"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, June 19, 2006

Teach for America: Why We Should Be Afraid

OK, so it's an admittedly hyperbolic title. I honestly don't think we need to fear TFA. But, then again, given the strength of its brand, its image, and its underlying philosophy, and the fact that a record 19,000 people – roughly a 10 percent jump from the previous year – applied this academic year to Teach for America, we have a lot to be concerned about. The reason? In a nutshell, TFA represents a growing "progressive" or "Democratic" flavor of mainstream thinking on educational reform. So for those of us who oppose NCLB and the high-stakes testing regime and are looking for someone or something to take the lead on national education reform, we will be sorely disappointed -- perhaps even disturbed or afraid -- by what this so-called "progressive alternative" looks like.

Although TFA is not a policy shop per se, it embodies a very powerful policy message: "poverty should not be used as an excuse for why our schools won't work." In adopting this philosophy, TFA aligns itself with every policy shop (e.g., the Fordham Foundation, the Manhattan Institute) that holds a similar view. It also un-aligns itself with policy shops (e.g., the Children's Defense Fund, the NAACP) that believe that poverty plays a crucial role in shaping educational outcomes.

TFA President and Founder Wendy Kopp says we need to take pressure off schools, increase access to high-quality pre-schools, improve public services, etc. But then she turns around and argues that poverty should not be used as an excuse for why our schools won't work. So which is it? Do we acknowledge the harmful effects that poverty has on educational outcomes and work very hard to eradicate it? Or do we look at poverty as an excuse, saying that it doesn't really matter and that the effects really aren't that bad and can be compensated for? TFA clearly argues the latter and, in so doing, makes an extremely powerful policy statement about closing the educational achievement gap.

Kopp says that we have many examples of how schools can take kids growing up in poverty and put them on a level playing field with kids in other communities. I know of some schools that have been able to do this, most notably the KIPP schools that TFA alumni Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin started. But these are only a handful of schools scattered amongst the country's 15,000 school districts. We must never mistake these isolated examples as the norm. They aren't. Nor must we ever believe that these isolated cases can be reproduced nation-wide. They can't. KIPP relies on energetic idealists in their 20's who are single and have no kids to work 10 hour days, an extra day on Saturday, and an extra month in the summer. There are only so many people who are willing to do this. There are even fewer who can do this because of their family commitments. They have to go home, fix dinner, do the dishes, walk the dog, and help with their kids' homework.

Certainly some kids can pull themselves up out of the inner-city despite the tremendous odds. Certainly some great schools have formed and will continue to form in poor neighborhoods and attract motivated teachers, students, and parents to work together to improve the educational outcomes of poor kids. KIPP is a good example of this. But the dozens of examples of personal success pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of personal failures. The 40 or so KIPP schools make up a tiny fraction of the thousands and thousands of schools where children are ground up and spat out. So why do so many poor kids fail? Why are so many poor children chewed up and spat out?

Clearly, kids can't wait for us adults to figure things out. We obviously need to craft both short and long-term stategies. TFA is short-term strategy. But there are major problems with it.

Number one, it will never scale to the level where it can do something substantive for all of public education. According to a recent Inside Higher Education article, TFA itself hopes -- hopes -- that it can place 8,000 teachers by 2010 (as compared to the 3,500 it currently places). 8,000 teachers, no matter how passionate and effective, will not close the achievement gap.

Number two, TFA draws a lot of praise and support from very conservative organizations. The problem with this is that TFA walks -- unwittingly or not -- right into the poltical hacksaw that these organizations want to take to public education. The message of TFA is, "If we hire great teachers, have great school leaders, and have higher expectations of students, our problems will be solved." This lets conservatives off the hook because they can point to TFA's success and say, "See, they are saying the same thing that we are. TFA is successful. They aren't complaining about poverty, and look how great they are doing." This is very, very dangerous. Each successful TFA teacher makes it that much more difficult to address the larger issues that contribute to the achievement gap because it takes the wind out of progressive educators' sails. The irony is that TFA frames itself as a progressive organization, a noble organization, but it is being used as a pawn to derail the efforts to accomplish the kinds of substantive changes that true progressives call for.

In a recent speech, Kopp said:

Each year, the Gallup organization does a survey in which they ask the public why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities. The public’s top three responses are (1) lack of student motivation, (2) lack of parental involvement, and (3) home-life issues. Those responses strike me as capturing accurately the views of most Americans – even most thoughtful and civic-minded Americans. And yet, based on their experiences actually working with kids and families, our corps members . . . answer the Gallup question very differently. Given the same question and the same twenty choices, our corps members respond at the end of their second year that the top three factors contributing to low outcomes are (1) teacher quality, (2) school leadership, and (3) expectations of students. There is such hope in this. Our corps members are telling us that this problem is within our control… that we can ensure that all of our nation’s children have the opportunities they deserve.

