Monthly Archives: November, 2013

Of Educational Reform and Trojan Horses


For a long while, Teach For America was the dazzling new kid on the educational reform block. All doors were opened for the program that recruits elite college graduates (many from Ivy League Universities like Harvard or Princeton), gives them about a month of intensive training, and places them in two-year termed teaching positions at low-income schools across the country. President Obama praised TFA corps members as “a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas — that people who love their country can change it.” Their political support crossed party lines, and just about everyone was on board, except, unfortunately, for the people who were actually affected by the program.

In Chicago, the push back originally came from the teacher’s union. Teach For America was initially instituted as a temporary solution to a temporary shortage of teachers. The five-week ‘intensive’ training program that substituted for a BA or MA in Education and much lengthier student teaching requirements was meant to fill an immediate need—to get teachers on the ground and teaching in poorly served areas. But that ‘temporary solution’ became a permanent fixture that displaced seasoned veteran teachers, many of whom had 20 plus years experience. When one teacher moved to New York after graduate school, boasting high grades and a teaching award, she found the district closed to external applicants. “But they had a contract with TFA where they were still taking college graduates with no training besides doing TFA.” The pattern is happening nationwide, she complained. “Meanwhile, they’re laying off highly experienced teachers.”

According to a recent article in the American Prospect, the criticisms come in triplicate. “The organization’s five-week training program is too short to prepare its recruits to teach, especially in chronically under-served urban and rural districts; corps members only have to commit to teach for two years, which destabilizes schools, undermines the teaching profession, and undercuts teachers unions; and TFA, with the help of its 501(c)4 spin-off, Leadership for Educational Equity, is a leading force in the movement to close “failing” schools, expand charter schools, and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ standardized test scores.”

What once looked like a kind of Peace Corps styled guardian angel for troubled inner city schools, more and more resembles a Trojan horse  designed to eviscerate unions, privatize schools and leave public school systems worse off than when they started. As with so many other things in the private/public debate in this country, the public side is wildly outspent. Indeed, the resources devoted to TFA alone go far beyond what most large school districts could ever dream.

“The organization’s total assets for the 2011 fiscal year topped $350 million. That includes eight-figure support from the Broad, Walton, and Gates Foundations, leading bankrollers of campaigns to privatize school districts and ramp up standardized testing. The TFA orbit is also growing. It now has more than 10,000 corps members in 48 regions, as well as more than 32,000 alumni. Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries—at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans cut 7,500 school staff, converted the majority of its schools to charters, and, between 2005 and 2010, saw its share of black teachers drop from 73 percent to 56 percent. Over the past five years, TFA expanded its Greater New Orleans corps from 85 teachers to 375.”

In addition to the money bags approach, there’s something a little unsettling about the underlying ideology which insists that “singular change agents can overcome poverty.” As TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp likes to put it, successful teaching “requires all the same approaches that transformational leadership in any setting requires” The emphasis on the individual and the so-called ‘transformational leadership’ devalues and patronizes current staff, of course, and elevates a solipsistic view of the world where individual effort trumps community context and values. Perfect for the libertarian billionaire’s ethos, but rather a contradiction if you’re actually trying to build communities and community standards. Indeed, there’s a shallowness to all the sloganeering and when push comes to shove, many of the TFA darlings simply quit. The high turnover of trainees being dispatched to some of the country’s most challenging school districts—often without any long-term plans to be teachers—is a major problem. In a typical cycle, a school might lose about half of its corps members after their second year. By the third year, half of those who had remained after the second year would be gone. The root problem, of course, is precisely that lack of community context and commitment. Many—perhaps most– who join Teach For America don’t actually want to be teachers in the first place, instead using the program as a prestigious stepping stone for policy work, law school, or business school. According to the Prospect, “One study found that roughly 57 percent of corps members planned to teach for two years or less when they applied, while only 11 percent intended to make teaching a lifelong career. (TFA has claimed, however, that 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers. But their recently announced partnership with Goldman Sachs, which provides TFA recruits with jobs at the banking firm after two years of service, doesn’t entirely help their cause.)”

Ultimately, the two years of service is an empty promise to communities who more than anything need continuity and long-term commitment. If you want a school to become a community hub, you necessarily need to minimize ‘churn’—the rotation of teachers and principals. “Their framework is about developing leaders, not teachers.”

