School Reform and Politics: Teach for America and Its Political Identity

Summary: Has Teach for America been hijacked by conservative and market ideology?

Teach for America has become a political lightning rod in the struggle over reform in American education. The organization was originally conceived as an avenue through which to induce high energy Type A college graduates into low income and struggling urban schools and, not unlike the Peace Corps with foreign cultures, introduce a generation of cultural leaders to the intricacies of public education in this country. Today Teach for America faces a growing chorus of dissidents from among its own incumbents and alumni that the organization has overly aligned itself with one set of players in the assault on the failures of schools serving low income students.

These critics charge in effect that Teach for America has been hijacked by a set that has a conservative and business patina, as well as an anti-union bias, and in extreme iterations seems bent on waging a general war on the existing education system.

Harold Blume of the Los Angeles Times (“Teach for America Criticized for Apparent Stance on Educational Policy”) frames the story, and Diane Ravitch on her blog provides useful context from the point of view of a critic of the conservative/business forces within the school reform movement.

Blume notes that the conservative leaning Walton Foundation recently gave a good deal of money to support the work of Teach for America. The Dell Foundation has also given to Teach for America, and certainly the Gates Foundation has been a player in education for a long time, but it is also true that governments of various levels have funded Teach for America, for example by paying Teach for America teachers the normal salary for rookies, and districts certainly have invited the TFA folks into their schoolhouses.

Yet the Walton donation, presumably because Sam Walton is known for his right wing views, has sparked a round of criticism that the monies are serving a private, corporate interest.

Are these funds from foundations associated with industry disinterested entries for the good of the American educational ecosystem? I am willing to acknowledge some altruistic intent. But it is also true that corporations typically find it necessary to upgrade skills of new hires in areas it is reasonable to expect the educational system to have already nailed down. So, enlightened self-interest can be said to have originally driven this particular corporate ship. It is understandable and even appropriate that the corporate eye turns itself to such solutions, via related foundations.

But somewhere in recent history, perhaps amid the same kinds of frustrations teachers and schools have faced in reversing low income students’ poor academic skills, it has seemed to me those same teachers and their unions have become the symbol of a status quo viewed as hopelessly mired in dysfunctional structure by largely conservative business figures and market oriented intellectuals, and have become the butt of a school reform rallying cry on the part of these outsiders.

In turn, Teach for America has become the poster child for school transformation in the mind of the right, and regarded as a fifth column whose role is to undercut the power of teachers unions and frankly much of the public school establishment.

Now, I basically like Teach for America and its original charter, so I instinctively resist the appropriation by the right, and welcome the rising chorus of those who see its political alignment drifting into overly partisan waters, despite my sympathy with some of the causes espoused by conservatives, such as charter schools, though I see them as crucial experiments, not as battalions in a war.

I see several elements to these developments that bear watching.

First of all, Teach for America continues to look like an evolving enterprise. Linda Darling-Hammond has conducted a respected analysis of Teach for America results in real classrooms. Her study found these sketchily prepared but ambitious folks fare consistently more poorly as teachers than regular line teachers of experience and more lengthy training. Moreover, though these young people would be expected to improve their skills over time, most have moved on no later than three years from the start of their classroom experience, often enough into other positions related to education.

To the credit of Teach for America, their staff continues to refine their selection criteria, in order to better identify the best teacher candidates and those who will remain in the classroom and education in general.

But to date the enduring footprint of Teach for America seems not so much in the classroom lift its young apostles desire, but in the diaspora of alumni into the world of educational administration and related policy posts.

We are wise to pay attention to the difficulty of the work of a teacher. According to Ravitch, the average time teaching for TFA is two plus years. 46% of regular teaches also leave the profession, but after five years. TFA would seem particularly to burn out their elite neophytes; as long haul candidates, when experience deepens skills, TGA recruits have a poor track record. The degree of revolving door instead brings succeeding waves of inexperienced teachers on board. In practice, the eagerness of TFA recruits is being exploited to a degree that cannot be sustained.

Perhaps TFA training should better recognize that the zeal of its recruits will almost always be unsustainable, and better counsel the newbies to set limits on the time and energy they will give. Perhaps more general better training is in order, though such corrections may torpedo the cost model of the program.

Similar grievances in education as well as in the broader economic history of the US have led to the rise of unions. Yes, those same nasty unions. Enlightened corporations themselves try to evaluate what a reasonable work load means. Overworked workers can be inefficient and/or short term workers; TFA, well meaning, has apparently not evolved to that level of organizational sophistication.

It seems to me TFA incumbents are well advised to keep an eye on the vigor of their local teacher unions. In the past I have noted with interest that some charter teachers have found it provident to look to unionization, for similar work load as well as salary issues.

It is useful to remember, as teachers’ unions are criticized aptly from various directions, that they exist in origin for a good reason.

TFA teachers, as new employees, earn toward the bottom of the union bargained pay scale, significantly less than experienced teachers. I am probably being paranoid to suspect fiscally motivated wheels within this wheel, but in the big picture, lower average salaries means less pressure on corporate tax obligations, and so feed the corporate interest of the Walmarts of the world.

In a longer run, this is a short sighted strategy. High powered college grads, idealists, will one day need a living wage, and will have career alternatives to depressed teacher salaries. Low recompense in the long run will not buy eager idealism and the uber commitment to task such motivation brings.

More likely the corporate target is the power of teacher unions, which offsets the corporate old school instinct to keep recompense and hence cost at a depressed level.

By contrast, one need only look at the level of compensation in the high tech worlds of Silicon Valley and its brethren to recognize that knowledge workers, well compensated, are the engine of the enterprise. Teachers in revitalized schools should also be the “engine of the enterprise.”