Let me take each of the corps members' beliefs about low outcomes one by one:

1) teacher quality - the corp members' opinions appear to rest on the assumption that all teachers can (and should) be like TFA teachers. But TFA teachers are a special breed. To begin with, they have a different kind of motivation operating as they enter the classroom. I taught for two years at a Japanese high school. I entered the classroom knowing I was there for two years. I loved the experience, but when things got bad, I knew I only had one year to go, then only six months to go, then only one month to go. Knowing I was leaving helped make the insurmountable things bearable. Throughout the experience, the exit door was always clearly marked. While many TFA teachers choose to stay on past their two year commitments, many don't. (I've read different reports on what the attrition rate is -- some say it's higher than average, others say it's about the same.) Based on my own experience in a two-year teaching commitment, I could afford to work very hard with the end in sight. This is not the case for the average classroom teacher. The attrition rate for average classroom teachers is about 50% in the first five years. These teachers can't make a long-term commitment to a profession that is so riddled with problems and inequities, so they leave.

Moreover, the average TFA teacher is in his/her early 20's, is single, and has no kids. They are clearly very dedicated young people who are not only willing to work longer hours and on Saturdays, but who are able to to work longer hours and on Saturdays. Teachers with families simply can't do this.

How, then, can the TFA model of a teacher be reproducible? For teachers with families who enter the profession with no exit door in sight, holding TFA up as a model is simply not realistic. Saying "this problem is within our control" is also not realistic in this context.

Of course we want better trained, better supported, and more motivated teachers in our classrooms. But how do we achieve this goal? By holding up an unsustainable, unattainable model as the goal?

2) school leadership - given that TFA receives support from The Broad Foundation and Edison Schools, Inc., and has deep connections to KIPP schools, I'm assuming that the model of school leadership TFA is holding up is one that is associated with these organizations. If so, that is troubling to me. Edison's for-profit model, Broad's metaphor of running schools like businesses, and KIPP's use of heavy rewards and punishments are not consistent with forms of teaching and learning that honor the highest aspirations of education. According to Craig Gordon, a high school teacher and educational activist in Oakland:

Randolph Ward, sent to run Oakland's public schools by the Broad Foundation, has championed "results based budgeting" as the solution to the district's inefficiency because it makes every school operate as a small business. Each school's budget depends upon its average daily attendance (not enrollment), so a big school in a poor neighborhood with low attendance rates might actually get fewer dollars than a smaller school in a wealthier neighborhood. Ward proudly sold this Broad vision of "educational entrepreneurship" that makes each principal a CEO who must maximize revenues (attending students) and minimize costs (especially salaries) to survive. "CEOs" compete with each other to attract more students, get them into the building and hire the newest, lowest-paid teachers they can find, demand more waivers to the union contract (if the union survives) to get more done with fewer resources and reduced staff. Teacher burnout and high turnover equals a perpetually young, cheap staff. Yes, these are 'public' schools, but operating on a private sector model.

Of course we want better trained, better supported, and more motivated leaders in our schools. But how do we achieve this goal? By turning principals into CEO's? By using "results-based budgeting" as per Randy Ward and the Broad Foundation? By turning schools into profit-making ventures for entrepreneurs who look at children as commodities (Edison)? By asking teachers to work 10 hour days for 5 days, 5 hours more on Saturdays, and 1 extra month in the summer (KIPP)?

3) higher expectations of students - while having high expectations of students is certainly a key factor that shapes educational outcomes, these high expectations must be balanced with the reality of these kids' lives. Poor kids go to school poor and come home poor. Nothing that happens at school changes that. We can expect all we want of students that have little to no pre-K experience, inadequate healthcare, inadequate nutrition, and inadequate parental support. But to suggest that "we can ensure that all of our nation’s children have the opportunities they deserve" simply by expecting more from them is to completely overlook the role that poverty plays in shaping reality. Yes, some kids can overcome the odds and make it despite the desperate conditions they are mired in. But why not do everything we can to increase the odds that more kids will make it, not just the kids who "deserve" it? Why must poor kids work so hard to make it, while their affluent peers have to do so much less? This is the most important social justice issue of our time.

