"A child's learning is the function 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 II

Teach For America, Awhile: Ivy League Temps and Corporate Missionaries
Part II

Jim Horn
February 4, 2009
Cambridge, MA
The limitation that was put upon outward action by the fixed arrangements of the typical traditional schoolroom, with its fixed rows of desks and its military regimen of pupils who were permitted to move only at certain fixed signals, put a great restriction upon intellectual and moral freedom. Straitjacket and chain-gang procedures had to be done away with if there was to be a chance for growth of individuals in the intellectual springs of freedom without which there is no assurance of genuine and continued normal growth. –John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938
In the bestseller, Outliers, in which Malcolm Gladwell offers his latest tribute to the obvious made endlessly obvious, Gladwell offers up the KIPP phenomenon as an entirely ridiculous example for an entirely sensible observation. I mean, who can argue with Gladwell’s main premise that most people achieve success with hard work and the help of others, rather than from a personal advantage or special gift. But who, on the other hand, believes that urban poverty and all its attendant horrors is the responsibility of the poor, which Gladwell also argues in order to rationalize the “helping-hand” solution that people like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and lesser stars in the social entrepreneurial firmament offer via TFA and KIPP to the poor as shabby, abusive, and self-serving substitutes for doing something about poverty, which is the problem that is at the heart of all the gaps between the haves and have nots.

Now it would seem that if success in life were achieved with the help of others and some good luck, as Gladwell argues convincingly, wouldn’t it make sense that failure follows a similar pattern? Can we really believe in the self-made failure when we can no longer believe in the simplistic explanation of the self-made success? Apparently Gladwell can, as he attributes the educational testing disadvantages of the poor to the failure of the poor who constitute the communities they live in. As sad evidence, Gladwell offers us the example of 12 year-old Marita, whose “community does not give her what she needs,” and, thus, is placed into the KIPP crucible so that she may be melted down and molded into a ghettoized version of the middle class child:
Marita's life is not the life of a typical twelve-year-old. Nor is it what we would necessarily wish for a twelve-year old. Children, we like to believe, should have time to play and dream and sleep. Marita has responsibilities. What is being asked of her is the same thing that was asked of the Korean pilots. To become a success at what they did, they had to shed some part of their own identity, because the deep respect for authority that runs throughout Korean culture simply does not work in the cockpit. Marita has had to do the same because the cultural legacy she had been given does not match her circumstances either -- not when middle and upper middle class families are using weekends and summer vacation to push their children ahead. Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekends and friends -- all the elements of her old world -- and replace them with KIPP (p. 266).
Missionary zeal and colonial imperialism? The high price of salvation? Or just the simple trading in of childhood and socio-cultural development for the anti-cultural and intellectually-sterilizing curriculums of the testing companies? Gladwell’s modern day version of blaming the poor for their poverty widespread, and it is not so far as it may seem from our Puritan forefathers’ preferred explanation of poverty as resulting from the moral depravity of the poor. Today’s public punishment of the poor comes, however, not in physical humiliations on the public square, but in the public shaming from within the local newspapers, which print the test scores that correlate directly to family income, and in the psychologically-damaging scripted learning interventions that are grounded in the economic-behavioral catechism of working harder and being nicer for the forever-back-to-basics teacher trainees supplied from among the members of the Economic Elect. These TFAers, then, share neither cultural nor ethnic likeness with those they would save, and their concern for the “failed” communities they would seem to serve is neatly contained within a covenant that expires at the end of two years.

Recently, however, TFA has been working a new angle to hang on to some TFA alums so that they may be directed post-TFA into “educational equity leadership” positions as, 1) KIPP school administrators and other for-profit and non-profit charter school companies, 2) political apparatchiks to push the TFA/KIPP agenda, which neatly overlays the Business Roundtable agenda, and 3) social entrepreneurs who will mine the never-ending supply of golden tax credits that are awaiting those with “innovative solutions” to “educational inequity:”
The social entrepreneurship initiative seeks to inspire alumni to participate in this field and connect them to the skills and resources necessary for success. We will define success around the number of ventures created by alumni that are recognized by leading fellowship programs for social entrepreneurs, reach financial and organizational stability, and demonstrate clear potential to have measurable impact. By 2010 we aim to have 12 new alumni actively engaged as social entrepreneurs (TFA 2007 Annual Report, p. 17).
Sounds like it’s all about the kids to me.

The TFA/KIPP phenomenon, of course, would not be possible without the deep pockets of corporate contributors such as the Broad Foundation that pump billions into a number of ventures aimed at replacing urban public education with a corporate welfare model that is, of course, tax supported. There is no greater exemplar of the TFA business model in action than the presently controversial reign of DC Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee (Baltimore Corps ’92). With the help of unnamed foundations who are providing Rhee with $75,000,000 per year for five years in order to buy out the union, the shuttering of schools, the re-opening of cheap charter chain-gang alternatives, and the institutionalization of bonus pay for test scores can, in the meantime, proceed unfettered by collective bargaining agreements. All at taxpayer expense.

While few believe that TFA/KIPP can be scaled up to the levels required to provide the final educational solution for all public school children, TFA/KIPP offers a model to emulate for those who would prefer their teachers minimally prepared, non-union, untenured, with fewer expensive benefits and less pay, and who report to school CEOs who hire and fire at will in non-profit corporate charter schools that are not burdened by school board regulations or by oversight from elected officials or their representatives. And even if it could be scaled up, the TFA/KIPP model offers imagined solutions for learning in poor communities only, for there is no school in any leafy suburb of America whose parents would allow their Seths and Kaitlins to be subjected to the parrot learning, behavioral straightjackets, and the well-intentioned, though clueless, neophytes from TFA. Just no way.

And yet, for the children of the poor, who sometimes dodge bullets on the way home from the 10-12 hour KIPP days of working hard and being nice with “no excuses,” or who must suffer pain and even death from common maladies left untreated like tooth aches turned into deadly brain infections (see the story of Daemonte Driver), or who, like Marita, must give up everything to survive in the neighborhood school turned pressure cooker, for these children KIPP and TFA are good enough—even a KIPP/TFA look-alike is good enough.

The fact remains, of course, that until poverty and the segregation that accompanies poverty are dealt with, urban schools will continue to fall prey to “bold reformers” who unfailingly hide behind the fig leaf of “educational equity” to pursue their own political agendas that leave children behind once more and that leave our society more vulnerable to a virulent brand of anti-democratic corporate socialism. Meanwhile, we will continue to rush in paramedics with aspirin to treat a deadly cancer that requires the best oncologists that we refuse to provide. It is, once again in our history, the repeated parading of blind hubris born of invisible privilege and unchecked greed that allows such repulsive abuse to be treated as virtuous charity, and such thinly masked self-aggrandizement as the just reward for the continued malignant neglect of the poor.

Cross-posted at Change.org


  1. Well said. I work in a charter school in east Oakland. It is everything this article claims it to be. I am one of those poor neophytes that got suckered in. Only, the pay is good and the economy isn't. So right now, quietly whispering union into a few teachers' ears is the only hope I have for improvement...

  2. Anonymous6:41 PM

    You are my new hero! This is so well stated.Keep it up.