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 . . .