schoolhouse

    Sorry what I meant to say at the end there was,

    the elite TFA teachers come in and stick a thumb in the eye of the unions, as well as the teaching colleges and universities, saying we can do what you do only better, is what happens-

    (a little rusty with the words and commas today)

  5. Lou

    Don’t forget about cool the TFA folks look in their khakis and well worn South Carolina Gamecocks baseball hats while they twirl their lacrosse sticks on the quad. “Dude, should I backpack Europe this year or Teach for America?”

  6. Peter Tan Keo

    Education is a field full of followers. Thinking outside the conventional box is incrementalized, at best, if not deplored by those gaining from the status quo. Adults move synchronously through routines, carefully spewing hollow jargons like “effective teacher quality,” “disaggregation,” “higher standards,” “accountability for results,” “equity improving outcomes,” and, my absolute favorite, “closing the achievement gap” when pressed to say something smart.

    So many eager to use big words lack full comprehension of meaning. And, no, semantics isn’t a factor. This is problematic just as much as inflating the numbers for graduation, while deflating the rate of dropouts: False claims yield false outcomes, and false outcomes yield inaccurate measures to stem problems plaguing many urban schools. Ridding the falsity requires only common sense, something many with poor intention seem to lack.

    But the problem we face is far more complex.

    Highly effective programs fixing broken schools are never recognized fairly. But they should be. Much of the criticism lodged comes from adults benefiting from the fragmented system. Here, the interests of adults trump those of students, the focal child, individuals we presume to care so much about.

    Take Teach for America and KIPP, two prime examples of systems effecting change for pockets of poor children, in some of the nation’s worst urban schools. Both solutions have gained good ground in terms of “closing the achievement gap” (sigh). Rhee may be on the extreme end of radical change but it’s hard not to sympathize with her frustration. Grant it these solutions aren’t perfect but they work, for now. And an overwhelming majority of disadvantaged children benefit.

    The problem is easy to understand.

    No one in education wants to acknowledge the pink elephant: Weak teachers shouldn’t be allowed to exploit the system any further. Children shouldn’t suffer because adults are blind and blithe. Yet unions and advocacy groups turn an eye and assume ignorance. To them, all is dandy so why bother? Political posturing doesn’t help either.

    This brings me to my next point.

    Rotherham points out that vitriol replaces victory when programs succeed but get little credit for success. He seems to get the bigger picture. Yet Rotherham and other bloggers aren’t exonerated from the larger criticism. Bloggers spend way too much time festering over the politics of education (if not nurturing ego) when intellectual muscle should be flexed to uproot real, workable solutions in failing schools.

    I’ve taught in an urban school in Roxbury, MA, and now work in education policy. Frankly, from what I’ve seen, politics and education can’t sustain a happy marriage with mutually benefiting terms. There is no compromise. The probability of divorce may be high but separation is out of the question. Both partners recognize unfair treatment where politics is the alpha male and education is the geisha waiting for a ring and fairy-tale wedding. So, unfortunately, education remains at the beck and call of an extremely demanding political husband who isn’t only pushy but condescending. This may explain why NCLB lost the popularity contest among educators.

    Yesterday, President Obama went straight for the bully pulpit of the presidency, making an appeal for the utility of the stimulus package. Education serves to benefit from this bill. However, one cant’ help but wonder whether this represents a shift in the way politics complicates the relationship with education? Does Obama bring a breath of fresh air, or is it politics as usual? While the President seems to care about the future of education, unclear is whether partisan politics will continue to polarize this unpopular marriage.

    The saga continues.

  7. john thompson

    Peter Tan Keo,

    I don’t know what your point is – or if you have a point.

    Life requires compromise. I don’t want to patronage you. I really don’t. I see plenty of effort by the union to negotiate systems for firing bad teachers. Tirades by Michelle Rhee and others make it far more difficult to reach compromises.

    Coincidently, this week’s Ed Week has a picture of middle school students silently changing classes in a Roxbury Charter. That, as well as other ideas from KIPP, TFA, etc., might be good ideas.

    But do you think we in NEIGHBORHOOD schools would be allowed those sorts of policies? Don’t you realize that you can do things in charters and magnets because you have an alternative system, and its called the neighborhood schools? Don’t you realize that every time you guys get freedom, the system denies even more power to us? Don’t you realize that arguments like those from the Ed Trust, and TFA, charters, are used by decision-makers to starve the alternative services that are required to improve NEIGHBORHOOD schools?

    We had a student assault two teachers in two months. Don’t you think we would like to assess consequences? Maybe you think its OK for students to commit violence and not be suspended. But do you think we would allow those absurdities to continue if the teachers and principals of NEIGHBORHOOD schools were allowed to enforce the rules?

    I support TFA, KIPP, and other charters, but if you think their experiences are comparable to NEIGHBORHOOD Schools and thus replicable, then I strongly question your judgement. Put the teachers in my school, the lowest performing school in our state, in a high performing school, and we wouldn’t miss a beat. Put the staff from magnet schools in our school and see how many come back for a second year.

    Of course, we expect more violence in Oklahoma City than in Roxbury or NYC, but do you have any idea what its like when kids on one half of the room have family members who have killed or wounded family members of the other? How many times have you had one student who stabs the person next to him in the jugglar, and the person next to him shoots the brother of another student, and a student next to them stabs to death a student in your next hour, and mothers feel free to beat down rivals at school? If you think I’m exaggerrating, spend some time in NEIGHBORHOOD schools. Sure we have plenty of bad teachers. That’s what happens when it is virtually impossible to keep great young teachers.

    Visit our world and compromise might not look so bad to you. And if you came back to teach a second year in a NEIGHBORHOOD school, I think you might be more willing to “roll with the punches” and accept the vagaries of human nature.

