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

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

TFA and KIPP: Ivy League Temps and Corporate Missionaries, Part 1

Posted last week at Change.org:

TFA and KIPP: Ivy League Temps and Corporate Missionaries Part I

In just a few years, TFA has established itself as one of the smart-people-who-just-graduated-with-liberal-arts-degrees-and-now-have-no-idea-what-they-want-to-do-with-their-lives-but-are-pretty-sure-it-isn’t-remain-in-the-spin-cycle-of-academia-or-move-on-to-the-next-preset-hierarchy-in-the-finance-world demographic. Used to be those poor souls could only go to law school or move to New York and “go into, like, publishing or something.” But TFA positioned itself in such a way that it gets the lost souls who have an impulse to do something to help the world immediately upon graduating.

It’s like the Peace Corps. But, you know, creepier.
-–David Chernicoff, Yale Daily News, 10-27-06

In 1990 Teach for America, the wildly profitable non-profit that skeptics often refer to as Teach For Awhile, received an initial grant from Exxon Mobil and, thus, began an organization whose avowed mission remains to place as many Ivy League would-be teacher recruits in poor public schools as possible. This year TFA has an operating budget in excess of $100 million, net assets of over $120 million, and a work force of over 6,000 bright, energetic, and, yes, clueless recruits engaged in on-the-job training in some of America’s most desperately-poor, low-achieving schools, where children, by the way, need most of all (beyond the need to end their poverty) the most highly qualified, experienced teachers with deep knowledge of the subjects they teach and knowledge of how to teach those subjects.

Despite what the grim reality calls out for, TFA, in contrast, places teacher trainees with zero years teaching experience and without qualifications from any accredited training program in schools with the least resources and the greatest need. Beyond a five-week pre-service basic training course and four visits during the first year, TFA leaves their primarily white, middle-class recruits (1 in 10 is African-American) to their own devices in providing poor, minority students with what these recruits quickly find out they do not have. And with the TFA public relations machine that is able to instigate media wars and think tank assaults against legitimate research that shows the advantages of certificated teachers when compared to TFA and other uncertified recruits, there is little to stand in the way of the new definition of teaching as, not a calling or even a profession, but as a job that the service oriented do for a few years before moving on. Sort of like the TFA model.

But nothing about this grandiose do-gooderism exercised at the expense of poor children in poor schools seems to matter to the growing network of individual, foundation, and corporate donors eager to write checks in support of this growing mission. TFA now includes groupings of contributors for the 5 and 10 million dollar categories. The Dells, the Fishers, and Eli Broad are listed among several others in the $10 million “Expansion Fund” list.

Nor does there seem to be any moral reservation or element of doubt expressed by these idealistic recent grads who would seem equally eager to sign up. Last May TFA announced that the new class of 3,700 recruits was drawn from a pool of 24,718 applicants. The air of exclusivity comes at a price, however, for despite the impression that top-performing Ivy Leaguers are beating a path to the recruitment office, TFA spent $2 million more in 2007 on recruiting and selection ($18.5 million) than it did on candidate training ($16.5 million). But then, Madison Avenue never came cheap.

And yet for all the sunny assuaging of white middle class guilt and the successful beefing up of law school resumes skimpy on service that TFA has enabled for its thousands of past and present recruits and donors, there are some dark elements of TFA that are incubated and grown by this movement.

First and foremost, TFA leaves unchallenged the urban reality of schools that are largely or entirely segregated by income and race, preferring instead to focus on interventions that do not challenge the poverty that is the root of test score gaps to begin with. Not unlike the vast majority of education reforms of the past century that have been divorced from social forces that are at work in perpetuating poverty, TFA focuses narrowly on changing instruction and on altering the organization and content of the child’s mind as the ready remedy for poor schools. In so doing, TFA barricades itself from the root cause of weak test scores, which is poverty, while necessitating, it would seem, a draconian kind of pedagogical treatment that we might expect of 19th Century missionaries in a heathen land. Ira Socol, in fact, refers to TFA as a colonial missionary project.

The most highly publicized of the prescriptive regimens for changing the poor, rather than changing poverty, has been developed, in fact, by two celebrated TFA alums, Mike Feinberg and David Levin, the founders of the KIPP Schools (Knowledge Is Power Program). Based on highly-scripted lessons, iron-fisted discipline, memorization, recitation and drill techniques, longer school days, longer school weeks that include Saturdays, and longer school years, this type of teaching is suited, if for anyone, for the young, energetic, single, and temporary social missionaries of TFA. As John Derbyshire noted,

I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such.

KIPP and TFA have formed, then, a marriage that is mutually supportive and sustaining, and both organizations are now fed by the same deep institutional revenue streams that flow toward social manipulation, privatization of public spaces, and limitless tax credits. Wendy Kopp, CEO and Founder of TFA, is married, you see, to KIPP’s CEO, Richard Barth.

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