Monday, March 12, 2012

Ergo or Lego? I Hate Teach for America

“…ther is many a man that crieth ‘Werre! werre!
That woot ful litel what werre amounteth.”

Geoffrey Chaucer

LET ME BE THE FIRST TO SAY, at least in this public fashion: I hate Teach for America. And because we all know, if we follow current educational debate, that Teach for America candidates are way smarter—and so are going to save us all—let me try to say what I mean in the most erudite fashion. I don’t hate people in Teach for America.

I hate arrogance.

I don’t hate the concept either. I think we can applaud the idea behind TforA: That is, sign up top graduates from top schools like Harvard, Stanford and Yale and clear a path for them to follow to the front of the American classroom.

I taught for 33 years. So, I know that, all else being equal, smart teachers are better than dumb teachers any school day of the week.

Why, then, do I hate Teach for America?

Personally, I loved teaching and in all my years in a classroom would never have allowed myself to hate any child. I don’t use the word “hate” loosely. The young people I know who are in or have tried to get into the TforA program are wonderful young men and women.

What, then, is wrong? To begin with, we have a serious problem in this country when we start from the premise (now accepted by some of the most obnoxious education reformers in America today) that the big problem in schools is idiot teachers.

I see stories about the shooting at Chardon High, here in Ohio, for instance and wonder, “Does anyone believe that all that blood was spilled because some teacher was stupid? You don’t have to be all that gifted intellectually to notice that most problems in education have nothing to do with the mental capacities of the men and women at the fronts of our nation’s classrooms.

Certainly, it’s a gross oversimplification to argue that smarter people can fix all of society’s ills. One might even point out that sometimes the smartest people, i.e. Wall Street leaders, cause our most serious problems. It’s a gross insult, too, to dedicated “regular” teachers, to hint that we could save every child if these garden-variety educators weren’t so infernally ignorant.

If I were to meet a Teach for America candidate on the street today I would wish him or her happiness and success from the moment they first enter the classroom unto the last, thirty years down the road (if they stick it out that long) and they walk out going the opposite way. I would say, “You enter a noble profession and if you give it all you can, if you strain every nerve and sinew, you can shape lives.”

But I would also caution them to remember that just because their SAT scores were higher than average that they should not assume they’re going to be the best teachers. In fact, if your IQ is 130, and the regular teacher’s IQ is a mere 113, but they’ve been fighting the battle to save children for seven years, or fifteen, or thirty-seven, and you only signed up for two, which is all TforA asks, then, I would say, be humble, be humble.

Don’t talk about what a hero you’re going to be until you prove you’re a hero.

It’s a long war we fight to educate the young and bravery is not the exclusive preserve of the most intelligent.

Perhaps you believe I’m over-reacting—nothing more than a crotchety old fart venting.
I'm not anti-intellectual.
I have a daughter at Yale. (Note the hat).
I know what Chaucer meant, however.
So:  I'm anti-arrogance.

On the contrary, I’ve been thinking about this ever since I saw a comment in a column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. In an article about the declining economic fortunes of America, which he pinned in part on America’s failing schools (and I say, “ergo,” to highlight my own academic credentials, or maybe “presto” or “pesto,” or would it be “Lego”), he turned to Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, for guidance. Kopp told him applications to the program were up in 2009, in part because brilliant young people want to save the day, because “students [are] responding to the call that this is a problem our generation can solve.”

I’m an old history teacher; and that last word, “solve,” reminds me of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, probably the smartest man ever to hold that cabinet position, a man who thought he knew best how to win the Vietnam War, because, though he never spent a minute in combat—well—he went to Harvard.

Today, Teach for America candidates make up roughly .2 percent of all U. S. teachers. And now somehow those two out of 1,000 are the key to salvation?

It reminds me of old Westerns I watched as a kid. In the climactic scene, we find the wagon train surrounded by redskins. (In today’s more enlightened world: Native-Americans). Arrows fly in all directions. There must be a million Native-Americans circling the pinned down travelers. Suddenly, the sound of a bugle is heard. Thank god, the cavalry is riding hard to the rescue! Look, up over that rise they come, the boys in blue.

Wait a minute. What movie is this? There are only two soldiers. One is the bugler.

Still, they break through the swarming Native-Americans. The pioneers are incredulous. Their leader fumes, “God a mercy, we need more than two crappy soldiers to save us.” To put a point to his sentiment an arrow strikes him in the chest and he dies a gruesome celluloid death.

The bugler reassures the settlers, “Don’t worry, we’ll save you. I’m a graduate of Cornell and my comrade here attended Princeton.”

In the final scene the camera pulls back to reveal all the concerned white faces. This is Hollywood, 1960. So, black and Hispanic pioneers are totally absent. You can see though: with all those arrows flying, that the travelers are dubious.