Of course we should hold kids to high standards and encourage them to excel. But how do we achieve this goal? Why not have higher expectations of local, state, and federal governments in improving educational outcomes?

TFA must take a strong public stand on all the issues that contribute to the achievement gap, not just teacher quality, school leadership, and expectations of students. These latter issues that TFA focuses on are critically important, no doubt. But if we really want to close the achievement gap, we have to do more. The analogy I use is to think of a high-jumper. To get ready for the Olympics, her trainer tells her to do 800 sit-ups a day. While doing 800 sit-ups a day is certainly a good idea, it's not enough. She needs to do other things to improve her vertical leap, her stamina, and her acceleration. If she did all of these things together, the odds of her winning a gold medal would increase greatly. But if she only does 800 sit-ups a day, her chances are pretty slim. Same with the achievement gap: focusing on school reform (teacher quality, school leadership, and expectations of students) is certainly a good idea, but it's not enough. If we did all the things we need to do (including school reform), the odds of closing the gap would increase greatly. So why put all your eggs in one basket? Why not do everything we can to increase the likelihood that no child will be left behind?

If we're serious about leaving no child behind -- really serious -- we have to wrestle with this question: how can every child gain access to a free, high-quality education? To cast the net as wide as possible and to increase the likelihood that more poor kids will make it, we have to level the playing field. Poverty is not an excuse. It's a reality.

In the end, TFA can be a vocal participant in doing more or it can lend tacit support to the status quo. However, I'm not holding my breath. Kopp is married to Richard Barth, who was at Edison before he went to KIPP. He's now the CEO of the KIPP Foundation.

I can only imagine the dinner-table conversations . . .


  1. Hello, darkblue03. As with your comments about my post on KIPP, you make some good points. Let me clarify my position a bit more in response to your post.

    First, I was delighted (relieved?) to read that while you expect teachers to be able to work 60 to 80 hours per week, you acknowledge that they need to be compensated adequately to do this if they also want to have families. Your point about highly-paid wage earners -- doctors and lawyers -- being able to work 60 to 80 hours per week and raise families at the same time is dead on.

    However, even if teachers were adequately compensated for working 60 to 80 hours per week, this would amount to nothing more than a finger in the dike of a dysfunctional system. It might look like they are doing great work, but -- ironically -- their hard work only serves to prolong the dysfunctional apparatus of which they are a part. TFA amounts to one giant finger in the dike. However, if TFA were to say something like, "Teachers have to work hard AND advocate for social justice" instead of "Teachers have to work hard while waiting two or three generations for social justice to arrive," I would lead the TFA parade. Honestly.

    Second, I could not DISagree more strongly with you on TFA's "non-partisan" stance. You wrote:

    "If TFA were to come out with a statement that we need to provide low-income families with universal health care, a higher minimum wage, housing subsidies, etc., it would badly harm our work by making our organization overtly partisan. Instantly, we would be associated with "socialist" politics, which would be a liability rather than an asset when it comes to forming relationships with school boards and communities. It is best for all concerned that as an organization, TFA focus on teaching rather than politics."

    Being silent on these issues is not the same thing as being non-partisan. In all cases of injustice, silence equals complicity. By not raising these issues in the public debate, TFA lends tacit support to the status quo. Even worse, TFA proclaims through its actions, "This is how you solve the achievement gap." This is an incredibly partisan view. Right-wing organizations like The Broad Foundation and the Manhattan Institute argue this very thing. So TFA is not non-partisan. They/you are aligned with the far right on this issue.

    These are not "socialist" issues any more than those who oppose them are "fascists." These are issues concerning effective public policy. What do we do about closing the achievement gap? Simply focus on teaching and ignore all the other factors? OK, that's one way of doing it. But this is clearly not comprehensive enough and, therefore, not effective public policy.

    If TFA came out strongly and supported effective public policy to close the educational achievement gap, what would happen? Without a doubt, the Broad Foundation and the Fishers would withdraw their support, as would Edison, Inc. The Gates Foundation would also reconsider their support. Why would they do this? Because TFA would change from one partisan view to another, one that these organizations oppose. However, in taking such a strong stand, TFA would gain the support of those that had not supported them in the past. Why would they do this? Because TFA would be a powerful force in bringing about substantive change.

    As you note, "many corps members go on to careers in public policy, the law, business, and medicine. From these sectors, alumni can influence the social factors you discussed." But how will alums influence the debate? My concern is that, based on their experience, TFA alums will say -- as Wendy Kopp herself says --, "Sure, poverty is a problem. But we can do great things even with poverty." So is learning to work around poverty the same thing as eradicating it? Not in the slightest.

