I started this post with something much different in mind, but it veered into a very personal story of why it matters to me what happens in Teach for America and other corporate education reforms. It's long, but please read to the end and give me your feedback.
My last post was admittedly controversial. I mused about TFA's rather unsettling similarities to a cult, acknowledging that it was an imperfect analogy. But the conversation that followed really got me thinking. As expected, some supporters of TFA responded with personal attacks and calling me "ignorant". Others insisted that we "all need to work together" insinuating that my post was just "mean".
It seems my message didn't get through....
So let's step into each others' shoes for a moment. I imagine myself as a TFA recruit. If I had joined right out of college, the 22-year old me would have been extremely moved by the TFA rhetoric of educational equality and closing the achievement gap. I imagine myself immersed in the TFA culture, eating up every word at Institute, working my butt off in whatever placement I was in, and making life-long connections and friends through the people I met along the way. I see myself, naive with little experience outside my affluent upper-middle class world, getting culture shock in a place very unlike the one in which I grew up. In college, I was heavily involved in a campus christian group and I feel like TFA would have been a similar experience of camaraderie, sacrifice, risk, and life-changing emotional moments only centered around the mission of educational equity instead of religion. And I get how attached I would feel to the work I did and the close friends I made. I get why my posts on TFA would cause people to feel defensive and upset.
But let's turn to the other side and pretend to be one of those TFA critics for a moment. I invite you all to imagine you are me. Imagine you had lived abroad teaching English in Japan for many years after college and understood all too well the amount of expertise it takes to be an effective teacher. You learned so much from watching your highly-respected Japanese colleagues, but also acknowledge that you have a long way yet to go to improve your practice. So you return to America, enroll in a Dual Certification (Special and Elementary Education) Masters Degree Program at a Chicago university with a focus on urban education. You put yourself through grad school by working as a mental health counselor on a child/adolescent psychiatric unit at a local children's hospital. You work nights, weekends and do whatever it takes stay afloat financially. Through this job, you begin to learn about the enormous barriers that prevent too many children from reaching their potential. You meet kids who are abused, homeless, neglected, traumatized, aggressive, suffer from debilitating mental health conditions like depression or even psychosis, or have cognitive disabilities. You begin to see the system-wide societal failures affecting these kids' lives.
Thanks to your degree program, you are able to observe in many inner-city schools, in many classrooms of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. You meet hard-working teachers across the city sharing the same stories over and over about terrible working conditions and little support. You go into classrooms full of gang members and then go to work that night to meet kids from that very same class in the hospital. You even meet one boy who had newspapered his windows over and refused to leave his house because he was terrified of the violence. Every day, you meet kids with stories of violence and abuse, things we as a society should have protected the kids from. Those years in grad school were tough, you lived in a shoebox and went deep into debt, but you believe your future students are worth that.
Once you finally get your degree (with honors), you get yourself hired into an elementary school on Chicago's highly-segregated southside, 99% low-income and 100% African-American. You work as a special education teacher but you find yourself under a cruel, vindictive principal who you later learn has targeted the veteran teachers and smashed countless careers. You and your colleagues work 16 hour days, give up all your free time, your social life, your money, all for your students because there just aren't enough staff or resources to get it done if you didn't. You administer test after test to your special education students and think, "this is wrong, this is cruel". You watch powerful, amazing experienced educators perform their craft, but it is never enough. You whisper with colleagues in corners out of fear that the administration is listening, and quietly plan amazing unscripted units which you give to your students in secret. But still your kids struggle, and you feel the shame of failure in a broken system.
You learn firsthand about the need for tenure when you, a first year teacher,
speak out about the unacceptable, unjust conditions for special
education students in the school. And you feel the wrath that a principal
can inflict on his staff as he comes into your classroom and escorts you from the building with a letter saying you must report the next day for psychiatric evaluation. You are forced to jump through hoop after hoop all because an evil man wanted to get even. You come back to the school after all has been cleared, but you never speak directly to your principal again. You continue to work hard, day in and day out, for your students. But you end the year beaten, abused, and demoralized.
Still, teaching is your calling. So you pick yourself up, and find a position outside the school system as a teacher at a psychiatric hospital. And you start to hear murmurs from friends and colleagues still in the schools about a fight taking place to make the schools better. You learn the truth that your school struggled so grotesquely because it was located in a part of the city which had been targeted for gentrification. You finally understand that your school was starved of resources on purpose long before you ever got there. Schools are not "failing", they are being sabotaged. You learn that many nearby schools had already succumbed to closure and had been callously handed over to private management like charters or turnarounds. You see that the district had discovered a much faster way to rid schools of
those dreaded veteran teachers--who had been your lifeline at your
school--by firing the whole staff in one, quick chop. You watch in horror a video of a brutal beating and murder of a boy at a Chicago school which was directly connected to these school actions. You look around and see your district decide to ONLY invest in those new schools and openly admits it won't put money in a school which may close down in a few years. And you learn that there are many who stand to profit from these policies.