  1. As an alum of TFA your headline had me all riled up before I even had a chance to read the blog. Post-read, I must say I'm much calmer. Despite what Wendy Kopp may or may not say, I don't think that Teach for America proposes to be the solution to a failing education system. To me TFA is a way to get highly motivated, ambitious, and yes, smart, people into the classroom to influence as many underserved students as possible in whatever time that person is willing to give to the classroom. In my (admittedly limited) experience in the classroom, I have found that the problem is not stupid teachers. The problem is laziness and a lack of accountability. A lack of accountability of students taking responsibility for learning, a lack of accountability of parents to monitor their children and instill education values, a lack of accountability among school leaders to make sure that every available second in the classroom CAN and IS being used for learning, and a yes, a lack of accountability of teachers to teach what needs to be taught in the classroom to the best of their ability. I went to Loveland City Schools my whole life. Believe me, I know what good teaching looks like and am ridiculously grateful for my education. In my 3 years teaching in schools with 97% free and reduced lunch populations in the deep south I have come across far more bad teachers than good. When I joined Teach for America, I admit that it was partially motivated by the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and I knew it was a good resume booster. I have stayed in the classroom because the idea of a child getting an inferior education because of laziness (on the part of many) enrages me. Sending an ambitious, high educated, and smart person in the classroom for 2 years is, in my humble opinion, far better than a 30 year teacher more interested in maintaining silence so she can read her newspaper than ensuring learning is happening.
    -Mandi Vargo

    1. The problem, among many other things, is that TFA is completing destabilizing inner city schools. Considering that only 8% of TFA teachers stay in the actual classroom beyond their commitment ( that 33% statistic that they parade around is incredibly inflated due to the inclusion of teachers who stay for a third or fourth year only or remain in the "field" of education, but not the classroom), it is safe to assume that our most needy schools are experiencing staggering rates of teacher attrition.

    2. This is a perfect situation for most charters and public school districts, because TFA teachers are inexpensive (as cheap as they come), not very active in any organization that may challenge the administration or fight for the community and are gone in two years. I know this because I have taught along side them for years. This is the typical TFA situation; A teacher moves to LA, lives in some trendy part of town with other TFA roomates, works in South Central, busts their butt for two years and then goes to Law school. Why would a district higher a teacher who they carries with them the liability of future family medical insurance, retirement, and long term advancement on the pay scale, when they can higher a 23 yr. old who goes to the doctor twice a year, makes the bare minium on the scale and will soon be replaced by another person once they have hit step 2? Is this the fault of the young person who is trying to make a difference? Absolutely not. However, as the Howard Zin documentary states, "You can't be neutral on a moving train" (Not that TFA teachers would ever to look to someone like Zin as a classroom text).

    3. What these cyclical waves of teachers must understand (being that it's a simple numbers game and that they all come from top tier universities), is that their very participation in the TFA program ensures the perpetuation of the problem. Again, I stress, it is not the young person who is to blame, rather the system that proposes this ridiculous revolving door as a long term and critical solution. Think about your own education. I know that I was fortunate enough to be educated in an affluent suburb. One of the greatest aspects of the education I received was that the teachers and by extension, the school was an integral part of my community. Teachers intimately knew families and siblings, at times over generations, and were most often residents of the communities they taught in. The problems of the community were the problems of the school and the problem of the teacher. The teacher was wholly immersed in the community, not just three part objectives and exit tickets. The students' lives, problems, challenges and triumphs were experienced in a way that was cultivated through proximity and years of side by side struggle and reflection. This is what is needed in our most challenging schools and communities. But what we get are highly intelligent, energetic, effective, and unfortunately excessively maleable college grads who are so swamped with the testing, curriculum, and credentialing/masters classes that they are barely able to set foot outside to grab a drink with their friends, much less to set both feet firmly in a community that is completely foreign to them. They are educational tourists who rarely see much more than the parking lot or local ethnic eatery of the communities that they service. What they know of the institutionalized struggles and traumas that many of their students face is cursory at best. That is not to say they are not invested in the lives of their students, because MOST of them are. The issue is that they can only be as invested as the time spent within those walls will allow.

    4. This phenomena is exceedingly apparent when one looks at the curriculum and pedagogy in the average TFA teachers classroom. They are entirely focused on the strength of a structured lesson, the ability to elicit mastery over a given state standard, and how students can perform on measurable assessments. This is not their fault. This is engrained in them from the moment they step into the TFA recruitment meetings. How could they know any better? And once they realize it, their commitment is up and they are off on the next adventure. If you do not believe me, simply look at the texts that they teach and the method by which they teach them. Books and perspectives are all from the perspective of the dominant culture. Rarely are their students asked to look at the root causes of a system that thinks its ok to put them in front of a least 3 first year teachers almost every year that they are in school. They teach as if in a bubble. The underlying message is to not worry about the inequities or structural modes of oppression that have put you in a cycle of poverty; but rather, pretend it does not exist, learn to answer questions properly, score high on exams, discipline yourself enough to complete your homework regardless of your home situation, and one day you will not have to suffer as the rest of them. One day you will get the prize, and you will never need to look back. The irony is that this type of TFA to bone mentality, much like the system of TFA teacher production itself, will work to insure that there will always be ghetto/ poverty stricken populations and consequently, students to fill those seats. It literally works to institutionalize its own need. Keep schools on a constant state of turnover, create a complete discontinuity between teachers, and by extension schools, and the communities they serve and do it all while raising test standardized test scores as cheaply as possible. Sounds great right? The problem is that this is the very antithesis of what anyone who has spent time reading anything about education has come to consider to be the truth. For this reason, you would never see this level of first timers and twenty-something retirees at any private or wealthy public school. Both parents and school officials of those communities clearly understand that that is recipe for disjointed schools, non transformational educational experiences and little to no advancement on a community level. They would never stand for it, so why should poor parents and poor students do so.