Gary Rubinstein, a veteran teacher, TFA alumni, and prominent critic of the program explains his motivations in joining as many do: “It [TFA] sounded exciting. For once, I’d be doing something ‘real.’ I’d be doing something valuable for society. I’d be making a difference.” But in its mission to enact progressive education reform and eliminate the cycle of poverty, TFA has advanced a conservative agenda that doesn’t seek education reform so much as its privatization. Like many others, he’s become acutely aware of the difference.

Now, of course, never one to let a bad idea go to waste, Richmond wants to join forces with TFA.

With a vote of 5-2 (with two members absent) the Richmond School Board has decided to contract with Teach For America to hire up to 30 teachers. Since TFA ‘teachers’ are paid an additional $5000 dollars for their services, Richmond taxpayers will need to pay out over $150,000 extra ($5,000 per corps member = $150,000) to TFA to hire folks who have had all of 5 weeks of training.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,“During Monday’s (November 4th) work session, two board members and half a dozen members of the audience — including Christine S. Walther-Thomas, the dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education — vehemently opposed the idea of bringing Teach For America to Richmond.

“What we know is that they are talented young people but they don’t get a lot of preparation,” said Walther-Thomas, who spoke in favor of a 3-year-old teacher residency program VCU runs with Richmond Public Schools.

Jacqueline T. McDonnough and Kurt Stem-hagen, associate professors at VCU, were more direct. McDonnough said she would “lay down in the door” before she would allow Teach For America into city schools. Stemhagen said “poor and minority students deserve the best.”

Mamie Taylor, 5th District, and Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District, were also vocal in their opposition, and both voted against the proposal.

On Tuesday, Taylor said the school system can’t afford Teach For America’s fee of $5,000 per teacher. And even if it could, she said she would still oppose it. “You can’t show me data that supports it,” she said. “Everything I’ve heard has been individual people’s experiences. I don’t see anything that tells me this is a direction Richmond Public Schools needs to go.”

At the November 4th meeting, Alliance for Progressive Values’ Deputy Kirsten Gray also pointed out that the rationale for hiring 33 TFA positions because of a shortage of teachers didn’t make a lot of sense, “… the city needs 33 positions filled but the openings aren’t advertised on the Richmond Public School system website.  We were told there is no money to hire teachers and that “quality” teachers are hard to find. 8 licensed long term subs have been hired but we cannot afford to hire them full time. It was recommended that the School board work within budget and not ask the city for more money. ….but when the subject of Teach For America came up, all of a sudden almost half the board is willing to pay $5,000 more plus salary for a TFA teacher. I can not wrap my head around this. How can a system claim it is hard to find “quality” teachers when the RPS website claims zero openings?”

Teacher, parent and public school advocate Rachel Levy posted on her own blog that she had problems receiving a timely response from the Richmond Public School systems when she applied for an ESOL position. She was ultimately notified that a position might be available, but the reply came so late in the season — a month after school had started — that she had already accepted a position at another school.

“The problem there is not lack of “creativity” or lack of qualified applicants; it’s lack of competence, disorder, and a lack of, um, hiring. TFA’s presence won’t change that.”

Kirsten Gray said, “I believe change in the Richmond Public Schools needs to start with the people, not from above in the form of Corporate Reform. We know what works in this city, but it is a slow process, one chosen by the people. Look how many good elementary schools we have compared to just over a decade ago. Look how long our alternative schools such as Open High School and Community High School have been around. … These schools did not form out of corporate interests. This organization [TFA] is being used as a tool of the privatization movement.”

Kirsten added that when you looked at the rush of local events, it was hard not to see a concerted push toward privatization. She said that a Style Weekly piece recently noted public school closures and the possible inclusion of additional Charter schools.

“This is not sheer coincidence. It is happening in other cities… All of the measures that have been implemented so far have been fought against in the General Assembly by citizens and organizations such as the PTA.”

Public school advocate Sarah Radcliffe Gross added, “TFA teachers are not the answer for our hard-to-staff schools and most challenging students. But they are an easy out for a school board bent on reforms– for the sake of reforms.” Richmond’s public schools need strong committed teachers and leadership determined to address the needs of all students, but contracting to hire a revolving door of less qualified personnel from Teach For America barely gives the appearance of solving problems.