In your new job at the hospital, you meet students who had known the young man who died, and hear other multiple examples of how the violence directly impacts these kids' lives. You hear how school closures and the charters that replaced them created chaos at many schools as children from all parts of the city were forced to cross gang boundaries and attend schools together causing the massive spikes in youth violence. You hear countless tales from your colleagues in the neighborhood schools of 60+ students in a class, old, tattered textbooks, leaky roofs, and an increase in police presence in the schools. Your students at the hospital confirm all these stories with new horror stories of their own. They tell you how sad and angry they are. They say things like "there weren't even enough desks or books, why would I stay?" when you ask why they dropped out of school after 8th grade. They tell you about the violence on the streets, "it was too hard to concentrate in class." One young woman in the hospital for aggressive behavior tells you that "the kids that fight" were all removed after a school turnaround and that "I'm probably next." You see the hopelessness in the eyes of the young people in your classroom who clearly understand our society's message to these amazing kids is that "you don't matter."
Meanwhile, your profession gets an onslaught in the media like never before. You see Waiting for Superman and want to cry because they got it so ridiculously wrong. They blame all the problems on "bad teachers" with "low expectations"and their unions who "protect them", when you have seen directly that that rhetoric is bald-faced lie. In fact, the fighting union in your city is one of the greatest engines of social justice demanding the types of reforms your students need. The airwaves are filled with people with no knowledge of what actually happens in our schools. And you finally understand that a large part of what is happening to education is intentional--that there are influential powerful people who want public schools to fail.
And so you join organizations that fight the racist, unequal policies undermining whole communities. You see the connections to the labor movement, the fight for strong unions and a strong middle class, that could pull people of struggling communities out of the poverty which cripples them. You start to fight on multiple fronts going to rallies, marches, and talks about inequalities in the prison system, about police brutality, about unfair housing practices. It is all the same fight. You fight alongside union brothers and sisters, even though you had never once thought about the need for unions before entering teaching. You connect the dots, and no matter what nonsense politicians or education reformers say, you understand on a deep, basic level that poverty, inequality, and straight-out racism are at the heart of your fight.
And then--somewhere in all this--you notice Teach for America. You always knew it was there, but had never paid it much attention. But then you start to realize that many of the powers that be, which you are fighting tooth and nail, had beginnings in this organization. Members of Stand for Children, Congressional aides, charter school leaders, state/district superintendents, and of course the big names like Rhee, White, and Andersen all hail from TFA. And so you begin to research this puzzling program.
You wonder how they make claims like "poverty is not destiny" as you look over at the kids you work with everyday. And you think, "most of my students wouldn't be sick and in the hospital if it weren't for poverty and its effects. How dare they!" Then you remember how much your little criminally under-resourced school struggled and how they received far less money for a population of kids which required far more. Poverty will always be destiny if we don't put in a vast amount of resources to counter it.
You cannot comprehend how TFA justifies putting these untrained workers in our nation's most struggling schools in the name of "educational equality". One of the greatest inequalities in education IS the disporportionate numbers of uncertified, untrained, and inexperienced teachers in low-income schools. Another is the amount of churn in schools, the high teacher turnover rate, which contributes to a poor, uneven school culture with little social capital built up over the years. TFA does little more than exacerbate an already existing problem in the inequity of our schools.
You shake your head as you hear TFA's claim that their untrained workforce is better than the veteran teachers you know have been sacrificing their very souls for their kids. You read blog posts which say things like "how can these kids' teachers sleep at night knowing how they've failed the kids". You hear people who don't even know enough about your city to know where it is safe to walk at night, claim they are there to make "transformational change". You look through that binder they get at Institute and are shocked by how regimented and testing-oriented the training is. And you can't believe that's all they get. Your friends in summer school programs who have had TFA trainees thrown into their class tell you horror stories of ignorance and arrogance. "Why do they get to use my summer school students as guinea pigs?' one teacher laments.
You already know that the struggles our kids experience have nothing to do with "expectations" or "believing". No, it never was the "soft bigotry of low expectations", but rather the hard bigotry of racism and inequality. Who do these people think they are? They say they never bash teachers, and yet every claim they make belittles the hard work you put into your preparation and all you and your colleagues do in your classrooms. But TFAers hide behind empty words like "I never bashed teachers" when their very presence in a school is a slap in the face to every experienced educator there. Veteran teachers give up their time and energy, often unpaid, in order to help these poor, struggling teachers year after year. Then TFA turns around and says, "look at the success of our teachers!"--success built off the hard work of the educators who have dedicated their lives to their profession. You know that TFA's "success" is all a huge marketing lie.