  2. As someone who was recently rejected by TFA (which I feel is a hugely elitist Brat Packer type of organization--no offense to those who are TFA teachers), I HIGHLY disagree that TFA is non-partisan. Actually, I think that the reason I was not chosen is that I'm a seasoned non-profiteer who worked in the public health non-profit sector for years. I think it's BS that they hire "working professionals" along with fresh-out-of college students. I think they didn't hire me because they knew they couldn't mold me into their image, so to speak.

    When I was preparing for the interviews, I read a lot of articles that definitely were NOT non-partisan. Even during the interview, I felt they were trying to trip me up and to be honest, I don't think I gave them the "right" answers. Although, it's interesting because I very much think there is a HUGE gap in achievement and I believed in their mission. I use that in the "past tense" as I have a very negative impression of them after they sent me a canned email to notify me I wasn't accepted. It was both insulting and disrespectful. If they treat the "rejected" applicants like that, how the heck do they treat their teachers?

    Also, TFA touts a lot of "rhetoric," but after doing a lot of research about the organization I realize they don't really practice what they preach and the attrition/drop out rate of the accepted applicants is about 50% due to the rigors of the training and the lack of support.

    TFA has deep pockets. I used to do fundraising/development for national non-profits. TFA's fundraising angle is very strategic, yet they are a walking contradiction as well. They are aligned with some heavy hitters (donors) who have deep pockets and major political connections. That's definitely NOT non-partisan. They are soliciting money from huge, very conservative companies who probably really don't give a damn about closing the achievement gap in our country, but it looks darn good on paper to give a chunk of change to the poor kids in the inner cities to help them read and write! I don't mean any disrespect by that comment, but I have done big presentations for big companies and they will ONLY give money to NPOs that fit their agenda (and their agenda it's not always philanthropic and out of the goodness of their hearts!)

    Anyway, I commend the TFA teachers out there, but I'm very relieved that I wasn't accepted into this program. After reading the negative press about TFA, I probably would have quit. I read a story about a TFA teacher who ended up getting sued for $20 million by a parent in a D.C. school. That's beyond horrific.

  3. Teach For America activists say poor schools and bad teachers cause the achievement gap not bad habits or inequality.

    Discounting the notion of individual responsibility, they want us to give TFA alumni top jobs in our urban schools, and to transfer kids from neighborhood schools to the charters they operate, so they can eliminate job security for teachers and eradicate any influence we have over school-district policies.

    The idea that teachers are opponents rather than advocates of education is a new one in our country. It derives from the time when Ms. Wendy Kopp first started TFA and decided, from her Princeton perch and without a day in the classroom, that inexperienced teachers were inherently better than experienced ones.

    Ms. Kopp's circle in Washington D.C., Houston, New York and elsewhere are launching an anti-American Ivy League class war on the very same teachers who serve our nation's toughest schools.

  4. Anonymous10:15 AM

    Hmmmm. In British Columbia Canada very high standards in teacher education and training is paired with a powerful College that insists on high standards of teacher behaviour both in and out of the classroom. A powerful union and a government whose 'School Act' legislation focusses on individual children as distinct learners adds to the mix. A 'marking scheme' based on extensive sampling of real students and a curriculum focussed on skills and abilities rather than memorized facts and repetition is the oil that greases this machine. Healthy debate and discussion keeps all stakeholder groups involved.
    There are problems but more children are better served than ever before.
    Accepting that all students are citizens and deserve the best preparation for adult life completely changes what happens, in a good way, in classrooms, especially when compared to the dismal situation to be found in school systems driven by 'dollars for test scores' or 'punish teachers whose students don't perform well on standardized tests' or 'there is waste!! We must be more efficient- slash the budget' or 'teachers are not professionals-treat them like hourly wage earners in small businesses - if afraid they will work harder/better' or 'rank order those kids and send them out- we have tough standards too bad if many don't make it'.

    The tough standard has to be about helping, really helping, every little citizen achieve. You don't get that with low paid and afraid teachers. You don't get it by rewarding and punishing based on standardized tests. You get it from dedicated teachers, leaders, parents and others who are enabled to accept and help all children- even if it means class 'averages' will go down.
    And it isn't cheap. You get what you pay for.
    Cheap or good. You choose.
    (Yes, choose 'good'. Cheap still uses a lot of money and the cost in wasted human potential and national impact is unacceptable).

    (I hope this iPhone hasn't garbled any if the above musing).