One possible side effect of the TFA route to employment could be that regular training programs competing with TFA hires may shrink; the pressure shifts to teacher training programs to themselves reform, which is another story.

In the context of cost control, flesh and blood teachers cannot be outsourced readily in the way that manufacturing jobs have migrated to the third world. But tutoring via Skype and other such computer communication is part of distance learning now. Online courses are offered online widely from high school through the university level, all of which may yet change schools in profound ways and sooner than we think give stiff competition to the status quo in American education.

Related technologies and variations on computer learning currently are used to cut costs in other ways. Instructional Aides in conjunction with the use of computers to build individual skills are cheaper than teachers, and can be used to eliminate teaching positions, which if duplicated widely would tend to reduce demand for teachers and suppress teacher salaries. The latter is not the purpose, but perhaps an unintended side effect.

Rocketship Schools in California, a prominent charter option founded by John Danner, himself a son of corporate Silicon Valley, has used this model with some success in low income schools. Not coincidentally, they also utilize Teach for America candidates. With the savings of one teaching position per grade level through use of computers, together with the entry level salaries paid TFA recruits, Rocketship is able to hire an admin level mentor for the young teachers along with a cadre of Instructional Aides to monitor and help with computer use and still meet the budget pinch of the California fiscal crisis.

While this strategy has shown promise in securing more bang for the taxpayers’ buck in Rocketship hands, a less ethical application might be used to just cut costs, period, which in the corporate or wealthy world means less pressure on taxes as a source of revenue, a core conservative/corporate theme. See the machinations of the Koch brothers as cases in point.

Meanwhile the cynic in me notes that money is to be made by companies that produce the computers and develop the software that, if successful, would make more marginal the expensive teacher in the classroom.

Let us remember that when schools are successful in creation of student academic skills – Japan and Finland are two examples — teachers are a truly professional class, not simply items on a spreadsheet that must be reduced or replaced. The teaching of low income students in particular rests on a relationship between teacher and student.

These developments around teachers fit into a larger zeitgeist — the much larger decline of middle class wages, the continuing attack by corporations on efforts to bolster union wage, the realities of global competition that propel cost cutting measures, and the yawning of the rich/poor divide. There is a parallel decline in consumer buying power which is the back bone, ironically, of corporate profits.

In various subtle ways, via fifth columns such as Teach for America, and the use of technology to do (theoretically) some of the traditional work of teachers more effectively, there is evidence that the corporate world is in fact slithering tentacles into the heart of American education.

Thus introduced is the market mantra of creative destruction. Institutions that have become too maladaptive, too rigid to shift to meet new environments, and so in effect self-destruct, give rise to more competitive and adaptive forms. Will we look back in perhaps fifty years and recognize that currrent school bureaucracies and the state of teaching in the early twenty-first century met such an end?

I am not unsympathetic to the doctrine of creative destruction. In fact, Darwin beat the latter day market philosophers to the punch.

Unions as well as school bureaucracies have become ossified and slow to respond to the complex failure of low income schools. The entire school enterprise is inextricably intertwined with the failure of other aspects of the society, such as the breakdown of family structure and the economic struggles of low income families. Conservative politicians stymie remedy in Congress and fail to even acknowledge the cyclical family suffering of low income folks, and to fathom that the broader community good is tied up in the fortunes of less fortunate members.

But unions are part of the problem, and do not serve their membership by not only resisting change, but too often by failure to be in the forefront of change. As Howard Blume reports in the earlier cited article, in LA or Huntsville, unions are leading their own way to marginalization. Those who don’t adapt remain only in history books.

How do I say, however, that I am uneasy with these newly arrived corporate bedfellows? I welcome the capacity to create new structures that thrive by the dictates of a current market, for example in the dynamism of new Silicon Valley offshoots.  As I have blogged before, the flatness of these organizations has much to teach any school that recognizes its bureaucratic nature as a central aspect of school struggle.

But the values of capitalism do not overlap well with that of the teacher in the classroom putting her heart where at risk kids will recognize the care she brings to their lives. To the extent that the imperatives of market dynamics dominate reform in schools, I worry to the same extent the heart felt commitment to students that is the core of teaching and learning will suffer, or at least fail to be understood and disregarded, or not nurtured. Mind you, teachers manage to teach in bureaucratically challenged schools; no doubt their ethic will survive corporate shenanigans. But the task of reaching at risk kids is daunting enough without extraneous cross winds that complicate the target.

Given the history of American capitalism, it is prudent to be wary of association in the care of our children with creative destruction, the injection of the needs of capital, and the presence of indirect agendas. These forces seem too narrowly focused on the metrics of testing, though testing most certainly has a role, while the maligned teacher, seemingly in unrequited silence, argues the broader and deeper dimensions of the topic.

Further worry is that these are powerful, well-funded entities whose only brake is the attention of government. The other potential white hat with comparable clout that might serve as a political counter balance are the teachers’ unions. However, the unions endanger the reform project from a different direction, and have demonstrated only episodic ability to influence issues beyond compensation.

Meanwhile, to my thinking the more fundamental failure in schools stems not from the inherent insufficiency of teachers, though there are poor teachers, but from the top down, hierarchical nature of schools and school systems, which suppresses talent and innovation on the teacher level. The real legacy of Teach for America, of charter schools, of the use of technology, if we are to remember these experiments fifty years hence (and there is scant evidence yet a silver bullet has been found), will not be any resounding revolution in teaching technique or the injection of Type A teachers, but in the creation of school structures that free teachers to be professionals in charge of the domain.

That would be creative destruction and reconstruction that all would applaud.  

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