It does, however, assist a deeply conservative agenda that seeks to deconstruct our public school system -one teacher at a time.

How The Cooch Lost Virginia

Doug Dobey, Dobey Design, Richmond Virginia(Doug Dobey, Dobey Design, Richmond Virginia)

In the Richmond Times Dispatch on the day after Virginia’s statewide elections resulted in Democrats winning the Governorship and the LT. Governorship outright and deadlocking the race for Attorney General, editorialist Jeff Shapiro opined that Virginia had chosen divided or in his words “splintered” government. Mr. Shapiro knows a lot more about the ins and outs of Virginia governance than I do and at one level it is hard to quibble with the idea that Virginia, which now has a split General Assembly (assuming special elections keep the 20-20 divide in the Senate with marginal control by the Democrats which is not a given), and with Democrats in control of the administration. So I hesitate to take issue with his article on the grounds of my own lesser knowledge, but never-the-less I do have some problems with both his analysis and his choice of language.

Democrats win state-wide elections because there are more Democrats than Republicans voting in Virginia! They are often moderate Democrats sure, but the D’s have won three out of the last four Governor races and taken the last two presidential contests and both Senate seats easily. Frankly, it is only the gerrymandering of districts that keeps 2/3rds of seats in the house Republican, and 8 of 11 Congressional seats in the hands of the GOP. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of Republicans in Virginia, clearly there are, but when the whole state turns out, they lose. It‘s that simple. So don’t tell me Virginians opted for a divided government, they in fact had little choice in the matter and where they could, they voted for a Democrat.

“Terry McAuliffe defeated Ken Cuccinelli for governor on the strength of his bankroll: nearly $35 million, compared with $20 million for the Republican.”

Really? But doesn’t this beg the question of where the GOP money went? Of course McAuliffe out raised the Cooch. It’s what he made his bones on, bundling money for the Clintons, plus he’s very rich himself. For once a Democrat could spend at the levels Republicans routinely spend. Part of the reason of course was also his opponent. Cuccinelli was an extreme, radical conservative with an extreme and demonstrable agenda and that brought out oppositional money like Planned Parenthood’s PAC by the bucket full. What is more interesting is that the GOP outside groups seemed to back out of this race at some point in the late summer, early fall. Where were the Koch brothers, and Tea Party AstroTurf groups like Freedom Works and TPP? Maybe the difference in money can be explained in part by the fact that these groups realized that Cuccinelli was a deeply flawed candidate and they decided not to go too deep into their very deep pockets on this one. This is speculation of course, but the fact that McAuliffe had more money raises as many questions as it answers.

“Much of McAuliffe’s money was spent fanning the hostility of women for Cuccinelli over his stout opposition to abortion.”

Sure, but let’s be clear. This “hostility” didn’t get ginned up by a savvy campaign, it came from a large, grass-roots movement of Virginians (men and women) who were appalled by the concrete actions of Mr. Cuccinelli as a Senator; and as an Attorney General,  Cuccinelli earned every drop of the enmity he received through his “stout” support of TRAP and forced ultrasound. I know the people who formed organizations like Cooch Watch. They have no great love for Governor-elect McAuliffe, but they were dead set on keeping the Cooch out of the Governor’s mansion because of the clear threat he posed to women’s rights. Believe me, Mr. McAuliffe doesn’t have enough money to produce the level of passion that this campaign engendered. Mr. Cuccinelli did that himself.

While he managed to rig the GOP convention so he wouldn’t have to run in a primary against Bill Bolling (Who I suspect would have had a much better chance against McAuliffe), Cuccinelli also came away with E. W. Jackson as a running mate. Do I need to elucidate what was wrong with that outcome? O.K. I will, briefly. Many conservative seem to think the road to getting African Americans to consider voting for them is to run African American candidates, and on the surface that makes eminent sense, but because the GOP’s rhetoric and policies have so consistently, abundantly and maliciously targeted African Americans as a group they find it hard to field serious African American candidates. Sure they get some wiggle room at least in their own press bubble regarding the persistent taint of racism that the modern GOP regularly flirts with, but it also results in “not ready for prime time” candidates like Herman Cain or E. W. Jackson. Jackson was an embarrassment for much of the campaign, I doubt he made many inroads into minority communities and he helped solidify the sense that the GOP was running a fringe ticket. The accusation of pernicious racism that dogs the GOP in Virginia and nationwide gets under the skin of lots of Republicans who are not, in fact, racist in any demonstrable way, but throwing out an E.W. Jackson for the second highest office in the Commonwealth doesn’t make you look better, it makes you look superficial, pandering and un-serious about important issues involving minorities. The Party that condemns affirmative action for women and minorities for promoting less qualified candidates on the basis of race is often the Party most guilty of doing just that… see Justice Clarence Thomas, Alberto Gonzales or Harriet Myers for prime examples. How much Jackson hurt Cuccinelli remains to be seen, and it may not have been as important as the knifing of Bill Bolling last spring, but it sure didn’t help.