  2. Mandy Vargo, you would be one of several reasons Teach for America is good. Having had you as a student, I'm sure you are going to kick some buns as a teacher (and I mean that in a positive way).

    In fact, let me say this again: the only recruits I know who have gone into TforA have been impressive young men and women.

    I still don't like Ms. Kopp's kind of off-handed arrogance; or the idea that a good number of people who join do so to pad resumes; and, oooh, don't get me started on Michelle Rhee, TforA alum and poster girl for obnoxious, sneering, smug superiority.

  3. Having been a member of TFA for one year, I would agree that the operative word describing TFA is arrogance. I would also use the word ignorance. The two often work hand in hand.

    TFA is a self-perpetuating organization, out to prove the TFA model is superior to conventional methods of earning credentials in teaching through conventional channels. This I have done also, and simultaneously with the TFA program.

    TFA has several flaws in its logic. First, statistically, and TFA is big on statistics, TFA-trained teachers fair no better in more difficult classrooms than than conventionally trained education professionals. There is evidence to support they do worse. But like TFA's argument for their very being, this does not make TFA teachers bad teachers, just inexperienced teachers.

    Second, TFA relies on statistics to support their arguments. Like any bureaucracy, their metrics favor TFA better than outside sources. Since TFA exists to exist, having favorable numbers is very important. However, it also makes TFAs efforts difficult to truly qualify. If the source of the data is spurious, TFA will never know how well it is truly doing. They end up by fooling themselves only and provide no objective avenue to "reflect".

    The third flaw, is TFA has lost its identity with regard to its misssion. It claims relentless pursuit of better education, but along with relentless pursuit of self-perpetuation it has co-branded itself as a civil right movement. This truly turned me off. Not that I am not a supporter of civil rights on all fronts, but reducing education to a movement cliche serves to reduce the importance and focus of its stated mission. No one said at the TFA recruiting booth, we are a paer of a great civil rights movement. It is unfortunate that TFA dilutes its program after the candidate is held captive one weekend a month to learn the true nature of the TFA organization. In short, TFA is a lie.

  4. I am a former public school English teacher of 14 years, and having worked alongside a few Teach For America teachers I agree with Mr. Viall; the teachers I observed who came out of the TFA program were possibly the most ill-equipped educators I have encountered. They had little or no classroom experience, and in one situation the teacher created such a volatile classroom climate that administrators feared for her safety. Teaching is a profession that requires training, commitment and most importantly, the desire to guide children in an educational environment that is inspiring, challenging and growth oriented for both teacher and student.

  5. I applaud all of you above. Spot on.

  6. My daughter, with a degree in Early Childhood Education, NJ teaching certificates P-3, K-8 and Substitute N-12, who has wanted to teach her entire life, living in NEWARK, NJ, was turned down by TFA. Why? Perhaps because she wasn't interested in student loan abatement or future student loans or because she attended NJCU in Jersey City...or...who knows why? She wants to TEACH and can't get a job in Newark via the traditional route, nor through TFA because TFA doesn't want her. Perhaps her desire to teach for a living, not merely 2 years, doesn't fit the TFA mantra. TFA is a stepping stone to a job later with the organization or with one of its donors. The sad truth is that veteran teachers are getting RIFed, and novice teachers don't stand a chance in a city like Newark, NJ when TFA has contracted a certain amount of TFA teachers. I've read the horror young inexperienced TFA teachers, who never wanted to teach in the first place, fall short not only in front of the class but in real life dangerous situations that in their own life experience have never had to deal with. Call me jaded that TFA turned my child down and it seems the only way to get a job in the Newark school system is to drink the TFA or KIPP or TEAM or UNCOMMON or...whatever charter school pops up...koolaid. It sickens me that we've got $60,000 in loans and my child is working in daycare because that is what her education affords her. Novice teachers, unless they know someone, or are in the TFA, or happen to fill an undesirable niche (e.g. high school science or history) are largely unemployable. Follow the $$$$$ people. TFA doesn't give a damn about quality education...TFA is interested in charter schools and getting the $$$$ for itself. There's money to be made in educations. Follow it.