Teach For America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal
The job of the American public school teacher has never been so thankless. In states across America, cutting teacher salaries and pensions has become the most popular method for fixing budget deficits. New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie's deep cuts, for instance, force teachers to contribute a much higher percentage of their salaries to their pensions, while doubling or even tripling their health care contributions and eliminating
The liberals of the education reform movement, often more surreptitiously than the overstated former Washington D.C. Chancellor of Schools during Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty's term in office Michelle Rhee, have for decades advanced negative assumptions about public school teachers that now power the attacks by Christie, Walker, Kasich and their ilk.
This is particularly true of Teach For America (TFA), the prototypical liberal education reform organization, where Rhee first made her mark. The history of TFA reveals the ironies of contemporary education reform. In its mission to deliver justice to underprivileged children, TFA and the liberal education reform movement have advanced an agenda that advances conservative attempts to undercut teacher's unions. More broadly, TFA has been in the vanguard in forming a neoliberal consensus about the role of public educationand the role of public school teachersin a deeply unequal society.
In 1988, Princeton student Wendy Kopp wrote a thesis arguing for a national teacher corps, modeled on the Peace Corpsthe archetype of liberal volunteerismthat "would mobilize some of the most passionate, dedicated members of my generation to change the fact that where a child is born in the United States largely determines his or her chances in life." Kopp launched TFA in 1990 as a
TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it's a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education reform movement.
The original TFA mission was based on a set of four somewhat noble if paternalistic rationales. First, by bringing the elite into the teaching profession, even if temporarily, TFA would burnish it with a
TFA goals derive, in theory, from laudableif misguidedimpulses. But each, in practice, has demonstrated to be deeply problematic. TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher's unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an
Take the first rationale: that TFA would enhance the image of the teaching profession. On the contrary, the only brand TFA endows with an "aura of status and selectivity" is its own. As reported in the New York Times, eighteen percent of Harvard seniors applied to TFA in 2010, a rate only surpassed by the
Although many applicants are no doubt motivated to join out of altruism, the
Whereas TFA corps members leverage the elite TFA brand to launch careers in law or financeor, if they remain in education, to bypass the typical career path on their way to principalships and other positions of leadershipmost regular teachers must plod along, negotiating their way through traditional career ladders. These distinctions are lost on nobody. They are what make regular teachers and their unions such
The second justification for TFAthat it exists to supply good teachers to schools where few venture to workhas also proven questionable. Though the assertion made some sense in 1990, when many impoverished school districts did in fact suffer from a dearth of teachers, the same is not so easily argued now.
Following the economic collapse of 2008, which contributed to school revenue problems nationwide, massive teacher layoffs became the new norm, including in districts where teacher shortages had provided an entry to TFA in the past. Thousands of Chicago teachers, for instance, have felt the sting of layoffs and furloughs in the past two years, even as the massive Chicago Public School system, bound by contract, continues to annually hire a specified number of TFA corps members. In the face of these altered conditions, the TFA public relations machine now deemphasizes teacher shortages and instead accentuates one crucial adjective: "quality." In other words, schools in poor urban and rural areas of the country might not suffer from a shortage of teachers in general, but they lack for the quality teachers that Kopp's organization provides.
After twenty years of sending academically gifted but untrained college graduates into the nation's toughest schools, the evidence regarding TFA corps member effectiveness is in, and it is decidedly mixed. Professors of education Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, in the most thorough survey of such research yet, found that TFA corps members tend to perform equal to teachers in similar situationsthat is, they do as well as new teachers lacking formal training assigned to impoverished schools. Sometimes they do better, particularly in math instruction.