“Cuccinelli returned to an issue that endeared him to tea party activists and more moderate Republicans: his first-in-the-nation legal challenge in 2010, ultimately unsuccessful, to the Affordable Care Act.”

OK, so this election was a referendum on ACA? If it was then Virginia voted for the ACA because Cuccinelli lost. Shapiro seems to hold out the idea that campaigning against the ACA helped Cuccinelli… does that mean he would have lost by significantly more if this national program had not existed? That had this program not existed Cuccinelli and his plans for Virginia would have been that much more repugnant to voters? Maybe so, but I would counter that Cuccinelli out preformed the polls because the GOP base did what it always does; it got up and voted no matter how bad the candidate. It was easy to tell pollsters that you didn’t care for the Attorney General that wasted millions of state dollars on a quixotic, grandstanding lawsuit, or spent his staff’s time advising private corporations on how best to avoid paying fines and taxes to the state he represents, or hounding scientists at state universities because their research doesn’t comport with what his corporate and religious friends want to believe about climate change…but in the end, they turned out to vote for the red candidate and that happened to be Cuccinelli this cycle… and he still lost. “This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare.” Said Cuccinelli. Again, if I take the Cooch at his word (and I don’t) this means that even with a “winning” issue like repealing affordable healthcare insurance, he couldn’t deliver the goods–golf claps all around.

“Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, affirmed his caucus’ opposition, noting that GOP House candidates, combined, received nearly 25,000 more votes than McAuliffe’s 1 million. “This … is a clear vote against higher taxes, more spending and bigger government,” Howell said in a written statement.” So if Cuccinelli had won… would it have been a clear vote against higher taxes, more spending and bigger government? Probably, so according to Speaker Howell it’s heads the GOP wins and tails the Democrats lose. Sadly, Mr. Shapiro doesn’t call that feat of circular logic out.  Instead he gives us the conventional mainstream logic that whenever a Democrat wins an election he needs to immediately begin tacking to the right and compromising. Sure, the House of Delegates will be a dry, hard place for legislation coming out of the Mansion to land, but I resent the idea that it is incumbent on McAuliffe to come hat in hand after winning an election. Again let me point out that this state is changing and that tide will eventually wash over the General Assembly. Maybe Mr. Shapiro should caution Mr. Speaker about intransigence in the face of yet another Democratic victory, but that may simply be too much for the editorial page of the RTD.

Jeff Shapiro knows the GA and the state politics better than I do, no doubt. But I differ with his interpretation and the way he couches it. The way I see it, Virginia rejected radical Tea Party conservatism at the ballot box once again.  Democrats retook the Governor’s mansion that they lost four years ago by 17 points and the Obama coalition mostly hung together. For many of us, this was not a vote for the suspect and damaged Mr. McAuliffe; it was a rejection of Ken Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson and perhaps the stealthier Mark Obenshain. Oh, and Jeff never mentioned Star Scientific or the dirty coattails of the outgoing (maybe sooner than he thinks) Governor who signed the TRAP and Ultrasound bills Cuccinelli and his radical friends introduced.

As a true Progressive I think Mr. McAuliffe and I are not going to see eye to eye on a lot of things, he got my vote because allowing Ken Cuccinelli to be Governor would have been a true disaster. That, to me, is the story of this election but I doubt I’ll see much of that in the mainstream local media.

Schapiro: Virginia opts for splintered government



Photo Credit: Doug Dobey Design

Because APV is a non-partisan organization devoted to a wide range of civic activities (and because we have a tax exempt status), we do not, as a rule, endorse candidates. As far as APV is concerned, we only want you to vote.