You continue your research and see the strong connection of TFA with the charter school movement. You listen to person after person in TFA rave about how wonderful charters are--and how their teachers are "closing the achievement gap"--all the while thinking that your school was being strangled in order to make room for more of them. And in your job on the psych unit, it was ridiculous how many kids you'd met who had been kicked out of those schools. Any child with significant behavioral problems or mental health issues was being thrown to the curb by the charters. How can they claim success while wounding so many kids? And part of your job was to pick those kids up and remind them they were worth something. Did these charter school teachers really not know the impact of their schools on the surrounding schools? Did they not care that their brand-new fancy charter, with glossy advertising campaigns, and catchy names like"Chicago Bulls Charter" were of course going to entice students away from the withering neighborhood school down the street? Do they not see how the district stacks the deck in favor of charters? How can they not see that non-unionized charters are being used to weaken and ultimately destroy teachers unions everywhere? Do they really claim they don't push kids out despite the obvious facts which show they do? Do they not understand how pushing kids out hurts? It is not miraculous to work with an easier population of kids with more resources. And when those "better" learning environments come at the expense of other children's educational opportunity, then it is not only not a success, but a resounding failure in equity.
And you cannot believe how TFA can claim they are not taking jobs from veteran teachers. In your city, you see the dozens of schools being closed or turned around each year. You meet a number of veteran teachers displaced from closures or turnarounds who say they will retire early, because who would ever hire someone their age? You see reports which show Chicago's teaching force is becoming overwhelmingly younger (and whiter.) Your district stopped even holding open jobs fairs and only opens fairs to the hundreds of displaced teachers. But even at those fairs, TFA novices get hiring priority over the experienced quality educators looking for work. Meanwhile, new charters are going up left and right, and TFA is helping staff them.
When you hear TFA say, "principals like TFA", you shake your head thinking, "I'm sure they do." You are sure your principal thought he was hiring an ignorant newbie in you. But because you had worked for years with children with disabilities and learned the legal requirements for students with IEPs in your degree program, you knew exactly what types of services they were entitled to by law. And tenure be damned, you were not going to stand there and contribute to the injustices. You can be sure your principal wished he'd hired someone who would work hard and never knew to question him.
And then the TFA folks boast about that hard-work, never understanding that their willingness to be exploited, short-term labor is part of why every teacher today struggles like never before. All those hard-won rights from labor struggles past are being eroded by these naive young people. If the system worked, no one would HAVE to work 16 hour days. Instead, the district would hire more staff and get more resources to share the workload. But what does that matter for anyone in TFA? For a majority of the TFA folks, those 2-3 years of intense labor give them the reward of boomeranging them to a prestigious administrative, policy-making, or other professional career. And they can feel good about their "volunteer" service to the poor, without ever having to invest in the communities or their long-term struggles for justice. Meanwhile, all the career teachers are left with the expectation to also work 16 hours days--a feat impossible to do long-term, especially if they have families--with no boomerang in sight. You cry for your colleagues as they are being forced to do more with less--with larger class sizes, more paperwork, less support than ever before all with the shadow of new "accountability" requirements and evaluations tied to test scores. Teachers' marriages are failing, their health is suffering, and many are throwing in the towel and leaving their beloved profession. Many are feeling as demoralized and tired as you did. And this is terrible for kids who already are being denied so much.
Lastly, you look at your own journey of enlightenment, coming to understand the complex history, politics, and legacies of racism and injustice as well as the long history of struggle and activism in the affected communities. And you wonder, "why can't the people in TFA see what I do? Don't they see the people in the communities where they work taking to the streets to fight these educational policies? Don't they notice the massive battle against the corporate interests taking place from Wall Street, to Oakland, to Egypt, Greece, and beyond?" But still TFA partners with Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Bank of America with no acknowledgement of the massive contradictions of joining a "social justice" program with the 1%. And they continue to push the neoliberal, Milton Friedman-style free-market ideologies, which are playing out in cities across the country and the world.
Now imagine all those TFA people attacking you, calling you names, chiding your tone, saying you are ridiculous when you push back on an organization you believe is doing so much harm. You shake your head one last time and whisper, "hubris".
I cannot fathom how TFA can continue to justify what it does. And the only explanation I have is that something must happen in the TFA training process which blinds people to the real struggle. And then it makes sense to me that so many from TFA join the education reform movement. Then in that context, I understand why I have yet to meet even one person from TFA fighting out there with me on the streets. Why they are much more likely to be the ones I fight against in groups like Stand for Children or Democrats for Education Reform. Then the robotic arguments TFAers makes over and over again which minimize the effects of poverty and glorify the effects of individual teachers and leaders start to make sense. I think to myself, it must be some sort of brainwashing because those conclusions do not even come close to what I experienced out there in the schools and working with the kids. I would rather believe that most TFA people just didn't know any better rather than the more nefarious alternative that they understand all too well the negative impact of corporate reform and just don't care.
I wish you all could see TFA, charters, and education reform through my eyes. Maybe the education debate would look much different if you did.