    In fact, if you want SUSTAINABLE improvements, you might want to celebrate the weirdities of featherless bi-peds.

  8. Peter Tan Keo

    John Thomson:

    Take a second. Breathe. Then reread my entry.

    My argument was clear: Adults who don’t care about their jobs should go. Period. I wasn’t suggesting that every urban public school in general (and all teachers more specifically) should be penalized for not meeting standards. That would have been a gross statement, if not naïve. So despite the caution, you were somewhat patronizing. But I’m a big boy, so that’s okay. Look, I recognize many public schools perform above and beyond the call of duty and deserve plaudits. But, one has to wonder whether, if at the very least, a small fraction of teachers, across the spectrum, just aren’t cut out for the job? And if teaching isn’t their thing, then maybe something should be done. I also wanted to point out the complexity of politics and education. That’s all.

  9. john thompson

    Rereading, and editing in a way that I hope is fair, I read the following phrases attacking the motivation and integrity of others:

    “Education is a field full of followers. Thinking outside the conventional box is incrementalized, at best, if not deplored by those gaining from the status quo. Adults move synchronously through routines, carefully spewing hollow jargons …

    So many eager to use big words lack full comprehension of meaning. … Ridding the falsity requires only common sense, something many with poor intention seem to lack.

    Highly effective programs fixing broken schools are never recognized fairly. But they should be. Much of the criticism lodged comes from adults benefiting from the fragmented system. Here, the interests of adults trump those of students, the focal child, individuals we presume to care so much about.

    No one in education wants to acknowledge the pink elephant: Weak teachers shouldn’t be allowed to exploit the system any further. Children shouldn’t suffer because adults are blind and blithe. Yet unions and advocacy groups turn an eye and assume ignorance. To them, all is dandy so why bother? Political posturing doesn’t help either.’

    … Bloggers spend way too much time festering over the politics of education (if not nurturing ego) when intellectual muscle should be flexed to uproot real, workable solutions in failing schools.

    … Both partners recognize unfair treatment where politics is the alpha male and education is the geisha waiting for a ring and fairy-tale wedding. So, unfortunately, education remains at the beck and call of an extremely demanding political husband who isn’t only pushy but condescending.

    But taking a deep breath, I still react to the absurd implication that TFA and KIPP are replicable in NEIGHBORHOOD secondary schools., and thus

    … “an overwhelming majority of disadvantaged children benefit.

    The problem is easy to understand.”

    When statements are made by “reformers” that sound so absurd to people who really teach in NEIGHBORHOOD schools, it is hard to not cross the line that separates condenscion from patronizing.

  10. JesseAlred

     I am a veteran teacher in Houston seeking a dialogue with Teach for America teachers nationally regarding policy positions taken by former Teach for American staffers who have become leaders in school district administrations and on school boards. I first became aware of a pattern when an ex-TFA staffer, now a school board member for Houston ISD, recommended improving student performance by firing teachers whose students did poorly on standardized tests. Then the same board member led opposition to allowing us to select, by majority vote, a single union to represent us.

    Having won school board elections in several cities, and securing the Washington D.C Superintendent’s job for Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp’s friends are pursuing an approach to school reform based on a false premise: that teachers, not student habits, nor lack of parent commitment or social inequality, is the main cause of sub-par academic performance. The TFA reform agenda appeals to big corporations who see our public institutions as inefficient leeches. This keeps big money flowing into TFA coffers.

    The corporate-TFA nexus began when Union Carbide initially sponsored Wendy Kopp’s efforts to create Teach for America. A few years before, Union Carbide’s negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize its responsibility at the time it embraced Ms. Kopp. TFA recently started Teach for India. Are Teach for India enrollees aware of the TFA/Union Carbide connection?

    When TFA encountered a financial crisis, Ms. Kopp  nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their managerial assistance. The Edison Project sought to replace public schools with for-profit corporate schools funded by our tax money. Ms. Kopp’s husband, Richard Barth, was an Edison executive before taking over as CEO of KIPP’s national foundation, where he has sought to decertify its New York City unions.

    In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, joined the Bush’s at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was pivotal cover for Bush, since as Governor he had no genuine educational achievements, and he needed the education issue to campaign as a moderate and reach out to the female vote. KIPP charter schools provide a quality education, but they start with families committed to education. They claim to be improving public schools by offering competition in the education market-place, but they take the best and leave the rest.

    D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s school reform recipe includes three ingredients: close schools rather than improve them; fire teachers rather than inspire them; and sprinkle on a lot of hype. On the cover of Time, she sternly gripped a broom, which she presumably was using to sweep away the trash, which presumably represented my urban teacher colleagues. The image insulted people who take the toughest jobs in education.

    TFA teachers do great work, but when TFA’s leadership argue that schools, and not inequality and bad habits, are the cause of the achievement gap, they are not only wrong, they feed the forces that prevent the social change we need to grow and sustain our middle class.. Our society has failed schools by permitting the middle class to shrink. It’s not the other way around. Economic inequality and insecurity produces ineffective public schools. It’s not the other way around.

    Ms. Kopp claims TFA carries the civil rights torch for today, but Martin Luther King was the voice of unions on strike, not the other way around. His last book, Where do we go from here?, argued for some measure of wealth distribution, because opportunity would never be enough in a survival of the fittest society to allow most of the under-privileged to enter the middle class.
    Your hard work as a TFA teacher gives TFA executives credibility. It’s not the other way around. Your hard work every day in the classrooms gives them the platform to espouse their peculiar one-sided prescriptions for school improvement. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here with TFA teachers. My e-mail is JesseAlred@yahoo.com.

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