Toward that end, I would encourage everyone to keep in mind no matter how politically loathsome a candidate might be, they are also fellow citizens who have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince you they are the cat’s meow. And they’re going to feel very bad if all that work isn’t recognized in some way. So, in an effort at bipartisan comity, I’d like to offer a few kudos to those I might not personally favor, much less vote for.

For example, in the Governor’s race, Republican candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has made outstanding strides in areas hardly mentioned in a political context, much less advertised. I speak, of course, of sodomy. As far as I can tell in all of recorded history, sodomy has never before been used as a campaign issue for a Virginia Governor. Either pro or con. Ken defiantly pressed the issue until the US Supreme Court had to tell him to shut up,  go home,  and don’t come back. A defeat, at one level, but, on another, consider how bravely Mr. Cuccinelli walked into dens where grandmas feared to tread. That’s chutzpah,  baby.

Ken Cuccinelli is also a vigorous climate change denier. And yes, this is a good thing,  if you happen to be president of a large energy firm or a lobbyist for a large energy firm, or you work for Exxon. He hasn’t exactly advertised this on the campaign trail, but for those who know the candidate, his resume as a climate change denier is pristine. Way back in the mid-2000s, before people really worried about the end of Earth as we know it, Ken was vigorously assaulting the scientists who would make such predictions possible.

Ask Dr. Mann, previously of UVA, whom Mr. Cuccinelli attempted to attack on a tax technicality while conducting climate change science.…

We did.

Dr. Mann said that Cuccinelli actions as attorney general were “completely unacceptable, a witch hunt, an inquisition, and a crusade,” all of which “threatened me and my family all to advance his political career.”

This may not sound good, superficially, but if you, too, are a climate change denier (or powerful energy lobbyist) and willing to go after scientists who are trying to report their conclusions to the public despite major disinformation and interference by politicians who wouldn’t know a carbon molecule if it bit them on the butt, than Ken might just be your man.

This goes without mentioning Mr. Cuccinelli’s vigorous support of various financial entities around town, including, of course, Star Scientific, the star (so to speak) at the center of Governor Bob McDonnell’s recent fall from grace (a-hem, scandal), which, curiously, Attorney General Cuccinelli has refused to investigate. I would also mention in passing his illustrious career in the State Senate, funded in part by Pay Day Lending organizations. No doubt those who find usury especially compelling will also enthusiastically support his candidacy.

Of course, if you find litigious usurers, anti-sodomy crusaders and climate change deniers to your liking, Cuccinelli is hardly the only candidate. There’s E.W. Jackson currently running for Lt. Governor whose prosperity gospel makes Cuccinelli’s money changing at the government temple look like an Easter bonnet. Jackson doesn’t defend usurious laws for Pay Day lenders like Cuccinelli. No! He actively seeks the money for himself. If you want a go-getter grifter all in the name of Jesus is Lord, E.W. Jackson is your man. Oh, and bonus points, he’s also totally down with the anti-sodomy campaign.

And finally, we have the man who would be Attorney General looking to fill some BIG shoes. Mark Obenshain can’t quite reach Ken’s stature, but he makes a valiant effort.

Back in 2009, while in the State Senate, Mark Obenshain wanted to require women who had miscarriages without medical attendance to report it to authorities within 24 hours, or be charged with a class 1 misdemeanor (because shortly after a miscarriage every woman wants to race down to the court-house to make sure they aren’t charged with the criminal intent). There’s probably a small, but valid demographic of women who love bureaucratic and potentially criminal entanglements shortly after a miscarriage that will vote for him.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Mark is also a climate change denier which will certainly broaden his appeal.  According to Dr. Mann, “The ONE person who stood up to oppose the bill [aimed at preventing another anti-climate-science witch hunt] was Mark Obenshain, and that speaks volumes…about what sort of person he is, what sort of Attorney General he would be…. ”

According to Dr. Mann, Obenshain “will say or do anything to get elected… that’s extremely dangerous for Virginia.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. There may, in fact, be a small, but vocal minority who favor dangerous things for Virginia. Who are we to judge?

This is all by way of suggesting that each candidate has something to offer the state. As an organization, APV takes no stand either way. But, please– no matter what you decide on Tuesday, remember to vote.