Yet "the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well," Vasquez Heilig and Jin Jez discovered, "than those of credentialed beginning teachers." It seems clear that TFA's vaunted
Putting TFA forward to solve the problems of the teaching profession has turned out poorly. But the third premise for Kopp's national teacher corpsthat it would "create a leadership force for
In this, Kopp's timing could not have been more fortuitous. When TFA was founded, the education reform movement was beginning to make serious headway in
Coleman contended that school funding had little bearing on educational achievement and, thus, efforts to achieve resource "equity" were wasteful. The Coleman Report became a touchstone for those who argued that pushing for educational "excellence," measurable by standardized tests, was the best method to improve schools and hold teachers accountable. Chester Finn, an influential conservative policy analyst who worked in the Reagan Department of Education, put his finger on the educational pulse of our age when he wrote that "holding schools"and teachers"to account for their students' academic achievement" was the only educational policy that made sense in a "
With unwavering support from powerful economic and political actors, who almost uniformly understood the state of American public education through the lens of "A Nation at Risk," a widely publicized 1983 study that argued the failure of American schools was undermining the nation's ability to compete in an increasingly global economy, education reformers set out to ensure that schools and teachers were held accountable for the achievement of their students, privileged or not. George H. W. Bush, dubbed the "Education President," filled his department of education with advocates of "
One of the more salient aspects of the
The TFA network has been crucial in shaping efforts to improve the nation's teacher force. Kopp's second book, A Chance to Make History (2011), reads like a primer for such reform measures. Kopp is particularly enamored by
But successful charter schools, Kopp maintains, also stop at nothing to remove bad teachers from the classroom. This is why charter schools are the preferred mechanism for delivery of education reform: as defined by Kopp, charter schools are "public schools empowered with flexibility over decision making in exchange for accountability for results." And yet, "results," or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools.
Rather, crushing teacher's unionsthe real meaning behind Kopp's "flexibility" euphemismhas become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher's unions.
The TFA insurgency has, from its inception, sold education reform as above politics. The idea is to support ideas that work, plain and simple, no matter their source. But the biography of Michelle Rhee, the prototypical TFA corps
After serving a
Rhee is adored in elite circles. Regularly feted by Oprah, Kopp touts her as a "transformational leader." During her short tenure leading the infamously bad D.C. schools, Rhee gained national acclaim for applying, in Kopp's admiring words, the corporate "principles of management and accountability."
In contrast to such devotion, teacher's unions loathe Rhee. Rhee's
TFA's complicity in education reform insanity does not stop there. From its origins, the
Prior to the enactment of Bush's bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001,
TFA insurgents support standardized testing not only because they believe it ensures accountability. They also herald testing because it provides evidence that their efforts are working. The schools and districts that achieved celebrity as the reform movement's success stories did so by vastly improving standardized test scores. In emphasizing testing, though, reformers tend to overlook the obvious incentives that ambitious educators have to manipulate statistics. President Bush appointed Houston Superintendent of Schools Rod Paige as Secretary of Education in 2001 because Paige's reform measures seemingly led to skyrocketing graduation rates. Not surprisingly, this
More recently, cheating scandals have likewise discredited several celebrated reform projects. In Atlanta, a TFA hotbed, former superintendent and education reform darling Beverly Hall is implicated in a cheating scandal of unparalleled proportions, involving dozens of Atlanta principals and hundreds of teachers, including TFA corps members. Cheating was so brazen in Atlanta that principals hosted pizza parties where teachers and administrators systematically corrected student exams. Following a series of investigative reports in USA Today, a new cheating scandal seems to break every week. Cheating has now been confirmed not only in Atlanta, but also in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orlando, Dallas, Houston, Dayton, and Memphis, education reform cities all.
Rhee's D.C. "miracle" has also been clouded by suspicion: impossibly high
That education reformers have long argued that "incentives" are necessary to improve the teaching profession underscores another in a series of ironies that mark the movement. Reformers believe that if teachers are subjected to "market forces," such as merit pay and job insecurity, they will work harder to improve the education they provide for their students. The need to incentivize the teaching profession is the most popular argument against teacher's unions, since unions supposedly protect bad teachers.
But, in a predictable paradox, by attaching their incentives agenda to standardized testing, the reform movement has induced cheating on a
"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social
In sum, the TFA insurgency's singular success has been to empower those best at gaming the system.
