Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Not being an educator, my knowledge of Teach For America (TFA) has been scant. Basically: it was a component of the Americorps program created during the Clinton administration, and plugged willing but un- or under-qualified young people into vacant positions in low income schools for two years. Identify schools that need teachers and have energetic, idealistic recent college grads work to make a difference. Sounds great.

Teach For America

It turns out TFA has taken on an new role in the last few years, though. Last week the #ResistTFA hash tag on Twitter started trending, courtesy of Students United for Public Education. SUPE supporters criticized TFA’s modest five weeks of training for recruits and questioned the adequacy of their preparation.

TFA defenders quickly responded. One asked “why do principals and schools still line up to hire TFA corps members when they have the chance?” Instead of considering that a lower paid and non-unionized workforce might be attractive for strictly administrative reasons, the author claims TFA recruits interview better because (among other reasons) “They don’t cry during interviews” and “If I check them out on Twitter, they’re not tweeting about loving beer or about how they want to be rescued by Prince Charming” (these lines were not, praise Jesus, written by a man).

Others endorsed TFA as a “pipeline for education reform”1 and cited a Department of Education (DOE) study (PDF) that argued for its effectiveness. There might be an element of self-fulfilling prophesy about this, though. In a long, thorough examination of the billionaires behind the attacks on public education, Joanne Barkan writes how DOE head Arne Duncan has his thumb firmly on the scales in favor of business interests:

Nothing illustrates the operation of Duncan’s “open for business” policy better than the administration’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top (RTTT). The “stimulus package” included $4.3 billion for education, but for the first time, states didn’t simply receive grants; they had to compete for RTTT money with a comprehensive, statewide proposal for education reform. It is no exaggeration to say that the criteria for selecting the winners came straight from the foundations’ playbook (which is, after all, Duncan’s playbook). To start, any state that didn’t allow student test scores to determine (at least in part) teacher and principal evaluations was not eligible to compete. After clarifying this, the 103-page application form laid out a list of detailed criteria and then additional priorities for each criterion (“The Secretary is particularly interested in applications that…”). Key criteria included

  • (C)(1) Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system
  • (D)(2) Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance [this is followed by criteria for evaluating performance based on student test scores]
  • (E) Turning around the lowest-achieving schools
  • (F)(2) Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and other innovative schools

States were desperate for funds (in the end, thirty-four applied in the two rounds of the contest). When necessary, some rewrote their laws to qualify: they loosened or repealed limits on the number of charter schools allowed; they permitted teacher and principal evaluations based on test scores. But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K-12 education and then writing an application, which the DOE requested (but did not require) be limited to 350 pages. What state has resources to gamble on such a venture? Enter the Gates Foundation. It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application. Gates even prepared a list of recommended consulting firms. Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was giving some states an unfair advantage; it was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program. After some weeks of reflection, Gates offered the application money to any state that met the foundation’s eight criteria. Here, for example, is number five: “Does the state grant teacher tenure in fewer than three years? (Answer must be “no” or the state should be able to demonstrate a plan to set a higher bar for tenure).”

Standardized testing has become extremely controversial because, as Barkan writes: “Drilling students on sample questions for weeks before a state test will not improve their education.” If you believe rote memorization equals education, though, then imposing high stakes testing makes great good sense. Having done just that, the DOE then (p. 18) “obtained scores on state assessments from district administrative records” and used the results to vindicate TFA’s effectiveness. One might be excused for being a bit skeptical about the objectivity of such an assessment, however.

What is more and more beyond dispute is that even if TFA is not actively colluding with the privatization industry, it exists in what Charles Pierce called a marvelous environment for political coincidence. Starting with a bit of disaster capitalism in New Orleans, TFA has established a pattern of being the, ahem, pipeline of choice in the wake of mass layoffs. (In its more benign form TFA merely deprives local residents of employment opportunities.) The same thing happened in Chicago and is now poised to happen in Newark.

(TFA’s Fatimah Burnam Watkins responded to the Newark report by writing, among other things: “Positioning this grant announcement which is more than six months old as related in any way to the current school board proceedings is purposefully misleading.” Why on earth would a TFA-friendly school board announce layoffs before the new recruits were in pocket, or be so clumsy as to do so right on the heels of the grant? Anyway, fuller dissection here.)

The announced layoffs sent a shock through the community. Evidently some parents who were concerned that their children’s educational quality was about to get kneecapped did not always follow Robert’s Rules of Order in voicing their opposition.2 Superintendent Cami Anderson, apparently a graduate of the Mitt Romney school of public discourse, simply could not abide by such (insert breathless Southern belle voice) insupportable vexation:

Opponents of the layoff plan wanted to address Anderson directly at last night’s meeting. But the school district sent a letter to parents saying Anderson and the school district’s leadership team would no longer attend board meetings, saying the meetings had become too dysfunctional to be an effective communication tool to the public.

So residents can just consult the district web site or public access TV channel for the latest developments; no need to show up at any more meetings.

As we get an increasingly clear picture of the privatization/charter terrain, an unmistakable impression emerges (PDF, via): “While charter schools were originally developed by progressive educators in the 1990s, corporate elites and politicians from both major US parties have taken them up as an opportunity to merge public education with market-based assumptions.”

The model works like this: Mandate standardized testing, use TFA recruits to teach to the test, use the test results to “prove” the effectiveness of TFA, use the TFA pipeline to close schools and fire teachers, and replace both with charters staffed by lower paid, non-union TFA employees. (And please note that charters go tits up with all the orderliness and accountability of Freedom Industries.)

TFA could resist this trend if it wanted. It could refuse to send recruits to districts that have had (or are considering) substantial layoffs. It could offer to send recruits to public schools as assistants instead of replacements, which would be a huge benefit to schools. TFA chooses not to, though, and that speaks volumes. By all accounts it is content with the status quo (content enough not to buck it, anyway). In the absence of a clear and forceful refusal to cooperate, the only reasonable conclusion is that TFA is happy to collaborate with those who view schools as “ecosystems of investment opportunity.”


NOTES

1. Perhaps not the best metaphor for this era.
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2. This is a good time to review the following meditation on civility and decency.
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Picture from Paul Lowry licensed under Creative Commons