Of Educational Reform and Trojan Horses

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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.

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