Teach for America - A Hidden Curriculum?

December 29, 2011

Andrew Hartman writes: Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders in the Winter 2012 edition of Jacobin Magazine.

In the latest edition of a liberal upstart magazine, Hartman discusses the role that Teach For America's insurgent agenda has had in America's schools.

As you read the clips I've provided, I encourage you to visit the entire article and take a closer look at the real impact of TFA on America's schools.

Hartman teaches history "at a second-tier state university (Illinois State) in the Midwest that houses a large college of education, not exactly TFA’s prime recruiting territory."

Maybe it is because of my own college education at another second-tier state university in the Midwest that I am intrigued by his discussion of TFA?

Just like most work on the education reform movement, Hartman introduces us to the austerity effects of the last two years, but his is more of a valiant take-down of TFA. After all, TFA often gets a free-ride in the mainstream media.

The msm largely glorifies the organization as a miracle, when in fact, very little evidence exists to support their claims. Additionally, The conservative media also jump on the bandwagon and praise them as an alternative to the "evil teachers unions" and their "status quo" approach to education.

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 (Chris) Christie (New Jersey), (Scott) Walker (Wisconsin), (John) Kasich (Ohio) 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.

Much has been written about the attacks by GOP governors on the education profession. Which is why I feel that Hartman hits a homerun when he turns his focus from traditional attacks towards the attack of the liberal education establishment on teachers.

 

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 education—and the role of public school teachers—in a deeply unequal society.

Instead of advancing the education profession, TFA has served as a vital ally towards the very groups who seek to destroy public education in America. Though noble, the efforts of TFA work against many of the teachers who they were originally designed to help.

The way I was exposed to TFA in the mid-1990s was that TFA was supposed to take the brightest and best and put them into hard-to-fill classrooms where there was a high need for content area specialists.

As a young honors student with aspirations of changing the world, I liked what they were attempting to do.

But that isn't what has occurred. What is happening instead is that TFA is moving into new areas and instead of supporting a system in need of assistance, they are being offered as a cheap replacement. In many areas around the country, TFA teachers are being brought in to replace teachers who have been laid off or fired.

That wasn't in the sales pitch.

One thing is for certain, the media loves Teach for America. So much so that there is very little, if any, critical writing being done about the organization.

Hartman does a very good job of describing the media's infatuation with TFA and Wendy Kopp (the founder and guru of the elitest education establishment).

Prior to a single corps member stepping foot in a classroom, The New York Times and Newsweek lavished Kopp’s new organization with cover stories full of insipid praise. Adulation has remained the norm. Its recent twenty-year anniversary summit, held in Washington, D.C., featured fawning video remarks by President Obama and a glitzy “who’s who” roster of liberal cheerleaders, including John Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Gloria Steinem, and TFA board member John Legend. The organs of middlebrow centrist opinion—Time Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic—glorify TFA at every opportunity. The Washington Post heralds the nation’s education reform movement as the “TFA insurgency”—a perplexing linguistic choice given so-called “insurgency” methods have informed national education policies from Reagan to Obama.

It seems that just like other "reforms," TFA is another unproven experiment for America to impart on our children. Why is it that we're so quick to dismiss generations of research about what works in education and push unproven reforms?

More of Hartman's take-down of TFA is shared below:

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.

Hartman describes the groups recent successes in his article, and their departure from their original goals.

According to Hartman - TFA had four original goals:

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 much-needed “aura of status and selectivity.”
  • Second, by supplying its recruits to impoverished school districts, both urban and rural, TFA would compensate for the lack of quality teachers willing to work in such challenging settings.
  • And third, although Kopp recognized that most corps members would not remain classroom teachers beyond their two-year commitments, she believed that TFA alums would form the nucleus of a new movement of educational leaders—that their transformative experiences teaching poor children would mold their ambitious career trajectories.
  • Above these three foundational principles loomed a fourth: the mission to relegate educational inequality to the ash heap of history.

It is the third one that has had the most dangerous impact on America's educational system. Instead of remaining in the profession, a majority of their members leave after the first two years and take what they've learned to the corporate world. It is that same corporate world that is wreaking havoc on our public schools.

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.

In addition to blaming TFA for the growth of corporate thinking in schools, the attacking of teachers unions, and a failure to educate all. Hartman also places blame on the organization for the growth of high-stakes tests.

From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education. TFA insurgents, including Kopp and Rhee, maintain that, even if imperfect, standardized tests are the best means by which to quantify accountability. Prior to the enactment of Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes standardized testing was mostly limited to college-entrance exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But since then, the high-stakes testing movement has blown up: with increasing frequency, student scores on standardized exams are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations, upon which rewards and punishments are meted out.

In an educational world where parents, school boards, and governors want to see results and hold teachers accountable. Haven't we lost the intended meaning of school?

As I've written multiple times in the past, testing for the sake of testing will provide test results, which can be manipulated to fit whatever ideology you want.

But as a teacher, I'm not beholden to tests. I didn't become a teacher to improve test scores. I became a teacher to make a difference. Maybe it is my desire to ask critical thinking questions about the education reform movement where I will make that difference? Who knows?

What is the real impact of TFA?

TFA exists for nothing if not for adjusting poor children to the regime otherwise known as the American meritocracy.

Perhaps Hartman puts it best when he asks if TFA insurgents are missing the bigger picture of the purpose of education?

In working to perfect their approach to education, TFA insurgents miss the forest for the trees. They fail to ask big-picture questions.

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ITeachQ

ITeachQ is an educator who is an advocate for research-based change in schools and strong public schools as the key to creating a better future.