In contrast to such "success," the TFA insurgency has failed to dent educational inequality. This comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest grasp of the tight correlation between economic and educational inequality: TFA does nothing to address the former while spinning its wheels on the latter.
In her writings, nowhere does Kopp reflect upon the patent ridiculousness of her expectation that loads of cash donated by corporations that exploit inequalities across the worldsuch as Union Carbide and Mobil, two of TFA's earliest contributorswill help her solve some of the gravest injustices endemic to American society.
Kopp shows some awareness of the absurdities of her own experiencesincluding a "fundraising schedule [that] shuttled me between two strikingly different economic spheres: our undersourced classrooms and the plush world of American philanthropy"but she fails to grasp that this very gap is what makes her stated goal of equality unachievable. In short, Kopp, like education reformers more generally, is an innocent when it comes to political economy. She spouts platitudes about justice for American children, but rarely pauses to ask whether rapidly growing inequality might be a barrier to such justice. She celebrates twenty years of reform movement success, but never tempers such
Of course, liberal notions about the potential of education to serve the ends of justice are nothing new to American social thought. Progressive educators since John Dewey have sold their wares as instruments of justice. And yet, education reform has almost always propped up the social order: just as current reform success is calculated by how well students score on standardized tests, the progressive education movement's most longstanding success story was its pedagogical program for "Americanization." Educational progress as measured by how well students stack up against conventional standards will always and inevitably reinforce the status quo. Most of the time, schools are little more than engines of social reproduction.
TFA exists for nothing if not for adjusting poor children to the regime otherwise known as the American meritocracy. Kopp's model for how teachers should help poor students acclimate to the American meritocracy is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a nationwide network of charter schools. Founded by TFA alums Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, and currently lead by CEO Richard Barth, a former TFA staff member who also happens to be Kopp's husband, KIPP now runs over 100 schools, typically in cities that staff a multitude of TFA corps members, such as Houston, New Orleans, and New York City. Many KIPP teachers began their careers in education as TFA corps members, and an even higher percentage of KIPP administrators are TFA alums. KIPP schools are in such high demand that students must win lotteries for the opportunity to attend. The pièce de résistance of Waiting for Superman chronicles one such dramatic lottery drawing.
Slots in KIPP schools are in short supply because, unlike most charter schools, they have a track record of actually improving student performance and of helping poor children gain acceptance into college. Their methodology consists of nothing novel: teachers and students work very hard. But more than that, KIPP students and their families must sign contracts committing to a rigorous program of surveillancethe only way to ensure that underprivileged students overcome lives that otherwise drag them down. As one KIPP administrator described the philosophy: "At every moment, we asked ourselves, what about this moment of the day is or is not fostering college readiness in our students?"
While visiting a KIPP school in New York City early one morning, where fifth graders were busy with drills at 7:00 a.m., Kopp quietly lamented, without a touch of irony, that her own child of the same age was still in bed. Thus, in the KIPP model, we are presented with the solution to the nation's educational inequalities: for poor children to succeed, they must willingly submit to Taylorist institutionalization. This is made starkly evident in the concluding scene of Waiting for Superman, when young "Anthony," one of the lucky few, arrives at his charter school with suitcase in hand, since his particular school boards its students. Anthony is rightly ambivalent about giving up his life with his grandparents and friends in order to attend a SEED Foundation schoolthe prototype in education reformwhere
In working to perfect their approach to education, TFA insurgents miss the forest for the trees. They fail to ask
I teach at a
Goodman's disdain for what the
Goodman was not against education in the strict sense of the word. For him, the question of education was always of kind. In Goodman's world, which I imagine as a sort of utopia, those who seek to institutionalize the poor are the enemies of the good. And teachersreal teachers, those who commit their lives (not two years) to expanding their students' imaginative universesthey are the heroes. I can hardly imagine a better inoculation against the hidden curriculum of liberal
Copyright 2012, Jacobin Press
From: Andrew Hartman, "Teach For America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders, Jacobin, Winter, 2012, http://jacobinmag.com/winter-2012/teach-for-america/, accessed 03/09/2012. Andrew Hartman is the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C.